Review: Vivian Reed

Vivian Reed has one of those enormous voices, where every note has the grit of the blues, a distinctly gospel power and the high drama of pure musical theatre. She also has unstoppable charisma, supremely self-possesed élan and a controlled musicality that finds a purpose for every note – and a note for every purpose – all of which adds up to a performance persona that is truly spellbinding.

In her new cabaret act at 54 Below, Reed pays homage to a major influence on her singing, Lena Horne. Every song but one in the act was sung by Horne at some point in her career, and Reed smartly uses them to dramatize key moments in Horne’s life. Each song interpretation has at least three layers: Horne’s original take on the song is the baseline, which Reed then matches with storytelling and her own unique musical talents.

Reed definitively puts her own stamp on these songs; in particular “Now!” a protest song Comden & Green wrote for her set to the music of Jewish traditional song “Hava Nagila.” Horne’s version is on the polite side of defiant, Reed’s is fiery with outrage, which really brings this odd song to life.

She has a personal link to Horne, as she remembered: “When I was managed by the owner of the Apollo Theater, he asked the Apollo accountant, who happened to be Lena’s uncle, to ask if she had any gowns she no longer needed and could give to a young artist. Well, a huge trunk of beautiful gowns arrived…a generosity I never forgot.” Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

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Review: Ann Hampton Callaway

Ann Hampton Callaway is a multiplatinum-selling pop and jazz singer/songwriter best known for writing and singing the theme from the TV hit The Nanny. She is definitely on the jazzier end of cabaret, and that is the inspiration for her latest club act “Jazz Goes to the Movies” (Ann is also an out lesbian, who gave me the honor of being the journalist to do her “coming out interview” – you can read that here).

Ann remarks that while some people are “Deadheads” she’s a “Fredhead,” that is a fan of Fred Astaire, and she does several songs that Astaire originated in movies. “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” – an Irving Berlin song Fred sang to Ginger Rogers in Follow the Fleet – receives what is possiblly the most emotional reading of the evening. She applies the first line of the song to the present day: “There may be trouble ahead.” But in that connection she takes very seriously the remedy offered by the next couple of lines: “But while there’s music and moonlight and love and romance / Let’s face the music and dance.”

While Astaire was one of the great influences on Callaway, another was Ella Fitzgerald. So it’s completely natural that the feel of this show should be Fred’s crooning mixed with Ella’s sumptuous jazziness. On songs Ann herself sang for the movies – “Come Rain or Come Shine” from The Good Shepherd and “The Nearness of You” from Last Holiday – the jazz quotient is through the roof.

Callaway successfully covers a very wide range era-wise, from Astaire’s 1930s hits to “Pourquoi” (which Callaway wrote and sang for 2017’s Blind), crafting a loving musical history of the hope and joy jazz brings to the movies. Callaway achieves a kind of jazz-pop perfection, shimmery and rich. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Interview: Sven Ratzke

Dutch singer Sven Ratzke had a sparkling opening night a Joe’s Pub last night, with a whole bunch of East Village glitterati in attendance, including nightlife legends Chi Chi Valenti and Johnny Dynell, pioneering performance artist Penny Arcade, Matthew Crosland and Dan Fortune. Ratzke was doing the American premiere of his club act Homme Fatale, and I had this brief exchange with him about the show.

For the purposes of this show, what is your definition of Homme Fatale?

A Homme Fatale is a man that you can compare to a femme fatale. He can be dangerous, wild, and seductive: a pimp, hustler, womanizer, Casanova, Mephisto and many more characters. A Homme Fatale can be also get lost in his own mystery or his own role. But a Homme Fatale means also a man that overcomes fate, that gets in a fatal situation. That can be very feminine and mysterious. So it’s open to interpretation!

Does the idea of Homme Fatale have anything to do with androgyny?

Yes, of course it can. Seduction is always associated with females, while males are more the predator. I totally do not agree. I think especially in our time, these lines are crossing.

Are you a Homme Fatale?

Yes, of course. It’s a title I got a long time ago from the European press. In the beginning, I didn’t know what they meant. I was intrigued.

What, musically, should we expect from this show?

A lot of original new songs. I asked amazing songwriters to write stories and songs for me. And I wrote many songs myself, alone or in collaboration, for example, with the New York-based Rachelle Garniez. And we give new interpretations of the “Hommes Fatale” of pop: Lou Reed, David Bowie, Joy Division and Iggy Pop.

What, theatrically, should we expect from this show?

I take the audience on a trip, like LSD. But you will have no hangover the next day! A trip into the night, around the world with crazy storytelling, swinging songs and intimate ballads. And I’m an entertainer, a stage animal.

This show is about “pimps, lovers, thieves, legends, angels and devils” – that sounds like Jean Genet’s world. Is he an influence here?

Oh yes! A wild Genet dream with a touch of Oscar Wilde, Fassbinder, Bowie and many more.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Charles Busch

Legendary playwright and drag performer Charles Busch has always combined elegantly languid, self-effacing charm with an effortlessly brassy glamour. His current cabaret act, titled “My Kinda ’60s” is the first club act of his I’ve seen where we find Charles in boy drag – albeit with a subtle dash of rouge, wearing an emerald green paisley suit with rhinestone buttons.

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 the Bacharach / David ballad “Anyone Who Had a Heart.” Busch sincerely loves artifice; usually, he invests every moment he has on-stage with substantial style.

Here, the lack of wigs and dresses also signifies that Charles is going for something a little more personal and vulnerable. Because this isn’t just a random 1960s-themed show. It is, above all, a love letter to Busch’s Aunt Lillian, an eccentric and loving lady who helped him bloom as he came of age in that turbulent decade.

Busch is very precise about his pop culture references. He successfully catches the feeling of trying to keep up with confusing changing times. As a matter of fact one of the definite high points of the show is a supremely confident rendition of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’” which, he observes, is even more timely today.

The act isn’t all earnest sincerity, though there’s more of that than usual. There are still plenty of quoted Judy Garland 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 undercurrent of social comment that runs through all of Busch’s work is much more explicit. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Rita Wilson

This lady is right in the middle of a sound that has run through the blood of Los Angeles since two midwestern boys – Roger McGuinn and Gene Clark – met while gigging in L. A. in 1964, and formed the group Jet Set, later to become the Byrds when they added native Los Angeleans David Crosby and Chris Hillman. The Eagles perfected the sound in the the 1970s, and it has continued to be hugely influential. A native Los Angelean herself, Rita Wilson most resembles – in both her singing and her songwriting – Sheryl Crow, a singer / songwriter heavily influenced by the Eagles.

In the evening’s first song, from her self-titled first album, is “Along for the Ride” Wilson invites the the audience to “Roll the windows down / Come along for the ride.” Wilson is a fine, powerful singer in the folk and country inflected L. A. Tradition, and her band are highly polished professionals.

A handful of songs come from her self-titled 2015 album, but the bulk of the evening are new songs that presumably will be on her new album, forthcoming in the new year. The most memorable ones are ode to jealousy “New Girl,” the mildy trashy dive bar anthem “Pay Me in Wine,” and the attitude-serving “You’re Not the Boss of Me.” All point to increasing songwriting strength from this long-time actor, just recently turned singer /songwriter. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Lee Roy Reams

He’s the archetypal gay chorus boy made good. In 1970, Lee Roy Reams played arguably the first openly gay character with lines in a Broadway musical (Margo Channing’s hairdresser Duane in Applause!), and in 1980 he got one of the biggest breaks of his career, originating the role of Billy Lawlor in the Tony Award-winning musical 42nd Street. Just like the eternal gypsy queen he is, he has all the good dish on that show, and knows just how to spill it.

While Reams may have some choice words for certain people, there is not a single drop of malice in his storytelling. He tells the whole truth, but he tells it entertainingly and with an underlying warmth. He may admit he doesn’t know to this day whether Tammy Grimes is a good actress, but he also admits she has some kind of fascinating “star quality” and once he let her know he knew where to get laughs (but was willing to share the laugh) they became fast friends. His harshest words are for producer David Merrick, but even those are mixed with an admiration with Merrick’s unparalled ability to get the show up and get the tickets selling.

Reams intersperses the backstage human comedy (and drama and tragedy) with his own take on a hefty chunk of the show’s score. All of the interpretations are a pleasure to hear, but things lift an extra amount when he takes on the songs he personally sang in the show; it’s like some kind of muscle memory kicks in, and Lee Roy gets an extra BOOM to his sound. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Storm Large

What a voice! Storm Large has a vocal instrument that pairs the thunderclap power and clarity of Darlene Love with the bluesy grit of Janis Joplin. Her sensibility turns up what that voice can do with strong images of madness and gleeful violence running through everything she does. In her current cabaret act at Feinstein’s / 54 Below, she applies that instrument and sensiblity to a wide variety of material, from hard rock originals and covers to a pair of Cole Porter songs.

Large thoroughly reinvents Porter’s “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” teasing out the song’s dark stalkery side, with a highly dramatic “classic rock” arrangement that works surprisingly well. Also up for reinvention is Olivia Newton-John’s “Hopelessly Devoted” delivered with a whacky introduction that (almost) makes sense of the insane venomousness that she forceably injects into the soft rock nugget.

Her original songs are each and every one passionate, each in different ways. The show opener, “Call Me Crazy” kicks things off with rousing fury and joy. The title of the cheerfully bawdy “8 Miles Wide” refers to her vagina. On the other end of the scale is the ballad “Angels In Gas Stations” which conveys the sense of spirituality she acquired when caring for a dying woman who had been a second mother to her.

Storm Large delivers a show that bristles with exquisitely controlled wildness. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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