Review: Michael Feinstein & Christine Ebersole

When Michael Feinstein does duet shows with Broadway stars, its a situation where everybody wins, including the audience. Feinstein, the great archivist of “The Great American Songbook,” gets to suggest songs that he’s always wanted to hear these great artists sing. And these artists get to pick Michael’s encyclopedic musical mind, describing an idea of the kind of song they want to sing, to which he responds with an impossibly perfect song.

For the second time, Michael is teaming up with Broadway legend Christine Ebersole, with a travel-themed show called “Two for the Road.” The obscure gem he’s sharing with Christine this time is “Why Don’t We Try Staying Home” a song Cole Porter cut from his 1929 Broadway hit Fifty Million Frenchmen, the intro to which says “We’re always opening plays / or closing cabarets.” That’s literally true for this act – the last performance at the old Feinstein’s at the Regency was them.

For himself Michael dug up a George Gershwin collaboration with lyricists Buddy DeSylva and Irving Caesar “Yankee Doodle Blues.” In keeping with the evening’s theme the song’s patter includes lines like “They say that Europe’s wonderful with all its ancient junk…I had to move from Paris ‘cause I couldn’t eat a frog…I went from there to old Cologne and started on the rounds / But old Cologne don’t smell as sweet and pretty as it sounds…Hey there Miss Liberty I’ll say you’re a bear.” Silly stuff, and Feinstein delivered it with just the right light touch.

One the evening’s most musically stunning moments is a surprising quodlibet of Songbook tunes, in which one of them sings a classic melody, while the other one sings another classic melody in counterpoint. Christine sings Porter’s “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” while Michael answers with Rodgers & Hart’s “Where or When.” Truly lovely.

There’s room for spontaneity in this show, and one of the warmest moments came when Michael played piano while Christine sang Kern & Hammerstein’s “The Folks Who Live On the Hill.” Totally unplanned, but it’s a song they’ve both sung and even recorded many times before, and this rendition was absolutely magical.

Michael’s own heart-on-sleeve rendition of “Where Am I Going?” from Sweet Charity is definitely a highlight. He’s been truly blossoming as a singer for a long time, going from strength to strength, and this latest topper is easily the most vocally accomplished performance I’ve ever heard him give – with held high notes that would make an opera singer envious. Dazzling, and highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

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Review: Christine Ebersole

This is the very pinnacle of cabaret. I never miss a single cabaret show by Christine Ebersole, because they are almost guaranteed to be exceptional. One of her finest – and the first one I saw – she built around the theme of her becoming an adoptive mother. The current one, titled “After the Ball,” finds her on the other end of that journey, dealing with becoming an empty nester, but also looking forward “to my approaching dotage” (a phrase she utters with comically bright cheer). And wouldn’t you know it, this act nearly matches the excellence of that other one long ago. Truly stellar cabaret – you shouldn’t miss it.

One of the things that most astonishes me about Ebersole is her exquisite taste when it comes to vocal interpretation. She flawlessly senses when to give a song a semi-operatic vibrato, when to belt it, and when to speak-sing. For example, she assays “What Did You Do to Your Face” a folk song by Susan Werner about plastic surgery, with a spoken passage here, a slightly syncopated moment of doubt there. But when she sings Al Jolson’s hit “Toot, Toot Tootsie! (Goo’bye)” she gives it a shake-the-rafters belt that would probably intimidate Jolson himself.

The act takes a decisively rueful, reflective turn when she ruminates on the ways her children were never 100% from her. Her take on Joni Mitchell’s “Little Green” has real ache. But she also finds the humor in the situation, as when she comments on one child’s mathematical genius – “she didn’t get that from me,” she laughs, “the most she got from this cabaret singer was ‘snap on 2 and 4!’”

The final arc of the act finds Ebersole girding her loins to take on the future, most comically in Peggy Lee’s “Ready to Begin Again.” She takes inspiration from her own parents, and goes out on a high note. Very personal, and damned good. Highly recommended.

For tickets, 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: Christine Ebersole

This is the very pinnacle of cabaret. I never miss a single cabaret show by Ebersole, because they are almost guaranteed to be exceptional. One of her finest – and the first one I saw – was built thematically around her becoming an adoptive mother. The current one, titled “After the Ball,” finds her on the other end of that journey, becoming an empty nester and looking forward “to my approaching dotage” (a phrase she utters with comically bright cheer). And wouldn’t you know it, this act is nearly the match for that other one long ago, truly stellar cabaret and not to be missed.

One of the things (among many) I find most astonishing about Ebersole is her exquisite taste when it comes to vocal interpretation. She has a flawless sense of when to give a song a semi-operatic vibrato, when to belt it, and when to speak-sing. For example, she assays “What Did You Do to Your Face” a folk song by Susan Werner about plastic surgery with a spoken passage here, a slightly syncopated moment of doubt there. But when she sings Al Jolson’s hit “Toot, Toot Tootsie! (Goo’bye)” she gives it a shake-the-rafters belt that would probably intimidate Jolson himself.

The act takes a decisively rueful, reflective turn when she ruminates on the ways in which her children were never 100% from her. Her take on Joni Mitchell’s “Little Green” has real ache. But she also finds the humor in the situation, as when she comments on one child’s mathematical genius – “she didn’t get that from me,” she laughs, “the most she got from this cabaret singer was ‘snap on 2 and 4!’”

The final arc of the act finds Ebersole girding her loins to take on the future, most comically in Peggy Lee’s “Ready to Begin Again.” She takes inspiration from her own parents, and goes out on a high note. Very personal, and damned good. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: War Paint

Some of Broadway’s most solid craftsmen worked on War Paint, and it shows. Most of the creative team previously worked on Grey Gardens, and while this isn’t up to the caliber of that show, it’s still pretty darn good. War Paint follows the decades-long rivalry of cosmetics pioneers Elizabeth Arden (Christine Ebersole) and Helena Rubinstein (Patti LuPone), who between them defined beauty standards for the first half 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. Doug Wright’s book, together with Korie’s lyrics, uses the fierce competition between these two female titans of industry to examine their differences, but more importantly to shed light on the similar challenges they both faced in the male-dominated business world.

Of course, the main draw is seeing 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 as exquisitely tailored for their talents as are their glamorous Catherine Zuber-designed outfits. 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.

It’s very well-crafted, but not perfect: There are moments when the dramatic tension goes a bit slack, until our heroines have a new historical problem to face. It’s an inherent weakness of most historically-based theatre, and therefore one I am quick to forgive. For the most part, War Paint is smart and marvelously stylish entertainment. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Christine Ebersole

christine-ebersole_original 2014

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.