Review: The Legendary Count Basie Orchestra

This big band has been in continuous existence (with the shortest of breaks in the early 1950s) for 82 years now. I attribute their longevity and continued popularity to the fact that they are “the band that plays the blues” as their motto goes. A certain bluesiness has never gone totally out of fashion, being an important part of jazz, rock and hip-hop. They were “rhythm and blues” long before that term existed, and still can’t be beat for rhythm or blues today.

Add to that the fact that they are one of the most musically virtuosic of the traditional big bands around! Their command of volume control, both loud and soft, is astonishing. There’s even a number in their current songlist at Birdland where they put this on gratuitous display. Bandleader Scotty Barnhart gave the signal to bring the volume down, again and again, until you think they couldn’t get any quieter, and then take it down some more. Astonishing.

You need a big brassy voice to sing over this band – of its 20+ pieces, over 90% are brass. Carmen Bradford certainly fits the the bill, belting “I Wish You Love” with more vigor and bluesiness than I’ve ever heard it done. Though Count Basie passed in 1983, his orchestra continues as dynamic and forceful as ever. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Michael Feinstein

Michael Feinstein just keeps getting better. He’s consistently gained new vocal strength, and for a long time now he’s been soaring and belting with the best of them. In his latest cabaret act “Showstoppers” he brings together an eclectic set centered on the timeless standards that he’s known for – of which he is arguably the greatest defender and conservator.

“Showstoppers” does include several songs that fit what we usually think of that expression – they literally stopped the show in a Broadway musical with uproarious applause. For example, “Tchaikovsky (and Other Russians)” from Lady In the Dark, which made Danny Kaye into a star. It is a devilishly difficult and complex song to sing, and Feinstein knocks it out with breathtaking confidence. He also takes on “Fifty Percent” from Ballroom – one of the biggest 11 O’clock numbers of all time – but sings it slightly relyricized so that it comes across as a passionate statement of love from a gay man. Quite moving.

He also does songs that took a circuitous route to being showstoppers, like Louis Jordan’s 1940s R&B hit “Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby,” which eventually found its way into Five Guys Named Moe. Or the title song of Cole Porter’s Can-Can, which only became a showstopper when cabaret legend Bobby Short started singing all of the songs lyrics (which had been cut from the show) in his club act. He even extends his definition to the soft rock classic “If” by the band Bread, which he terms a “personal showstopper.”

Feinstein and company put on a really engaging show that adds chic fun to the summer season. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Alaska Thunderfuck 5000

This is the best Golden Girls tribute I’ve seen on stage, and for someone who has been covering gay New York entertainment for a long time that’s saying something (I think GG tributes are outnumbered only by Judy Garland tributes). I attribute its success to the fact that Alaska and her pianist Handsome Jeremy are huge Golden Girls fanatics themselves, to the point that they talk about the series being their scripture.

If that’s so, this show, entitled “On Golden Girls,” is all about songs from the hymnal, giving us stories and songs from each of the ladies in turn. This very, very tall queen is a natural for a Bea Arthur, but hilariously portrays Estelle Getty by walking in on her knees.

One of her greatest gifts as a performer is a knack for imaginative exaggeration – she’s is a talented caricaturist. Not to say that’s she’s amateurish or sloppy – not remotely! Caricature has room for precision, wit, intelligence and creativity, and Alaska displays all of this and more. The caricatures here are very loving, which gives the act its considerable heart. Plus, The Golden Girls is already gleefully exaggerated, making for a wonderful match of performer and subject.

Alaska’s always had a strong voice, and she’s increasingly a real song stylist – she can totally handle singing “Hard Hearted Hannah” going the full Bea Arthur. The show was snappy and short! That never happens in drag cabaret! I’m almost tempted to say she should flesh it out a bit and make it longer, but that seems like tempting the fates. Very gay, a lot of fun, and definitely recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Tovah Feldshuh

Smart, skillful shtick and schmaltz in service of sharp storytelling. Tovah Feldshuh’s current cabaret act at Feinstein’s / 54 Below, entitled “Aging Is Optional,” pulls together a diverse set of songs and character bits in service of the theme of staying young throughout your life. For starters, she gives an emotional account of Dar Williams’s “When I Was A Boy,” suggesting that few things age you prematurely more than too-rigid gender roles.

Feldshuh’s sweet spot is a rich mix of deeply felt sentiment and willfully zany shtick. Previous acts of Tovah’s have felt a little random in the way they mix these two modes, but “Aging Is Optional” is a well-oiled machine, truly sophisticated in the way it approaches its subject matter. There’s a great deal of material about her own family, including a touching and wickedly funny evocation of her grandmother, paired with Judy Collin’s gorgeous ballad “Secret Gardens.”

When she’s on, as she is in the majority of this act, few performers are as hilarious as Tovah; in the show’s silliest song “Mon Amour” she’s positively hysterical. Almost without fail, the jokes are joyous and the moments of sentiment genuine and touching. Recommended – it would be such a shonda to miss it.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Annie Ross

This lady is a legend in jazz for her vital part in developing the bop-influenced art called vocalese, which Wikipedia describes as “a style or musical genre of jazz singing wherein words are sung to melodies that were originally part of an all-instrumental composition or improvisation.” There’s not a lot of vocalese in her act these days, but she’s still a sharp, smart interpreter of standards, as well as bebop specialty material on subjects like marijuana and meatballs.

Ross still possesses a smoldering charisma and confidence, as well as an unfailingly swinging sense of rhythm. Plus, she’s a fine musical storyteller; her rendition of “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square” covers many more shades of emotions than most versions, passing from hopeful to wistful to rueful and back again. She can even tell a story through repetitions of the same word. When assaying Cole Porter’s “Just One of Those Things” she replaced a line of Porter’s with a string of “Bye’s” giving each one a different heft, from the regretful to the dismissive.

One of her latter-day signature songs is the Depression-era “One Meatball” which is equal parts whimsy and biting satire, a real natural for Ross’s particular gifts. She may not toss off virtuoso vocalese like she used to, but Ross’s musicality and long-ingrained jazz instincts make her well worth seeing. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Ginger Minj

The Minj has genuine article musical theatre training and chops. Departing from previous showtune-heavy shows, however, she has made the move of structuring her new cabaret act Sweet T around a more rock oriented songlist, including a handful of autobiographical songs for which she wrote the lyrics.

Sweet T only features a handful of songs, with much more monologue and audience interaction. Ginger is a very engaging stage persona, so overall this is a good thing. Also, half the songs are ballads, which would be a problem if they followed close on each other, but matters less with story in between.

The act is in the very traditional mold of “this is my life” autobiographical cabarets, telling much the same story as her previous shows, but from an even more personal angle. It tracks Ginger’s life from a childhood in Southern Baptist Lake County, Florida to adventures in New York. There is lots of biting humor, and the “Glamour Toad” shows increased confidence throughout. The definite high point is a cover of Divine’s “You Think You’re A Man” – Ginger will apparently be playing the drag legend in new show next year.

There were a few more backstage stories from Drag Race, which is a part of what we want to hear, isn’t it? Ginger is a real show biz pro, and had the audience in the palm of her hand for the great majority of the evening. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Interview: Mark Nadler Curates New Cabaret Space

The man Stephen Holden of the New York Times has dubbed “Mr. Entertainment,” Mark Nadler is curating a new cabaret space, the Beach Café, on Second Avenue and East 70th Street. When asked to describe Mark’s unique cabaret personality, I always return to an image of him performing that’s burned in my memory. At one point during American Rhapsody a long-running Gershwin tribute he did with KT Sullivan, Nadler, in white tie and tails, leapt from floor to piano bench, tap-dancing madly, singing and keeping steady eye contact with the audience – all this while playing a complex passage on the piano without even glancing at the keys. The man sweats talent from every pore.

Many of the shows in the first few months at the Beach Café focus on the music of Cole Porter. To find out a little more about this new cabaret – and its ongoing tribute to one of the greatest gay composers and lyricists of the last century – I got in touch with Nadler, fresh off playing the Queen Mary II while it meandered through the fjords of Norway.

So what is the Beach Café? What kind of ambiance does it have? What’s on the menu?

The Beach Café is an Upper East Side watering hole with up-scale pub food (burgers, meatloaf, chicken parm, oysters, fish and chips, trout almandine, etc.). It’s been there for 49 years; a real neighborhood staple. It would feel like a pub, except that there are big windows everywhere, so it has a very pleasant, homey ambiance. For the cabaret, white tablecloths will replace their usual checkered gingham and lovely little lamps will be on each table. The best part — and our new innovation — is that at every table there will be a button which silently, wirelessly, calls your waiter when you want another drink or whatever. This way, waiters won’t have to make the rounds during the show to ask “can I get you another?” Because the place is small — it only seats 50 plus 8 at the bar — it’s imperative that the servers not distract from the performances and we think this will help a lot.

How did it come to be a cabaret space?

Dave Goodside who owns and runs the place contacted KT Sullivan at the Mabel Mercer Foundation, because he wanted to have music at his place to separate his place from other restaurants in the neighborhood. His idea was to have a piano bar type program, so KT asked me to met with him. (When she hears the word ‘piano’ she thinks of me…). I made it clear at our first meeting that I don’t do piano bars any more, but if he wanted to consider making it a show room, I would be happy to do a show there and when I’m not available (which is often), get other great performers to play the room.

So, you’re curating the cabaret, right? What’s your approach to that like?

Very simple: I only book acts that I would want to see. It’s all filtered through my taste level. I’ve chosen as many Algonquin artists as possible for the first season (August and September), because I want it to be clear that the level is going to be extremely high. The other thing that’s important to me is that it never be unaffordable. What I’ve come up with is a mathematical formula that allows the artists to be paid a decent amount while keeping the cover charge extremely low: $20.00 (as opposed to $60.00 which is what it cost to hear us at the Algonquin — and that was 7 years ago!). The trick is to not do one-offs or once-a-weeks, but to have them do entire weekends. This, of course, also means that I have to book people who are established enough to be able to fill the house three nights in a row.

What’s with all this Cole Porter on the schedule (not that I’m complaining, mind you)?

I’m a huge Cole Porter fan and, frankly so are most people who live on the Upper East Side. (Really — is there anyone who’s NOT a Porter fan??) Because the shows are so inexpensive, I thought it might be fun for the audience to compare how different performers take on the same subject. His catalog is so vast and excellent, that there are very few songs that are being repeated. I’m calling the series “Cole and Slaw at the Beach” and my original idea was to have every artist do “Cole” for their early show and “Slaw” for their late show (SLAW being a potpourri of whatever they want to sing). Most of the artists didn’t want to do 11:15 shows, so I’m doing all the late shows and I have half of the artists doing COLE and half doing SLAW.

How does your own Cole Porter show After Dark differ from the one you’ve done with KT Sullivan A Swell Party?

It’s entirely different. That show was as much about KT and me as it was about Cole. In this show I explore the difference between his list songs and his love songs and I get much more involved in his personal life, because so much of it jives with my personal experience. (A gay musician born in the Midwest who gets to New York and, eventually Europe to become a bon vivant, while working to be a serious artist at the same time. Sound familiar?) I do a lot of different songs than what KT and I did. As I say, he wrote so many amazing songs, there are dozens of Porter shows possible without repeating…

I know you like to “multi-track” your cabaret shows, structuring several layers of meaning in interlocking ways. What’s Mark Nadler’s subtext for After Dark — anything we should look out for?

The only thing I’ll tell you is that Cole Porter wrote a lot of his songs in the wee hours; that’s when the muse would court him. So, of course, there’s a literal meaning to the title. Also, we (the human race) tend to let our demons come out and play “after dark” and then, of course, there’s Porter’s uncanny ability to rally after unfathomable personal tragedy — so much of his work was written after ‘dark’ periods in his life. I have secret, personal associations with all of this… who doesn’t?

Ideally, would you want to curate multiple shows about other composers? If so, which ones?

I thought about maybe doing that, but it could get a little tired. If I did, however, I certainly would happily take on Gershwin, Rodgers, Dorothy Fields, Jerome Kern — but even as I say this, I’m thinking that sounds awfully “92nd St. Y” and they already have one of those on the Upper East Side. What I WILL do is try to come up with some theme for each season, just because I think that’s fun for the audience and I like to do crossword puzzles, if you know what I mean…

The main thing I want people to get about what I’m doing at the Beach is that I’m trying to create a place where you don’t have to know who’s performing there specifically, but that you can trust that whenever you go there you’ll hear someone who can really, really sing and perform doing exceptional work and you won’t have to break the bank to go. Hopefully, “Let’s go to the Beach” will be one of the things people answer when asked “what do you want to do tonight” — that it will be as easy a decision to make as “Let’s go to a movie.”

For tickets, click here.

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