Review: La Soirée

La Soiree

Oh dear lord, the man candy in La Soirée!!! I’ve seen plenty of circus shows with half-or-more naked men, but this one delivers more toned flesh per minute than any other I’ve seen. And, for such folk as like such things, female performer Ursula Martinez goes the full monty for a magic act that gives new meaning to “nothing up my sleeve” (even though the bit wasn’t sexy for me, it was still quite funny). But the boys!!!

There’s aerialist Stephen Williams (pictured, above) whose “bath boy” routine is ridiculously erotic – he wears nothing but a wet, and very tight, pair of 501s. Acrobatic act The English Gents run a close second with provocative positions and surprise after surprise. And if you go for the svelte type, clown/juggler Mario, Queen of the Circus is very tight indeed (and wickedly funny in a decidedly sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll style).

But La Soirée is above all a variety show, not just all boys all the time (though I wouldn’t necessarily complain if it was). It also features cabaret acts, including singing from one of the most respected cabaret performers in the world, Meow Meow, accompanied by composer Lance Horne. The above-mentioned Martinez sings and jokes in addition to her nudist illusionism.

The appropriately named Miss Behave combines oddball circus stunts with a sensibility that’s campier than Christmas. And comedienne Mooky Cornish does audience participation in the kindest, most generous way I’ve seen, with truly hilarious results.

This is one of the most well-paced and structured circus variety shows I’ve ever seen, as well. No individual act overstays its welcome, nor does the show as a whole. A highly recommended evening of sexy fun!

For tickets, click here.

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Review: The Nance

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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:

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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.

Review: John Pizzarelli

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The John Pizzarelli Quartet always scales the heights of cabaret’s jazzier side with astonishing musicianship and elan. This particular engagement at the Café Carlyle, however, is singularly focused on their guest star Bucky Pizzarelli, John’s father as well as jazz guitar legend in his own right (having played with the likes of Benny Goodman, Les Paul and Dion and the Belmonts).

With both Pizzarellis, a profound musical intelligence is at work. Bucky’s guitar style is amazingly fluid and elegant, with nonpareil mastery of a technique called “guitar harmonics” that produces high notes of extraordinary expressivity and beauty. John has a more straightforward, but no less astonishing, sort of virtuosity – his particular genius is in his chordal improvisations, finding hidden musical meanings in the most familiar of standards. Watching the two duet, which they do several times throughout the evening, is truly thrilling and very rewarding.

Bucky performs Richard Rodgers’s “This Nearly Was Mine” in the the style of…well, Bucky Pizzarelli, those “harmonics” lingering with a lovely, luscious longing. For previous cabaret acts, John had often subtly framed songs “in the style of” a particular jazzman. Here, however, he is explicitly committing to a Pizzarelli family style, saying early on that “we’ll play lots of different songs, but they will all sound something like that – and that’s the way we like it!!!”

It’s common courtesy in a jazz setting to applaud for a bit after everbody’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.

Review: Herb Alpert & Lani Hall

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Although she was born and raised in Chicago, Lani Hall understands and communicates the soul of Brazilian music better than many Brazilian artists. She really gets the dark colors that give the oh-so-cool bossa nova its depth – what saxaphonist Stan Getz, the great jazz popularizer of bossa nova, perhaps too dramatically called its “fatalism.” She understands it so well that she can apply it to gringo standards like “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” or “Anything Goes”, making those masterpieces even more dimensional than they already were.

In the cabaret show they are doing at the Cafe Carlyle, Hall, her husband famed trumpeter Herb Alpert, and the expert players behind them display outlandish spontaneity more thrillingly than I think I’ve ever experienced in a cabaret (except for the last time I saw them). Alpert is most associated with his group the Tijuana Brass, and was also a recording industry executive: he is the “A” of A&M Records, which he founded with business partner Jerry Moss. Lani sang with A&M artist Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66, most famously on their hit version of “Mas Que Nada” – that’s where she got her Brazilain bona fides.

In the act at the Carlyle they perform selections from the two albums they’ve recently recorded together (the first time in their 33-year-long marriage that they’ve collaborated in that way), as well as stuff from a new one and a medley of Tijuana Brass hits. I can’t overstate the impressive and exciting musicianship in this act. Alpert and his excellent keyboardist Bill Cantos have structured the songs in intricate ways that leave abundant room for improvisation. They may play the same songs from night to night, but musically every performance will be utterly different.

Alpert is a breathtakingly soulful player – the brashness of the Tijuana Brass years now tempered with attention to innovations of younger artists like Terence Blachard – and Lani has that kind of liquid crystal voice that songwriters dream of. Most impressive of all was a reworking of brilliant Brazilian songwriter Edu Lobo’s “Viola Fora de Moda”, which Alpert has given a magnificently complex structure; it allows the powerfully present Hall and the band to lock into a groove and improvise their way into the stratosphere. Stunning.

For tickets, click here.

Review: Justin Vivian Bond

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Back in the days when Justin Bond mostly performed as Kiki DuRane of Kiki & Herb, that deranged duo would always do Christmas shows that were the most hilariously blasphemous and vitriolic thing in town. Now that Justin Vivian Bond has shed the DuRane persona and stands ever more firmly center stage (and in the center of the gender specturm), v’s Christmas show naturally takes a much different form.

In “Snow Angel”, this year’s Christmas show, JVB’s own persona is plenty big enough and v’s wit is spontaneous, an acidly funny stream of consciousness – what do you know, hilarious blasphemy and vitriol still come pretty naturally to Justin! The stories v tells now are more personal; now, instead of toying with Kiki’s complicated fictional relationship with Christianity, Bond can actually put v’s own pagan ambivalence about Christmas at the heart of the show. And the music can be performed with less irony and greater feeling – after singing Jay-Z and Kanye’s “Made in America”, JVB specifically said “I hate post-rap irony, so I did my best to be sincere.”

There’s a lot of songs by Melanie Safka (of “Brand New Key” and “Lay Down (Candles in the Rain)” fame), and Melanie’s dangerously earnest passion defines the tone of this act. The musical backing from Brett Every on piano and Nath Ann Carrera on guitar is sophisticated, warm and rich. Amber Martin on backing vocals can stand up to Bond’s titanic vocal power, a very tall order. There’s nothing particularly jazzy about the arrangements – if anything they are redolent of folk rock and chamber pop – but there is a powerful sense of improvisational give and take.

Bond is one of the most original and potent performers of our time, whom I think everybody should see at least once. Or more often – there’s something new and freshly rewarding about every single performance.

For tickets, click here.

Review: Michael Feinstein

Michael Feinstein takes up residence in the New York nightclub that bears his name every year in December, to celebrate the holidays, though not necessarily to sing holiday songs. This year’s edition is somewhat bittersweet, since it will be the last at the Regency Hotel, as Michael and company look for a new venue.

Titled “A Gershwin Holiday”, this show features Feinstein singing only songs by George and Ira Gershwin, without any actual holiday songs until the encore (George Gershwin had passed away before Christmas songs came into vogue). Michael draws on his recently released book The Gershwins and Me, which itself draws on his six years (1977-1983) working as an archivist for Ira.

Unusually for cabaret, Feinstein has an opening act, the 16-year-old Nick Ziobro, the winner of the Michael Feinstein Initiative’s 2012 Great American Songbook High School Competition. Ziobro’s an astonishingly assured young singer, with a high tenor reminiscent of Feinstein and Fred Astaire – and even Harry Connick, Jr. when he really gets going.

Michael’s show is both shorter (to make room for Ziobro, of course) and more understated than past holiday offerings. That’s not to say that it doesn’t swing: Musical Director Alan Broadbent leads a 5-piece ensemble of tasteful jazz players who play elegantly but never for a moment lose sight of the rhythmic vitality and invention that was one of Gershwin’s hallmarks.

The only song in the show that doesn’t have music by George Gershwin is one that Ira co-wrote with Kurt Weill, “Tchaikovsky”, which Michael includes as a salute to Danny Kaye, who celebrates his centenary this year. Feinstein executes that song’s brutally difficult lyrics quite well, but the evening’s most musically stunning moment is a sort of “Gershwin fugue” built around “Embraceable You,” which features Michael singing that song, while he and the band play tidbits of not one but 15 other Gershwin songs. Dazzling.

For tickets, click here.

 

Review: Betty Buckley

Among the principal pleasures in Betty Buckley’s recent cabaret acts have been clever specialty numbers that poke fun at some aspect or other of the Broadway musical. Her current act at Feinstein’s, “The Other Women: The Vixens of Broadway”, celebrates the second female lead – called the “other woman” in old Broadway slang, and “Featured Actress in a Musical” by today’s Tony Nominating Committees.

So, relatively early in the show, she sings a whip-smart, very funny specialty number called “But Play The Other Woman”, set partially to the melody of “You Gotta Have a Gimmick” from Gypsy. It thoroughly demonstrates how “the other woman” has always received the best, showiest songs over the years. As a matter of fact, the number is so full of vocal fireworks that Betty wondered aloud afterward if it was too early in the act!

From beginning to end, she knocks every song out of the ballpark. Musical director Christian Jacob’s arrangements are complex and lush. In particular, his arrangement of “My Heart Belongs to Daddy” goes so far in a moody, jazzy direction that it takes a little getting used to, but in the end really is luscious.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen Buckley so at ease and whimsical, and it suits her very well. This is the latest in a series of acts that focus on the Broadway songbook, rather than the jazz and art songs that Buckley formerly used to populate her cabaret acts. I think she’s really relaxed into this approach, and is genuinely having fun – which ends up creating a lot of fun for us in the audience, too.

For tickets, click here.