Review: Midnight at the Never Get

This show is a “memory” musical, in much the same sense that The Glass Menagerie is a “memory” play. Singer Trevor (Sam Bolen), shows us his young self, in the early- to mid-1960s, when he was in love with a young pianist / composer named Arthur (Jeremy Cohen). And like memory, what Trevor shows us is unreliable: was Arthur a an idealist or an opportunist? Was Trevor the love of Arthur’s life? His muse? Something else altogether?

It’s seen through the lens of the act they did together in the back room of a gay bar, the titular Never Get. Mark Sonnenblick’s emotional music and elegant lyrics hearken back to the Great America Songbook, giving Arthur’s songs a distinctive voice. One thing Trevor does remember clearly was Arthur’s passion for Porter, Gershwin and so forth, and the feeling that this kind of music was getting lost in the rise of rock and roll.

Bolen is quite appealing as the love-struck Trevor, and sings Sonnenblick’s compositions with a tenderness well suited to the story. He’s also capable of a très gay élan for the evening’s lighter moments. Jeremy Cohen plays piano and acts with great ease and sophistication. Orchestrator Adam Podd has arranged the songs for a medium sized band with a horn section, and they sound more like an ensemble at the chic Blue Angel than a place like the Never Get – which serves both the story and the music very well indeed. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Head Over Heels

It’s an ancient and powerful idea that the ultimate “safe space” for queer people is the wilds of nature, the “pastoral” landscape. We can go all the way back to the Idylls of Theocritus around 300 BCE, which are rife with shepherds falling for pretty boys. In Shakespeare, the meeting of love and gender fluidity often happens in the forest. For the pastoral’s continued power, you only have to look at the way that queers have latched on such sentiments in Bernstein & Sondheim’s “Somewhere”: “There’s a place for us / Somewhere a place for us / Peace and quiet and open air / Wait for us somewhere.” To say nothing of Dorothy telling Toto: “Somewhere, over the rainbow / Skies are blue / And the dreams that you dare to dream / Really do come true.”

Well, the ever-witty Jeff Whitty (bookwriter of Avenue Q and Jake Shears’s Tales of the City) had the bright idea to take one of the most event-packed pastoral romances ever written in the English language, Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia, and pair it with the music of one of the greatest all-female rock bands of all time, The Go-Go’s. Sidney’s romance takes its name from a bucolic region from Greek mythology – where, incidentally, all of Theocritus’s horny shepherds frolicked. Whitty has taken considerable liberties with Sidney’s intricate plot, generally to the purpose of giving the winning hand to the women, the transgender and the androgynous.

You can take it all as a silly, happy, perky joyride, and have a perfectly good time. Whitty is a master of both satisfying theatrical structure and the one-liner, and the Go-Go’s spiky guitar pop hits just the right tone. But it’s deeper and more subversive than that. Classical comedies always end in marriages. While some couplings at the end of Head Over Heels are nominally heterosexual, none retain classical or even traditional gender roles. Plus the chorus boys are encouraged – by the way they are styled and Spencer Liff’s fleet-footed choreography – to be just as pretty, fey and gay as the ones in Theocritus.

The cast is consistently superb. The most plum roles in the show are the ones that have the richest gender story, and the people in those roles make a full meal of them. Bonnie Milligan is a hoot as buxom beauty Pamela finding her hidden desires. Andrew Durand, as doofy shepherd Musidorus, is both hilarious and touching when he dons Amazon garb to pursue the hand of his aristocratic lady love. Rachel York is every inch the fierce ruling royal as Queen Gynecia. Most fabulous of all is Drag Race Peppermint as the oracle Pythio. She is the first trans woman in a lead on Broadway, and the way Whitty plays Pythio’s story out gives her ample opportunity to be both over-the-top and moving. She handles it with all the sass and grace which made her such a fan favorite. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Carmen Jones

Once Anika Noni Rose starts her sultry take on “Dat’s Love” (to the melody of “Habanera” from Bizet’s opera Carmen), you know at least one thing: this Classic Stage Company revival of Oscar Hammerstein’s Carmen Jones is going to be an evening of beautiful music, beautifully sung. Not in a purely operatic way, but in that style sometimes called “legit,” somewhere between opera and musical comedy.

In adapting Bizet’s opera for the Broadway stage, Hammerstein moved the action from early 19th Century Spain to the American South during World War II. In Hammerstein’s version, Carmen (Rose) is a passionate but fickle and reckless parachute factory worker who desires – and is desired by – many men, including an airman and a prizefighter.

While I’m a great aficionado of opera, I’ve always been ill at ease with the pervasive misogyny and toxic masculinity in the repertoire. Carmen is a big offender in this area, with men vying to possess Carmen, and Carmen herself being portrayed as a “man-eater.” Hammerstein, one of the most humane writers in American literature, helps matters greatly with his more sympathetic portrayal of all involved, but that only makes her murder by the one she loved most all the more senseless, and not “tragic” in any larger sense. Still, the music is irresistible, and it’s hard not to be charmed by Hammerstein’s warmth and wit.

John Doyle’s direction is well within his minimalist, story-centric approach. Sometimes things get a little too still for my taste, but that also means when Bill T. Jones choreography bursts through it’s all the more powerful. It’s finally Rose’s show, though, and she is magnificent. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: My Fair Lady

Bartlett Sher directing tasteful yet thoughtful revivals of “Golden Age” musicals at Lincoln Center’s Beaumont Theatre – by this point it’s definitely “a thing.” This time Sher has turned his sights on Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady. Based on Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, the plot goes like this: When self-important phonetics expert Henry Higgins bets his colleague that he can teach a Cockney flower girl to act and speak like a lady, he gets more than he bargained for: Eliza Doolittle provokes his interest, his anger, and ultimately, his passion.

This astutely executed My Fair Lady is yards closer to Shaw’s witty spirit and proto-feminist point of view than any other production I’ve seen. Pygmalion presents a much pettier Higgins than is found in the My Fair Lady book, and a much more self-possessed Eliza – and Sher leans toward that every chance he gets.

The excellent Harry Hadden-Paton (Bertie on Downton Abbey) is central in this approach: his Higgins captures all of the man’s childishness and prejudice, which makes his rare moments of kindness all the more startling. Lauren Ambrose is a fittingly strong-willed and vocally expressive Eliza. The most showstopping performance, however goes to Norbert Leo Butz, who fills Eliza scoundrel father Alfred with pointed glee. He really brings the house down with his delivery of “Get Me To The Church on Time” positively bursting with kinetic energy.

There’s always a great danger that My Fair Lady might play as romanticizing what essentially is a manipulative, borderline abusive relationship – that certainly happened in the film version. That is far from Shaw’s original intention, and Sher has largely succeeded in saving My Fair Lady from its worst impulses. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Mean Girls

One of my favorite things about the stage musical adaptation of the film Mean Girls is just how much gayer conceiver and bookwriter Tina Fey has made the character of Damian Hubbard (Grey Henson), who now enters wearing an Alyssa Edwards t-shirt emblazoned with the word “beast” (thank you costume designer Gregg Barnes, for always going the extra gay glam mile). The new dialogue Fey has given him gives teeth to the assertion by his goth gal pal Janis Sarkisian (Barrett Wilbert Weed) that Damien is “too gay to function.” He even gets to lead a showstopping tap number to open the second act!

Since Fey’s adapting her own screenplay – and since she is one of the canniest living writers of comedy – Damien’s increased luminosity is only one of several improvements on the film. Fey quite rightly adds social media elements to her tale of high-school status-seeking, to appropriately toxic effect. Casey Nicholaw is exactly the right director-choreographer for this material, with crack timing in the books scenes and bristling energy in the dance numbers.

Nicholaw also assembled a truly stellar design team: scenic designer Scott Pask delivered my favorite innovation: a enormous stage-spanning half-circle cyclorama exclusively devoted to providing a canvas for the vivid, imaginative video design of Finn Ross and Adam Young. There’s nothing about the “cyc” that says Mean Girls, that work is done entirely by projection. A similar setup would be really terrific for doing shows in rotating repertory – what a great idea!

This is a show where you do go out singing the book scenes, but not in a bad way – it’s just as entertaining and smart as the film. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Frozen

Bringing to the stage something as spectacular as the Disney animated musical Frozen – an instant classic if there ever was one – is a singular challenge. Thank goodness that the film’s creative team created a very solid thematic and structural basis. There’s Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez’s earworm-packed music and lyrics (anybody wanna build a snowman…or just, let it go?). And then there’s Jennifer Lee’s imaginative screenplay, which very effectively satisfies expectations and defies them in equal measure.

For the stage version, thank goodness once again: the Lopezes and Lee have more than ably filled out their score and book. Lee has added detail to the relationship between royal sisters Elsa (a closeted ice sorceress) and Anna (a sheltered adventure seeker), and dimension to the imaginary Northern kingdom of Arendelle which they will one day rule.

In the new songs, the Lopezes have largely maintained the high quality of their film score. The biggest winner among the newbies is “Hygge,” the “charm song” / production number that opens the second act. It’s as delightfully loopy as any Mel Brooks showstopper, with sauna-centric choreography by Rob Ashford that gleefully recalls burlesque. Stephen Oremus works his usual magic with the orchestrations, giving this version a more specifically Scandinavian flair while pulling out all the stops when needed.

But any take on Frozen stands or falls on its Elsa. Caissie Levy is the one called to “Let It Go” in the glorious anthem of female self-empowerment that’s the show’s breakout hit. She’s got the high notes and the emotional heft needed, and she’s given a lift from an astonishing costume change from designer Christopher Oram and icily brilliant lighting from Natasha Katz. The rest of the cast are all just as excellent, especially Patti Murin who plays Anna with great warmth and comic ingenuity.

As always I have a smattering of issues. Does every major character have to have a heartfelt ballad in Act II? I mean it’s not a big enough problem to constitute proper “second act trouble” but it makes for some slight drag. Also, many of the theatrical tricks director Michael Grandage uses to make the Frozen magic are old-fashioned; which wouldn’t be a problem at all, really, except a small handful of them feel old-fashioned.

These are the merest of quibbles, and if you loved Frozen the film, you’ll find much to enjoy in Frozen: The Broadway Musical. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: SpongeBob SquarePants

I’m aware of the popular Nickelodeon cartoon on which this musical is based, but not exactly familiar with it. I’ve gotten a good giggle or two watching a few minutes of this gleefully surreal show, but before seeing this adaptation, I wouldn’t have been able to name a single character outside of the titular lead. So there are a fair number of inside jokes here that went right over my head. That said, I found this relentlessly silly and colorful show irresistibly enjoyable.

In SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical, the whole of Bikini Bottom, our hero’s beloved home town, is endangered by a nearby volcano on the verge of erupting. SpongeBob and his intrepid friends fight daunting odds to save the day.

I knew this would be something special when I found out that Tina Landau was directing. Landau is one of a small number of directors who have successfully applied an avant-garde background to commercial theatre work. Puppets, projections and stage tricks are used liberally but judiciously, and so are breathtakingly simple staging strategies that communicate complex moments. The end result is a fun-house ride of a show that celebrates optimism and imagination.

The entire cast works tirelessly, none more so than SpongeBob himself, Ethan Slater. Slater is compact, flexible and well-built, so much so that a friend of mine has taken to calling him SpongeBob HotPants. He also has boundless energy and cheer, which suits the role to a T. Also magnificent is Gavin Lee as SpongeBob’s sourpuss coworker Squidward, especially when tapping the living daylights out of Christopher Gatelli’s kinetic choreography for “I’m Not A Loser.” Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Christmas Spectacular Starring the Radio City Rockettes

I’ve lived in New York for a long time and I’ve never seen the Christmas Spectacular Starring the Radio City Rockettes. I mean, sure, I’ve seen the Rockettes in other settings – I even saw the summertime New York Spectacular they did at Radio City a while back. But never the Christmas Spectacular itself. This year I decided to remedy that situation.

It is everything I had hoped. It is first and foremost spectacular, driven by the amazing unison dancing of the Rockettes themselves, but hugely abetted by Radio City’s stunning hydraulics system and dazzling projections by Obscura Digital and batwin + robin. It is also unapologetically schmaltzy and sentimental, but all that sweetness is cut by a strain of jazziness – both in the music and dancing – that runs throughout. The sheer virtuosity of all involved also elevates it above mere treacle.

Of course the Rockettes are the star of the show. The opening number “Santa’s Reindeer” totally whets the appetite for what follows. Highlights include a “Here Comes Santa Claus” number where Santas keep multiplying – I’m thinking the entire adult company suited up for this one – and a finale satisfyingly full of high kicks. Some of the best numbers, though, are some of the oldest ones: “Parade of the Wooden Soldiers” which has been a part of the show largely unchanged since 1933, a “Living Nativity” which has evolved considerably from that time to this, and a somewhat newer but still classic delight called “Rag Dolls” which at one point features a teddy bear in a pink tutu.

Director/choreographer Julie Branam has pulled together a daunting number of elements and collaborators to put together an extravaganza that can hold its head up in the tradition of Rockettes’ legendary holiday-season shows. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: The Band’s Visit

There is much being said about how innovative The Band’s Visit is, but I think it draws its strength from the ways in which it is very traditional. This musical marries very traditional musical theatre structure, courtesy of Itamar Moses’s sturdy book, and traditional Egyptian classical music, whose roots go back well over a thousand years. To be totally accurate, maybe only half of David Yazbek’s marvelous score is Egyptian classical, with the other half is a gleefully eclectic mix, including the cabaret-ready cool jazz “Haled’s Song About Love.”

The Band’s Visit follows an Egyptian police band that specializes in Egyptian classical, as they get lost on their way to a gig at an Arabic Cultural Center in Israel. With no bus until morning and no hotel in the small town where they are stranded, locals take the musicians in for the night.

Their interactions open up emotional issues for all involved, especially with the tentative yet still intense flirtation between band leader Tewfiq (Tony Shaloub) and local café owner Dina (Katrina Lenk). Dina, you see, is a big fan of Egyptian culture, especially classical chanteuse Umm Kulthum and movie star Omar Sharif, so Tewfiq is a natural focus of fascination for her. Similarly the band’s resident Casanova, the Chet Baker-worshiping Haled (Ari’el Stachel), helps awkward teen Papi (Etai Benson) approach a girl he likes (in between putting the moves on the limited population of single women in the town).

Though the ensemble work is terrific, with Lenk and Shaloub the definite stand outs, the real star here is David Yazbek’s masterful score. He shows that he can create beautiful, affecting music in any idiom he sets his mind to, while never losing sight of the need for theatrical effectiveness. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Prince of Broadway

I am, in some ways, this show’s ideal audience: an ambitious director / choreographer looking for inspiration from Harold Prince, one of the most successful Broadway directors ever. That makes me not only more attentive to details in his dramaturgy, staging and transitions, but also more forgiving of moments where he trades depth for clarity, or sacrifices complexity for more broadly comprehensible insights.

Because, you see, Prince of Broadway, a retrospective revue of Prince’s Broadway work, has come in for some – I think unfair – critical drubbing since its opening. Other critics have seen it as disorganized and shallow, where I would argue it is neither of these things.

It follows a largely chronological ordering of numbers from Prince’s storied career. The only times Prince (who also directed here) fiddles with the timeline is when a song from slightly earlier in his career makes a better transition or section finale. Which I think is very smart when it comes to structuring a show for an audience concerned with being carried away by a theatrical experience, rather than niceties of opening night dates and the like. In other words, the general Broadway audience that Prince has always been so brilliant at speaking to, pushing them as far as he feels he can get away with, and no further – which has been far enough to establish him as a stunningly prolific innovator.

Also, transitions between numbers are governed by what makes more sense in that particular moment. Sometimes you want to know what happened next for Prince, sometimes following a thematic trail directly into another song from another show makes more sense.

Plus, when those songs are delivered by performers this good, almost nothing else matters. Karen Ziemba totally redefines “So What” from Cabaret with a paradoxically luminous rage. Emily Skinner simultaneously and amazingly celebrates and erases Elaine Strich’s legendary take on “Ladies Who Lunch” from Company. And Tony Yazbeck tearing “The Right Girl” from Follies to shreds is worth the price of admission all by itself.

Speaking of “The Right Girl,” that is a number where choreographer / co-director Susan Stroman’s work shines particularly bright. From the waist down, Yazbek’s energetic tap dance is pure exuberance; from the neck up his face is wracked with agony. This split between dancing and acting in one dancer’s body is pure Stroman. Recomended.

For tickets, click here.

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