Review: Karen Mason

This diva’s big, expressive voice is one of Broadway’s most under-utilized treasures, and her new cabaret act “For The First Time” puts it on impressive display. She’s long been one of New York’s most beloved cabaret artists, but she’s been away for more than a year, touring North America in a first-class tour of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Love Never Dies, playing – as she puts it – “the up for anything, party-loving Madame Giry.”

The new act marks her return to NYC, and pays tribute to “firsts” throughout Mason’s career. Above all it celebrates the songwriters she feels honored to have known personally. Some of these songs were written for her, some she was the person who sang the first demos. And some she includes just because she likes them. The “first” that truly unites all the songs in the show, however, is the fact that Mason has never sung any of them on a cabaret stage before.

Mason is a songwriter’s favorite, I think, because she generally sticks closer to the melody of songs than many contemporary Broadway performers. Its not because she’s trying to create any definitive version of these songs, but because she trusts the talent of the people she’s working with, and tells exactly the story the song sets out to tell.

Highlights include the little-known Barbra Streisand ballad “If I Close My Eyes,” by Billy Goldenberg and Alan and Marilyn Bergman; and two great comic numbers: Shelly Markham’s “Things I Learned Along the Way” (with specialty lyrics skewering the current occupant of the White House) and Sheldon Harnick’s priceless operetta pastiche “The Ballad of The Shape of Things” (hilariously detailing the geometry of a woman scorned). Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Advertisements

Review: Justin Vivian Bond

I’ve often referred to Judy Collins as a river of song – it just flows out of her in a gorgeous shimmering stream. Justin Vivian Bond is more like a tower of song – mysterious, imposing, beautiful, powerful and sometimes explosive. JVB’s current show “Under the Influence” is a tribute to Collins, part of Collins’ 2019 Vanguard Award and Residency at Joe’s Pub.

V considers Judy Collins to be v’s own spiritual baby sitter and music teacher. Collins significantly if indirectly educated Justin in music – all by the songs and songwriters Collins covered. So, with only a couple exceptions, Bond performs songs written by songwriters she discovered through Collins – but which Judy herself did not sing.

Bond’s taste in songs is impeccable, and v approaches them with the touch of a very careful curator. A curator, that is, who finds what is most explosive in the art they’re presenting, and then promptly detonates it. V turns David Crosby’s “Almost Cut My Hair” into something more rawly emotional, and fiercely sharpens the danger in Leonard Cohen’s “First We Take Manhattan” (in probably the best version of that song I’ve ever heard). V’s climactic rendition of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” truly burns down the house.

One of the best features of all of Bond’s shows is v’s acidly funny, stream of consciousness, between-song patter (which has had the downside of making certain shows marathon length, but not here). As always Bond is hilariously entertaining, wildly imaginative and vividly expressive. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Candis Cayne

This transgender trailblazer – she was the first transgender actress playing a regular transgender character in television history – has also long been one of the most exciting performers on the drag scene. She’s probably one of the best dancers in the lip-synching world, so it’s altogether fitting that her show “Hi, Gorgeous!” has lots of fantastic lip-synching and dancing. She hits the stage like a fireball, doing not one but two high-energy Kay Thompson barnstormers (“Think Pink” and “Clap Yo’ Hands”), kicking so high that she almost kicks herself in the face.

The great pleasure for me, though, was discovering how much she’s polished her comedy. She always incorporated humor into her lip-synch, but her timing in her between-song storytelling has become something special. The show is a bit on the long side, but Candis is so engaging that you almost don’t want it to end.

While she is at heart a dancing showgirl, Candis shows some range in her song choices, from trip hop band Portishead’s “Give Me a Reason” (which was a great comfort to her when in the midst of her transition) to Heart’s “Alone” (in which she hilariously portrays a stalker). Cayne let us know she’s been out of it for a while, with sinus infections and neck injuries, but if she hadn’t mentioned it I wouldn’t have known; she always gives it her all. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

For more reviews and interviews by Jonathan Warman, see his blog Drama Queen.

Review: Merrily We Roll Along

Although it has a gorgeous score by Steven Sondheim – with some songs that are among his very best – Merrily We Roll Along is nobody’s best work. Nor, to be completely fair, is it anybody’s worst. And it has always been thus. The 1934 Kaufman & Hart play on which the musical is loosely based received good notices but was not a commercial success, in marked contrast to their collaborations before and afterwards. The major stumbling block is the way both play and musical are structured – telling the story of broken friendships backwards, each scene taking place a few years before the previous one.

The unfortunate result of this approach is we first see the characters as cynical and a little bit nasty, which makes it hard to identify with them. On the other hand, the payoff for this approach is that, generally the show gets progressively more optimistic as it continues. This makes a lot of intriguing thematic points, but all told makes for very unsatisfying storytelling. Merrily We Roll Along is a problematic puzzle of a show, which does manage to enlighten and often entertain, while intractably evading solution.

The current Off-Broadway revival by Fiasco Theater and Roundabout gives a very lean and clear-eyed account of this story, and does well with the music, especially considering that some of the cast are more actor-singers than singer-actors. Noah Brody’s direction leans into Merrily‘s most dynamic element, which definitely helps. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Tovah Feldshuh

A cabaret show performed in the cellar of Studio 54 about Manhattan real estate legend Leona Helmsley, as played by Tovah Feldshuh…it doesn’t get more NEW YORK than this! All this with a voice over introduction by New York Post columnist Cindy Adams…well, as Adams ends every column “Only in New York, kids!”

Feldshuh has put together a mad, fabulous cabaret act featuring highlights from the new “Broadway-bound” musical Queen of Mean, based on the New York Times best-selling biography by Piers Ransdell. It’s all very meta, with Tovah as Leona forcefully advising the show’s composers (Ron Passaro, music; David Lee, lyrics) about what should and should not be included in the musical. Basically, Leona’s retrying her various legal cases in the court of cabaret.

The spine of the act is songs from the musical, but Tovah throws in random verses and choruses from showtunes and pop songs to help tell the story in a more compact form. Helmsley comments on all that befell her, including some profoundly hypocritical shade from her real estate rival Donald Trump.

Feldshuh is as smart, skillful and sharp as always. This act features precious little shtick, but possesses lots of the heartfelt quality Tovah brings to everything she does, allowing us to see Helmsley in quite a different light. Passaro and Lee’s songs hold up well with the standards and hits Feldshuh mixes in, which is a very good sign.

Director Jeff Harnar has helped Tovah construct a very well-oiled machine, truly sophisticated in the way it attacks its subject matter. Almost without fail, the comedy is bitingly joyous and the moments of sentiment genuine and surprisingly touching. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

For more reviews and interviews by Jonathan Warman, see his blog Drama Queen.

Review: Charles Busch

Legendary playwright and actor Charles Busch’s current cabaret act – titled “Native New Yorker” – is in some ways a sequel to his previous autobiographical club act “My Kinda ’60s.” As with that act, we again find Charles in boy drag – albeit with a subtle dash of rouge, wearing a patterned iridescent suit of crimson and purple. Here, again, the lack of wigs and dresses also signifies that Charles is expressing something more personal and vulnerable.

That’s because this act is about Busch’s journey to being the camp drag star we know today. Busch is very precise about his pop culture references. He successfully catches the feeling of coming of age (as an artist) at a time when life felt like a non-stop party. As a matter of fact one of the definite high points of the show is a touching rendition of the titular disco song as an late night / early morning ballad.

The act isn’t all earnest sincerity, though there’s more of that than usual. There are still plenty of quoted classic movie star mannerisms. As always, he moves from one glittering camp archetype to another with effortless ease. It’s just the tone that has shifted. It’s fun, but the theme of seriously searching for your very own queer identity – which runs through all of his work – is much more explicit.

He has always combined elegantly languid, self-effacing charm with an effortlessly brassy glamour. Busch has a pleasantly throaty high tenor voice. As with the greatest cabaret singers, it’s all about how Busch acts the story and emotion of a song: He finds corners I didn’t know existed in Diana Ross’s “Touch Me in the Morning,” reinterpreting it as an older man letting go of a a younger lover.

Busch sincerely loves artifice, and he invests every moment he has on-stage with substantial style. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: True West

A “straight boy play” that’s actually funny! More than that, a play that consciously caricatures many myths of the of the American heterosexual boy-man-child. Sam Shepard, True West‘s late playwright, was always more of a surrealist satirist than people give him credit for. He’s not celebrating the macho bad boy like Mamet or LaBute, but ruthlessly dissecting him. Shepard never lost an affection for the myth of the lonely cowboy, or the menacing trick of the Pintereque pause; however, he is also smart enough to know that they are myths and tricks, and clever enough to show them as such, again and again.

True West is about what happens when two adult brothers, aspiring screenwriter Austin (Paul Dano) and theiving drifter Lee (Ethan Hawke), cohabit in their vactioning mother’s house. Roles are reversed, hereditary alcoholism indulged, and general chaos wrecked as they try and live up to what they’ve seen in the movies, especially Westerns. Director James Macdonald does a great job balancing the play’s symbolic and psychological components ‒ rightly placing a slightly stronger emphasis on the the symbolic, comic aspect of the show.

Austin initially presents as a milquetoast, but Dano finds darker colors from the very beginning. As he unravels under the pressure of Lee’s more obvious insanity, Dano shows terrific slapstick chops. Lee at first seems to be the kind of “man-boy with brooding menace” role that Hawke is known for, but Lee’s own transformations offer a whole other set of comedic opportunities, and Hawke takes full advantage.

The play is not what you would call “fully woke” ‒ it was written in 1983, for goodness sake ‒ but is certainly more evolved and self-aware than most straight male centered drama of the time. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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