Review: Charles Busch

Legendary playwright and actor Charles Busch’s current cabaret act – titled “Native New Yorker” – is in some ways a sequel to his previous autobiographical club act “My Kinda ’60s.” As with that act, we again find Charles in boy drag – albeit with a subtle dash of rouge, wearing a patterned iridescent suit of crimson and purple. Here, again, the lack of wigs and dresses also signifies that Charles is expressing something more personal and vulnerable.

That’s because this act is about Busch’s journey to being the camp drag star we know today. Busch is very precise about his pop culture references. He successfully catches the feeling of coming of age (as an artist) at a time when life felt like a non-stop party. As a matter of fact one of the definite high points of the show is a touching rendition of the titular disco song as an late night / early morning ballad.

The act isn’t all earnest sincerity, though there’s more of that than usual. There are still plenty of quoted classic movie star 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 theme of seriously searching for your very own queer identity – which runs through all of his work – is much more explicit.

He has always combined elegantly languid, self-effacing charm with an effortlessly brassy glamour. 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 Diana Ross’s “Touch Me in the Morning,” reinterpreting it as an older man letting go of a a younger lover.

Busch sincerely loves artifice, and he invests every moment he has on-stage with substantial style. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

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Review: Dianna Agron

“High-falutin’ honky-tonk” – that’s my “elevator pitch” for Diana Agron’s current cabaret act at the Café Carlyle. She originally designed her songlist to compliment her first run at the Carlyle, which found her singing the music of “some of the finest male-fronted acts of the ’70s.” Here, she mainly covers songs originally done by other women. She keeps breaking her own rules to put together a show that feels right, which makes it harder to explain, asking the audience if they have any suggestions.

The former Glee star recently married folk rock band Mumford & Sons’ banjoist and guitarist Winston Marshall. Her own musical aesthetic lines up less with Glee, and more with the style of her husband’s band. This is a beautiful young woman with a gorgeous voice who is nowhere more comfortable than when she’s singing a cover of a 1960s folk rock chestnut or 1950s standard.

On her first run, Agron was hesitant when it come to patter, but calmed right down when it came time to sing. She’s not necessarily more eloquent between songs this time, but she’s all-around more confident and in command, which lends her off-hand comments a kind of raffish charm. No song was less than beautifully sung, and, as before, she performs best when a song brings out the actress in her – most notably in Eartha Kitt’s wicked signature tune “I Want to Be Evil” and Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day.”

There’s an enormous amount of potential here – I would give a lot to hear Agron’s huskily golden yet liquid voice act the hell out of some of June Christie’s sophisticated material. The job in cabaret, as much as in theatre and film, is storytelling, and Agron is getting better at doing that in this format. In any event, Agron gives us enough wonderfully sung renditions of dauntingly complex songs that I can heartily recommend her.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Ginger Minj

When Alyssa Edwards bragged to Ginger Minj about her Netflix show, Ginger replied “That’s wonderful! I have two!!”She has a lead in the cartoon Super Drags, and a supporting role in the film Dumplin’ which also sports a soundtrack by Dolly Parton. Her latest act Happy New Queer, opens with trailers for those two shows, as well as a new music video for Parton’s “Jolene” starring her and several other Drag Race favorites.

On the cabaret side of the Minj’s ascending career, this new act is possibly her tightest yet, and certainly her most entertaining. Ginger has genuine article musical theatre training and chops, and for this act she combines showtunes with pop tunes, climaxing in a emotional, full-throated rendition of “I Am What I Am.” She’s also very funny of course, combining comic stories from her own life with quick-witted audience interaction, and even more structured audience participation in a “Big Gay Dance-Off” that runs throughout the show.

Ginger’s got her cabaret chops polished to a high sheen. And I can’t go without giving praise to her glory of a wig, big and bright ginger and coiffed to within an inch of its life! Ginger is a real show biz pro going from strength to strength, and had the audience in the palm of her hand all evening long. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Clint Holmes

This man has established himself as a cabaret artist of great sensitivity and intelligence. Clint Holmes has been a Las Vegas performer for some time, but exhibits none of the negative qualities you associate with Vegas. He only has the good Vegas stuff: He is nothing if not sincere and authentic, and possesses a magnetic stage presence and a practiced but subtle showmanship that underlines what’s important in the show without overselling it.

His latest act at the Birdland Theater entitled “Holmes for the Holidays” is his jazziest yet, wonderfully complex and spontaneous. He opens with a witty turn on “Let It Snow” in which he observes, er, it hasn’t snowed recently, then launches into a swinging version of “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To” laced with observations that his wife is back in Las Vegas, and…you get it.

His skill as an interpreter of lyrics comes across in a moody “My Foolish Heart” which he frames as a “a cautionary tale before you head into your New Year’s Eve – I hear crazy things can happen.” And he puts a tremendous sense of fun into Tom Paxton’s folk music standard “The Marvelous Toy.”

Later in the show, Holmes meditates on the imprints left by one’s childhood. His father was an African-American jazz vocalist who worked in a steel mill and his mother was a white British opera singer who taught voice. He works their story into a song he wrote himself “1944” about their meeting in WW II Europe; he has imbued the song with both richly evocative details and deep feeling, and delivers it warmly but with very tasteful restraint.

He gets more personal still, in another original “If Not Now, When,” which has become his personal motto since beating cancer some years ago. Holmes ends the show with a soaring rendition of Leonard Cohen’s ever-mysterious “Hallelujah.” Holmes is a class act, and this show is first-rate cabaret. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Freddy Cole

He’s Nat “King” Cole’s brother and he’s perfectly happy to be thought of that way. His voice is a lot like his brother’s, or more precisely it sounds like Nat would have sounded as an octogenarian, which Freddy now is. Freddy is currently performing with his quartet at Birdland (with saxophonist Joel Frahm along for the ride) , and the sound they produce is much like Nat’s early 1940s trio – except that it’s fuller, of course, and has strong veins of post-1940s sounds, especially bebop and bossa nova.

The repertoire Cole plays leans heavily on vocal jazz recordings by himself, Nat and others, with only a handful of recognizable standards. The quartet’s rendition of Nat’s “Jet, My Love” is particularly great, alive with syncopation, and packed with adventurous solos for every last member, Frahm particularly showing off with some pyrotechnics. The best-known standard they play is “Sometimes I’m Happy (Sometimes I’m Blue)” which Freddy associates with Count Basie.

This show also features a handful of holiday songs, most entertainingly Freddy’s own “Jingle, the Christmas Cat” and a mellow take on “Blue Christmas.” Throughout, Cole’s sophisticated vocals effortlessly bring out the melancholy in the ballads, and a sunshine warmth in the uptempo numbers. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Norm Lewis

This Christmas cabaret is one of the more conventional ones I’ve seen this year – and that’s entirely a good thing. In the spirit of his own favorite singer, Johnny Mathis, Norm Lewis’s show leans into holiday fun and warmth. It’s not an entirely shallow show – there are dark shadows here and there, especially Dionne Warwick’s socially-conscious “Be Aware” – but Lewis lays emphasis on Christmas’s pleasures and joys.

And it’s not strictly a Christmas show, even though this silly soul made his entrance wearing a red and green tutu, greeting the audience while the band played the tune of Tchaikovsky’s “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.” The set includes a frisky “Waiting for Life,” from Once on This Island, a show which Lewis has done more than once. Lewis also bravely assays “People” – yes that one, the Barbra Streisand one – to which he gives even more drama, if that’s possible.

Lewis favors the audience with powerful belting several times throughout the evening in showcases like “Home” from The Wiz and “Ave Maria / Oh Holy Night” both of which are available on his new Christmas CD The Norm Lewis Christmas Album (available for sale in the lobby, as he will happily remind you). He closes with the groovy “Why Couldn’t It Be Christmas Every Day” which Mariah Carey was offered but didn’t record. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Justin Vivian Bond

This show was intended to be called “Justin Vivian Bond is Regifted,” but somewhere between the time when Bond sent v’s title and blurb to the Joe’s Pub office and the time the tickets were printed, some device somewhere “auto-corrected” the title to “Justin Vivian Bond is Refrigerated.” JVB figured “well, the tickets have been printed,” kinda liked the title, and thought it wouldn’t take much to move the show in that direction. One of the adjustments v made was to open with a passionate version of Annie Lennox’s “Cold,” setting up the “fire and ice” dynamic that has always been JVB’s wheelhouse.

The legendary Kiki & Herb Christmas shows of yore were full of vitriol and blasphemy. More love than vitriol now (though when v touches on a subject worth the vitriol, v doesn’t hold back), and an end to blaspheming in favor of something more spiritually positive: Bond now puts v’s own pagan ambivalence about Christmas at the heart of the show. For instance there’s a dark little medley celebrating the winter solstice, dedicated to Judy Collins.

The musical backing from Matt Ray on piano, Nath Ann Carrera on guitar and Claudia Chopek on violin is sophisticated and rich. There’s nothing particularly jazzy about the arrangements – if anything they are redolent of folk rock and chamber pop – but there is a powerful sense of improvisational give and take.

Bond is one of the most original and potent performers of our time, whom I think everybody should see at least once. Or more often – there’s something new and freshly rewarding about every single performance.

For tickets, click here.

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