Review: Pass Over

The simple fact offbeing back in a Broadway theatre, especially one as beautiful as the August Wilson, was a moving experience in and of itself. The play at that theatre, Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu’s Pass Over, is several things. For one thing, this black-themed surrealist drama is an opening bell for the Broadway community’s commitment to being more diverse going forward. The play itself certainly has its heart in the right place, but the realization of its high ideals is a mixed bag.

The play mostly draws its inspiration from Waiting for Godot. As in Beckett’s play, we have two protagonists trapped in their situation, in this case a desolate urban street-corner in place of Beckett’s country road. As in Beckett, one, Moses (Jon Michael Hill), is a pontificating top dog, the other, Kitch (Namir Smallwood), a goofy wild card.

My issue: the play works too hard to hew to the outline of Godot. The moments where it deviates the most from Beckett’s model are its most effective, and I wish there were more of them. In fact the best part of the play is its conclusion, where Nwandu abandons Godot for a rapturously strange evocation of the Book of Exodus (not to leer, but it also features nudity, and the actors have clearly been working on their assets).

Also, Moses exhibits traits of toxic masculinity, and while Nwandu has clearly made that character decision intentionally, she offers no coherent criticism of that syndrome – and this in a play jam-packed with coherent criticisms. This just puzzles me. Hill makes the best of it however, sensitively playing to the wounds that led Moses to construct this fiercely defensive emotional armor. In spite of its flaws, Pass Over is an exciting and dynamic return for Broadway, and I can recommend it.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Michael Feinstein

I am so happy that this show was my return to live performance. I’ve been a fan of Mr. Feinstein for a very long time, and much of the show was made up of songs I’d heard him do several times before. Michael being the sensitive interpreter he is, however, gave every song new layers in keeping with changed times. He gave a warm but wistful twist to this line in his opening song “It’s A Most Unusual Day” : “There are people meeting people / There is sunshine everywhere / There are people greeting people.”

Michael talked about how “The Great American Songbook” – that assortment of timeless songs he is so associated with – is an ever-evolving thing, as he introduced “You and Me Against the World.” Famous from a sentimental hit version by Helen Reddy, Michael really dug into the pain behind the song, which paradoxically made it more comforting.

Sometimes when Feinstein has done Marshall Barer’s Gay Pride-inspired “The Time Has Come” in the past it had something of a dreamy quality. This time there was a new firmness and confidence to it, allowing no doubt that, indeed, “The time has come / to heed a different drum.” Potent.

The show is entitled “Summertime Swing,” and it never swings harder than when Michael tears into Louis Jordan’s jump blues classic “Is You Is, Or Is You Ain’t My Baby” with a vengeance. As always, Michael gives you the story behind the song, which took composer Billy Austin from janitor to successful songwriter.

Michael closed with a stunning medley of songs sung by Frank Sinatra – who had been a help to Feinstein early in his career – ending with a vigorous, rousing version of “Theme from New York, New York” which clearly read as a celebration of the city’s culture returning to something resembling life. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: A Love Letter to Liza

An online evening of songs, stories, and tributes, A Love Letter to Liza celebrates storied triple-threat superstar Liza Minnelli’s 75th Birthday. Well-wishes and remembrances make up the great majority of the evening, delivered with varying levels of eloquence and duration. Jason Alexander’s is probably the most insightful and touching, Jim Caruso’s the most packed with stories. Many of them are quite funny – John Waters wishing he had taken a spontaneous travel suggestion from her, Charles Busch on her amazing understanding of lighting. A personal favorite was Lily Tomlin’s; in addition to her personal tribute, she allows several of her most famous character to greet Liza as well.

There were also performances throughout, most notably Kristen Chenoweth’s rousing, roaring “Maybe This Time” and a tender “Old Friends” from Michael Feinstein. The evening concludes with eye-popping video of cabaret singer Seth Sikes’s très très gay rendition of Minnelli’s hit “Ring Them Bells.” By turns sweet, moving and entertaining, A Love Letter to Liza ends up creating a multidimensional portrait of a performer whose tremendous talent is matched by her enormous generosity. Recommended.

THERE IS ONLY ONE AIRING LEFT, 7 PM ON SUNDAY MARCH 14. For tickets, click here.

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

Review: John Pizzarelli & His Quartet

John Pizzarelli always scales the heights of cabaret’s jazzier side with astonishing musicianship and elan. This remains true whether he’s leading a big band or a small combo. His current engagement at Birdland is billed as the John Pizzarelli Quartet, but when John did a head count at the top of the show, he counted five musicians, and then decided to call it “John Pizzarelli and his Quartet.”

Pizzarelli works with a profound musical intelligence. John has a particular genius is in his chordal improvisations, finding hidden musical meanings in the most familiar of standards. Only this evening isn’t about standards in the way most of John’s shows are. Instead Pizzarelli focuses on pop / rock singer /songwriters starting with less well known songs like Van Morrison’s “Tupelo Honey” and Broce Spingteen’s “Tenth Avenue Freezeout” and moving to bigger hits like Steely Dan’s “Rikki Don’t Lose that Number” and Elton John’s “Honky Cat.”

For previous cabaret acts, John had often subtly framed songs “in the style of” a particular jazzman. Here, however, he is commits to doing these pop songs in a jazzy Pizzarelli family style, saying early on that “we’ll play lots of different songs, but they will all sound something like that – and that’s the way we like it!!!”

It’s common courtesy in a jazz setting to applaud for a bit after everbody’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.

Review: The Unsinkable Molly Brown

I admit I didn’t know much at all about Molly Brown or her namesake musical, aside from her surviving the sinking of the Titanic. So I come to this “revisal” with no prior prejudices. I’m not a huge fan of composer Meredith Willson’s music in the first place; the pastiche Americana of his big hit The Music Man decidedly doesn’t move me, though it works well for telling that particular story.

The man behind this revision, bookwriter Dick Scanlan, has done his research into the historical Molly, who it turns out was socially progressive and, eventually, a philanthropist and reformer. He thought that was a much more interesting story than the original production’s simple rags-to-riches angle. And I agree. That doesn’t make it into a first-rate musical – in sharp contrast to The Music Man none of its songs are instant earworms. It does, however, make it a rewarding evening of musical theatre.

Molly Brown, both the historical person (a Denver socialite) and the musical comedy character, fairly bursts with positivity and determination, so the actress who portrays her must possess abundant energy and charisma. This production’s Molly, Beth Malone, is blessed with a bounty of both qualities. Director / choreographer Kathleen Marshall deploys a very gifted ensemble with great creativity. Neither the show or the production is a masterpiece, but both are above average fun. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Grand Horizons

The cast was what most drew me to Grand Horizons. The opportunity to see Jane Alexander, Michael Urie, Priscilla Lopez and James Cameron together in a comedy – that’s just too tempting! I knew almost nothing else about the play going in, and playwright Bess Wohl – whose work I had not previously seen – pleasantly surprised me. Her comedy comes more from character than one-liners (save the odd blue word used solely for laughs), and she gets across more about human psychology than most comedies this hilarious ever manage.

Alexander and Cameron play married couple Bill and Nancy French, who have spent fifty years as husband and wife. As the show opens, we find them at an “independent living” house, silently preparing a meal with the kind of synchronization that only comes after many years of living together. Once they sit down to eat, Nancy announces that she wants a divorce.

Among other things, Grand Horizons examines the effect her decision has on their two grown children Brian (Urie) and Ben (Ben McKenzie). Brian is gay, has a tight relationship with Nancy and simply cannot understand why she would want to do this. Bill is taciturn as many men of his generation are, a quality he has passed on to his married son Ben – the chaotic consequences of not communicating is a major theme of the play.

I’ve never seen Jane Alexander do comedy, but I am not shocked that she plays it as superbly as anything she puts her mind to. We know Urie to be an excellent comic actor, and he’s as funny as ever. Cameron and McKenzie are given less to work with, but their silences speak volumes. Priscilla Lopez plays Carla, a contemporary of Bill and Nancy, and provides a marvelously colorful foil to Alexander’s patrician take on Nancy. Ashley Park delights as Ben’s pregnant wife, Jess. Maulik Pancholy is a sexy, riotous hot mess as Tommy, a horny and very frolicsome trick that Brian bring back to his parents residence late at night. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Lionel Hampton Big Band Featuring Jason Marsalis

Vibraphonist Lionel Hampton’s big band made history with the song “Flyin’ Home” in 1942, all but inventing “jump blues,” the immediate precursor to rhythm & blues. The band took the bluesier side of swing – think Count Basie – and added a heavier, insistent beat, as well as honking, even screaming solos from all the brass, especially the tenor saxophone.

Hampton passed in 2002. The Lionel Hampton Estate, eager to have the Big Band reactivated, granted permission in March of 2015 to launch the Lionel Hampton Big Band. This new edition is entirely composed of people who had played with “Hamp.” The Estate also handpicked Jason Marsalis, Wynton Marsalis’s youngest brother (16 years younger), to occupy Hampton’s own position behind the vibes. Like the others, Marsalis had played with Hampton – in his case as a drummer for two gigs in New Orleans.

I’m thrilled to declare that this band jumps and honks just as hard as ever, tearing into “Flyin’ Home” and “Hey Bop a Re Bop” with intense energy. They also play standards with equal parts verve and virtuosity, tunes like “Night In Tunisia” (using Dizzy Gillespie’s own arrangement, no less) and “Cherokee.”

In addition to all this great music, the band also relate with relish stories about the very quirky and fun-loving Mr. Hampton, ranging from off-color jokes that he liked to tell during his performances to fond reminiscences about both learning from and teaching their every-curious leader. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: The Hot Sardines

This band is on a mission to put the “hot” back into “hot jazz.” Think Louis Armstrong’s legendary Hot Five and Hot Seven combos, with a pinch of the gutbucket grit of swing revivalists like Big Bad Voodoo Daddy. Their repertoire tends to pre-1930 songs, popularized by the likes of Sophie Tucker and Mamie Smith. Lead singer Elizabeth Bougerol is openly committed to “infotainment,” detailing the difficulty Tucker faced early in her career, and her later support for black artists like Smith.

Bougerol and pianist / bandleader Evan Palazzo met in 2007 after they both answered a Craigslist ad about a jazz jam session above a Manhattan noodle shop. Palazzo passed her litmus test – he knew Fats Waller’s “Your Feet’s Too Big” and could play it off the top of his head. Since then they have been increasing the size of the ensemble; it’s presently a hot eight-piece. Perhaps most inventively, the band includes a tap dancer, A. C. Lincoln, who intentionally plays the part of a percussionist more than a dancer. He favors the earlier, heavier style of tap called “hoofing,” which fits in perfectly with the Sardines’ highly rhythmic, hard-swinging sound.

Bougerol was born in France and injects the occasional French-language vocal into the mix, regardless of whether the song was originally in French or not. This sort of playful irreverence forms a central part of the band’s aesthetic, showing up in Palazzo’s frisky fugue-like intro to “Comes Love,” and in Bougerol’s discoursing on the “single-entendre” metaphors that blues singers used for dirty or “hokum” songs. They then launch into the hokum classic “Jelly Roll” with bouncy abandon. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Beth Leavel

Despite this cabaret act being named “It’s Not About Me,” throughout Beth Leavel greatly relishes telling stories of her own long Broadway career. She barrels through it all with the ferocious commitment and incisive comic energy for which she’s most known.

She’s currently in between her much-loved turn playing Broadway diva Dee Dee in The Prom and creating the role of Miranda Priestly in Elton John’s musical version of The Devil Wears Prada. She opens with the song from The Prom which gives the act its title, blowing the roof off of Feinstein’s / 54 Below from the very beginning. Then she marries belting with a warm sense of welcoming in her take on Cole Porter’s “I Get A Kick Out Of You” the “you” in this case very clearly being the audience. In a typical pairing of sincerity with wisecracking, she notes she wants the show to feel like we’re all sitting around drinking in her living room – and then says that since everybody’s drinking we’re halfway there.

There are only about nine songs in the show, much of which she gives over to backstage stories told with much hilarity. Not only Broadway stories, but stories from regional theatre, where she has done such great roles as Dolly Levi and Mama Rose. And does she sing songs from those great roles? Oh yes she does, oh boy does she ever! I’m not going to tell you which ones; I’d rather you go “oh no she isn’t!” just like I did. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Clint Holmes and Billy Stritch with The Christian Tamburr Trio

Cabaret legend Billy Stritch has teamed with jazz singer Clint Holmes for an act at the Birdland Theater entitled “Straighten Up and Fly Right” which pays tribute to the great Nat “King” Cole. Given this combination of performers, it’s not a surprise that the show is jazzy as heck. Pianist / vibraphonist Christian Tamburr and his trio up the jazz ante further still, at one point leaving Tamburr chuckling “so many notes, so many notes!”

Every arrangement, most of them by Tamburr, are wonderfully complex but leave a lot of room for spontaneity from any or all parties. They open with a swinging version of “Straighten Up and Fly Right” which relies heavily on the marvelous way Stritch and Holmes’s voices blend, especially when they harmonize. They harmonize a lot over the course of the evening, sometimes on an equal footing, sometimes as backup for each other, always to good effect.

Clint Holmes has established himself as a cabaret artist of great intelligence. He has been a Las Vegas performer for decades, 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. Stritch has a lot to do in the show, but Holmes has the lion’s share of solo singing, a wonderful thing, especially in those moments when he has his sensitive way with Cole’s more famous ballads.

Stritch’s part of the evening is more of the infotainment variety of cabaret, which I very much mean as a compliment. He unearths some of Cole’s more obscure numbers, and gives them nuanced, memorable readings. Together, they make very high end cabaret. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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