Review: Betty Buckley

From beginning to end, Betty Buckley interprets every song with the subtle nuance born of long experience, both in song and life. She had wanted to center her return to the Cafe Carlyle on the Rodgers & Hart classic “My Romance”, but then ruefully (and comically) noted that if she worked solely from her own experience “that would be too dark for this lovely room.” So with that she decided on doing a more general show about “romantic notions, although it will go dark a little.” More on that shortly.

In accordance with Buckley’s sophisticated, multifaceted approach to the concept of romance, musical director Christian Jacob’s arrangements are complex and lush. Before she’s even introduced the subject of romance, they’ve rendered a gorgeous version of Sting’s meditation on human impermanence, “Fragile”.

But she does indeed keep the front part of the show light, with a super-jazzy rendition of the aforementioned Rodgers & Hart standard, and a story about how thrilled she was to be cast in the original production of Pippin. She had always wanted to be a Fosse show – and then disappointingly discovered she would only be doing one very simple piece of choreography. Which of course leads to Jerome Kern’s “I Won’t Dance”.

She shades darker with Sondheim’s passionate “Not a Day Goes By” but only does the more youthful less-heartbroken lyrics. Then she does Dylan’s break-up song “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” which is more philosophical than sad. The real darkness comes when she covers young singer-songwriter Jensen McRae’s harrowing but beautiful #MeToo ballad “Wolves” which Betty performs with a delicacy that makes the song even more poignant.

She buoys us up with with Abbey Lincoln’s worldly-wise account of the ups and downs of romance “Throw It Away”. I’ve long seen Betty Buckley’s voice as one more instrument (a very powerful one) in an ultra-tight jazz ensemble, and that is as true as ever, in the best way. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Jeff Harnar

A gay New York man who goes through “Living Alone and Liking It,” but later has thoughts of marriage, who spends nights both in glittering boîtes and sketchy dives, who has great sex, but also bad breakups that lead to murderous thoughts – does any of this sound familiar? Some of it does to me, and I’m sure some of you know a thing or two about these experiences. To quote singer Jeff Harnar about his new act and album I Know Things Now:“The words and music are Stephen Sondheim’s, but the story is mine.” It’s a very relatable story, told with much cleverness.

If you don’t know Sondheim, it’s still a wild ride from a fantastic singer and interpretive artist. But for a Sondheim fan like me it’s even more fun. Harnar often intjects references to songs he doesn’t even sing, like saying his evasive lover has gone to Barcelona (the title of a song from Company) in the middle of “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” from the same show. Some of the songs are a bit obscure, some are “Old Friends” (a song from Merrily We Roll Along).

I was particularly entertained by his mashup of “Buddy’s Blues” and “Sorry Grateful” which clearly depicted someone getting drunk at a gay bar – I don’t quite understand why the negative lines in “Buddy’s Blues” (and there are a lot of them) were delivered in the voice of Jimmy Durante, but it was in any event an amusingly absurd choice. His “breakup song” version of “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd” is one of the most terrifying renditions I’ve ever heard. Instead of depicting a figure out of horror, it relates the much more familiar feeling of wanting your loathsome ex dead. Eeek!

The album I Know Things Now – which has a 20 piece orchestra in place of the excellent jazz trio in the show – is out now on PS Classics. Both the show and album are highly recommended.

To buy the album, click here.

For tickets, click here.

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

News: Nasty Nellie is an April Fool

Best known as TV’s brattiest prankster, the acid-tongued, pre-Midol meanie Nellie Oleson from Little House on the Prairie, Alison Arngrim presents Nasty Nellie is an April Fool, a special April Fool’s Day themed edition of her critically acclaimed solo show Confessions of a Prairie B.i.t.c.h. In it she offers a wickedly funny blend of storytelling and stand-up about life as everyone’s favorite toxic pre-teen brat, complete with petticoats and ringlets. Never afraid to dish the dirt on TV behind the scenes, she lets all the Little House on the Prairie secrets loose, verifies Hollywood gossip, reveals tales about her showbiz family, and much more. Fans are invited to ask questions and interact with one another as well. Running time is 30 minutes. May include language inappropriate for children under 13.

Nasty Nellie is an April Fool will be presented live at StageIt.com on Thursday, April 1 at 8pm EST / 5pm PST. Tickets are $10, available at www.SpinCycleNYC.com.

Review: Brian Stokes Mitchell

This show is both richly emotional and musically intricate and sophisticated, which perfectly serves Brian Stokes Mitchell’s stage persona. It’s also very playful, as it’s title “Plays With Music” suggests. It’s also somewhat lush, augmenting a jazz quartet, led by Ted Firth, with a string quartet.

He opens with “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” with just enough spikiness in the string section to remind you that show biz ain’t always easy. That spikiness was heightened even more, to bracing and funny effect, for the number “Gesticulate” from Kismet, which Stokes put fully over the top with appropriately grand gestures.

The next couple of numbers, sung in a medley, are all about deep feelings coupled with equally deep ambivalence. His version of “By Myself” from The Band Wagon is the grandest I’ve heard this side of Judy Garland’s epic rendition. The other song in the medley, “I Won’t Send Roses” from Mack & Mabel, is about an unromantic man warning someone he’s no prize when it comes to love. Stokes plays it with such precision that every bit of melancholy becomes achingly clear.

For “The Man I Love,” Mitchell touchingly “plays gay,” portraying a lonely guy yearning for love – he gives it an almost adolescent innocence. He follows that up by playing several different characters in Company‘s “Getting Married Today,” including the wigged out bride-not-to-be Amy, who sings some of Sondheim’s fastest, trickiest lyrics, which Stokes dashes of with aplomb.

He wraps the act by taking a turn towards optimistic patriotism, which he sees as an important tonic to the dark forces working in today’s world. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Marilyn Maye

This lady hits the stage like a ball of fire! Ella Fitzgerald once called Marilyn Maye “the greatest white female singer in the world.” That’s no exaggeration; she may be the only singer alive who combines a great vocal instrument with interpretative flair and savoir faire equal to Ella’s own. There are younger singers who might posses more powerful voices but I can think of no other singer who possesses Maye’s combination of interpretive ability, rhythmic verve, and vocal range – at 89, her voice is the envy of singers 50 years her junior.

This “saloon singer” has a fantastic rapport with her audience, singing them beloved songs from a startlingly wide variety of genres. These shows at the Metropolitan Room take full advantage of this facet of her talent. Marilyn asks her audience to pick her “Marilyn By Request” set list by making song suggestions when making their reservations. It makes for an evening filled with surprises, and plenty of energy from both sides of the footlights.

Musical director Ted Firth is the perfect match for this footloose kind of approach, combining a broad knowledge of popular music with snappy, sophisticated jazz chops. Maye exquisitely tailors her style of singing to the individual song, smooth for the ballads, swinging for the standards, and truly gritty for the bluesier numbers. And always, always fully at home in – and totally committed to – the music.

Maye appeared on Johnny Carson’s edition of “The Tonight Show” a total of 76 times, a record not likely ever to be beaten by any other singer with any other host. If you love songs of every kind sung like they’re meant to be sung, it just doesn’t get any better than this.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Marcos Valle & Celso Fonseca

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 trio 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 duets with a Brazilian singer / songwriter from the generation following Valle’s, Celso Fonseca. In contrast to Valle’s infectious brio, Fonseca emanates a wry laid-back quality that is described by his signature tune “Slow Motion Bossa Nova.” The two compliment each other surprisingly well, Valle energizing Fonseca, Fonseca contributing witty color to Valle’s drive. They made an album together in 2009, Página Central, and the instrumental selections from that album are the evening’s most fiery moments, taking as much from the funkier end of disco as from Brazilian music. 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.