Review: Justin Vivian Bond

“JVB goes masc,” Mx Justin Vivian Bond drolly purrs after a roaring opening performance of Iggy Pop’s “Cry for Love.” After years of covering female singer-songwriters, Bond has decided it’s time for a change of course with a new cabaret show Boys in the Trees, named for the Carly Simon song of the same name. Viv has subtitled the show “Justin Vivian Bond sings All the Young Dudes – a Rite of Spring,” which is a significant indication of what v’s getting at. “All The Young Dudes” is a song David Bowie wrote for glam rock band Mott the Hoople, and this show has a substantial glam rock bent, with much Bowie, as well as Lou Reed and Roxy Music.

The “Rite of Spring” part suggests sexuality and sensuality, which is overflowing in this show. Viv’s tag line makes this explicit: “Instead of singing songs by people I wanted to BE, I thought it would be hawt to sing the songs of the people I wanted to FUCK!” This probably overstates the case, as JVB admits by ambiguously saying “once I picked the song list, I found I hadn’t realized I wanted to fuck these guys.” Rather, desire and longing pulse through the evening like a hastened heartbeat. The title song – the only one on the song list originally sung by a woman – includes the telling lyrics “Last night I slept in sheets the colour of fire / Tonight I lie alone again and curse my own desires.”

In many ways Viv keeps to v’s usual combination of wryly cynical observations and heartfelt song renditions. As always Bond’s taste in songs is impeccable, and v approaches them 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. It doesn’t take much to ignite Bowie’s melodramatically compassionate “Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide,” but by the time Viv reaches that climax, v’s already taken Bowie’s “Lady Grinning Soul” and Lenny Kravitz’s “Fields of Joy” to places infinitely more fiery than the originals. Even Andy Gibb’s “Thicker Than Water” gets a rosy, yearning glow, untouched by irony.

The choice of finale, however, is beyond perfect. Roxy Music’s “Mother of Pearl” starts in a very romantic, sincere place, but then singer-songwriter Bryan Ferry laces more and more distance into the lyrics as the song progresses, lines like “Oh Mother of Pearl, so semi-precious in your detached world.” It marries JVB’s gimlet-eyed perspective to intimations of passion and love than is perhaps real, perhaps an illusion. Devastating.

As always Bond is hilariously entertaining, wildly imaginative and vividly expressive. And thank goodness Viv has given us another show that leaves you wanting more, and adds some more uptempo selections to the ballads Bond favors. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

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Review: Christine Ebersole

This is the very pinnacle of cabaret. I never miss a single cabaret show by Christine Ebersole, because they are almost guaranteed to be exceptional. One of her finest – and the first one I saw – she built around the theme of her becoming an adoptive mother. The current one, titled “After the Ball,” finds her on the other end of that journey, dealing with becoming an empty nester, but also looking forward “to my approaching dotage” (a phrase she utters with comically bright cheer). And wouldn’t you know it, this act nearly matches the excellence of that other one long ago. Truly stellar cabaret – you shouldn’t miss it.

One of the things that most astonishes me about Ebersole is her exquisite taste when it comes to vocal interpretation. She flawlessly senses when to give a song a semi-operatic vibrato, when to belt it, and when to speak-sing. For example, she assays “What Did You Do to Your Face” a folk song by Susan Werner about plastic surgery, with a spoken passage here, a slightly syncopated moment of doubt there. But when she sings Al Jolson’s hit “Toot, Toot Tootsie! (Goo’bye)” she gives it a shake-the-rafters belt that would probably intimidate Jolson himself.

The act takes a decisively rueful, reflective turn when she ruminates on the ways her children were never 100% from her. Her take on Joni Mitchell’s “Little Green” has real ache. But she also finds the humor in the situation, as when she comments on one child’s mathematical genius – “she didn’t get that from me,” she laughs, “the most she got from this cabaret singer was ‘snap on 2 and 4!’”

The final arc of the act finds Ebersole girding her loins to take on the future, most comically in Peggy Lee’s “Ready to Begin Again.” She takes inspiration from her own parents, and goes out on a high note. Very personal, and damned good. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Scott Thompson / Buddy Cole

“He was one of those faggots that made respectable gays so uncomfortable.” Thus said Buddy Cole, the fey martini-drinking creation of comedian Scott Thompson. This was from a monologue that Scott / Buddy did on Canadian sketch comedy show Kids in the Hall. It was about a friend of Buddy’s, but he could have been talking about himself. Now Thompson has revived Buddy for a tour called Aprés Le Dèluge which just had a sold out run at Joe’s Pub, a collection of about 10 monologues set in various years between 1995 (when Kids went off the air) and today.

In these monologues, buddy covers a variety of issues from straight men to having children – Buddy chose to have an imaginary child (“so much simpler!”) – to adventures with Uday Hussein while dressed in a burqa. Things get really hilarious when we get to the present day, when Buddy encourages trans kids to fight their corner, and observes “Thank goodness they changed the word for # from ‘pound sign’ to ‘hashtag’ because #MeToo would mean something completely different.”

The wild audience response at Joe’s Pub indicates there’s a real hunger for Cole’s scandalous super-gay brand of comedy; I certainly could use a lot more of it myself. To quote Buddy one last time “As Molière said to Guy de Maupassant at a café in Vienna, ‘That’s nice. You should write that down.’”

Aprés Le Dèluge upcoming tour dates:

April 5-7: Boston, ONCE Somerville

April 9: Denver, The Oriental Theater

April 19-21: Austin, Moontower Comedy Festival

April 28: Los Angeles, UCB Franklin

May 30-June 3: Chicago, The Onion Comedy and Arts Festival

For tickets to other Joe’s Pub events, click here.

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

Review: Lena Hall

This show is all about auditioning, which Lena Hall has been doing from a young age, often as part of a teen musical theatre troupe. The present-day Hall sings beautifully in a spectacular range of styles – vocally she brings to my mind Christine Ebersole, which is a big compliment. Hall performs with a glee and verve that’s gotten her pegged as the rock and roll singing actress. She doesn’t mind that, but does mind a bit that it keeps her from the full range of roles she could own.

This show, entitled “The Art of the Audition,” features songs from shows that Hall auditioned for (City of Angels, Oklahoma!, Legally Blonde) and shows from which she took her audition songs (A Chorus Line, Follies, Die Zauberflöte). That’s right, she goes from “Dance 10: Looks 3” to Mozart’s devilishly high Queen-of-the-Night aria “Der Hölle Rache.”

She’s too self-depricating about the Mozart aria; she, in her own words, “nails it.” And for everything she turns her hand to, be it rock, classical or traditional musical comedy, shows her to be an actor-singer who is equally excellent at acting and singing, which is rarer than you might think.

Her singing, whether load or soft, is never anything less than full-throated. And her rapport with music director Brian Nash is warm and engaging, a very entertaining side show by itself. When she’s singing, no matter the style, she is an unquestionable fierce ruling diva. Overall, the show was a genuine pleasure, and Hall an immensely engaging performer. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Paige Turner

To paraphrase drag legend Chad Michaels, Paige Turner is a professional, dammit! This showbiz spitfire’s current show Drag Me To The Top is thought out down to every second and every step, and yet never feels less than completely fresh. She’s also confident enough to be completely spontaneous – she can handle audience reaction with the best of them. If there’s a moment that doesn’t land like she wanted, she’ll be the first one to tell you, and then do it again, the right way. Plus, she never gives less than total commitment. You get the feeling that she’d give the same performance for an audience of one that she’d give for a full house.

Now lest all this sound too stiff, be assured that Ms. Turner is first and foremost a comedy queen, and often a very raunchy one at that. In fact, in an extended and hilarious slide presentation about the different varieties of bottoms, she involuntarily guffawed and happily blurted “this is so fucking stupid!”

She also is a first-rate singer, mostly in the service of the sort of relyricized song parodies that are the bread and butter of singing drag queens. She also plays a couple of songs completely seriously, and does some impressive belting that you might not even notice because it serves the moment in the song so perfectly. Now, that is professional! While she doesn’t do any complex or flashy choreography, she is in constant motion, and rarely relies on being downstage center to make her points. The director in me was absolutely tickled that this girl really knows how to use her diagonal crosses, bless her. One of the more enjoyable drag shows I’ve seen in a while, and highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Jinkx Monsoon & Major Scales

For her new cabaret show at Joe’s Pub, entitled The Ginger Snapped, we find a manic Jinkx Monsoon being psychoanalyzed by her musical counterpart, pianist / composer / raconteur Major Scales. This show is their first to feature almost entirely new music, all from her new album of the same name.

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, just in a very different way.

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). Both Monsoon and Scales first appear in medical smocks that recall Tim Curry in Rocky Horror. Very shortly, though, Jinkx strips down to a black one-piece lace foundation garment, which she later covers with a silky black dressing gown trimmed with feathers and rhinestones. 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.

For the Joe’s Pub calendar, click here.

To keep up with Jinkx, click here.

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

Review: John Pizzarelli

Guitarist / vocalist John Pizzarelli always scales the heights of cabaret’s jazzier side with astonishing musicianship and élan. This particular engagement at Birdland is singularly focused on one of John’s biggest obsessions, the Nat King Cole Trio.

Though John was already working professionally as a guitarist in his teen years, he was mostly into classic rock at the time. A good-looking girl said he should look into the Cole Trio, which his father, famed jazz guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli was thrilled to encourage. It changed John’s life, setting him on the path to becoming the jazz virtuoso he is today.

John has a straightforward, but still astonishing, sort of virtuosity – his particular genius is in his chordal improvisations, finding hidden musical meanings in the most familiar of standards. This show makes it abundantly clear that Cole’s guitarist, Oscar Moore, was a definite influence on the way Pizzarelli plays.

It’s common courtesy in a jazz setting to applaud for a bit after everybody’s solos, and indeed bandleader John 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. Neither jazz nor cabaret gets much better than this.

For tickets, click here.

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