Review: Shuga Cain

Who knew that Drag Race alum Shuga Cain named herself after Shug Avery, the juke joint singer from The Color Purple! Just to make the point crystal clear, in her cabaret act Sweet Dreams Shuga does numbers from not one but two different versions of The Color Purple.

From the movie – which she identifies as the film that most inpired her personally and artistically – she does Shug’s love song to Miss Celie “Sister.” It’s the only song Cain sings live (all the others are lip synchs), and she’s very self-depricating about the quality of her singing. She doesn’t have to be: she’s better than a lot of ladymen from the show, and could definitely do more of it in her act. The other Color Purple song she does is a lip synch of “I’m Here” as sung by Cynthia Erivo in the stage musical. She nails this one to the ceiling, making it a fitting climax to her act.

Her show, called Sweet Dreams, is very much in the autobiographical mode of many solo drag shows. What sets Shuga apart though, is the chatty just-between-us-gurls tone that makes you feel that she’s talking to just you. It’s clear that she primarily considers herself a comedy queen – she attributes her allegedly sub-par singing to “too much tequila and dick” – and she is indeed a laugh and a half. Cain also happily identifies herself as an “80s baby” and does a megamix by divas such as Janet, Whitney, Mariah and the like, which she delivers with high-energy bounce. The whole evening is boisterous fun, and definitely recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

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Review: Unitard

Hard-hitting, R-rated, queer as fuck sketch comedy is what this trio does. I mean their new show is called Badassy which kind of tells you what you need to know. They all have other careers, Mike Albo as a writer, Nora Burns and David Ilku as actors, but there’s a special, danagerous alchemy that happens when they come together as Unitard.

The opening salvos in Badassy are a “hanky code” parody whose targets range far and wide, followed by a sketch about a pair of New Yorkers (Burns and Albo) complaining about the Donald’s vile capers, while their waiter (Ilku) is playing a darker game only revealed at the end. Later in the show, all three participate in a “name that school shooting” sketch that breaks down in a very meta way, as the trio speaks in their voices about the limits of comedy.

While group sketches make up most of the show, some of the best moments are solo moments. Burns is hilarious as a particularly preening version of Ann Coulter. When Albo faces some credit card problems, he is subjected to an increasingly embarrasing accounting of his spending (in a voice-over by Ilku) in which the card company rep has insight into his most mortifying motives.

I think my favorite though is when Ilku, as an older but still hopping club kid, let’s you know in ballroom lingo all the things he hates and loves. He hates being co-opted by Pose, for one. But then, in the bit’s climax, he joyously namechecks all the greats of New York drag, performance art and music who are still at it. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Chita Rivera

This lady never falters. Her latest act at 54 Below is largely songs and stories from Rivera’s epic Broadway career. She opens with a snippet of “Nowadays” (which she gives a fuller reading later on) before lauching full force into “Kiss of the Spider Woman.” Then it’s dancing Chita – still incredibly limber at 86 – for “A Lot of Living to Do.” The song wasn’t hers in Bye Bye Birdie but boy does she make it her own.

Chita was always at her best playing “existential musical comedy” and thus became the muse for people with that aesthetic, first Bob Fosse, but then, more deeply, Fred Ebb and John Kander. No shock then that the majority of songs in the show come from a collaboration with either Fosse or Kander & Ebb.

Rivera has tons of razzle dazzle that amplifies her already great theatrical presence. She holds nothing back in this act. This diva is cutting loose as only she can. When she sings “Where Am Going” from Sweet Charity, she sheds new light not only on that song, but on all of Sweet Charity. She plays it as a philosophical awakening for an already worldly woman, making the song as profound as the Fellini film that inspired the musical.

She almost launches into “All That Jazz,” the most spectacular of her many signature Kander & Ebb numbers, at the top of the show. When she finally does it as her finale, it’s more than satisfying, it’s positively gratifying. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Ink

Playwright James Graham has crafted a Faustian story based solidly on real events. It’s 1969 London, and a devilish thirtysomething Rupert Murdoch (Bertie Carvel) is expanding beyond his Australian newspaper empire by acquiring English daily The Sun. He enlists Larry Lamb (Jonny Lee Miller) – at the time editor for a Manchester paper – to take over the underperforming Sun and turn it around by any means necessary.

Lamb is the biggest, showiest role in Ink and Miller goes for it with gusto. At the performance I attended, a printer’s mallet fell off the stage and without missing a beat Miller lept off the stage to retrieve it. He totally blazes through the role. Murdoch is a smaller but pivotal role, and Carvel gives him a oddly powerful, evil slouch.

But Ink is much more than a two-hander, and director Rupert Goold weaves a dazzlingly theatrical tapestry from Graham’s play. Mod dancing punctuates the scenes, and projections whizz and pulsate. It’s this kind of surreal sizzle that makes Goold one of my favorite directors, and he’s at the top of his game here.

Graham and Goold cool things off in Act II to take time examining two key moments in the Sun‘s history: the kidnapping of Murdoch family friend Muriel McKay, and Lamb convincing Stephanie Rahn (Rana Roy) to “take it all off” for the first installment of the notorious “Page 3” pictures. When we first meet Rahn in Act I, much is made of her changing her name from Kahn to Rahn for her modelling work – maybe this had a foreshadowing effect for British audiences, but it falls flat here. It is one of very few hiccups in this otherwise riveting show. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Tootsie

Composer David Yazbek is probably the guy you want to have on the job when you’re adapting a successful film comedy to a successful musical comedy. He’s had several triumphs in that area, most notably The Full Monty and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. It’s a very happy thing, then, that his score for Tootsie is every bit as good as those. It spends most of its time in his Sondheim-meets-Steely-Dan comfort zone, which is more than fine by me.

Patter songs, which Yazbek excels at, are more abundant here than in his other shows. Certainly every song gets the feel of the character – and the moment they’re in – exactly right. For my money, he’s one of the very best American musical composers of his generation, certainly the most underrated.

The tricky part: the story of a man taking a woman’s job away is a hard sell these days, for good reason. The task of making that work falls largely to bookwriter Robert Horn, and even if he doesn’t always suceed, boy does he make a valiant effort. On the other hand, his book is never less than meticulously crafted and wickedly, wittily funny. It’s every bit they equal of the source material, which was by comic genius Larry Gelbart, no small feat.

Horn’s hilarious book – which transfers the milieu from soap opera to Broadway musical – is delivered by some of the finest comic actors around. Julie Halston is a standout as hard-nosed producer with a heart of gold Rita Mitchell. Of course the key to making any version of Tootsie work is casting the right actor as Michael Dorsey / Dorothy Michaels, and Satino Fontana is ideal. His flexible tenor makes us believe that everybody else believes Dorothy is not only a woman, but an experienced musical theatre character actress. Plus, Fontana’s energy is unflagging in what must be a truly exhausting role. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Hadestown

How do you find a fresh way to musicalize one of the most-musicalized stories of all time? It’s the story of Orpheus’s descent into the underworld to retreive his wife Eurydice – in the 17th Century alone dozens of operas were written on the subject. For Hadestown, composer Anaïs Mitchell has crafted a very fresh musical take, with all kinds of soulful music, including flavors of indie folk, jazz, blues, funk and even New Orleans brass band second lines.

Mitchell’s gorgeous, surging score is definitely the draw here. There’s astonishing variety, and yet it all feels like it comes from the same world. The brilliant director Rachel Chavkin has been shepherding this show for a long time, and it is much helped by her gift for startling and nimble visual storytelling.

I don’t often mention the casting director in my reviews, but the firm Stewart / Whitley has really outdone themselves here. Orpheus and Eurydice are played respectively by Reeve Carney and Eva Noblezada, both doing the best work I’ve seen them do. Better still are Amber Gray as a hedonistic, down-home Persephone and Patrick Page as a rumblingly malevolent Hades. Page delivers his songs with a langorous phrasing that nods toward Iggy Pop.

Best of all is the inimitable André De Shields as the narrator Hermes. The moment De Sheilds snakes a single foot oh-so-charismatically on stage, you know that you’re in for one hell of a ride (sorry about that), but you are also in the best of hands. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Burn This

I heard a rumor that playwright Lanford Wilson intended Burn This to be a satire of straight people. Whether that’s true or not, the current revival is the strongest production of the play I’ve ever seen because it’s the one that comes closest to satire. A gay dancer dies in a boating accident in mid-1987, bringing together his dancer roomate Anna (Keri Russell) and his older brother Pale (Adam Driver), who begin a tempestuous relationship. The key performance in this revival, however, is the terrific Brandon Uranowitz as Larry, Anna’s gay roommate. The self-possessed yet compassionate way Uranowitz plays the role moves the play’s center of gravity so that we get a clearer picture of the absurdity of how the heterosexual characters comport themselves.

While part of this conception belongs to Uranowitz, director Michael Mayer definitely helped steer him in this direction – Mayer is always very smart about carefully working through ideas about sex and gender in his productions, and you can feel that same intelligence at work here. It has the side benefit of skewing the whole play to be played more comically, which, if my sources are right, is what Wilson was going for.

The role of Pale is a big juicy piece of actor meat, and the big, meaty Adam Driver makes an appropriately full meal of it. Here again, I can feel Mayer urging him to consider the contrast between what Pale really feels and what he thinks he’s expected to feel. Burn This will never be my favorite Lanford Wilson play – his cycle of plays about the Talley family and his early masterwork The Madness of Lady Bright are far superior – but this is the best rendition it’s likely to get. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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