Review: Ann Hampton Callaway

Ann Hampton Callaway wrote and sang the theme from the TV hit The Nanny, or as she likes to call it “my accountant’s favorite song.” As you might guess from that swinging tune, she definitely thrives on the jazzier end of cabaret, and that inspired her to craft a loving musical history of the hope and joy jazz brings to the movies. To wit, 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).

Ella Fitzgerald greatly influenced Callaway, so it’s completely natural this show should find Ann mixing Ella’s sumptuous syncopation and scat with Fred Astaire’s crooning (more on that in a moment). 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.

As to Astaire, Ann remarks that while some people are “Deadheads” she’s a “Fredhead,” and she interprets several songs that Astaire originated in movies. “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” – an Irving Berlin number Fred sang to Ginger Rogers in Follow the Fleet – receives a very emotional reading. 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.”

Even more emotional is her Pride-themed take on Rodgers and Hart’s “My Funny Valentine.” Callaway relates that when lyricist Lorenz Hart received this gorgeous and melancholy melody from Rodgers, the closeted Hart looked in the mirror and wrote the words he longed to have some man sing to him. The song moved Callaway (and us) so much, that she had to sing The Nanny theme to lift her own spirits.

She even extends her “movie” theme to the recent remake of A Star is Born. No, she doesn’t sing that song, but she does her own take on “La Vie en Rose” (which Gaga sings in a bar in the film), including Callaway’s own intro – a brief love letter to the city of Paris. Callaway, as always, 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.

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Review: BenDeLaCreme

So I thought a show about matrimony would be less searching than a show about astrophysics or a 14th Century Italian epic poem, BenDeLaCreme’s previous two topics.

I was wrong.

Ready to Be Committed goes right to the tough questions: what is love anyway? Should people even get married, since matrimony’s roots are in a system which treated women as property? The first question is addressed in a rap entitled “Lovesickness” which traces theories about the nature and source of love from the ancients to modern neurochemistry. The second question gets a hard going-over in a parody of “Single Ladies” called “Medieval Ladies.”

This show is lighthearted in the sense that the queen otherwise known as Ben Putnam is back to playing a bit of a ditz this time around. It’s her wedding day, but she forgot to get a groom – so she goes on Grindr to find one. Which leads to all kinds of hilarious misunderstandings. I can give this much away because BenDaLa’s brilliance really shows up in the details.

BenDeLaCreme takes the best of clowning, drag, circus, burlesque and puppetry and whips them into something new, fascinating and intensely intelligent. Not only that, she 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.

She is not only all about fantastic and ridiculous artifice, but also ultimately 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: Jinkx Moonsoon & Major Scales

Picture a maniac Jinkx Monsoon being psychoanalyzed by her musical counterpart, pianist / composer / raconteur Major Scales. This show features almost entirely original music, all from her album The Ginger Snapped, also the title of the show. This is a return engagement, and the show has definitely grown into something more hilarious and special.

Their first New York cabaret show, The Vaudevillians, was such a runaway success that it’s become a running joke in their shows that “I think the audience was expecting The Vaudevillians. Oops!” While good for a laugh, that self-deprecation isn’t necessary, since this show is equally accomplished – certainly it digs into deeper themes.

Monsoon and Scales are more entertaining and smart than the vast majority of the competition. The material from the album is heavily influenced by New Wave (heck the B-52’s Fred Schneider even guests on one track). They’ve traded the glam medical smocks they wore during the show’s first run (pictured above) for simpler, chicer outfits. Simple yet fabulous.

The Ginger Snapped is light years more thoughtful, tuneful and original than your typical cabaret drag act, while rarely being less than acidly hilarious. Very funny but with genuine rage and love just below the surface. 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 set out to do a nondescript cabaret show with what she thought was the rather generic name of “Sets in the City.” But as so often happens when putting a good cabaret act together, a show name or a group of songs reveal more than you intended. Liz Callaway has ended up with a show that deals with some pretty serious themes of nostalgia, New York, and the changing landscape of urbanism – with some grand belting, emoting and storytelling in the process. Not very nondescript, is it?

Callaway has a muscular Broadway soprano, and she can deliver both hair-raising high notes and detailed, fully-acted song interpretation. She opens with Cole Porter’s heartfelt “I Happen to Like New York” – or at least she reveals how truly heartfelt the song is. Then she launches into Ed Kleban’s masterfully written “Better” and Bacharach and David’s “Always Something There to Remind Me” – for no better reason than they’re great songs, she sounds great singing them, and music director Alex Rybeck has devised glittering, inventive arrangements for them.

Touching on the theme of nostalgia, she sings Irving Berlin’s “I Got the Sun in the Morning,” cuz she sang it in a review at Rainbow and Stars. More personally she sings Ahrens and Flaherty’s “Something Beautiful” because she discovered that the song is about a photograph Lynn Ahrens’s father had taken of a tree – a tree that happened to be in Central Park (back, inevitably, to “the city”). There’s more to the song, and the way Liz sings it, but I can’t give everything away.

But the definitive tear-jerker comes – as it often does with Liz – totally from left field. Callaway embraces the lost masterpiece that is Chuck Mangione’s “Land of Make Believe” with an ebullience, joy and hope that cut to the heart of what makes the song great. I can’t convey to you the way this made the hair stand up on the back of my neck and brought a tear to my I eye; I mean “Oh my god you guys Liz Callaway is totally singing ‘Land of Make Believe’!!!” really isn’t saying it right. It might give a clue to this magic, that this song was an anthem at 1970s multicultural queer club The Loft, one of the touchstones of that ineffable, indescribable something that has made this city special from time immemorial. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Mark Nadler

Cabaret star Mark Nadler is one of the greatest showmen of our time, leaping from floor to piano bench, keeping steady eye contact with the audience – all the while playing a complex passage on the piano without even glancing at the keys. In “The Old Razzle Dazzle,” his new show about lies, lying and liars, Nadler plays and sings with his usual virtuosic abandon, in a show constructed with his usual passionate intelligence. And as usual, the show is stunning, perhaps among his best.

Also, a Mark Nadler show is always working on at least 3 or 4 tracks of thought. With the subject being lies, it’s pretty obvious that the current occupant of the White House is the ultimate target. But Nadler takes his time getting there. He starts out with the white lie, enumerated in Dave Frishberg’s “Blizzard of Lies” – which already starts getting political with lines like “I didn’t inhale” and “I am not a crook.”

Then he launches into the lies we say to children with a tellingly long medley – he starts with “Wishing on a Star” and ends with the thought of “if all else fails scare the bejesus out of them” before launching into “Oogie Boogie’s Song” from The Nightmare Before Christmas.

Early in the show, Nadler says “everything in this show is a lie” but it pretty quickly becomes clear that itself is a lie. Oh there are plenty of outrageous lies in the show, but the most important parts are true, and many of the worst lies are delivered with heavy sarcasm. The line, however, does have the positive effect of encouraging a skeptical frame of mind.

I don’t want to give everything away, but I’ll say that some of the most affecting moments deal with romantic self-deception – especially “The Lies of Handsome Men” and the Alan Menken rarity “Lie to Me” – and when Nadler does finally get to the egregious lies of the current administration, he does it with a tap dance. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Shuga Cain

Who knew that Drag Race alum Shuga Cain named herself after Shug Avery, the juke joint singer from The Color Purple! Just to make the point crystal clear, in her cabaret act Sweet Dreams Shuga does numbers from not one but two different versions of The Color Purple.

From the movie – which she identifies as the film that most inpired her personally and artistically – she does Shug’s love song to Miss Celie “Sister.” It’s the only song Cain sings live (all the others are lip synchs), and she’s very self-depricating about the quality of her singing. She doesn’t have to be: she’s better than a lot of ladymen from the show, and could definitely do more of it in her act. The other Color Purple song she does is a lip synch of “I’m Here” as sung by Cynthia Erivo in the stage musical. She nails this one to the ceiling, making it a fitting climax to her act.

Her show, called Sweet Dreams, is very much in the autobiographical mode of many solo drag shows. What sets Shuga apart though, is the chatty just-between-us-gurls tone that makes you feel that she’s talking to just you. It’s clear that she primarily considers herself a comedy queen – she attributes her allegedly sub-par singing to “too much tequila and dick” – and she is indeed a laugh and a half. Cain also happily identifies herself as an “80s baby” and does a megamix by divas such as Janet, Whitney, Mariah and the like, which she delivers with high-energy bounce. The whole evening is boisterous fun, and definitely recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Unitard

Hard-hitting, R-rated, queer as fuck sketch comedy is what this trio does. I mean their new show is called Badassy which kind of tells you what you need to know. They all have other careers, Mike Albo as a writer, Nora Burns and David Ilku as actors, but there’s a special, danagerous alchemy that happens when they come together as Unitard.

The opening salvos in Badassy are a “hanky code” parody whose targets range far and wide, followed by a sketch about a pair of New Yorkers (Burns and Albo) complaining about the Donald’s vile capers, while their waiter (Ilku) is playing a darker game only revealed at the end. Later in the show, all three participate in a “name that school shooting” sketch that breaks down in a very meta way, as the trio speaks in their voices about the limits of comedy.

While group sketches make up most of the show, some of the best moments are solo moments. Burns is hilarious as a particularly preening version of Ann Coulter. When Albo faces some credit card problems, he is subjected to an increasingly embarrasing accounting of his spending (in a voice-over by Ilku) in which the card company rep has insight into his most mortifying motives.

I think my favorite though is when Ilku, as an older but still hopping club kid, let’s you know in ballroom lingo all the things he hates and loves. He hates being co-opted by Pose, for one. But then, in the bit’s climax, he joyously namechecks all the greats of New York drag, performance art and music who are still at it. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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