Review: Marilyn Maye “By Request”


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. I can think of no other living singer who possesses Maye’s combination of interpretive ability, rhythmic verve, and vocal range – at 86, her voice is the envy of singers 40 years her junior.

She’s also a “saloon singer”, a singer who 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 Billy Stritch – a frequent foil for the likes of Liza Minnelli and Christine Ebersole – 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 – the night I went she sang a version of “I Will Survive” that she premiered with Carson. 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

Review: Monkey, Journey to the West


This is far more rooted in traditional Jīngjù (aka Beijing Opera) than I expected. When I was a kid, I first encountered Sun Wu Kong, the mischievous Monkey King, in a Jīngjù version of the story that came to America as part of a cultural exchange. Like any trouble-making little boy would, I totally identified with this fun-loving, irreverent primate with big dreams – and ego to match.

Now, firebrand Chinese director Chen Shi-Zheng has collaborated with Gorillaz bandmates Damon Albarn (composer) and Jamie Hewlett (design, animations) to re-tell Sun Wu Kong’s story for the 21st Century. The original version of the story is a 16th Century Chinese novel Xī Yóu Jì, a much-loved classic of Chinese literature. It tells the story of Buddhist monk Tripitaka, who travels from China to India seeking the Buddhist sacred scriptures, accompanied by irrepressible Sun Wu Kong.

In addition to having a sentimental attachment to the Monkey King myth, I’m also a big fan of Albarn’s work in the pop music world, so I was very much looking forward to this. And by and large, I wasn’t disappointed. When I say Monkey is more traditional than expected, it’s a compliment: Shi-Zheng’s direction uses the acrobatic arts associated with Jīngjù, never as mere stunts, but as storytelling tools, and as elements in dynamic, evolving visual compositions that interact with Hewlett’s brightly colored designs.

It’s an exciting and sometimes even moving approach. For example, there is, near the end, some spinning of plates on poles; it quickly becomes apparent, though, that there is no danger of these pink plates falling (they’re attached to the poles). Instead, Shi-Zheng uses them to create a spectacular image of a shimmering mystic lotus unfolding for Triptaka and Sun Wu Kong.

That said, Monkey is at its most exciting when the creative team mixes the traditional with the cutting edge. This happens most often in Hewlett’s energetic animations, often showing parts of the journey which are simply too big or too epic to render in the flesh.

The weakest part of Monkey is the flow from animation to live-action – far too often there is a long moment of darkness after an animation is finished. Not a meditative pause, not a moment to catch one’s breath, just plain old dead air, which certainly diminishes the otherwise breathless impact of this spectacle.

That’s a relatively small problem, though. Monkey isn’t necessarily the artistic breakthrough one might have hoped for, but it’s still plenty of eye-filling fun, and for my money more artistically satisfying than anything I’ve seen by Cirque du Soliel.

For tickets, click here.

Review: The Nance


This is Douglas Carter Beane’s best play yet! In The Nance, he delves into a world that has long fascinated me, the world of effeminate gays as characters in nightclub entertainment of the early 20th Century.

In the early 1930s there was a now mostly forgotten “pansy craze” whose most successful performer was one Jean Malin, who we can see knocking gangsters on the floor and channeling Mae West and Sophie Tucker in this video:

Jean Malin-Arizona to Broadway-1933 by redhotjazz

Contrary to the video, however, Malin mostly emceed out of drag. He didn’t impersonate women, but performed as an openly gay male, confidently swishing.

The Nance deals with a slightly later era, around 1937. The craze itself had passed, but pansy comics or “nances” were still popular in burlesque houses. The play tells the story of Chauncey Miles (Nathan Lane), one such headline nance performer.

Combining burlesque sketches with comedy, romance and drama, Beane paints a complex, fascinating portrait of a gay man, living and working in the secretive and dangerous gay world of 1930s New York, whose outrageous stage antics stand in marked contrast to offstage life.

Just as Beane is doing some of the best work of his career so far, so is Nathan Lane. His burlesque performances are rich with the comic timing for which he’s so well known. But the main story is Chauncey’s romance with pretty young thing Ned (Jonny Orsini), in which he plays so many shades of desire and insecurity and even love – it’s a knockout.

Orsini is a knockout too, not only visually – there’s no question why Chauncey is attracted to Ned – but also in the acting department. Orsini plays Ned with such sweetness and joy of discovery that Ned almost takes over as the play’s central character. Almost. Lewis J. Stadlen is marvelously hilarious, too, as Chauncey’s boss and comic partner. Cady Huffman also stands out in her zesty portrayal of a communist stripper.

The Nance is incredibly ambitious, mixing dirty jokes with great poignancy, politics and even a hint of mysticism, and Beane carries it all through with dazzling intelligence, plunging the depths and hitting the heights. It’s the best play I’ve seen on so many levels in a very long time, and I can’t recommend it highly enough!

For tickets, click here.