Review: BenDeLaCreme

“What the Hell?” That’s the question posed by innovative drag performance artist BenDeLaCreme in her latest show, Inferno-A-Go-Go. BenDeLaCreme’s shows are truly unique, not just in drag performance, but in theatre as a whole. Sure, she includes the goofy song parodies and wisecracking comedy so common in drag. However, she’s after something far more sophisticated – her seductive strangeness creeps up on you.

The queen otherwise known as Ben Putnam is playing less of a ditz this time around, wryly joking about the fact that’s she’s chosen to do a drag cabaret based on Dante Alighieri’s 14th Century Italian epic poem Inferno. Coming off her unbeatable streak and self-elimination on Drag Race All-Stars, she’s more confident than ever. And why shouldn’t she be: Inferno-A-Go-Go is more profound than the most chin-strokingly serious straight play, while rarely being less than belly-laugh hilarious.

BenDeLa forever rebukes the notion that arts of clowning, drag, circus, burlesque and ventriloquism are somehow less than other performance forms, somehow stupid. Putnam takes the best of all those forms and whips them into something new, fascinating and intensely intelligent. Not only that, BenDeLa 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.

BenDeLaCreme is all about fantastic and ridiculous artifice, but also ultimately really 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.

Advertisements

Review: Marcos Valle

I like bossa nova singer / songwriter and all around luminary Marcos Valle because he combines a strong sense of syncopation and groove with a rich and vibrant harmonic palette – these things will get my attention anytime. Add to that a sunny disposition and sensibility best expressed by his signature song “Summer Samba (So Nice)” (made famous by Astrud Gilberto), and I’m in musical love.

In his current club act at Birdland, Valle is backed by a quartet of musicians whose precision and energy border on the supernatural. When they lock into the groove that Valle is playing on the keyboard – which is most of the time – the room positively levitates with musical excitement in its most direct form. The effect is so dynamic, in fact, that I found myself wishing that Birdland had a dance floor. Even more than your typical samba, this is music that moves.

About half of the concert is with Brazilian cellist Jacques Morelenbaum and vocalist wife Paula, who were both in bands with the legendary bossa nova composer Antonio Carlos Jobim. This show is partially a 60th anniversary celebration of the release of “Chega de Saudade,” considered to be the first recorded bossa nova song. Jobim wrote it, and most of the songs in this half are Jobim songs. Hot stuff, indeed!

Valle is also joined by his vocalist wife Patricia Alvi on a handful of numbers, and she brings a quality similar to the women of Sergio Mendes’s Brasil ’66, which works especially well on Valle’s 1967 bossa nova classic “Crickets.” Overall, one of the most stimulating cabaret shows I’ve seen in some time.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Liz Callaway

This award-winning singer / actress has a muscular Broadway soprano, and she can deliver both hair-raising high notes and detailed, fully-acted musical storytelling. Her current act at Feinstein’s / 54 Below, is a love letter to the women who have inspired her called A Hymn to Her. Liz’s heroines come from all walks of life, and Callaway takes advantage of this to create an eclectic show.

She opens with The Mary Tyler Moore theme, “Love Is All Around,” because who doesn’t love Mary Richards? The song is all about youth and hope, and Callaway captures that marvelously. The show then briefly heads in a somewhat autobiographical direction as she intersperses a relatively low-key take on “Broadway Baby” with humorous tales of her exciting first days as a working actor in New York.

Your heroes don’t have to be older than you, and Liz gives high praise to Sara Bareilles before performing a moving rendition of “Everything Changes” from Bareilles’s Waitress. There’s also a heroine not actually mentioned but implied in Callaway’s pairing of Carole King’s “Being At War with Each Other” and her sister Ann Hampton Callaway’s “At the Same Time” – both songs have been sung by Barbra Streisand. That’s not the only reason they go well together: they are both heartfelt pleas for peace.

Callaway has a wonderful sense of humor, which produced two of my favorite moments in the show. She’s obsessed with Julia Child, and did a little known song of Leonard Bernstein’s called “Plum Pudding” which is simply a recipe to titular dish set to a tricky patter. Tricky patter is the satirical target of the show’s other comical moment, one of Callaway’s signature songs “Another Hundred Lyrics.” Songwriter Lauren Mayer’s re-lyricizing of Sondheim’s “Another Hundred People,” it gently pokes fun at Sondheim’s willful complexity. It’s no less complicated than a Sondheim song – perhaps its even moreso – and Callaway executes it flawlessly. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: René Marie

What a great pleasure to discover a really good songwriter who also happens to be an accomplished jazz singer! I hadn’t heard of René Marie before seeing her at Birdland, and she presented a show entirely composed of songs from her new album The Sound of Red, all material composed solely by her. And, what do you know, every song is as engaging in performance as a sensitively rendered standard.

A lot of that has to do with Marie’s lyrics, which touch on universal subjects in a direct, sincerely-felt way. They don’t have the obviousness of cliché, but rather the deceptive simplicity of a Berlin or Hammerstein lyric – phrases that seem like they’ve always been there, but never said quite that way. Musically, however, these songs are quite sophisticated. She’s modest about her song “Go Home” (a rueful instruction to a man she’s having an affair with), calling it “maybe too country” at one point in her intro, but the song’s harmonies do subtle but odd shifts that could come right out of compositions by Dizzy Gillespie or Maurice Ravel.

As a vocalist, René Marie has a fantastic instrument: warmly supple, strong and profoundly expressive. Her confidence as a performer engages you from the first note; especially powerful in this performance where the first song is a haunting a capella she wrote the day of her opening night “Ain’t Gonna Be Long for this Earth.” Her between song talk is less patter, and more like a spontaneous, smiling decision to let you in on her secrets. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Tammie Brown

After seeing a live show of Tammie Brown, I finally have a bead on this surrealist drag queen’s artistic core. She is, more than anything, a hippie chic queerpunk singer-songwriter. There’s a hint of classic movie queen in her looks, but it seems that’s the equivalent of Debbie Harry or Grace Slick making something fabulous out of what she found in a thrift shop.

And while Tammie’s sense of humor is disarmingly unique, she’s not truly unprecedented. I could see her comfortably do her left-of-center thing at the Pyramid Club in the 1980s, at Club 57 or Max’s Kansas City in 1970s, or even in a Jackie Curtis extravaganza at LaMaMa in the late 1960s. However, queens this tripped-out are in short supply these days, so we should treat her, to quote the title of her show, as a National Treasure.

Brown also proudly wears her South Texan origins, singing a couple of songs in Spanish, and showing love for all things Mexican (maybe there’s a Frida Kahlo influence here, too, eh?). Tammie sways happily about the stage while her faerie fey guitarist Michael J. Catti converts all of her original oddball techno-pop songs from that style into something much more pleasant: SoCal-flavored psychedelic and/or “soft” rock. And her in-between patter veers between gleeful non sequiturs and political commentaries from the silly to the venomous. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

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.

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.