Review: Dianna Agron

This ain’t Quinn Fabray at the Carlyle, kids. You can tell a lot about the actual person and artistry of one-time Glee star Dianna Agron from her recent marriage to folk rock band Mumford & Sons’ banjoist and guitarist Winston Marshall. This is a beautiful young woman with a gorgeous voice who is nowhere more comfortable than when she’s singing a cover of a 1960s folk rock chestnut.

With this act she’s making her first entry into the world of New York cabaret, starting at the very top. Understandably nervous on her opening night, which showed in her hesitant patter, she calmed right down when it came time to sing. No song was less than beautifully sung, but she was at her best when a song brought out the actress in her – most notably in “Bang Bang” a hit for Cher and then Nancy Sinatra, and “Play with Fire,” one of The Rolling Stones’ earlier bad boy songs to push their image toward the demonic.

There’s an enormous amount of potential here – I would give a lot to hear Agron’s liquid gold voice act the hell out of some of Marianne Faithfull’s darker material. But she needs very much to bring more of her considerable acting chops into her song interpretation. There were glimmers of that in this cabaret act, and they were tantalizingly excellent. The job in cabaret, as much as in theatre and film, is storytelling, and Agron needs to do more of that. I have full confidence that she is more than capable. (One techincal note: the show was overamplified for the tres intimate Cafe Carlyle. It could even be truly “unplugged,” totally unamplified).

Because really, I think if she comes in firing on all cylinders she could do truly legendary things in cabaret. Sing all of Faithfull’s Broken English, maybe? Or how about a whole Dylan album? You could call the show Blonde on Blonde on Blonde! In any event, Agron is already giving us enough wonderfully sung renditions of dauntingly complex songs that I can heartily recommend her act as it stands today.

For tickets, click here.

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

Advertisements

Review: Justin Vivian Bond

Karen Carpenter is the focus of Justin Vivian Bond’s latest cabaret act, with Karen’s awkward vulnerability and quiet passion setting the tone. Bond’s taste in songs is always impeccable, and with the Carpenters’ lovely canon to select from, it’s hardly surprising that “Down on Creation” ends up being a truly gorgeous show. As with everything she does, v approaches these Carpenters songs with the touch of a very careful curator – a curator, that is, who finds what is most explosive in the art they’re presenting, and then promptly detonates it.

One of the best features of all Bond’s shows is v’s acidly funny, stream of consciousness, between-song patter (which has had the downside of making certain shows marathon length) – Justin’s always open to the wildest tangents, here including a rambling dissertation on v’s relationship with bats in v’s country home. Bond’s sense of humor looks at society from a perspective that is simultaneously inside and outside, much like Karen Carpenter herself. Lance Horne strips down Richard Carpenter’s lush orchestration for the four-piece band, exposing how luminous the songs are even without rich production.

As always Bond is hilariously entertaining, wildly imaginative and vividly expressive, and is the perfect artist to do homage to Karen Carpenter. Highly recommended!

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Jinkx Monsoon

You know, Jinkx actually asked me not to review this show – she asked that of the whole audience, saying “you wouldn’t review karaoke would you?” But since I’m going to rave about her, I don’t think she’ll mind. For, as loosey-goosey as this show is, it’s light years away from karaoke.

Jinkx Monsoon’s rapport with the audience and ability to roll with the punches brings Marilyn Maye to mind, and that’s about the highest compliment I can give. She takes requests and interacts with the audience throughout, and makes it looks easy. Let me assure you, this is about the hardest kind of show to carry off without crashing and burning, and it takes a major talent to do it without falling to pieces.

Of course, Jinkx’s stage persona is a great distance from Maye’s. She has an acid sassiness that’s closer to, say, Bette Midler, Madeleine Kahn or even Jackie Hoffman. She skews interpretations to the raunchier and darker edge of entertainment. There’s never been a doubt that Monsoon is more entertaining and smart than the vast majority of the competition – she’s much more than just another winner of RuPaul’s Drag Race – and she’s in fine fettle here.

Jinkx Sings Everything, as unstructured as it may be, is certainly much more thoughtful than your typical “by request” show. Let it be forever Monsoon season! Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Christine Ebersole

This is the very pinnacle of cabaret. I never miss a single cabaret show by Ebersole, because they are almost guaranteed to be exceptional. One of her finest – and the first one I saw – was built thematically around her becoming an adoptive mother. The current one, titled “After the Ball,” finds her on the other end of that journey, becoming an empty nester and looking forward “to my approaching dotage” (a phrase she utters with comically bright cheer). And wouldn’t you know it, this act is nearly the match for that other one long ago, truly stellar cabaret and not to be missed.

One of the things (among many) I find most astonishing about Ebersole is her exquisite taste when it comes to vocal interpretation. She has a flawless sense of when to give a song a semi-operatic vibrato, when to belt it, and when to speak-sing. For example, she assays “What Did You Do to Your Face” a folk song by Susan Werner about plastic surgery with a spoken passage here, a slightly syncopated moment of doubt there. But when she sings Al Jolson’s hit “Toot, Toot Tootsie! (Goo’bye)” she gives it a shake-the-rafters belt that would probably intimidate Jolson himself.

The act takes a decisively rueful, reflective turn when she ruminates on the ways in which her children were never 100% from her. Her take on Joni Mitchell’s “Little Green” has real ache. But she also finds the humor in the situation, as when she comments on one child’s mathematical genius – “she didn’t get that from me,” she laughs, “the most she got from this cabaret singer was ‘snap on 2 and 4!’”

The final arc of the act finds Ebersole girding her loins to take on the future, most comically in Peggy Lee’s “Ready to Begin Again.” She takes inspiration from her own parents, and goes out on a high note. Very personal, and damned good. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Prince of Broadway

I am, in some ways, this show’s ideal audience: an ambitious director / choreographer looking for inspiration from Harold Prince, one of the most successful Broadway directors ever. That makes me not only more attentive to details in his dramaturgy, staging and transitions, but also more forgiving of moments where he trades depth for clarity, or sacrifices complexity for more broadly comprehensible insights.

Because, you see, Prince of Broadway, a retrospective revue of Prince’s Broadway work, has come in for some – I think unfair – critical drubbing since its opening. Other critics have seen it as disorganized and shallow, where I would argue it is neither of these things.

It follows a largely chronological ordering of numbers from Prince’s storied career. The only times Prince (who also directed here) fiddles with the timeline is when a song from slightly earlier in his career makes a better transition or section finale. Which I think is very smart when it comes to structuring a show for an audience concerned with being carried away by a theatrical experience, rather than niceties of opening night dates and the like. In other words, the general Broadway audience that Prince has always been so brilliant at speaking to, pushing them as far as he feels he can get away with, and no further – which has been far enough to establish him as a stunningly prolific innovator.

Also, transitions between numbers are governed by what makes more sense in that particular moment. Sometimes you want to know what happened next for Prince, sometimes following a thematic trail directly into another song from another show makes more sense.

Plus, when those songs are delivered by performers this good, almost nothing else matters. Karen Ziemba totally redefines “So What” from Cabaret with a paradoxically luminous rage. Emily Skinner simultaneously and amazingly celebrates and erases Elaine Strich’s legendary take on “Ladies Who Lunch” from Company. And Tony Yazbeck tearing “The Right Girl” from Follies to shreds is worth the price of admission all by itself.

Speaking of “The Right Girl,” that is a number where choreographer / co-director Susan Stroman’s work shines particularly bright. From the waist down, Yazbek’s energetic tap dance is pure exuberance; from the neck up his face is wracked with agony. This split between dancing and acting in one dancer’s body is pure Stroman. Recomended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Raja

We always knew she was a goddess! One of the most effortlessly stylish queens ever to appear on RuPaul’s Drag Race is making her much-anticipated solo cabaret debut at the Laurie Beechman Theatre. Aptly titled Gawdess, the show features a little bit of everything: some singing, a whole lot of fashion fierceness, and, thank you Gawdess, some good old-fashioned lip-synching!!! In particular, a slinky lip-synch to Sade’s “Is It A Crime” is legendarily good.

And even though she says “that all the choreography you’re going to get” after a handful of steps in her opener – a sung cover of Banarama’s “Venus” – don’t you believe it. Raja swirls, twirls and dips with aplomb throughout the entire act, most impressively undulating a large golden cape with such skill that she reminded of modern dance pioneer Loie Fuller.

The show isn’t ambitious – it’s peppered with life lessons Raja’s picked up, but she doesn’t linger on them – but it’s such a good time! Raja has a warm charismatic presence, which makes you think she’d be able to put over just about anything she puts her mind to. Here, she’s not trying to do anything but give us sheer glittery gay fun, and she succeeds splendidly. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Lesli Margherita

In the best possible sense, Lesli Margherita is like a fabulous drag queen. She is the kind of brassy dame they rarely make anymore. But she’s also often surprisingly sweet and goofy, alternating her sparkling “I am the queen” persona with moments of disarming self-deprecation. As for the show as a whole, it’s hard to describe: a self-empowerment seminar given by someone with a personality the size of Bette Midler or Freddie Mercury? It’s certainly – and charmingly – unique.

Margherita is very good-looking, with bosoms ample enough to be the source of more than one of her stories. Her stature as a brunette bombshell means – to use her own Disney princess metaphor – she’s always cast as the prostitute Esmeralda when she yearns to play Ariel. Though when she did get her shot at playing that little mermaid at a Disneyland theme park show, she realized why – they had a hard time finding shells big enough to cover those bosoms.

There’s a multimedia element to the act as well, so that when she speaks of her inspirations in the country music world (a the love of hair extensions she gleaned from them) we see them in all of their big-haired glory. When she talks about the obstacles that face a performer, she wheels out a droll power point presentation.

Her music director Brett Ryback is an old pal of Margherita’s and they have an easy chemistry that has its fullest expression in a loopy medley of Lite FM duets. No two ways about it, Lesli Margherita is immensely entertaining. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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