Review: Peter Cincotti

“Killer On The Keys” is the title song of Peter Cincotti’s upcoming album, and that phrase is an apt description of this wildly talented pianist-singer-songwriter. The first song in his act at the Cafe Carlyle is “Raise the Roof” and that he and his band do time and again. He’s a New Yorker through and through, and has been playing clubs here since he was a high schooler, some 20 years ago. By 18 he was working with legendary producer Phil Ramone on his first album, and getting raves playing the legendary Oak Room cabaret at the Algonquin Hotel.

How I haven’t seen Cincotti before now escapes me, he’s just the kind of jazzy cabaret artist I love – just think John Pizzarelli or Marilyn Maye (search for them on this site if you don’t already know). He’s backed by a very talented band; young for the most part (not for nothing, like he was when he started), save for tenor saxophonist Scott Kreitzer, who’s been working with him since the Oak Room.

It’s not all uptempo ravers, though there is a lot of that. While he does a good number of standards, both of the numbers mentioned above are Cincotti originals, and he is premiering a new one at the Carlyle, from his upcoming album. Called “Ghost of My Father” it details how his father, who died when his career was just taking off, has literally haunted him (mostly in a good way) ever since. A pensive ballad, accompanied only by himself on piano, it is as moving as the rest of the set is rousing.

He covers a great range of styles and material from Nat King Cole’s “Sweet Lorraine” to Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind”; his excellent jazzy version of Lady Gaga’s “Pokerface” – which he himself described as a McCoy Tyner / Herbie Hancock influenced arrangement – truly has to be heard to be believed. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Tammie Brown

Lady Bunny once talked about working with Valentina – she of the “french vanilla latte fantasy” – saying something to the effect of “She’s just like Tammie Brown or Alyssa Edwards, they all really are like that, all the time!” Surrealist drag queen Brown’s artistic core is, more than anything, as a hippie chic queerpunk singer-songwriter. There’s a hint of classic movie queen in her looks, but it seems that’s the equivalent of Debbie Harry or Grace Slick making something fabulous out of what they found in a thrift shop.

And while Tammie’s sense of humor is disarmingly unique, she’s not truly unprecedented. I could see her comfortably do her left-of-center thing at the Pyramid Club in the 1980s, at Club 57 or Max’s Kansas City in 1970s, or even in a Jackie Curtis extravaganza at LaMaMa in the late 1960s. However, queens this tripped-out are in short supply these days, so we should treat her as some kind of national treasure!

Brown also proudly owns her South Texas origins, singing a couple of songs with some Spanish, and showing love for all things Mexican (maybe there’s a Frida Kahlo influence here, too, eh?). Tammie struts sexily about the stage, singing to the actual tracks from her discography. The doubling of her recorded voice and her live voice is pleasantly freaky – and solid proof she always sings on tune.

Her songs remind me of an ’80s synthpop cover of a ’60s song – think Tiffany’s “I Think We’re Alone Now” or Bananarama’s “Venus” – but as written and performed on the legendary “good LSD” of the time when the songs were written. And her in-between patter veers between gleeful non sequiturs and political commentaries from the silly to the venomous. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Mark Nadler Hart’s Desire

This ever-ambitious cabaret genius always seeks to challenge himself, and this time he has truly outdone himself. With Hart’s Desire, Mark Nadlercombines the words of playwright Moss Hart (from many sources) with lyrics by (unrelated) Lorenz Hart – which of course comes with music by Lorenz’s perrenial writing partner, composer Richard Rodgers. Both Harts were gay in a time when it was far less acceptable than today. Mark is no stranger to a gay theme, and has fashioned a gay musical romantic comedy that convicingly sounds like the year Nadler sets it in, 1943. You know, except for the gay thing.

Nadler presents Hart’s Desire as a backer’s audition – at the time, backer’s auditions were performed by the writers themselves, not actors. The musical is set at the opening of a Boston tryout for a play. Act I is before the opening, Act II after, and things do not seem to have gone well. With his usual exquisite taste, in addtion to Lorenz’s better known songs, Nadler uses obscure ones as well, such as the unfinished “Good Bad Woman” which Mark himself has completed. And of course he employs additional lyrics not included in the stage versions of Lorenz’s songs, especially for an extended version of “The Lady is a Tramp” as delivered by a brassy aging vaudvillian.

Mark “Mr. Showbiz” Nadler is at his most dazzling here, portraying eight characters without blurring the lines between them. He’s one of the greatest showmen of our time, singing, acting, tap-dancing madly, all the while playing a complex passage on the piano without even glancing at the keys. There are always many layers in a Mark Nadler show, ranging from the obvious to unspoken subtext, which gives an “oomph” far, far beyond your typical cabaret show, and that is true in spades in Hart’s Desire. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Jeff Harnar

A gay New York man who goes through “Living Alone and Liking It,” but later has thoughts of marriage, who spends nights both in glittering boîtes and sketchy dives, who has great sex, but also bad breakups that lead to murderous thoughts – does any of this sound familiar? Some of it does to me, and I’m sure some of you know a thing or two about these experiences. To quote singer Jeff Harnar about his new act and album I Know Things Now:“The words and music are Stephen Sondheim’s, but the story is mine.” It’s a very relatable story, told with much cleverness.

If you don’t know Sondheim, it’s still a wild ride from a fantastic singer and interpretive artist. But for a Sondheim fan like me it’s even more fun. Harnar often intjects references to songs he doesn’t even sing, like saying his evasive lover has gone to Barcelona (the title of a song from Company) in the middle of “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” from the same show. Some of the songs are a bit obscure, some are “Old Friends” (a song from Merrily We Roll Along).

I was particularly entertained by his mashup of “Buddy’s Blues” and “Sorry Grateful” which clearly depicted someone getting drunk at a gay bar – I don’t quite understand why the negative lines in “Buddy’s Blues” (and there are a lot of them) were delivered in the voice of Jimmy Durante, but it was in any event an amusingly absurd choice. His “breakup song” version of “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd” is one of the most terrifying renditions I’ve ever heard. Instead of depicting a figure out of horror, it relates the much more familiar feeling of wanting your loathsome ex dead. Eeek!

The album I Know Things Now – which has a 20 piece orchestra in place of the excellent jazz trio in the show – is out now on PS Classics. Both the show and album are highly recommended.

To buy the album, click here.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Lillias White

In this show, Lillias White literally GIVES. ME. LIFE! And that isn’t a misuse of “literally” – her tribute to Sarah Vaughan “Divine Sass” made me feel more alive than just about anything other show since cabaret came back. Much of it is due to Lillias’s abundant spontaneity. The night I saw it, someone shouted “What are you doing the rest of you life?” leading her to launch into an a capella version of the song of the same name, accepting lyric prompts from the audience (especially from a handsome young man named Julian).

Lillias is on a mission to portray Vaughan in a stage musical, and if anyone has the chops to do it, it’s her. In this show, White addresses Vaughan’s signature songs with an expressiveness and virtuosity every bit worthy of the Divine Sarah. White has one of those thunderclap voices, like Darlene Love or Martha Wash, that electrifies and illuminates everything it touches. And with the inspiration of sassy Sarah – and an adoring audience – she positively soars.

White is a bawdy lady – many moons ago me and my husband got drunk with her after a Christine Ebersole show, and without much effort we got her to sing “Big Fat Daddy” to me. She leans into that lustiness here, since, like her, Vaughan had a taste for men, especially of the younger variety. Vaughan’s “An Occasional Man” is the perfect vehicle for that heat, and White kills it. Another Vaughan staple “Misty” gets two full versions, the first a ballad approach reflecting the sentimental lyrics of the song, and then an amazing fast, scat-laden jazz take. Wow!

While everybody in the band plays magnificently, the solos of bassist Jonathan Michel display a remarkable originality (for fellow lovers of the bassline, he is as expressive as Haden or Entwhistle). As for the woman herself, as always a great artist and warm presence. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Justin Vivian Bond

This trans legend is among the most unique interpreters of song: she can go from tender vulnerablity to smirking irony to howling rage, sometimes in the same song. Her taste is impeccable, and she approaches her selections 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. Justin Vivian Bond is a tower of song – mysterious, imposing, beautiful, powerful.

JVB’s current show “Oh Mary, It’s Spring!” is nothing more or less than a selection of songs about or written by women named Mary. To hear Bond tell it, she’s never been particularly good at remembering people’s names, and it has only gotten worse as she gets older (she celebrated her 59th birthday during the run). So she’s taken to calling everyone “Mary.” And why not!

Bond comes roaring out of the gate with The Association’s “Along Comes Mary”, all strut and swagger. In her version of Mary MacGregor’s “Torn Between Two Lovers” she comes out into the house and sings directly to more than two men in the audience (myself included the night I went), commenting afterwards “all that polyamorous queer love has my head spinning!”

JVB delivers a powerfully understated rendition of singer-songwrigter Mary Gauthier’s amazing “Mercy”, which Bond introduces with a story about her conflicted relationship with her late father. The song expands to encompass the mercy that country and life itself needs right now, which she delivers with controlled passion. Her version of Jimi Hendrix’s “The Wind Cries Mary” goes the opposite direction: she truly screams the lyric “the wind / screams Mary”, to great effect.

One of the best features of all of Bond’s shows is her 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.wordpress.com.

Review: John Pizzarelli

Pianist Isiah J. Thompson, bassist Mike Karn, guitarist and vocalist John Pizzarelli – this trio attacks with flashy jazziness so relentlessly that you don’t applaud for fear of missing something amazing. Pizzarelli has framed this particular act as “Stage and Screen.” That casts a very wide net, since the vast majority of the Great American Songbook comes from Broadway or movie musicals. It works out to be just another excellent show from the John Pizzarelli Trio, packed with the very jazziest interpretations of standards selected with exquisite taste.

Particularly moving was a instrumental solo from John of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “This Nearly Was Mine” and Sondheim’s “Send In The Clowns”, favorites of his father, guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli. Bucky passed away from COVID in 2020, and John teared up while playing this medley. John plays guitar with amazing fluidity and elegance, with nonpareil mastery of a technique called “guitar harmonics” that produces high notes of extraordinary expressiveness. He mixed harmonics with regular virtuosity for this medley, to beautiful effect.

Then again, Pizzarelli finds many ways to put his own interpretive twist on the songs he performs. He has a particular genius for chordal improvisations, exposing hidden musical meanings in the most familiar of standards. After a stirring yet playful rendition of “Rhode Island is Famous for You” (made famous by Blossom Dearie), John noted that he had done several “list” songs in a row, only to launch into another list song , “I Love Betsy” from Jason Robert Brown’s Broadway show Honeymoon in Vegas (“I like Shake Shack, I like MoMA, and New Jersey’s ripe aroma…Heck, there’s lots of stuff I like, but I love Betsy and she loves me. She likes hockey, no I swear, she likes guys with thinning hair”).

John Pizzarelli embodies cabaret’s jazzier side with astonishing elan and profound musical intelligence. 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. Overall, the singing’s smart, the music’s deftly swung and the atmosphere sparkles. Neither jazz nor cabaret gets much better than this. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: John Lloyd Young

It’s no wonder John Lloyd Young was cast many moons ago in Jersey Boys to originate the role of Frankie Valli, in the process becoming the only American actor to win the Tony, Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle, and Theater World Awards for a Broadway debut. He has one of the most mighty high tenors in all of musical theatre, paired with a falsetto which perhaps surpasses even Valli’s own in sheer power. He’s back at the Café Carlyle, where he just opened a new show for one short week.

Charismatic and still boyishly handsome in his mid-40s, Young still sings the Valli songs that made his name (he knows where his bread is buttered), but the remainder of his present act is satisfyingly eclectic. He burns through “Show And Tell”, the 1973 Jerry Fuller hit made famous by Al Wilson. He positively floats away in his version of The Stylistics’ “You are Everything”, paying homage to another great falsetto singer, Russell Thompkins, Jr. The evening’s most surprising number: “Ming Ri Tian Ya”, a Mandarin Chinese soundtrack ballad, telling a tragic story of love thwarted by death. Just the kind of “big sing” this son of Irish and Welsh melodrama loves to sing. Young, pardon the phrase, kills it. (He will be alternating it with other non-English songs throughout the run).

The only other musician on-stage, on piano and keyboards, is Tommy Faragher, a veteran songwriter (Taylor Dayne’s “With Every Beat of My Heart”) and Grammy-nominated producer (Glee‘s “Teenage Dream” featuring Darren Criss). He and Young wrote the break-up ballad “Cold Dawn Calling” – Young’s lyrics are not only emotional but also artfully wrought, and he sings them with an extra bit of heat. Faragher has a solo spot, doing a heartfelt cover of Sam Cooke’s “Bring It On Home to Me”. He does a more than creditable job, but I wish Young had sung backup on the call-and-response chorus. After all, Cooke’s backup singer was none other than the legendary Lou Rawls.

Young deliveres every note of every song with sophistication and passionate musical precision. He possesses an affable, assured presence, and displays a droll, disarming intelligence in his patter. Young relates “you never know who you are going to run into at the Carlyle Hotel,” revealing that Faragher had found himself at the bar sitting next to none other than Sir Paul McCartney. Young then launched into a blazing rendition of McCartney’s “Maybe I’m Amazed”. And maybe I am. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Lady Bunny

This old queen has written new material (so much so that she has to read some of it off notes on a music stand)! In the same old spirit – zany lip-synched Laugh-In style routines, fully sung filthy song parodies, and the like – but now with melodies from Cardi B, Lizzo and Ariana Grande in addition to Toni Braxton, Madonna and Gaga. This “Lady” doesn’t put limits on what she’s going to say or do in her new cabaret act “Unmasked and Unfiltered” – one of the great charms of this show is its spontaneity.

Bunny repeatedly proves she is one of the smartest drag queens ever, even if the majority of her act is a steady stream of dick and poop jokes. She projects a powerful presence and also possesses a terrific sense of when to keep it light. Girl knows just how to milk it!

She never stays in one mode for too long, and while she might go all stream of consciousness at certain points, she never quite seems to ramble. Bunny isn’t afraid of sentiment, but she’s not sappy – she strikes a terrific balance, and it’s probably the only way you could tell these on-the-edge jokes in a manner that tickles the funny bone rather that truly offends.

As has become customary in cabaret drag, Bunny covers her major costume change with a YouTube video (Varla Jean Merman was the innovator of this approach many years ago). This one’s an hilarious parody song “Cumming Like a Firework” based on the explosive Katy Perry tune. It shows the hilariously low level of this energetic, all-for-laughs winner – definitely the funniest gay show in town! Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Dianna Agron

While she has always been an immensely talented singer, I feel like Dianna Agron’s current act at the Cafe Carlyle really finds her coming into her own. Agron applies her huskily golden yet liquid voice to some very “Carlyle” material, including Bobby Short’s “You Fascinate Me So” and Eartha Kitt’s “I Want To Be Evil”. When Agron goes after a song, she always acts the hell out of it, which makes her an exceptional interpreter and storyteller.

Folk rock, the meat of Agron’s first two shows at the Carlyle, is largely absent here, replaced by “songbook” and “soul,” both of which she excels at. She keeps breaking her own rules to put together a show that feels right; her baseline here is a show that is fun and pleasurable, and she has more than succeeded.

A couple of times she asked her band to take it back to the top. She seemed slightly embarrassed – Dianna I am here to tell you that one of the most gratifying experiences I have ever had in cabaret was when Keely Smith unashamedly said “no that wasn’t good, lets do it again.” Own your mistakes, and be proud of the artistry which compels you to be the best version of the song you are singing! No apologies!

That said, Agron is all-around more confident and in command, which lends her off-hand comments a raffish charm. No song was less than beautifully sung, and she performs best when a song brings out the actress in her – most notably “It’s Oh So Quiet” (orginated by Betty Hutton, and returned to fame in Björk’s cover version). Agron in every case gives us wonderfully sung renditions of dauntingly complex songs. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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