Review: Bright Colors and Bold Patterns

The laughs come fast and furious in Bright Colors and Bold Patterns, writer / performer Drew Droege’s monologue that bristles against the mainstreaming of gays. The character Droege portrays, Gerry, is a flashy and colorful sort, arriving at a pool party ahead of the wedding of his old friend Josh to the more conservative Brennan (we never meet any of these characters, we just hear Gerry’s opinion of them).

The wedding invitation says, “Please refrain from wearing bright colors or bold patterns,” which really steams Gerry. The play’s strongest thematic point is that gay marriage should not turn the bright rainbow of gay culture into something a whole lot more beige. Both Gerry and Droege have a stand-up comedian’s sense of how to most gleefully go for the jugular, which provides much of the show’s humor. Michael Urie, currently starring in the marvelous Off-Broadway revival of Torch Song, directs here with an assured hand, keeping things crisp and tight.

Gerry is “a hot mess,” and “a lot” for sure, but again the play’s point is being “a lot” should be celebrated, and “a hot mess” at least forgiven. This though, is where I have a quibble with the play. Gerry is finally a bit too self-pitying and cruel to make that point stick. If we are going to make the argument that the world needs our bright and bold gay color, wouldn’t it be better to have someone who exhausts you with their exuberance rather than their neediness and bitchiness? More Rip Taylor and less Paul Lynde I guess I’m saying.

It’s still largely a fun gay old time, however. Drew Droege has a wonderful way with witty one-liners, both writing them and delivering them. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

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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: Torch Song

Harvey Fierstein first became famous playing drag queen Arnold Beckoff, the central character in the play he wrote for himself, Torch Song Trilogy. As someone who covers a lot of gay theatre, most productions of this play I’ve seen make the mistake of casting someone in their 40s or 50s as Arnold, when Fierstein himself was in his 20s when he played the role. What a treat, then, to see Michael Urie, only in his 30s, perfectly cast in this fine revival.

Torch Song follows Beckoff from 1971 through 1980 as he negotiates finding love, and losing it. Instead of aping Fierstein’s gravely growl, Urie switches between his normal voice and, for added sissy sass, a variation on that cartoon queen Snagglepuss, even. His knack for comedy is wickedly sharp, especially in a hilarious backroom scene. He also plays less to Arnold tragic side, which oddly makes all the heartbreak he goes through that much sharper.

The last act is by far the juiciest part of the play, and Mercedes Ruehl makes a ferocious late entrance as Arnold’s mother. Also terrific is Michael Rosen as Arnold’s pretty younger boyfriend Alan, and Jack DiFalco as David, the smartass gay teen Arnold is planning to adopt. The production doesn’t get everything right – the design for 1971 looks and sounds like a few years later than that – but it gets very close. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

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.