Review: John Pizzarelli

John Pizzarelli, top exponent of cabaret’s jazzier side, gives us a show in tribute to jazz piano great George Shearing, who was known for his urbane sound and light, genteel touch – much as Mr. Pizzarelli is today. This show at Birdland Jazz Club opens with “Lullaby of Birdland”, a jazz standard which Shearing composed as the theme for a live broadcast from the club in 1952.

John plays guitar in an amazingly fluid and elegant style, with nonpareil mastery of a technique called “guitar harmonics” that produces high notes of extraordinary expressiveness. He outdid himself with this technique in “A Shine on Your Shoe”: he had me wondering “where is that violin? Where are those bells?” All these impersonations of other instruments accomplished with harmonics. Stunning.

Pizzarelli brilliantly interprets music in many ways. He has a particular genius for chordal improvisations, finding hidden musical meanings in the most familiar of standards. Also, as a singer John is very sensitive to the multiple meanings a good lyric can have, and has an uncanny ability to communicate several at once. Both qualities are ideal when assaying Shearing’s repertoire.

It’s not that surprising for Pizzarelli to do a show exclusively devoted to the memory of George Shearing. Their styles align very naturally, and in fact they recorded an album together in 2002, The Rare Delight of You. As always, John performs with astonishing elan and profound musical intelligence. Neither jazz nor cabaret gets much better than this. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Company

Easily the best thing I’ve seen since live performance returned to New York, it’s no surprise that this is that good. First, it’s one of Stephen Sondheim’s very best musicals. Then it’s Marianne Elliott in the director’s chair, and she’s is probably the only stage director whose work manages to surprise me every 10 minutes. And then this cast! A troupe headlined by talents Katrina Lenk and Patti LuPone that includes exceptionally talented actors such as Claybourne Elder and Christopher Fitzgerald in ensemble roles? You just can’t go wrong.

It is so satisfying that this production of Company is as good in fact as it looks on paper. Elliott had the brilliant idea or changing the bachelor Bobby of the original production into bachelorette Bobbie. As well, she has set the production in the present day, not 1970. Both choices illuminate the musical in ways that are truly fresh.

The male Bobby was always a bit opaque, perhaps a little dull even. Bobbie on the other hand, has more interesting issues: does she want to give up her hard-fought freedom? How much does she really want to be a mother? (There’s even a whole “baby” dream ballet, truly haunting, almost a nightmare). The stakes are significantly higher, and Lenk brilliantly plays every moment.

Elliott’s staging is her usual neon-tinged phantasmagoria which suits this show to a T, giving the whole matter a “Bobbie in Wonderland” feel – as non-linear as the musical itself. As the gimlet-eyed alcoholic matron Joanne, Patti LuPone delivers her trademark razor-sharp timing to fantastic effect. Another brilliant change finds “Amy” changed to “Jamie” a gay man about to marry his long-time boyfriend. Matt Doyle is neurotic perfection in the role, delivering one of Sondheim’s most difficult songs “I’m Not Getting Married Today” with dazzling precision and virtuosity.

I don’t think I could recommend a show more highly than I recommend this one. Truly a must-see.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Norm Lewis

This guy really loves putting on a Christmas show, actually more of a party to hear Mr. Lewis tell it. More of a hootenanny really, with different special guests each night. The night I went one of the guests was Joel Crump, a young alum of Kristin Chenoweth’s Broadway Boot Camp, whose rendition of Donnie Hathaway’s “This Christmas” was both charming and charismatic. The other guest was Norm’s cousin, Pastor Bobby Lewis of New Light Baptist Church. Bobby’s given name is Rudolph, so of course they sang “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”, and Bobby also did a heartfelt “What A Wonderful World”. (The remaining show on Christmas Eve will feature Julie James, Honey Beavers and Peter Dager).

Lewis is correct: his show is as festive as a party. In the spirit of his own favorite singer, Johnny Mathis, Norm Lewis’s show leans into holiday fun and warmth. It’s not an entirely shallow show – there are dark shadows here and there, especially Marvin Gaye’s socially-conscious “What’s Goin’ On” – but Lewis lays emphasis on Christmas’s pleasures and joys.

And it’s not strictly a Christmas show. Lewis greets the audience while the band played the tune of “Tornado” from The Wiz. Lewis favors the audience with powerful belting several times throughout the evening in showcases like “Home” (also from The Wiz). He also does “The Little Drummer Boy” which in and of itself is a song I don’t love, but music director Joseph Joubert’s arrangement gives it wonderful new life, especially percussionist Perry Cavari’s magnificent playing on a Doumbek drum.

Many of the above songs are available on his Christmas CD The Norm Lewis Christmas Album (available for sale in the lobby!). He closes with the groovy “Why Couldn’t It Be Christmas Every Day” which Mariah Carey was offered but didn’t record. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: To Build A Soul (Justin Elizabeth Sayre)

Justin Elizabeth Sayre – the long-term chairman of “The International Order of Sodomites” – is back in town! This time with a solo autobiographical show detailing his life-long love affair with the theatre. In Sayre’s own words “Written during the pandemic, To Build a Soul is a love letter to the theatre if I never made it back. For the last two years, like so many artists, I wondered if we would ever make it back. If I would ever be able to return to the magic trick of live performance, to which I have dedicated most of my life. If I had one last chance, if I had one more try to stand on a stage and tell my story, what story would I tell? What would I want people to know? To Build a Soul, is that. A sort of farewell, and a call to the future all in one. Plus laughs, because, my god, I think we all need them.”

As such, this is more impassioned and has higher stakes than the kind of storytelling “stand up” Sayre became noted for in his wildly popular variety show The Meeting* (they returns to the variety format in January with the even queerer Assorted Fruit at Joe’s Pub). Sayre occasionally waxes poetic in this piece, though their sassy sissy wit is never far away. His tough yet femme persona remains in glorious effect, brassy as ever.

Sayre spends much time talking about feeling different as a child, including one occasion where a elementary school teacher labels them “too creative for his own good” in which, even though they were years away from puberty, they felt the underlying meaning of being “too faggot for your own faggot, faggot” (they also more objectively thought it was one of the stupidest things they’d ever heard). Performance, be it music or theatre, was Sayre’s saving grace from a very young age.

Sayre’s stories and thoughts are engaging at every turn. As always Sayre delivers a thoughtful but still very hilarious show I can happily highly recommend.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Trouble in Mind

It’s no accident that the cast of Trouble in Mind, a play, features musical theatre powerhouses like LaChanze and Chuck Cooper – music features prominently in the play, in both positive and negative ways. Alice Childress wrote this backstage drama in the mid-1950s; it follows rehearsalsfor Chaos in Belleville, a patronizing anti-lynching play written by a white author (never seen), and directed by a white man Al Manners (Michael Zegen), who fancies himself a genius, but turns out to be a talentless tyrannical hack.

The positive musical moments are singing for just the joy of it. The negative moments are stereotypical spirituals written into Chaos which Manners thinks he can coach his black cast members to do better. LaChanze plays leading actress Wiletta Mayer, the person who ends up locking horns with Manners the most, in spite of advising a young actor to keep his head down when dealing with “the man.”

Childress uses the intrigues of the rehearsal process to deeply delve into the psychology of race relations as they stood in the 1950s. While it’s clear that Trouble deals with serious themes, I should be clear that it is a very lively play, brimming over with humor and spirit. Cooper supplies a lot of the comic relief as Sheldon, an older actor for whom humor is a defense mechanism. All of the characters are three-dimensional, however, and as such Sheldon also gets a very emotional monologue about witnessing a lynching.

Trouble in Mind was an Off-Broadway success when it first appeared in 1955, and producers were interested in taking it to Broadway. They asked Childress to soften it, very ironic since major themes of the play include learning to stand up for yourself and ask the important questions. Childress predictably refused, and it has taken 66 years for it to finally arrive. It’s a very engaging play, emotionally and intellectually, and I’m so glad it’s here. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Christmas Spectacular Starring the Radio City Rockettes

This show first and foremost earns the right to be called 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: Thoughts of a Colored Man

This is a “slice of life in a neighborhood” play, let’s settle that first. And a pretty damn good one. Much was made in the marketing of elements of slam poetry, but there’s only a sprinkling of that here, like a splash of hot sauce. The neighborhood in question is a mostly black neighborhood in Brooklyn, where gentrification is encroaching, barbershops being replaced by Whole Foods and Paris Baguette.

At basis it is a love letter to the camaraderie of black men, symbolized by such barbershops. But Thoughts of a Colored Man is also rigorously critical of not only the daunting challenges created by systemic racism, but also the failings, individually and collectively, of black men. While the characters all have allegorical names like Love and Anger, they are actually finely etched characters who all have their good points and flaws – which is one the play’s great virtues.

While there are whiffs of toxic masculinity here and there, there is also an extraordinary moment when, in the key barbershop scene (one of the longest in the show), Lust (Da’Vinchi) tells a “fag joke” and is immediately rebuked by the shop’s long-time owner Wisdom (Esau Pritchett), allowing gay man Happiness (Bryan Terrell Clark), who is new to the neighborhood, to come out by the end of the scene.

Happiness gets a couple more scenes, one a monologue detailing the difficulties faced by a middle-class black man married to a white man, including “being too black for my white friends and too white for my black friends.” He also has a scene with Depression (Forrest McClendon), a man who studied to be a engineer but was forced by circumstance to take a low-paying job at Whole Foods.

All the actors are seriously impressive performers and director Steve H. Broadnax III’s staging is understated while still being very dynamic. 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 grit of swing revivalists like Big Bad Voodoo Daddy. Their repertoire tends to pre-1930 songs, popularized by the likes of Sophie Tucker. Lead singer Elizabeth Bougerol is openly committed to “infotainment,” letting us know that the smattering of Christmas songs they did this gig (all originated in the 1950s by Rat Packers) were going to be done “hot and gutbucket” a very 1920s phrase.

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 (they still do a scorching version). Since then they have been increasing the size of the ensemble; it’s presently a hot eight to nine-piece – depending on the night, and what friend is in town.

Perhaps most inventively, the band includes a tap dancer, DeWitt Fleming Jr., who intentionally plays the part of a percussionist more than a dancer. He conjured the very best of tap legend Gregory Hines. 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”, again partially presented in French. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Dana H

While actress Deirdre O’Connell expertly lip-syncs this entire show, this is galaxies away from, say, Lypsinka. O’Connell lip-syncs to recorded interviews of playwright Lucas Hnath’s mother Dana, regarding her harrowing experience being kidnapped by a murderously insane white supremacist in 1997 (Hnath edited the interviews into a cohesive hour-long piece). O’Connell is amazingly precise, down to every jangle of Dana’s bracelets, yet also brings a layer of expert acting to it that elevates the whole affair. Steve Cuiffo, the Lip Sync Consultant, must have a lock on that area of expertise – he has indeed been known to Lypsinka. He has certainly coached O’Connell well, she never misses a second.

Dana has long been a hospice chaplain in Florida, and in ’97 a suicidal Aryan Brotherhood member came under her care and became attached to her. Eventually he took her captive and tormented her for five months. Dana is quick witted and hardy, so her description of these events rarely descends into self pity. She is, if anything, oddly detached, which makes hearing about this horrible experience somewhat more bearable. But it becomes clear that she was truly powerless in a way she could not have understood before these events.

Director Les Waters stages the evening very minimally, with Dana mostly narrating events from a chair in a motel room (her captor essentially moved them from motel to motel). The moments that depart from that format are all the more effective because of the contrast with that simplicity. Mikhail Fiksel’s audio editing and sound design is truly a marvel. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: The Lehman Trilogy

Surprisingly brisk, this 3 plus hour drama follows the history of Lehman Brothers for as long an actual Lehman was involved, from 1844 (when Henry Lehman opened a fabric store in Montgomery, Alabama), to around 1969 (when the last Lehman family member to run the bank, Bobby, passed away). There is a brief coda about its decline and fall, but this is mostly the history of the Lehman family. It is a above all a portrait of “The American Dream.” It doesn’t shy away from that dream’s darker side: the brothers make their first fortune on the cotton trade, which at the time was driven by the historical crime of slave labor.

In a clever conceit, director Sam Mendes stages this saga in the offices of Lehman on the day before its 2008 collapse, projecting black and white imagery behind its glass walls to evoke the needed 19th and early 20th locales. Further, the three actors who play the founding brothers Henry (Simon Russel Beale), Emmanuel (Adrian Lester) and Mayer (Adam Godley) also play a host of other people as well. This causes some comedy when the stout, gray-bearded Beale plays a series of Lehman brides, who run the gamut from demure to deeply cynical.

The script, by Stephano Massimi (playwright) and Ben Powers (adapter), is comprised primarily of narration. These dexterous actors rather miraculously find ways to express action and emotion in the driest recitation of numbers and facts, which does a great deal to bring this story to vibrant life. Massimi has skillfully woven throughout the play thematic threads about bad dreams and ever-shortening periods of mourning for family members who pass away. The storytelling is uniformly crisp and exciting.

This so easily could have been tedious, but The Lehman Trilogy is tautly executed from beginning to end. This is the work of expert craftspeople and artists in every field of theatrical endeavor. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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