Review: Jerry’s Girls

Can’t get tickets to Hello, Dolly? Well for the rest of this week, you can hear all of the major songs from that show sung beautifully, plus just about every other great song Dolly composer Jerry Herman wrote, in the York Theatre’s “Musicals in Mufti” presentation of Jerry’s Girls, a revue of Herman’s best, designed for a trio of women. “Mufti” refers to “everyday clothes,” and this series from the York presents worthy but neglected musicals of the past in something between a staged reading and a full production, in rehearsal clothes with script in hand, minimal rehearsal and no design elements.

The stellar trio in this production are Stephanie D’Abruzzo (Avenue Q), Christine Pedi (Forbidden Broadway) and Stephanie Umoh (Ragtime 2009 revival). Umoh gets the biggest solo of the evening towards the end – a smashing “I Am What I Am” from La Cage Aux Folles – but everybody stops the show at some point, D’Abruzzo with the wrenching “Time Heals Everything” from Mack and Mabel, Pedi with the comic gem “Gooch’s Song” from Mame.

Music Director and Pianist Eric Svejcar, a fine musical theatre composer in his own right, is very sensitive to the dramatic ebb and flow of the evening. So, too, is director Pamela Hunt, who has elegantly engineered entrances and exits with music stands on wheels (are those used in every “Mufti” production, I wonder?). All in all a terrific representation of the Herman songbook. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: The View UpStairs

On the basis of this show, Max Vernon is definitely a musical theatre songwriting talent to keep an eye on. The score is far and away the strongest part of The View UpStairs; it sounds like a mix of Jonathan Larson, Boy George’s Taboo and Marc Bolan at his glammiest, and that’s a pretty spicy musical gumbo. The show takes us to the UpStairs Lounge, a vibrant early 1970s gay dive bar in the French Quarter of New Orleans, which was the site of a terrible anti-gay attack – to learn more about it go see the show.

The book is a somewhat different story. Vernon also wrote the book, and as with most musical theatre books by songwriters, it’s the weakest link in the show. It’s not that Vernon lacks talent as a writer; some of his lyrics are very fine indeed. Plus the book gets the job done better than some, and has a few genuinely entertaining moments. Far too often, though, you can feel the story’s gears moving until we get into a song. The story is told through the eyes of a young gay guy from 2017 transported back to 1973, and – a handful of strong insights at the very end of the show aside – the device is more awkward than it is revealing.

Under Scott Ebersold’s canny and vigorous direction, the cast is uniformly fine and strongly committed to the show, which makes any problems much easier to take. The hearts of everybody involved are definitely in the right place. This is Vernon’s first Off-Broadway show, I truly can’t wait to see where he goes next. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: tick, tick…BOOM!

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This pop-rock musical gets most of its pungency from the score’s lively, inventive songs. tick, tick…BOOM! is also haunted by the fact that it’s an autobiographical musical from the late composer of Rent, Jonathan Larson. This gives the existential angst lead character Jonathan feels a particular edge.

tick, tick…BOOM! tells the story of an ambitious composer anxiously pondering where his career and life are headed as he approaches his 30th birthday. His girlfriend wants to get married and move out of the city, his best friend has found happiness switching from being an unsuccessful actor to a successful marketing exec, but Jonathan is still waiting on tables and trying to write the great American musical.

The score has tons of innate urgency, but director Jonathan Silverstein has smartly opted for a very grounded approach to the book scenes, creating more texture and variety. More than in previous productions, these are recognizable human beings. While in many ways tick, tick…BOOM! is undeniably a very ’90s period piece, the music is still sparklingly fresh, and the very talented cast – Nick Blaemire as Jonathan, George Salazar as his gay best friend, and Ciara Renée as his girlfriend – bring a new shine to Larson’s sophisticated vocal harmonies.

Larson’s crusade to bring rock into musical theatre doesn’t ring as urgently as it used to – in 2016 it’s a fait accompli and even a bit old-fashioned. But that’s thanks in no small part to Larson himself, and tick, tick…BOOM! reminds us what a nonpariel master of the rock musical he was. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Stuffed

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Fat, feminist, funny. In comedian Lisa Lampanelli’s first play Stuffed, it’s that last word that’s key. I’ve worked in feminist theatres, I’ve written for gay publications for a long time, so I can confirm that, just as the title of Susie Orbach’s 1978 landmark book says, Fat Is A Feminist Issue.

I’ve seen and worked on many shows that address how fat-shaming is used to oppress women, and how women negotiate their relationships with food and weight. Of all of them, Stuffed is far and away the funniest treatment of this important issue that I’ve ever seen, and that’s a very good thing.

Right from the beginning, director Jackson Gay’s staging lets us know that this is going to be a very presentational show, with the four women on stage sometimes talking to each other, and sometimes talking to the audience. At its most naturalistic, the play is a casual conversation between Lisa more or less playing herself in her home with guests bulimic Britney (Jessica Luck), confident overweight gal Stacey (Ann Harada), and chronically thin Katey (Zainab Jah).

It’s not surprising that a play by a stand-up comedian should be unafraid of using direct address, and the free flow between different modes of performance is one of the things that keeps the show moving at a brisk clip. Lampanelli occasionally even picks up a mic and goes into full stand-up mode.

The only major lull in the performance came when Lisa told the not always funny story of her relationship with a man considerably larger than herself. This story could have benefited from shifting from “stand up” to “monologue” perhaps even back into “realistic” dialogue. Having it all in mic’ed spotlight only served to point up how long it is.

But that’s a quibble. Some shows I’ve seen on this subject have been painful to sit through, but that is decidedly not the case with Stuffed. In addition to dealing humorously with the subject, Lampanelli writes with a light touch throughout. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: New York Spectacular

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If you love New York, there are a handful of lump-in-your-throat moments in the Rockettes’ New York Spectacular. Sure, they are rather baldly emotionally manipulative, but I for one didn’t care – I got the feeling that all of the creators of this extravaganza were sincere in their own love of the Big Apple, and that makes a big difference.

Of course the Rockettes have been famous for over 80 years for their Christmas Spectacular. New York Spectacular replaces Christmas with the city itself, to marvelous effect. Broadway scribe Douglas Carter Beane (Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella, Xanadu, The Nance) weaves a story of two tourist kids separated from their parents during a summer vacation. Beane hit upon the clever idea of having the statues of the city be the children’s guides. In particular Euan Morton is fantastic, in silver-toned voice as main guide Mercury (from the front of Grand Central Terminal).

But of course the Rockettes are the star of the show. Their first entrance is breathtaking, as they charge through jets of stage fog, marching rapidly forward with their signature precision. The whole opening number totally whets the appetite for what follows. Highlights include a “Singing in the Rain” number in Central Park, a Fashion Avenue tribute set to Madonna’s “Vogue” – which has the added pleasure of seeing the Rockettes in glitzy non-matching outfits by Emilio Sosa (Project Runway, Motown the Musical, The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess) – and a finale satisfyingly full of high kicks.

Stunning projections by Moment Factory add considerably to the all-over spectacle. Director/choreographer Mia Michaels has pulled together a daunting number of elements and collaborators to put together an extravaganza that can hold its head up high next to the Rockettes’ legendary holiday-season shows. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Turn Me Loose

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This deserves the widest audience possible! It’s both one of the most important and funniest shows I’ve seen in quite some time, and this is in a year that also included the especially pungent and humane The Humans. Named after the final words of civil rights leader Medgar Evers, Turn Me Loose is sharply focused on one of the sharpest wits and minds of the past hundred years, African-American comedian and activist Dick Gregory, played with equal parts panache and passion by Joe Morton.

One of the greatest talkers of his time, Gregory provides playwright Gretchen Law with abundant material, from both his stand up and his numerous speeches and interviews on behalf of the civil rights movement. She has successfully distilled it all down to only the funniest, pithiest and most visionary bits.

John Carlin plays a number of smaller roles ranging from hecklers to interviewers, starting out the show as a white comic opening for Gregory in the early 1960s, a very Borscht Belt “Take-my-wife-please” type. Law is very clever in having this brief “warm-up” act, to show what a marked contrast Gregory was to what came before him.

Turn Me Loose zig zags back and forth in time, mostly between the present (Gregory is still very much alive) and the height of his activist days, the 1960s. His work with the civil rights movement became so intense that one bit extracted from a 1968 stand up find him at a loss to find anything funny to say. Clearly he recovered, since the more contemporary material finds him in fine fettle, furious but still ferociously funny.

Gregory went on to become a bit of a conspiracy theorist, and Turn Me Loose largely skirts that side of him. The exception comes in those theories which time has proven to be true, such as the conspiracy to concentrate wealth in fewer and fewer hands, and the conspiracy of companies like Monsanto to always pursue profit over their customers’ health. This is truly essential viewing, and as such gets my highest recommendation.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Cagney

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As energetic and optimistic as its subject, this James Cagney bio-musical is fizzy fun with just enough seriousness to make it a satisfying tribute to the pugnacious movie star. The show is above all a vehicle for Robert Creighton, who physically resembles Cagney, and who – more importantly – shares Cagney’s charisma and fleeted-footed dancing ability.

Creighton also wrote a handful of songs in the show’s score, showing a gift for doing pastiches of corny 1920s vaudeville, the milieu where Cagney got his show-biz start. The remainder of the business-like score is mostly by Christopher McGovern. The climaxes of both acts are nearly century-old production numbers composed by George M. Cohan, who Cagney played in the 1941 movie musical Yankee Doodle Dandy.

Director Bill Castellino keeps the show moving at a sprightly clip. The creative team in general have made the smart decision to emphasize the singing and dancing hoofer Cagney over the silver screen tough guy. For one thing, that’s the way Cagney himself would have wanted it – he hated being typecast as a gangster – and for another, more singing and dancing is obviously going to make a more entertaining musical.

Which brings us to the choreography of Joshua Bergasse, which elevates the evening from fun to truly fabulous entertainment. Of course Cagney/Cohan-style tap dance “hoofing” is the order of the day, and the routines Bergasse gives the cast are truly riveting.

Sometimes I feel bookwriter Peter Colley setting up a scene for no other reason than requiring the character’s to tap dance – a cordial competition between Cagney and his friend Bob Hope (Jeremy Benton) springs to mind. But as long as the ensuing number is as exciting as these are, frankly I don’t give a damn. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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