Review: John O’Hurley

This man has a finely tuned sense of the absurd, but he’s also capable of sincerity so complete that it’s almost embarrassing. Best known as J. Peterman on the NBC sitcom Seinfeld and as a champion on Dancing with the Stars, the early decades of O’Hurley’s career saw him as a fixture of daytime TV soap operas. More recently, he has spent a lot of time playing Billy Flynn in Broadway’s Chicago. Frankly, I think he’d be a revelation in something by Samuel Beckett, but maybe that’s just me.

His current club act at the Café Carlyle is called “A Man with Standards” a reference both to growing up in a more sentimental time, and to the Great American Songbook. As far as the songs go, they’re more 1950s swinging chart hits than the pre-WW II showtunes I associate with “the Songbook” – no Gershwin, Porter or the like. The closest he comes to that is Johnny Mercer’s later hit “Moon River”. That’s not a big deal, however; he does it all with panache and an enormous booming voice that almost renders amplification redundant.

There’s much talk of Sinatra. Most of it is in the abstract, but O’Hurley also tells about singing Sinatra’s own “You Will Be My Music” at a celebration Sinatra attended, and how much he prized Frank’s approval. Toward the end of the show, O’Hurley sings several songs written by Anthony Newley, and the fit of singer and material is terrific. If there ever was a songwriter who seamlessly combined the absurd and the sentimental, it was Newley, and he finds an ideal interpreter in O’Hurley – I’d love to see a whole show of him singing nothing but Newley. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

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Review: Orfeh and Andy Karl

andykarlorfeh

Big-piped (and married) musical theatre couple Orfeh and Andy Karl aren’t delivering any particular story or message in their current club act at Feinstein’s / 54 Below. Pleasantly enough, they simply sing songs that suit their voices – soulful and wild in her case, poppy and tuneful in his (note to Andy, though: the band When in Rome, whose hit “The Promise” you sing so beautifully and tastefully, have absolutely nothing to do with Depeche Mode, as you said they did). They also touch on songs they’ve done in the musical theatre, including the lovely ballad for Andy called “Seeing You” from the upcoming Groundhog Day.

They met doing Saturday Night Fever on Broadway and married soon after, but most people associate the two of them, as a couple anyway, with Legally Blonde The Musical, in which they played a couple. Orfeh is definitely the bigger powerhouse singer, as she demonstrates repeatedly, most stunningly in a rendition of “Piece of my Heart” that happily recalls Janis Joplin without being a slavish imitation. But Andy’s voice is a fine instrument, too, and he acts the lyrics of his songs with a conviction and clarity that many cabaret performers would do well to imitate.

They don’t sing a large number of songs, so the evening flies by – without being too short, it has a welcome sense of economy. This is not quite cabaret heaven, but a briskly entertaining, smartly executed look into the musical toolboxes of a couple of canny performers. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Interview: Justin Sayre

Justin Sayre

The Meeting* hosted by Justin Sayre – the monthly gathering of the International Order of Sodomites, a fictional “centuries-old organization which sets the mythic Gay Agenda” – will come to an end at the conclusion of its upcoming season. After seven years of audacious humor, trailblazing political discourse and button-pushing cultural exploration, the acclaimed comedy/variety show will be presented for the eighth and final season from September 2016 through May 2017 at Joe’s Pub at The Public Theater. The Fall 2016 season shows are Sunday nights at 9:30pm and will feature tributes to gay icons Bette Midler (October 23), and Angela Lansbury (November 20), with the 8th Annual Holiday Spectacular! being held December 18. There will also be a November 5 show at Oasis in San Francisco.

I talked recently with Sayre about The Meeting*, his new comedy CD The Gay Agenda, and his popular podcast “Sparkle & Circulate”.

What was the origin of The Meeting*?

I had gone to a Radical Faerie event and I had never been to one before I was struck by the community, the discussions that people were having. I left and the whole idea for The Meeting* spurted out in one moment. [Laughs.] “Oh! What if you did a comedy / variety show, that was political and topical, that celebrated different gay icons? Invite people from the community to intepret their work, rather than doing impersonations. Do it month to month.” Really, came up with the title and the whole thing. I called some friends in New York and asked, “Do you think that will work? Would you ever come to something like that?” The response was positive, so I though, okay I’ll try it! See what happens, nothing really lost if it fails – it’s only one night [Laughs.] I thought that for the first year, really, it’s only one night a month if it doesn’t work out how bad is it? It really hit the ground running, we did the first two shows at the Duplex, and they said “this is really smart and fun, and we would love to have you back.” And there was always something new I wanted to do, or new people I wanted to have on it.

Do you think of your monologues as stand-up?

No. I still don’t consider myself a stand up in a strange way. I’m more of a storyteller. To me stand-up is more athletic, they’re more like rock-jumpers going from idea to idea to idea. As a theatre actor, it was more about “this is part of this particular section of the show, and here we need to introduce this idea to help frame the next part.” Like my “hanky code” story was framing emotional baggage. Or we need to introduce the political side of x, y and z for what’s coming up next, so we need to spin it this way.

Who influenced you as a performer?

Especially as a gay performer, as somebody coming out of the cabaret world Justin Vivian Bond was an enormous influence on me, I was obsessed with Justin and Kenny Mellman as Kiki & Herb, when they were playing I would buy tickets for every performance. Just the way they would work this really intelligent commentary into this wild world. Also people like Sandra Bernhart, certainly. And strangely, Stritch. I know that sounds so strange, but I’ve taken a huge thing from her performing style. You know just stand there and do it, deliver. Not anything else really, but just that – she’s always represented that to me, and for better or worse the honesty that comes out of that.

Tell me a little about The Gay Agenda.

We’d always recorded the shows, and about two or three years ago we thought, well, we have all this material, it’d be great to put it together and have a “Greatest Hits” of The Meeting*. Dan Fortune, my producer spearhead the idea, we picked out tracks, listened to dubs and all that stuff. It really represents what The Meeting* has been about very, very well.

In listening to The Gay Agenda, do I detect the influence of Buddy Cole [Scott Thompson’s insanely flamboyant character from Kids in the Hall]?

[Laughs.] Scott actually came to one of the shows and I said to him, “Sometimes I feel like I’m just doing Buddy Cole!” [Laughs.] I grew up with Kids in the Hall, and Buddy Cole is one of the first out people I remember seeing, and talking so frankly about it. I remember being so titillated and excited, thinking “look at him, he’s so gay!” [Laughs.] I take that as a huge compliment, really I do, because I think everything Scott and those guys did was so fantastic and ahead of their time. Thank you for even thinking of me in the same light!

How did the “Sparkle & Circulate” podcast come about?

It’s another way to get more material out there and to keep fans interested. Once our YouTube channel started to take off, we wanted to supply people with a really easy, accessible way to “tune in.” When we started there was just too much on my plate to consider something as complex as creating a whole other show. We have all these great guests at The Meeting*, because of the format of the show I don’t interact with them much. The podcast came out of my desire to actually talk to people I admired, find out where they were at with their work, what queerness or gayness has to do with their work. I found very quickly that I really liked it. And it’s really taken off, it’s a remarkable thing that I never saw coming but really delight in. And that will continue long after The Meeting* is over.

Do you have anything coming up?

Two plays coming up by the end of this year, I’m working on a pilot right now, books coming out. The work has grown exponetially through and because of The Meeting*. I got hired to write for Two Broke Girls because Michael Patrick King saw a clip and thought I was really funny. I got my book deal in a very similar way.

One last thing, as someone who has said that, in the boudoir, calling you “Madame” works just as well as calling you “Daddy,” what’s your take on masculinity?

I don’t deal with it well! [Laughs.] When somebody’s really butch I’m very “What are you doing in my house? Get outta here!” It’s almost what the premise of the show is, in a weird way. Even in the beginning The Meeting* was going to operate from the fact that being gay was never outside the norm but was the norm, even the superior norm. So there are no apologies, no teaching anybody, we’re all in on the joke. It became a celebration of what that means. I think so many people have a struggle with masculinity, because they think its about strength or some kind of bravura, but I so often find that masculinity is about insecurity. It’s about demanding space because you’re worried that somebody else is going to take it. And when you give that up and say “You know, I take up space simply because I’m this person, nobody can take it.” I can invite people into it and make sure that other voices are heard. Everything doesn’t have to be a pissing contest. I think we get a lot more done thinking like that, and are just happier. I take on masculinity because I feel like it’s something that people are forcing down on themselves, or using to force someone out of their space. I’ve seen masculinity being used as a preventative measure, and I don’t like that. I take it on because I want to free people of it, metaphorically take it off the table and poke fun at it. Within expectations of masculinity there’s that thread of misogyny. It’s always shocking to me that little gay kids grow up and want to be like the kid that tortured them in middle school. That seems silly to me. We need to celebrate who we are rather than try to be somebody else.

For tickets and more information about Justin, click here.

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

Review: Michael Feinstein & Marilyn Maye

Michael Feinstein and Marilyn Maye

Marilyn Maye’s a great hidden national treasure; Ella Fitzgerald herself once called Maye “the greatest white female singer in the world.” That was no exaggeration when Ella said it and it’s even truer today. There are younger singers who might posses more powerful voices, but I can think of no other living singer who possesses Maye’s combination of interpretive ability, rhythmic verve and undiminished vocal range.

She is currently sharing the stage of Feinstein’s / 54 Below with Michael Feinstein himself. Feinstein has had great success doing duet shows for many years and here, as usual, it’s a winning situation all around. This particular match is especially good: Maye is still at the top of her game at 88 – how many people, let alone performers, can say that – and Feinstein just keeps getting better, marrying soaring vocal power with ever more detailed nuance in his interpretations.

They both shine in their solo moments: Feinstein pays tribute to the upcoming production of Hello, Dolly in a bouncy rendition of the title song, including some newly fashioned lyrics from the composer / lyricist Jerry Herman. And Marilyn gives us her sultry rendition of Blossom Dearie’s “Bye Bye Country Boy” – I’ve heard her do it before, but still, every time her legendary interpretative ability gives me shivers. Of their fabulous encore, I won’t say anything, except that it exploits Michael’s ongoing love affair with boogie-woogie, which suits the ever-swinging Maye just fine.

Musical director Tedd Firth brings a glossy, sophisticated jazz musicianship to the proceedings, providing a luscious frame for the pair’s multifarious artistry. If you love classic songs sung like they’re meant to be sung – and swung – it doesn’t get any better than this.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: BenDeLaCreme

Bendelacreme Inferno2_JasonRusso

“What the Hell?” That’s the question posed by innovative drag performance artist BenDeLaCreme in her latest show, Inferno-A-Go-Go. BenDeLaCreme’s shows are truly unique, not just in drag performance, but in theatre as a whole. Sure, she includes the goofy song parodies and wisecracking comedy so common in drag. However, she’s after something far more sophisticated – her seductive strangeness creeps up on you.

The queen otherwise known as Ben Putnam is playing less of a ditz this time around, wryly joking about the fact that’s she’s chosen to do a drag cabaret based on Dante Alighieri’s 14th Century Italian epic poem Inferno. She’s more confident this time out, less coy about being more profound than the most chin-strokingly serious straight play, while rarely being less than belly-laugh hilarious.

BenDeLa forever rebukes the notion that arts of clowning, drag, circus, burlesque and ventriloquism are somehow less than other performance forms, somehow stupid. Putnam takes the best of all those forms and whips them into something new, fascinating and intensely intelligent. Not only that, BenDeLa uses these popular forms to probe the very biggest questions, switching from deep existential angst to spiritual lightness in the space of a minute – in between double entendres about sex and booze.

BenDeLaCreme is all about fantastic and ridiculous artifice, but also ultimately really about what that artifice can communicate and express about deeper things, like ethics and how to take care of ourselves and each other. She delivers a show that’s equal parts cheeky 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: Charles Busch

Charles Busch_2016

Legendary playwright and drag performer Charles Busch has always combined elegantly languid, self-effacing charm with an effortlessly brassy glamour. Busch’s main line is comically complex hard-boiled dames, and while he doesn’t leave that behind entirely, this act is in general more sentimental and sincere. The most time he spends in “brassy-land” is when he’s portraying the character Miriam Passman, an under-talented, over-egotistical cabaret dilettante.

When not giving us Ms. Passman, this act is more of a “big sing” than previous presentations. Busch has a pleasantly throaty, not terribly strong, high tenor singing voice – but you don’t come to one of his acts for musical virtuosity. As with the greatest cabaret singers, it’s all about how Busch acts the story and emotion of a song.

The songbook for this show ranges from Jerome Kern to Paul Williams. For each song, Busch takes pains to clearly delineate the details of every image and event, with just a dash of his “dame” persona to give it all an elegantly wry air. He does a clutch of Sondheim songs, and it’s telling that most of them are from the quirky flop Anyone Can Whistle – sweetly off-kilter is the target, and Busch hits it with artful precision.

Busch sincerely loves artifice and invests every moment he has on-stage with substantial style – and a discreetly dishy side, as well. They don’t make ’em like this anymore, and there’s only one Charles Busch.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Herb Alpert & Lani Hall

Herb Alpert & Lani Hall

Part of the joy of listening to really good jazz is the exciting spontaneity of improvisation. A rhythm that jumps out of nowhere, a melody that turns in an unexpected direction. In the cabaret show they are doing at the Cafe Carlyle, trumpeter Herb Alpert, his singer wife Lani Hall and the expert players behind them – the trio of Bill Cantos (piano), Hussain Jiffry (bass), Michael Shapiro (drums) – this thrilling spontaneity is on truly outlandish display.

I can’t overstate the impressive and exciting musicianship in this act. Alpert structures the songs in intricate ways that leave abundant room for improvisation. A rhythmic twist that starts in the drums finds its way to the bass and then into Alpert’s trumpet line – or the other way around! Herb and the band may play the same songs from night to night, but musically every performance is utterly different. Alpert is a breathtakingly soulful player, and Hall has that kind of liquid crystal voice that haunts songwriters’ dreams.

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. Hall sang with A&M artist Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66, most famously on their hit version of “Mas Que Nada”. In the act at the Carlyle they perform selections from Alpert’s latest album Come Fly with Me, as well as the two albums they’ve recently recorded together, plus medleys of Tijuana Brass and Brasil ’66 hits.

Really, this is pure musical pleasure. During a particularly frisky version of Cole Porter’s “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”, pianist Bill Cantos soared off into a vocal scat that mirrored his vigorous and playful improvisations on the keyboard. Stunning, and highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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