Review: Dianna Agron

“High-falutin’ honky-tonk” – that’s my “elevator pitch” for Diana Agron’s current cabaret act at the Café Carlyle. She originally designed her songlist to compliment her first run at the Carlyle, which found her singing the music of “some of the finest male-fronted acts of the ’70s.” Here, she mainly covers songs originally done by other women. She keeps breaking her own rules to put together a show that feels right, which makes it harder to explain, asking the audience if they have any suggestions.

The former Glee star recently married folk rock band Mumford & Sons’ banjoist and guitarist Winston Marshall. Her own musical aesthetic lines up less with Glee, and more with the style of her husband’s band. This is a beautiful young woman with a gorgeous voice who is nowhere more comfortable than when she’s singing a cover of a 1960s folk rock chestnut or 1950s standard.

On her first run, Agron was hesitant when it come to patter, but calmed right down when it came time to sing. She’s not necessarily more eloquent between songs this time, but she’s all-around more confident and in command, which lends her off-hand comments a kind of raffish charm. No song was less than beautifully sung, and, as before, she performs best when a song brings out the actress in her – most notably in Eartha Kitt’s wicked signature tune “I Want to Be Evil” and Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day.”

There’s an enormous amount of potential here – I would give a lot to hear Agron’s huskily golden yet liquid voice act the hell out of some of June Christie’s sophisticated material. The job in cabaret, as much as in theatre and film, is storytelling, and Agron is getting better at doing that in this format. In any event, Agron gives us enough wonderfully sung renditions of dauntingly complex songs that I can heartily recommend her.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Jane Lynch & Kate Flannery

Spill Carol Burnett, Louis Prima and Keely Smith into a cocktail shaker, mix violently and pour the results into two portions, one taller than the other, and you will have the double act currently playing at the Cafe Carlyle. That would be, as they introduce each other, “America’s Jane Lynch” and “Kate Flannery, brought to you by Jameson.” Or, as you may have first met them, Sue Sylvester from Glee (Lynch) and Meredith Palmer from The Office (Flannery).

Their act is called “Two Lost Souls” and is, in the main, silly fun which attacks the American Songbook with equal parts affection and gimlet-eyed irony. Lynch and Flannery first met as members of Chicago’s sketch comedy scene, where they recognized each other as singers of more or less equal gifts – strong bright voices with solid musicianship. There’s an old bromide that all comedians are frustrated singers, but this duo puts the lie to that; they’re real singers who use their comic gifts to shine fresh colors on the songs they sing.

It’s pretty plain that Lynch is the writer/actor here, and Flannery the improvisationally inclined loose cannon. The night I was there Flannery offered that her “underwear was on backwards” to which Lynch responded (with flawless timing, mind you) “I don’t know what to do with that information.” As recording artists they only have one CD, a Christmas album under Jane’s name, and they were quite clever about working songs from that repertoire into a show for a sweaty, soggy September evening.

A more serious theme emerges slowly, about the personal damage that the Songbook often reflects, but it is worn lightly and spooled out with wit and elegance. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Alan Cumming

Alan Cumming became an American citizen in 2008 and his new club act “Legal Immigrant,” happening at both Joe’s Pub and the Café Carlyle, is a pointed response to the current political drama over immigration. He makes clear every song he sings that was written by an immigrant – and it’s most of them, over a wide variety of genres.

Cumming is easily one of the most charismatic performers in America today, his take on songs – by composers ranging from Sondheim to Adele – so very original and fresh, his singing as bold, big and beautiful as can be.

Cumming’s patter is nothing if not frank, and the show as a whole is very emotionally direct, which makes for an experience that is both intimate and expansive. Oh, and did I mention really, really funny? It was his naughty sense of humor as much as anything else that made his Tony-winning turn in the revival of Cabaret a “star-making” one.

He’s just as sassy and silly here, singing a Sondheim medley with a teasing restraint that crescendoes into a roar of heartbreak in “Not A Day Goes By” only to snap back to flirtatious fun with “Old Friends.” Cumming can be hilarious and heartbreaking in the very same moment, no small gift. What a perfect and posh choice for Pride Week. Highly recommended.

For tickets to the Joe’s Pub performances, click here.

For tickets to the Café Carlyle performances, click here.

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

Review: Lena Hall

This show is all about auditioning, which Lena Hall has been doing from a young age, often as part of a teen musical theatre troupe. The present-day Hall sings beautifully in a spectacular range of styles – vocally she brings to my mind Christine Ebersole, which is a big compliment. Hall performs with a glee and verve that’s gotten her pegged as the rock and roll singing actress. She doesn’t mind that, but does mind a bit that it keeps her from the full range of roles she could own.

This show, entitled “The Art of the Audition,” features songs from shows that Hall auditioned for (City of Angels, Oklahoma!, Legally Blonde) and shows from which she took her audition songs (A Chorus Line, Follies, Die Zauberflöte). That’s right, she goes from “Dance 10: Looks 3” to Mozart’s devilishly high Queen-of-the-Night aria “Der Hölle Rache.”

She’s too self-depricating about the Mozart aria; she, in her own words, “nails it.” And for everything she turns her hand to, be it rock, classical or traditional musical comedy, shows her to be an actor-singer who is equally excellent at acting and singing, which is rarer than you might think.

Her singing, whether load or soft, is never anything less than full-throated. And her rapport with music director Brian Nash is warm and engaging, a very entertaining side show by itself. When she’s singing, no matter the style, she is an unquestionable fierce ruling diva. Overall, 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.

CD Review Roundup

Jessica Molaskey – Portraits of Joni

When I popped this CD in my computer to import it to iTunes, it offered the genre “Pop.” Well, Joni Mitchell, the object of tribute on Portraits of Joni, aimed at making pop music for exactly one album, her much-loved Court and Spark. Otherwise, her musical polestars were always folk and jazz. And here, Jessica Molaskey takes Joni’s jazziest impulses and turns them way up. Molaskey has been performing with her husband guitarist John Pizzarelli for a very long time, and has become in the process an integral part of the jazz “royal family” that is the Pizzarellis. No, iTunes, this is definitely “Jazz!” And first-class jazz at that, with perhaps the most remarkable moment being a mashup of Mitchell’s earliest song masterpiece “Circle Game” with John singing snippets of Antônio Carlos Jobim’s “Waters of March.” Highly recommended.

To purchase, click here.

War Paint (Original Broadway Cast Recording)

Some of Broadway’s most solid craftsmen worked on War Paint, and it shows – it’s pretty darn good. War Paint follows the rivalry of cosmetics pioneers Elizabeth Arden (Christine Ebersole) and Helena Rubinstein (Patti LuPone), who between them defined beauty standards for much of the 20th Century. The score by composer Scott Frankel and lyricist Michael Korie evokes all kinds of music from the 1930s through the 1960s, with generous doses of big band-style swing. Of course, the main draw is hearing not one but two living legends in the lead roles. The songs for Ebersole and LuPone go beyond intelligently painting the personalities of the two main characters – they are exquisitely tailored for their talents. This is nowhere more apparent than in their twin 11 O’Clock numbers. When Christine finishes her song “Pink” – as pure Ebersole as anything Frankel and Korie gave her in Grey Gardens – it’s hard to imagine they could top it. And they don’t, exactly – Patti’s “Forever Beautiful” is more of a lateral move, just as astonishing a number, and ideal for LuPone. Recommended.

To purchase, click here.

Holiday Inn (Original Broadway Cast Recording)

This stage adaptation of the classic movie combines Irving Berlin songs with heart and smarts, and that makes me happy. The book of this version had some annoying minor plot holes, but you don’t get that on the cast recording, which is pure Berlin bliss. Big dance number “Shaking The Blues Away” was a highlight in the production, and the recording successfully captures the arrangement’s bristling high energy. A musical glow emanates from the warm chemistry between leads Bryce Pinkham and Lora Lee Gayer. Corbin Bleu adds great energy in a supporting role. As reimagined properties by Great American Songbook writers go, this one’s above average, and even more fun on disc than it was on the stage. Recommended.

To purchase, click here.

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

Review: Dianna Agron

This ain’t Quinn Fabray at the Carlyle, kids. You can tell a lot about the actual person and artistry of one-time Glee star Dianna Agron from her recent marriage to folk rock band Mumford & Sons’ banjoist and guitarist Winston Marshall. This is a beautiful young woman with a gorgeous voice who is nowhere more comfortable than when she’s singing a cover of a 1960s folk rock chestnut.

With this act she’s making her first entry into the world of New York cabaret, starting at the very top. Understandably nervous on her opening night, which showed in her hesitant patter, she calmed right down when it came time to sing. No song was less than beautifully sung, but she was at her best when a song brought out the actress in her – most notably in “Bang Bang” a hit for Cher and then Nancy Sinatra, and “Play with Fire,” one of The Rolling Stones’ earlier bad boy songs to push their image toward the demonic.

There’s an enormous amount of potential here – I would give a lot to hear Agron’s liquid gold voice act the hell out of some of Marianne Faithfull’s darker material. But she needs very much to bring more of her considerable acting chops into her song interpretation. There were glimmers of that in this cabaret act, and they were tantalizingly excellent. The job in cabaret, as much as in theatre and film, is storytelling, and Agron needs to do more of that. I have full confidence that she is more than capable. (One techincal note: the show was overamplified for the tres intimate Cafe Carlyle. It could even be truly “unplugged,” totally unamplified).

Because really, I think if she comes in firing on all cylinders she could do truly legendary things in cabaret. Sing all of Faithfull’s Broken English, maybe? Or how about a whole Dylan album? You could call the show Blonde on Blonde on Blonde! In any event, Agron is already giving us enough wonderfully sung renditions of dauntingly complex songs that I can heartily recommend her act as it stands today.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Antonia Bennett

In the best possible way, Antonia Bennett is musically every bit Tony Bennett’s daughter. She has down cold the kind of laid-back jazz-inflected gently swinging phrasing that her father perfected more than any other artist. If anything, her rhythmic sense is even a touch more sophisticated, which makes her tendency towards bossa nova arrangements so pleasing.

Again like the elder Bennett, Antonia is the furthest thing from musically flashy. She, too, exemplifies the virtues of subtlety, precision and seamless elegance. Her ability to communicate the meaning of a song comes less from anything to do with storytelling or acting, and more from a refined sense of what musicality can express all by itself, be it in the turn of a phrase, a slightly syncopated hesitation or any number of similar things.

Her set list is exclusively from the Great American Songbook, with a strong emphasis on Gershwin. She is ably supported by a skilled jazz trio, whose approach is every bit as subtle and measured as her own.

Bennett shows great musical confidence, and on stage she projects a warm, sweet charm rather than magnetic charisma. This works for the intimate setting of cabaret, though some witty scripted patter and theatrical shaping certainly would give her winsome appeal a better frame. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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