Review: Ginger Minj

The Minj has genuine article musical theatre training and chops. Departing from previous showtune-heavy shows, however, she has made the move of structuring her new cabaret act Sweet T around a more rock oriented songlist, including a handful of autobiographical songs for which she wrote the lyrics.

Sweet T only features a handful of songs, with much more monologue and audience interaction. Ginger is a very engaging stage persona, so overall this is a good thing. Also, half the songs are ballads, which would be a problem if they followed close on each other, but matters less with story in between.

The act is in the very traditional mold of “this is my life” autobiographical cabarets, telling much the same story as her previous shows, but from an even more personal angle. It tracks Ginger’s life from a childhood in Southern Baptist Lake County, Florida to adventures in New York. There is lots of biting humor, and the “Glamour Toad” shows increased confidence throughout. The definite high point is a cover of Divine’s “You Think You’re A Man” – Ginger will apparently be playing the drag legend in new show next year.

There were a few more backstage stories from Drag Race, which is a part of what we want to hear, isn’t it? Ginger is a real show biz pro, and had the audience in the palm of her hand for the great majority of the evening. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Interview: Mark Nadler Curates New Cabaret Space

The man Stephen Holden of the New York Times has dubbed “Mr. Entertainment,” Mark Nadler is curating a new cabaret space, the Beach Café, on Second Avenue and East 70th Street. When asked to describe Mark’s unique cabaret personality, I always return to an image of him performing that’s burned in my memory. At one point during American Rhapsody a long-running Gershwin tribute he did with KT Sullivan, Nadler, in white tie and tails, leapt from floor to piano bench, tap-dancing madly, singing and keeping steady eye contact with the audience – all this while playing a complex passage on the piano without even glancing at the keys. The man sweats talent from every pore.

Many of the shows in the first few months at the Beach Café focus on the music of Cole Porter. To find out a little more about this new cabaret – and its ongoing tribute to one of the greatest gay composers and lyricists of the last century – I got in touch with Nadler, fresh off playing the Queen Mary II while it meandered through the fjords of Norway.

So what is the Beach Café? What kind of ambiance does it have? What’s on the menu?

The Beach Café is an Upper East Side watering hole with up-scale pub food (burgers, meatloaf, chicken parm, oysters, fish and chips, trout almandine, etc.). It’s been there for 49 years; a real neighborhood staple. It would feel like a pub, except that there are big windows everywhere, so it has a very pleasant, homey ambiance. For the cabaret, white tablecloths will replace their usual checkered gingham and lovely little lamps will be on each table. The best part — and our new innovation — is that at every table there will be a button which silently, wirelessly, calls your waiter when you want another drink or whatever. This way, waiters won’t have to make the rounds during the show to ask “can I get you another?” Because the place is small — it only seats 50 plus 8 at the bar — it’s imperative that the servers not distract from the performances and we think this will help a lot.

How did it come to be a cabaret space?

Dave Goodside who owns and runs the place contacted KT Sullivan at the Mabel Mercer Foundation, because he wanted to have music at his place to separate his place from other restaurants in the neighborhood. His idea was to have a piano bar type program, so KT asked me to met with him. (When she hears the word ‘piano’ she thinks of me…). I made it clear at our first meeting that I don’t do piano bars any more, but if he wanted to consider making it a show room, I would be happy to do a show there and when I’m not available (which is often), get other great performers to play the room.

So, you’re curating the cabaret, right? What’s your approach to that like?

Very simple: I only book acts that I would want to see. It’s all filtered through my taste level. I’ve chosen as many Algonquin artists as possible for the first season (August and September), because I want it to be clear that the level is going to be extremely high. The other thing that’s important to me is that it never be unaffordable. What I’ve come up with is a mathematical formula that allows the artists to be paid a decent amount while keeping the cover charge extremely low: $20.00 (as opposed to $60.00 which is what it cost to hear us at the Algonquin — and that was 7 years ago!). The trick is to not do one-offs or once-a-weeks, but to have them do entire weekends. This, of course, also means that I have to book people who are established enough to be able to fill the house three nights in a row.

What’s with all this Cole Porter on the schedule (not that I’m complaining, mind you)?

I’m a huge Cole Porter fan and, frankly so are most people who live on the Upper East Side. (Really — is there anyone who’s NOT a Porter fan??) Because the shows are so inexpensive, I thought it might be fun for the audience to compare how different performers take on the same subject. His catalog is so vast and excellent, that there are very few songs that are being repeated. I’m calling the series “Cole and Slaw at the Beach” and my original idea was to have every artist do “Cole” for their early show and “Slaw” for their late show (SLAW being a potpourri of whatever they want to sing). Most of the artists didn’t want to do 11:15 shows, so I’m doing all the late shows and I have half of the artists doing COLE and half doing SLAW.

How does your own Cole Porter show After Dark differ from the one you’ve done with KT Sullivan A Swell Party?

It’s entirely different. That show was as much about KT and me as it was about Cole. In this show I explore the difference between his list songs and his love songs and I get much more involved in his personal life, because so much of it jives with my personal experience. (A gay musician born in the Midwest who gets to New York and, eventually Europe to become a bon vivant, while working to be a serious artist at the same time. Sound familiar?) I do a lot of different songs than what KT and I did. As I say, he wrote so many amazing songs, there are dozens of Porter shows possible without repeating…

I know you like to “multi-track” your cabaret shows, structuring several layers of meaning in interlocking ways. What’s Mark Nadler’s subtext for After Dark — anything we should look out for?

The only thing I’ll tell you is that Cole Porter wrote a lot of his songs in the wee hours; that’s when the muse would court him. So, of course, there’s a literal meaning to the title. Also, we (the human race) tend to let our demons come out and play “after dark” and then, of course, there’s Porter’s uncanny ability to rally after unfathomable personal tragedy — so much of his work was written after ‘dark’ periods in his life. I have secret, personal associations with all of this… who doesn’t?

Ideally, would you want to curate multiple shows about other composers? If so, which ones?

I thought about maybe doing that, but it could get a little tired. If I did, however, I certainly would happily take on Gershwin, Rodgers, Dorothy Fields, Jerome Kern — but even as I say this, I’m thinking that sounds awfully “92nd St. Y” and they already have one of those on the Upper East Side. What I WILL do is try to come up with some theme for each season, just because I think that’s fun for the audience and I like to do crossword puzzles, if you know what I mean…

The main thing I want people to get about what I’m doing at the Beach is that I’m trying to create a place where you don’t have to know who’s performing there specifically, but that you can trust that whenever you go there you’ll hear someone who can really, really sing and perform doing exceptional work and you won’t have to break the bank to go. Hopefully, “Let’s go to the Beach” will be one of the things people answer when asked “what do you want to do tonight” — that it will be as easy a decision to make as “Let’s go to a movie.”

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Karrin Allyson

What a marvelously subtle and understated jazz singer! She reminds me most of Shirley Horn, a singer who was known for her sophisticated approach to ballad singing, which brought an air of mystery and suspense to the most familiar standards. Karrin Allyson has that gift as well, though she applies it more to mid-tempo numbers and bossa nova.

Allyson’s most recent CD Many a New Day, is an all Rodgers & Hammerstein affair, but the show at Birdland I attended only featured two songs from the album, the opener “Happy Talk” and “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught.” In this, she’s more in the mode of a jazz performer who happens to be in a cabaret venue, like, say, Herb Alpert, than a full-on cabaret artist like Michael Feinstein, who has been known to construct an entire show around one composer or team. Allyson even mentions that every show at Birdland will feature a different songlist. This is more an observation than a criticism, however: I enjoy going to see a Herb Alpert (or Karrin Allyson) show every bit as much as I enjoy one of Feinstein’s.

Indeed this evening’s high point came in a clutch of bossa nova numbers. Allyson clearly has an affinity and feel for it; I’m think it’s the form’s innate complexity and ambivalence that appeals to her, since she applies these qualities to almost everything she performs, from blues to bop to showtunes. She also did a handful of her own compositions which were able to hold their own next to Rodgers, Jobim and Mose Allison, no small feat. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Leslie Jordan

Well, queens, it doesn’t get much better — or much gayer — than Leslie Jordan’s one-man show. Leslie, who describes himself as “the gayest man I know,” also claims that he was put on this Earth to be a comic scene-stealer (who met his only match playing opposite Megan Mullally on Will & Grace). This innate gift gives the fey, diminutive Jordan more than enough power to thoroughly command a stage all by himself.

He looks at the profound self-doubt that comes with growing up queer and hyper-effeminate in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and the booze and drugs he used to overcome that doubt. As emotional as things might get, though, a laugh is never far off in this show. Like in the outlandish report of “how I got that role,” namely Beverly Leslie in Will & Grace: he describes his Emmy win for that role in great and hilariously self-deprecating detail. There’s plenty of dish about Hollywood: No outing – he describes John Ritter as “a great friend to the queers but a reeeaal pussyhound” – but we definitely get the lowdown on who has a legendary dick that Leslie repeatedly begs to see…and who will sue you for looking at them wrong.

This isn’t just a laugh-so-hard-you-cry look at the world through ultra-queer eyes (though it is that in spades), it’s also an often moving look at the very best and worst of what queer culture has to offer. Most moving of all, he describes how he threw all of his emotion about both his father and the lives lost in the Pulse nightclub massacre into throwing the first pitch at a baseball game. He threw with such passion that one of the pros said he could have had a career as a pitcher.

I can’t think of another autobiographical show that is more pure, unadulterated fun than Exposed! — it makes a convincing case for Jordan being one of the very greatest queer comic talents of our time.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.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: The Artificial Jungle

Ridiculous Theatre legend Charles Ludlam’s The Artificial Jungle is essential queer theatre viewing – and one hell of a lot of fun. The late, great Ludlam founded the Ridiculous Theatrical Company 50 years ago, creating a singular style of campy but rigorously structured theatre committed to outrageousness without apology, but also without any kind of knowing wink.

Jungle was Ludlam’s final play and mercilessly yet lovingly parodies film noir. As was often his wont, Ludlam turned to an older and more sturdily built model, Émile Zola’s Thérèse Raquin – a tale filled to bursting with lust, murder and horror – for the plotting. For the dialogue, however, he takes film noir‘s “hard-boiled” schtick, turns the heat all the way up and lets the whole thing boil over.

The director for this production is Ludlam’s husband and muse, Everett Quinton (whom I have had the great pleasure of working with several times). Everett is the ideal interpeter of Ludlam’s plays, knowing when to be loyal to what Charles had already done, and when to push things even further into preposterousness to keep it fresh.

Quinton has a marvelous cast to work with, who seem to truly get it. David Harrell takes on the role Ludlam wrote for himself, Chester Nurdiger, the schlubby, happless owner of a New Yawk pet shop, and Harrell gleefully puts the “nerd” in Nurdiger. Alyssa H. Chase plays his frustrated housewife Roxanne with energetic and angular vampiness. Hunky Anthony Michael Lopez takes Quinton’s role, Zachary, an interloping hired hand, which he delivers with muscular intelligence. Anita Hollander takes the one-time drag role of Mother Nurdiger, and puts it across with an appropriately drag-sized performance. Rob Minutoli has terrific comic timing in the small role of Officer Spinelli.

A key part of the action is a tankful of piranhas, which designer Vandy Wood has crafted with the obvious theatricality that is such an important part of the Ridiculous aesthetic, and which puppetmaster Satoshi Haga imbues with surprising expressiveness and personality. Hilarious, and highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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