Review: Midnight at the Never Get

This show is a “memory” musical, in much the same sense that The Glass Menagerie is a “memory” play. Singer Trevor (Sam Bolen), shows us his young self, in the early- to mid-1960s, when he was in love with a young pianist / composer named Arthur (Jeremy Cohen). And like memory, what Trevor shows us is unreliable: was Arthur a an idealist or an opportunist? Was Trevor the love of Arthur’s life? His muse? Something else altogether?

It’s seen through the lens of the act they did together in the back room of a gay bar, the titular Never Get. Mark Sonnenblick’s emotional music and elegant lyrics hearken back to the Great America Songbook, giving Arthur’s songs a distinctive voice. One thing Trevor does remember clearly was Arthur’s passion for Porter, Gershwin and so forth, and the feeling that this kind of music was getting lost in the rise of rock and roll.

Bolen is quite appealing as the love-struck Trevor, and sings Sonnenblick’s compositions with a tenderness well suited to the story. He’s also capable of a très gay élan for the evening’s lighter moments. Jeremy Cohen plays piano and acts with great ease and sophistication. Orchestrator Adam Podd has arranged the songs for a medium sized band with a horn section, and they sound more like an ensemble at the chic Blue Angel than a place like the Never Get – which serves both the story and the music very well indeed. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

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Review: Marilyn Maye

National treasure. International treasure, even. In this day and age, utterly unique. In the 1960s you could perhaps compare her to contemporaries like Rosemary Clooney, Sarah Vaughn, Helen Merrill, Dinah Washington or June Christy. Perhaps even to the great – and a bit older – Ella Fitzgerald, who once called Marilyn Maye “the greatest white female singer in the world.” At 90, Maye’s the only jazz singer in that style left. That’s not the only thing though. She sounds nearly the same now she did then. Also, she has never for a moment ceased working on her craft, and so is now such an impossibly stylish and expressive singer that there has perhaps never been anyone like her.

At the new Birdland Theater right now, she’s turning her towering talent mostly to showtunes. Maye has been rediscovered by New York audiences over the last decade or so, and the ever growing lovefest between fans old and new is palpable in the room, which only adds to the fun. She’s always included showtunes in her act, so there’s plenty of familiar stuff, especially from Hello Dolly and Mame, shows whose title roles she played in now-legendary regional productions. She also does a a medley of songs from My Fair Lady that climaxes in a stunning, hard-swinging rendition of “On the Street Where You Live.”

There are several other medleys, but Maye and her music director Tedd Firth – a gifted jazz pianist she coaxes into some hilarious deadpan interplay – handle medleys in an unconventional way, undercutting their potential for corniness with thoughtful storytelling and sophisticated jazz musicianship. If you love show tunes sung in sparkling and surprising ways, 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: Norbert Leo Butz

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Norbert Leo Butz is a very smart and intensely gifted actor, who could probably do an astonishing turn in Hamlet. As fate would have it, he has become primarily known as a musical comedy actor of prodigious energy and daring. In his cabaret show, “Girls, Girls, Girls” we find Norbert trying to sort out his relationships with the women in his life – and there are a lot of them: three daughters, three sisters, a wife and ex-wife, mothers-in-law, 17 nieces. He takes advice from a feminist professor friend, who suggests he reads up on feminine archetypes. He does, and for the rest of the act goes through a catalog of songs that match up these archetypes.

“Girls, Girls, Girls” is a very thoughtful show, which is icing on the cake of seeing this magnetic, kinetic performer sing…well, anything at all. He has acting and musical chops for days, and is capable of injecting fire into any material to which he turns his hand. It’s most gratifying, though, to see this “guy’s guy” look so intelligently and compassionately into the female psyche.

While Butz is best known as the consummate Broadway musical character actor-singer, this act skews more heavily into rock and singer/songwriter territory. That said, these days that world overlaps with Broadway more and more; his opening number is “Yoshimi” from the album Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots by neo-psychedelic noise rockers The Flaming Lips – which is being turned into a Broadway musical.

He proves himself one of the best male interpretative singers of his generation. To wit, I’ve never been a great fan of “Come On Eileen” by Dexy’s Midnight Runners – I mean I can’t deny that it is a near perfect pop earworm, I just think it’s too perfect an earworm, to the point of high annoyance. If however, the vocal delivery in the original had been as fine as Norbert’s (covering the archetype of “the maiden” as described by psychology giant Carl Jung) I would probably love it just as much as its many fans.

Traveling from the point of view of a dad who “just doesn’t understand” to one that embraces androgyny as the deepest truth and the wave of the future (to the tune of Hedwig‘s “Wig in a Box”), the journey that Norbert takes us on is the kind of arc I always hope for in a cabaret act. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Lena Hall

Lena Hall photo credit David Andrako

In some ways I’m the ideal target audience for Lena Hall’s current cabaret show. I don’t know how many other people would be so delighted that she chose to do the Sex Pistols’ nihilistic masterpiece “Holidays in the Sun” in that high society boîte, the Cafe Carlyle. And sing it more beautifully than Johnny Rotten could ever hope to, while still preserving the sense of gleeful, feral rage that is so essential to the song.

When Hall is singing full-throated rock and roll, which is most of the show, she is an unquestionable fierce ruling diva. The subject matter of this show, titled “Oh! You Pretty Things”, is a thumb-sketch of Hall’s love life from her teenage years to today. Hall walks though this gallery of ex-boyfriends with her head held high, though I found myself wanting to hear more about her and less about them.

In any event, these tales of past romances are mostly mere springboards to some truly passionate singing. Most memorable are Hall’s rendition’s of Aerosmith’s “Dream On” and a handful of obscure Bowie ballads towards evening’s end. While it was its own kind of fun to see what was basically a rock concert in the Carlyle, I did sometimes feel that we lost lyrics, and Hall is a terrific actor-singer, so that aspect of the act was less than totally satisfying. Overall, though, 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: Tommy Tune

Tommy Tune photo credit David Andrako 2016_01_12_CafeCarlyle_15

This cabaret act is a testament to what a good director Tommy Tune is – and before you ask, yes, I do mean that as a compliment. Singing was never his leading talent, although he’s just fine at it, thank you. No, this club act makes it clear that it’s more about how he frames things.

And the frames are many: his angular shoulders and elbows, eccentric lighting cues which were clearly designed according to his specifications, the song selection (not a single ballad thank you), his tap dancing in almost every number. The songs are all familiar standards, but Tune’s long-time music director Michael Biagi drops in quotations from other music – a little “Rhapsody in Blue” here, a little Chicago there – that comment on the familiar songs like footnotes.

This also means that no one song stood out as a particularly effective interpretation. Rather, they were all effective numbers in a one-man musical about his career in showbiz. The genre is light-hearted backstage comedy, packed with joy and a little bit of rueful melancholy. He’s completely at ease and whimsical, which suits him very well.

At one point, he pays tribute to Charles “Honi” Coles his colleague in My One and Only, who had been a pioneer in tap dance and soft shoe since his youth in the early 20th Century. Tune recalls some private tap lessons with Coles, in which the master dancer instructed Tune to get progressively more “non-chalant.” And that accidentally points up this show’s one real problem – certain gestures, moments and ideas are so soft-pedaled that they don’t quite tell the story Tune likely wants them to. It’s not a major problem to have, and doesn’t prevent the evening from being quite entertaining. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Judy Collins

Judy Collins 2015 KJukKyt

No one sings a folk song more beautifully than Judy Collins, and few people sing more beautifully, period. She’s an authentic river of song, in truly golden voice in her seventies. She’ll be talking about a song in passing, and then launch into three or four lines, singing with breathtakingly casual grace and beauty. And then continue with her story “and so I told Leonard Cohen that yes, ‘Suzanne’ is a good song and I’ll be recording it tomorrow…”

When she sings a song in earnest, she’s truly arresting, imbuing each line with subtle style, implying stories behind stories. She’s known as one of the best interpretive artists in pop music, and in this act she brilliantly illuminates songs ranging from traditional folk to Dylan and the Beatles to Sondheim and Jacques Brel. She also reminds us that she went on to truly earn the singer/songwriter epithet by giving heartfelt renditions of her own songs “My Father” and “Arizona.”

The stories she actually tells are truly entertaining, varying from the touchingly personal to the hilariously bawdy. She is so enthusiastically invested in the music – her spectacular, undiminished talent always gives me an amazingly intense cabaret experience. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: John Pizzarelli and Daniel Jobim

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The duo of John Pizzarelli and Daniel Jobim playing and singing bossa nova are the ultimate in cool. Pizzarelli represents the very height of cabaret’s jazzier side, with profound musical intelligence at work. Jobim is part of a legendary Brazilian musical dynasty: his grandfather was Antonio Carlos Jobim, one of Brazil’s all-time greatest songwriters and composers, and one of the original architects of bossa nova.

This act, entitled “Strictly Bossa Nova II” is supremely laid back, in true bossa nova spirit. Laid back, yes, but also full of panache and musical elegance. Even the patter isn’t really patter, just a couple of very witty friends sharing stories and jokes.

They apply bossa nova style, not only to songs originally written in that style, but to great North American songs like the Gershwins’ “’S Wonderful”, which responds beautifully to the bossa nova treatment. That particular idea isn’t original with these two – “’S Wonderful” was the opening track on Brazilian guitarist/vocalist João Gilberto’s 1977 album Amoroso, and Pizzarelli is very explicit about the debt both this cabaret act and he personally owe to that album.

The most sparkling parts of the evening are songs by Antonio Carlos Jobim. Most moving is the pairing of Stephen Sondheim’s “I Remember” with Jobim’s bristlingly poetic “Waters of March”. Pizzarelli said before the songs that the transition between the two made him inexplicably cry. I expected not to respond that way, and yet I did. And I think I know why: “I Remember” is a song of immense longing for absent things, and “Waters of March” makes you strongly feel the presence of all the objects it catalogues. Very, very intense. The whole evening, highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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