Review: John Epperson: Show Trash

Show Trash

The artist otherwise known as Lypsinka takes off the wigs, makeup and sound design, and – lo and behold – is still an engaging entertainer without all that. Sure, John Epperson sans the Lyp armor is a very different sort of performer, but his much more traditional cabaret act Show Trash holds the stage, with considerable grace.

Show Trash is in many ways a Lypsinka origin story, showing how this small-town Mississippi boy eventually blossomed into an emblem of all that is worldly. It takes a few songs before we turn to his childhood on Hazelhurt, Mississippi (2010 population: 4,009). This is a good thing – one of Epperson’s great gifts is his ability to reveal hidden dimensions using surprising juxtapositions. Though that gift is used with more subtlety that in the Lypsinka shows, it still gives freshness to an essentially autobiographical act.

Epperson gives us a more exposed, vulnerable side of himself in Show Trash. He reveals that Lypsinka’s brashness comes in part from a desire to mask his own reticence about performing (he’s gotten over that: in addition to this show, Lypsinka has made increasing numbers of appearance in “straight” plays).

In the show, Epperson accompanies himself on piano. His first notable artistic efforts were on the piano: he was a rehearsal pianist for American Ballet Theater in the 1970s and 1980s, playing for the likes of Baryshnikov and Marakova. While this provided him entree into a world he loved – he tells many engaging stories from those years – it stifled his own creative impulses. From this unmet need sprang Lypsinka.

There are glimpses of the Lyp, as Epperson’s lip-synchs to some Hazelhurst favorites or flashes a particularly sharp hand gesture. Barry Kleinbort is the one of the great masters of cabaret direction, and his sensitive work here includes the supple use of home movies and photos to reinforce Epperson’s story. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Christine Ebersole

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For her first long cabaret run in two years, Christine Ebersole returns to 54 Below with a glorious new show. What really distinguishes this show from her previous cabaret turns (they’ve all been glorious) is the touch of Musical Director Bette Sussman, who brings with her a big, rock-ish band and a jazz-pop polish reminiscent of arranger William S. Fischer’s work on the classic Bette Midler album The Divine Miss M (Sussman has collaborated with Midler herself on more than one occasion). In any event, and in case you didn’t know, I am here to tell you that Christine Ebersole is faaaaaabulous!

Though Ebersole is primarily known as a Broadway diva, and her most recent CD was a very jazzy affair, this is her most rock and roll act to date. This time, you’re more likely to run into a Fleetwood Mac or Burt Bacharach tune than a Cole Porter or Johnny Mercer standard (though she does a beautiful rendition of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Something Good”). She even does a breathtaking turn on a classic Diana Ross song, and I am not going to spoil your surprise by telling you which one. Because you are going to see this show, you know!

Ebersole absolutely brings to pop-rock the same elegant power she brings to musical theater and jazz. When she sings “Woodstock” it is far more than just a cabaret singer singing a Joni Mitchell song. The song itself has only grown in power over the years, overtaking the event it describes in its ability to evoke yearning idealism. Christine imbues it with a searing emotion and intelligence that communicates so much: a sense of history that includes the Vietnam War and 9/11, and a passionate sense that we mustn’t allow history to extinguish that idealism. Fiery and profound, all in one go.

All that, plus an insane version of “Revolutionary Costume for Today” from Grey Gardens (for which Ebersole won her second Tony) that is simultaneously hilarious and roof-raising. Another cabaret act from this lady that just sparkles like the finest champagne – Faaaaaabulous!

For tickets, click here. Seriously, go back, click the link and buy your tickets now.

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

Review: BenDeLaCreme

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A little bit Lypsinka, a little bit Mummenchanz – certainly not what I expected when going to see a cabaret act from Drag Race alum BenDeLaCreme. Oh sure, there was plenty of other stuff in line with other drag cabarets I’ve seen: goofy song parodies, wisecracking comedy and so forth. But DeLa has something more sophisticated to offer, in a show with a seductive strangeness that creeps up on you.

The Lypsinka-y moment comes when DeLa – not known on Drag Race for her lip-synching talent – delivers a number that involves a skipping CD and warped speed changes. It’s incredibly complicated (and hilarious) and involves a level of synching technique close to the legendary Lyp.

The Mummenchanz-y stuff comes in the midst of a spectacular sequence that draws on performance art, modern dance, burlesque (where DeLa got her start) and all kinds of other art forms. Very exciting and very, very strange (in a good way). Burlesque also features in several sections of the show, including an ingenious display of twirling pasties on an assortment of fake boobs.

This act, titled Terminally Delightful, is every bit as carefully structured as Jinkx Monsoon and Major Scales’s Vaudevillians, and in some ways just as ambitious. There is an autobiographical element to this show, but it’s cleverly refracted through diverse performance styles.

BenDeLaCreme is all about fantastic and ridiculous artifice, but also ultimately really about what that artifice can communicate and express about deeper things. She delivers a show that’s equal parts clubby fun and insightful art, no small feat. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Nellie McKay

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Nellie McKay is a highly individual talent, a supreme stylist, with wild, crazy creativity and substantial musical intelligence to match her razor-like interpretive ability. McKay has become something of a specialist in biographical cabarets – experimental performance art meets high society cabaret – and has put together another such special show about Billy Tipton, a jazz pianist who was discovered to have been a woman after his death.

The key word in that last sentence is “special” – A Girl Named Bill is cabaret as only Nellie McKay could do it. She does the entire act while literally playing the role of Tipton, right down to period-accurate costumes and props. And period-accurate music and speaking styles as well. A perfectionist sense of history on complete display.

Sometimes McKay’s complex acts can seem under-rehearsed. Not here. While she is certainly stretching the abilities of herself and her immensely talented band to their limits, these is a sense of ease. It’s swimmingly successful, no small achievement. McKay doesn’t narrate, so you might be well advised to look at the Wikipedia biography of Tipton before you see the show.

Instead, she presents us with loosely sketched vignettes of Tipton’s life, mostly letting the music do the story-telling. Tipton did impersonations in his shows, which gives McKay license to do songs by Jimmy Durante, Elvis Presley, Liberace and Bob Dylan.

The gender-bending element of the show gives McKay plenty of opportunities for humor, which she is all too willing to take. Most enjoyable of all is a running gag in which McKay’s hirsute band titter like schoolgirls, to which she scoffs, “Ladies, please!” But she also gets very serious about gender identity, especially in a hair-raising version of Jelly Roll Morton’s very sexually explicit “Whinin’ Boy Blues.”

McKay ties together all of the thematic and musical aspects of the show in a whimsically rousing rendition of “Why Can’t a Woman Be More Like a Man?,” from My Fair Lady. McKay’s combination of irony and heart-on-sleeve sincerity is utterly unique, her performance style multifarious and unpredictable. She’s a true original, and it’s an exceptional pleasure to see and hear her take such exciting risks in such an intimate setting.

For tickets, click here.

Review: Courtney Act

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I was Team Bianca before the season even started, but Miss Courtney Act was one of the more charming discoveries in the latest season of Drag Race. In her cabaret act Boys Like Me, Act reaffirms the perception that she is a real pro of a performer, a real pleasure to spend some time with, even if she’s not an innovator like Jinkx Monsoon, or a crazed genius like Bianca del Rio.

In Boys Like Me, Act sings songs and tells stories focusing on the sometimes provocative, sometimes absurd dirty laundry list that is his sex life. There’s that angry text from a straight boy’s girlfriend, the twins in Montreal, and the US Marine, and that’s just the beginning. The show is at its best in the spoken sections, as Courtney insightfully observes what happens when straddling the gender divide, when boys like “her.”

There’s no denying that Act is one of the most successfully “fishy” of drag queens – a cute boy to be sure, but truly gorgeous as a woman. That said, my personal taste in drag runs less to this kind of prettiness, and more to the fantastic and ridiculous. Thankfully, Act is more than a pretty face and nice bod: she has an appealing voice which she applies expressively to a wide variety of songs.

Most interestingly, she sings an ambitious version of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now”. She sings the hell out of it, and acts it in such a way that it comments on her life story. Still, I felt like she was going for something in this song that she didn’t quite reach. She needs to work more on sitting calmly in the emotional center of a song, and rely less on her admittedly solid technical chops.

These are quibbles, however. Act definitely delivers a fun and smart cabaret show that I can wholeheartedly recommend.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Just Jim Dale

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Brilliant actor-dancer-singer Jim Dale started out in the last days of British music hall. Just Jim Dale, his retrospective one man show, has the earthy yet somehow breezy quality of music hall at its best. In the show, Jim gives us only the most entertaining highlights of an amazingly diverse life in show business. From music hall he went to rock and roll singing and songwriting – he wrote the lyrics to the huge hit “Georgy Girl” – to film and stage acting, to doing hundreds of voices for all seven Harry Potter audiobooks.

Just Jim Dale is very much a club act writ large, but having the full size of the Laura Pels stage certainly helps in his more dance oriented moments: at 78, Dale is still amazingly capable of the rubber-limbed “eccentric” dancing he learned as a young man. He’s best known in the Broadway world for his Tony-winning turn in the title role of Barnum, and indeed the songs he sings from that hit, “There’s a Sucker Born Ev’ry Minute” and “The Colors of My Life”, are the most effective and affecting of the evening.

He also regales us with some less well-remembered shows, such as a very physical Scapino. Of the more dramatic parts of the evening, the most memorable moment is a monologue Dale does from Noël Coward’s Fumed Oak. It’s not clear whether his ever performed the play it’s excerpted from, but it’s so good that it really makes me want to see him take on more Coward roles.

Dale, every the optimist and the entertainer, doesn’t dig terribly deep in this show. What he’s here to do – what he’s apparently always been here to do – is dazzle and get a laugh, and he does that more successfully than the great majority of performers out there. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

Review: Mark Nadler

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Out cabaret star Mark Nadler is one of the greatest showmen of our time, capable of leaping from floor to piano bench, while keeping steady eye contact with the audience – all the while playing a complex passage on the piano without even glancing at the keys. In “Runnin’ Wild”, his new show about the Roaring Twenties, Nadler plays and sings with his usual virtuosic abandon, in a show constructed with his usual passionate intelligence. And as usual, the show is stunning.

I never walk out of a Mark Nadler show without leaning something. This one’s particularly fun in that I mostly learned what the twenties had to offer in the way of sex (gay and straight), drugs, booze – and drag queens! He mentions the queen that Mae West copied much her shtick from, Bert Savoy, and one so successful he had a theatre named after him, Julian Eltinge. But his best stories are about one of my personal favorites, Jean Malin. We can see Malin knocking gangsters on the floor and channeling Mae West and Sophie Tucker in this video.

Contrary to the caption of the video, we do know more than a little about Malin, and Mark sings and dances all about it. Great stuff! In between two bits of one of Malin’s signature numbers, he sandwiches Libby Holman’s lusty “Primitive Man”, and proceeds to take us on a roller coaster trip through the life and music of that irrepressible torch singer.

Nadler takes this boozy, tawdry journey around the world, from the opium dens of London in “Limehouse Blues”, to Berlin in an extended medley of Kurt Weill songs. And of course there’s a liberal dose of songs from perennial bad boy Cole Porter, who Nadler always does so brilliantly. I always love a Mark Nadler show, but as a plus with this one, I left feeling a little dirty. Highly recommended!

For tickets, click here.

Review: Liz and Ann Hampton Callaway

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The power of siblings harmonizing is on glorious display in performances of the legendary cabaret act Sibling Revelry, which hadn’t been seen in New York in over 15 years. Verifiably legendary at that – it’s so broadly influential that two drag queens in Pennsylvania make it their schtick to perform the Callaway sisters’ entire act.

About that harmonizing: Liz and Ann Hampton Callaway have seemingly quite different voices. Liz has a muscular yet elegant Broadway soprano, and Ann has a wide-ranging jazz monster of a voice.

And yet, when they harmonize, the blending is utterly seamless, sometimes to the point of not being able to determine who’s singing what vocal line. You can hear this best in a medley of “The Sweetest Sounds” and “I Can See It” early in the show. They also have great comic chemistry, doing a barbed version of Cole Porter’s “Friendship” that’s as hilarious as it is mellifluous.

Both sisters get a chance to fly solo for stretches of the show. Ann shines with an emotional and detailed reading of the tender Ford & Cryer classic “Old Friends”, and Liz does a version of “Meadowlark” from Stephen Schwartz’s The Baker’s Wife that can hold its head up with any other version of the song, which is saying a lot since it’s a favorite of the likes of Patti LuPone and Betty Buckley.

It’s also clear that the sisters have a lot of gay men in their circle! When word got out some 18 years ago that they were putting this show together, oh boy did they get phone calls offering suggestions of duets they absolutely must do together. They include a bunch of these suggestions in what they call they “The Huge Medley”. As the roughly 10 minute medley came into its eighth or so minute, I turned to my husband and said “This is getting so gay!!” I won’t give away the exact songs – they’re just too delicious – but let’s just say they involve major gay icons belting their brains out. So gay and so fun!

There’s all kinds of reasons this show is so beloved by cabaret fans, and it’s wonderful to have it back. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

Review: Lucie Arnaz

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The daughter of Lucille Ball & Desi Arnaz of I Love Lucy fame, Lucie Arnaz has forged a career of her own, including originating the role of Sonia Walsk in the hit Broadway musical They’re Playing Our Song. In “Spring Is Here”, her new cabaret act at the Cafe Carlyle, Arnaz focuses on love in all its shades and phases, from light to dark, from promiscuity to devotion.

She covers the promiscuous side wonderfully with a sensuous take on “When in Rome”. Arnaz strikes me as a saloon singer, which is a good fit for the Carlyle – the performer most associated with the Carlyle, the late Bobby Short, always described himself as just that.

One of the most entertaining moments in the show is a song for which Arnaz herself wrote the lyrics, about a time when she was single, during the run of They’re Playing Our Song, and dating two dashingly handsome men of the theatre. Well, turns out they’re both gay and closeted! Arnaz found this out just as she was going away for the weekend with one of them, and on the train trip she wrote the bitingly funny “I Don’t Like It Already”. After the song she commented that over time she dated so many closeted men that she felt like she was wearing cedar chips.

Perhaps the most moving moment of the evening is Arnaz’s rendition of “Just a Housewife” from the musical Working. The song is an emotional powerhouse in the first place, and Arnaz gives it extra dignity and ruefulness. Really lovely.

Arnaz got winded about two thirds of the way through, not, I think, because she lacks stamina, but because the show itself is several songs too long – perhaps 20 minutes worth. Small quibble, that, when you’re spending that time with such a talented and witty host. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

 

Cabaret Review: John Pizzarelli (featuring 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 architect’s of bossa nova.

This act, entitled “Strictly Bossa Nova” 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’ “Fascinating Rhythm” and Cole Porter’s “I Concentrate on You”, both of which respond beautifully to the bossa nova treatment. They even apply it to Paul McCartney’s marvelous American Songbook tribute “My Valentine”, together with choice stories about Pizzarelli working with Sir Paul.

Still, the most sparkling parts of the evening are songs by Antonio Carlos Jobim, most of all his bristlingly poetic “Waters of March”. The only bossa nova evening I like nearly as much as this was another Pizzarelli act, and I think this is even better than that one. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.