Review: Piramo e Tisbe

What a gorgeous piece of music from an unjustly forgotten composer! Johann Adolph Hasse was one of the most important opera composers between Handel and Mozart. He was a proponent of a style of music called galant or empfindsamer stil (“sensitive style”), more interested in melody than the earlier Baroque style, but more ornamented than the Classical style that would follow. By the time he wrote Piramo e Tisbe (1768) – based on an ancient tale of star-crossed lovers that inspired Romeo & Juliet – this style was falling out of fashion, but Hasse bucked prevailing trends to write an opera that was among the most melodically elaborate he ever wrote.

Director Phillip Shneidman sets the action in a vaguely contemporary setting to mixed effect; Alex Basco Koch’s subtle projection design gives the production some appropriately melancholy atmospherics. Musically, this luscious opera is being given a gorgeous account under the baton of New Vintage Baroque’s Elliot Figg.

Most of the vocal pyrotechnics go to the cross-dressed “pants role” Piramo, and mezzo Kristin Gornstein makes a musically brilliant and powerful impact in the role. Soprano Kelly Curtin’s role Tisbe is full of expressive passages, and she delivers them with elegance and strength. In the role of Tisbe’s father, known only as Padre, tenor Glenn Seven Allen deftly negotiates a role that demands a balance of galant lightness and a father’s stony fury. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

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Review: Lena Hall

This show is all about auditioning, which Lena Hall has been doing from a young age, often as part of a teen musical theatre troupe. The present-day Hall sings beautifully in a spectacular range of styles – vocally she brings to my mind Christine Ebersole, which is a big compliment. Hall performs with a glee and verve that’s gotten her pegged as the rock and roll singing actress. She doesn’t mind that, but does mind a bit that it keeps her from the full range of roles she could own.

This show, entitled “The Art of the Audition,” features songs from shows that Hall auditioned for (City of Angels, Oklahoma!, Legally Blonde) and shows from which she took her audition songs (A Chorus Line, Follies, Die Zauberflöte). That’s right, she goes from “Dance 10: Looks 3” to Mozart’s devilishly high Queen-of-the-Night aria “Der Hölle Rache.”

She’s too self-depricating about the Mozart aria; she, in her own words, “nails it.” And for everything she turns her hand to, be it rock, classical or traditional musical comedy, shows her to be an actor-singer who is equally excellent at acting and singing, which is rarer than you might think.

Her singing, whether load or soft, is never anything less than full-throated. And her rapport with music director Brian Nash is warm and engaging, a very entertaining side show by itself. When she’s singing, no matter the style, she is an unquestionable fierce ruling diva. Overall, the show was a genuine pleasure, and Hall an immensely engaging performer. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Paige Turner

To paraphrase drag legend Chad Michaels, Paige Turner is a professional, dammit! This showbiz spitfire’s current show Drag Me To The Top is thought out down to every second and every step, and yet never feels less than completely fresh. She’s also confident enough to be completely spontaneous – she can handle audience reaction with the best of them. If there’s a moment that doesn’t land like she wanted, she’ll be the first one to tell you, and then do it again, the right way. Plus, she never gives less than total commitment. You get the feeling that she’d give the same performance for an audience of one that she’d give for a full house.

Now lest all this sound too stiff, be assured that Ms. Turner is first and foremost a comedy queen, and often a very raunchy one at that. In fact, in an extended and hilarious slide presentation about the different varieties of bottoms, she involuntarily guffawed and happily blurted “this is so fucking stupid!”

She also is a first-rate singer, mostly in the service of the sort of relyricized song parodies that are the bread and butter of singing drag queens. She also plays a couple of songs completely seriously, and does some impressive belting that you might not even notice because it serves the moment in the song so perfectly. Now, that is professional! While she doesn’t do any complex or flashy choreography, she is in constant motion, and rarely relies on being downstage center to make her points. The director in me was absolutely tickled that this girl really knows how to use her diagonal crosses, bless her. One of the more enjoyable drag shows I’ve seen in a while, and highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Jinkx Monsoon & Major Scales

For her new cabaret show at Joe’s Pub, entitled The Ginger Snapped, we find a manic Jinkx Monsoon being psychoanalyzed by her musical counterpart, pianist / composer / raconteur Major Scales. This show is their first to feature almost entirely new music, all from her new album of the same name.

Their first New York cabaret show, The Vaudevillians, was such a runaway success that it’s become a running joke in their shows that “I think the audience was expecting The Vaudevillians. Oops!” While good for a laugh, that self-deprecation isn’t necessary, since this show is equally accomplished, just in a very different way.

Monsoon and Scales are more entertaining and smart than the vast majority of the competition. The material from the album is heavily influenced by New Wave (heck the B-52’s Fred Schneider even guests on one track). Both Monsoon and Scales first appear in medical smocks that recall Tim Curry in Rocky Horror. Very shortly, though, Jinkx strips down to a black one-piece lace foundation garment, which she later covers with a silky black dressing gown trimmed with feathers and rhinestones. Simple yet fabulous.

The Ginger Snapped is light years more thoughtful, tuneful and original than your typical cabaret drag act, while rarely being less than acidly hilarious. Very funny but with genuine rage and love just below the surface.

For the Joe’s Pub calendar, click here.

To keep up with Jinkx, click here.

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

Review: John Pizzarelli

Guitarist / vocalist John Pizzarelli always scales the heights of cabaret’s jazzier side with astonishing musicianship and élan. This particular engagement at Birdland is singularly focused on one of John’s biggest obsessions, the Nat King Cole Trio.

Though John was already working professionally as a guitarist in his teen years, he was mostly into classic rock at the time. A good-looking girl said he should look into the Cole Trio, which his father, famed jazz guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli was thrilled to encourage. It changed John’s life, setting him on the path to becoming the jazz virtuoso he is today.

John has a straightforward, but still astonishing, sort of virtuosity – his particular genius is in his chordal improvisations, finding hidden musical meanings in the most familiar of standards. This show makes it abundantly clear that Cole’s guitarist, Oscar Moore, was a definite influence on the way Pizzarelli plays.

It’s common courtesy in a jazz setting to applaud for a bit after everybody’s solos, and indeed bandleader John frequently points at one of the instrumentalists as if to say “give it up for so-and-so”! More often in this show, though, the onslaught of flashy jazziness is so relentless that you don’t applaud for fear of missing something amazing. Neither jazz nor cabaret gets much better than this.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Stories By Heart

I had a deeply personal reaction to Stories by Heart. It’s above all John Lithgow’s love letter to his father, and the love of storytelling that his father conveyed to him. About half of it is Lithgow talking about those issues, and the other half is Lithgow performing literary short stories that his father read him as a child. My parents were also great tellers of great stories, so I strongly identify; for me it was H. G. Wells and C. S. Lewis, for Lithgow, Ring Lardner and P. G. Wodehouse. Lithgow’s love for his father is palpable in this piece, and I found that particularly moving.

The Ring Lardner story “Haircut” throws a bit of a curve: it starts out as a tale of charming small town life which Lithgow himself freely admits “slowly turns into a gruesome tale of adultery, misogyny and murder.” P. G. Wodehouse’s “Uncle Fred Flits By,” is pure literary comfort food in which the titular Fred, a loopy English Lord, has a madcap adventure that starts by simply trying to get out of the rain.

Lithgow is marvelously specific in the physicality he gives these short stories, realistically pantomiming an early 20th Century “two bit” shave-and-a-haircut in the Lardner. By the same token, he gives a ridiculously stylized personality to all of the crazy people (and parrots) we encounter in the Wodehouse.

This production is lively and vivacious, due in equal parts to Lithgow’s native theatrical intelligence and Daniel Sullivan’s canny direction. Stories by Heart is thoroughly sincere and sentimental, which I find very refreshing. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Farinelli and the King

This gentle play with music is essentially a vehicle for two of the world’s greatest talents, actor Mark Rylance and operatic countertenor Iestyn Davies, both the very best at what they do, and at the peak of their talents. Rylance stars as King Philippe V of Spain, at a point in his life where he is plagued with what we would today call mental illness, some mix of depression and delusion.

Enter Farinelli (born as Carlo Broschi, played by Sam Crane and sung by Davies), brought in by Queen Isabella Farnese (Melody Grove). Farinelli sings, and the king’s spirit significantly lifts. Call it music therapy, centuries before the fact.

Rylance is of course the main draw here, and he is unsurprisingly magnificent. Some people call him mannered, but I think the way in which he applies his undeniable mannerisms is masterful and deeply intelligent. It is to me what great acting should be, the actor’s own personality and / or persona applied with precise thought and detail – and deep emotion and vulnerability – to the given circumstances of the piece.

Davies singing, however, is the soul of this love letter to the power of music, and he is every bit as terrific. He may be physically incapable of replicating Farinelli’s unearthly castrato voice, but he is without a doubt as subtle and feeling a musical interpreter as the man he plays. He sings Handel almost exclusively here, and I would have liked to have heard more by Porpora (Farinelli’s mentor, who gets the only non-Handel aria here), or even better composers like Hasse or Vinci, who are undeservedly forgotten today, but very important at the time. Still, there is no denying that Davies caressing Handel’s gorgeous “Lascia, ch’io pianga” is the perfect way to close the evening.

John Dove’s marvelous staging, set among Jonathan Fensom’s sumptuous set and costumes, rises to the level of his collaborators. I have a minor quibble with the script itself, which falters toward the end with an entirely non-historical love triangle between the two titular characters and the queen. It rings false, and breaks the gentle spell that the show casts until that point. It’s really unnecessary. It also contributes to the general error in the portrayal of Isabella Farnese, a far more formidable figure than suggested by the sentimental way the role is written. Not a big problem, though. A real pleasure of a show, and recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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