Review: Ethan Slater

In a really good way, Ethan Slater’s Feinstein’s/54 Below debut is about as far from his star-making role in Broadway’s SpongeBob SquarePants as possible. Here he emerges as a smart, earnest singer songwriter with impressive multi-instrumental skills. His songs have a quirky edge that reminds me of the solo work of Steven Page of Barenaked Ladies: like Page, Slater deals with themes of love, loss and healing, with rich veins of humor, ruefulness and wonder.

Slater is writing a handful of musicals, both on his own and with Nick Blaemire. One is intended as a film titled Write Me In, about two brothers, both writers. Another is a stage musical called Edge of the World, about a single father who relocates himself and his young son to Alaska – songs from this one are the majority of the evening’s repertoire. Thank goodness, too, that they are sturdy enough to sustain our interest, which bodes well for the musical itself.

There are a handful of songs not by Slater that help to anchor the evening. Folk music is an important background for Ethan, and he does one song apiece by Paul Simon and Dave Van Ronk early in the show. Tony Nominee that he is, he also does a smattering of musical theatre, including a very affecting rendition of “Happiness Is…” from You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, and his big number from SpongeBob, “(Just a) Simple Sponge.” To top it all off, Slater is blessed with a golden voice, and tons of affable charisma. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

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Review: Lillias White

The title of Lillias White’s latest cabaret act is “Make Someone Happy.” It’s predicated on the thought that “the whole world, not just the United States” is a shit-show, and, given the circumstances, it’s better to craft a show that makes the audience feel better when they leave, than when they came in. That’s why she belts numbers like the title song, “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive,” and Nat “King” Cole’s “That’s All,” bringing them to fiery life.

The show, the advance press says, “features standards for the world of Broadway, film, and jazz.” It might well have also mentioned blues; plus, White addresses it all with that particular sort of expressiveness and virtuosity that is native to soul and jazz. White has one of those thunderclap voices, like Darlene Love or Martha Wash, that electrifies and illuminates everything it touches. The Brooklyn native made her Broadway debut in Barnum in 1981. She played Effie in the 1987 revival of Dreamgirls – really a Broadway return of the original production’s tour – a show she describes as life-changing, and she does a towering rendition of that show’s “I Am Changing.”

For her role as Sonja in Cy Coleman’s The Life, she won the Tony, Drama Desk, and Outer Critics Circle Awards, and she gives that show’s “(Getting Too Old for) The Oldest Profession” a riotous go. She excuses the number’s raunchiness by warning that “I take no responsibility for what Sonja says to you while I’m out!” Always a great artist, always a warm presence. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: John Pizzarelli

It’s common courtesy in a jazz setting to applaud for a bit after everybody’s solos, and indeed bandleader John Pizzarelli 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.

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 embodies cabaret’s jazzier side with astonishing elan and profound musical intelligence. Especially in the evening’s climax, Duke Ellington’s “C Jam Blues” (otherwise known as “Duke’s Place”) in which John and the band solo with vigor, verve and virtuosity.

John plays guitar with amazing fluidity and elegance, with nonpareil mastery of a technique called “guitar harmonics” that produces high notes of extraordinary expressiveness. 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.

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.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Leslie Jordan

This stand-up show at The Green Room 42 is a laugh-so-hard-you-cry look at the world through ultra-queer eyes. He outlandishly recalls “how I got that role,” namely Beverly Leslie in Will & Grace. He describes his Emmy win for that role in great and hilariously self-deprecating detail. There’s plenty of dish about Hollywood: No outing – he describes John Ritter as “a great friend to the queers but a reeeaal pussyhound” – but we definitely get the lowdown on who has a legendary dick that Leslie repeatedly begs to see…and who is nothing but mean and nasty.

Leslie, who describes himself as “the gayest man I know,” also claims that he was put on this Earth to be a comic scene-stealer (who met his only match playing opposite Megan Mullally on Will & Grace). This innate gift gives the fey, diminutive Jordan more than enough power to thoroughly command a stage all by himself.

This show is also an often moving look at the very best and worst of what queer culture has to offer. Jordan looks at the profound self-doubt that comes with growing up queer and hyper-effeminate in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Most moving of all, he describes how he threw all of his emotion about both his father and the lives lost in the Pulse nightclub massacre into throwing the first pitch at a baseball game. He threw with such passion that one of the pros said he could have had a career as a pitcher.

I can’t think of another autobiographical show that is more pure, unadulterated fun than Exposed! — it makes a convincing case for Jordan being one of the very greatest queer comic talents of our time.

For tickets, click here.

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

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.

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.