Review: Norm Lewis

This Christmas cabaret is one of the more conventional ones I’ve seen this year – and that’s entirely a good thing. In the spirit of his own favorite singer, Johnny Mathis, Norm Lewis’s show leans into holiday fun and warmth. It’s not an entirely shallow show – there are dark shadows here and there, especially Dionne Warwick’s socially-conscious “Be Aware” – but Lewis lays emphasis on Christmas’s pleasures and joys.

And it’s not strictly a Christmas show, even though this silly soul made his entrance wearing a red and green tutu, greeting the audience while the band played the tune of Tchaikovsky’s “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.” The set includes a frisky “Waiting for Life,” from Once on This Island, a show which Lewis has done more than once. Lewis also bravely assays “People” – yes that one, the Barbra Streisand one – to which he gives even more drama, if that’s possible.

Lewis favors the audience with powerful belting several times throughout the evening in showcases like “Home” from The Wiz and “Ave Maria / Oh Holy Night” both of which are available on his new Christmas CD The Norm Lewis Christmas Album (available for sale in the lobby, as he will happily remind you). He closes with the groovy “Why Couldn’t It Be Christmas Every Day” which Mariah Carey was offered but didn’t record. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

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Review: Justin Vivian Bond

This show was intended to be called “Justin Vivian Bond is Regifted,” but somewhere between the time when Bond sent v’s title and blurb to the Joe’s Pub office and the time the tickets were printed, some device somewhere “auto-corrected” the title to “Justin Vivian Bond is Refrigerated.” JVB figured “well, the tickets have been printed,” kinda liked the title, and thought it wouldn’t take much to move the show in that direction. One of the adjustments v made was to open with a passionate version of Annie Lennox’s “Cold,” setting up the “fire and ice” dynamic that has always been JVB’s wheelhouse.

The legendary Kiki & Herb Christmas shows of yore were full of vitriol and blasphemy. More love than vitriol now (though when v touches on a subject worth the vitriol, v doesn’t hold back), and an end to blaspheming in favor of something more spiritually positive: Bond now puts v’s own pagan ambivalence about Christmas at the heart of the show. For instance there’s a dark little medley celebrating the winter solstice, dedicated to Judy Collins.

The musical backing from Matt Ray on piano, Nath Ann Carrera on guitar and Claudia Chopek on violin is sophisticated and rich. 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.

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

Review: Gunhild Carling

The Carling Family Band enters the Birdland Theater like a New Orleans “second line,” blowing the hell out of “Bourbon Street Parade.” Formatted like a large dixieland unit – or a small brass band – Gunhild Carling and her band of mostly family members are all about “Jazz Age” jazz. Oh sure, they draw influences from all kinds of music, but this music beats with the heart of a 1920s flapper.

Gunhild Carling, a trumpet player of great skill, as well as a singer and multi-instrumentalist, has dubbed her current Birdland show “Gunhild Celebrates the Holidays.” Well, Carling and her family are certainly celebrating – with irresistible swing and brio that gets your toe tapping – but the holidays only really enter into this show in guest pianist Ron Abel’s between-number Christmas melody vamps. The songlist is much more about blowing the blues in trad jazz favorites like “St. James Infirmary,” “Down by the Riverside,” “I Ain’t Got Nobody,” and the like.

There’s even a bit a vaudeville in the act, with juggling and (more than once) fiery dancing to the Charleston and Jitterbug. Also, Gunhild finds the swing possibilities in such unexpected instruments as recorders and bagpipes.

The show is so high energy, in fact, that it sometimes spirals out of control, skirting the edges of chaos. An excess of energy is not the worst problem to have, however, and it helps give the evening a consistent feel of light-hearted good times. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Alaska

This is light-years better than RuPaul’s holiday special. Not that that’s a very high bar, since RuPaul’s show was basically an update of the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special – only in this one Grandpa Wookie had an album to sell. Seriously, though, Alaska Thunderfuck 5000 from the Planet Glamtron has really been growing as vocal performer. Her greatest gift remains a knack for imaginative exaggeration, but behind all the odd vocal effects and comic lip movements, her actual singing voice is getting stronger and more assured.

This show is called “Christmas in Space,” and is a Star Trek-based holiday-themed evening. The holiday theme is very loose indeed, as Alaska mostly applies her unique vocalisms to songs by the likes of Melissa Etheridge and Heart. The show leans harder toward the “in space” part of the title, with references to the Jasmine Masters Nebula, and the mythical Robbie Turner Asteroid Belt. It isn’t her funniest show to date (that would be her Golden Girls tribute), but it is equal parts clever and haunting. Precision, wit, intelligence and creativity have been Alaska’s hallmarks for a while, and all of those are on clear display here.

Plus, the show was snappy and short (another Alaska hallmark)! That never happens in drag cabaret! I’m almost tempted to say she should flesh it out a bit and make it longer, but the Star Trek jokes were already beginning to wear a bit thin, so it is probably exactly as long as it need to be. Very gay, a lot of fun, and definitely recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: The Cher Show

This ain’t no chickenshit gig! Whatever problems it may have (mostly the structural difficulties all jukebox bio-musicals share), The Cher Show is rarely less than spectacular, and derives a lot of comedy from it’s sharp-toungued, free-speaking subject.

Cher is played by three different actresses of different ages. The real star is Stephanie J. Block as the mature Cher, who narrates the show and sings the biggest numbers. (This isn’t the first time Block has played a gay icon – she played Liza Minnelli in The Boy from Oz. Is she on a quest to play all of them?). Cher’s a perfect fit for Block, who makes playing to the back row seem effortless. She, and the other two Chers, sing in a loose imitation of Cher’s style, leaning more on delivering the emotional core of the songs than a precise impersonation.

Bob Mackie, whose outlandish costumes for TV’s The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour helped form Cher’s public persona, also designed the costumes for this. Aside from adding glamour to the proceedings – especially in an eye-popping production number that is all about those outfits – Mackie reminded me that under the sequins, he is a visual storyteller of the first order, and a surprisingly subtle one at that. The sparkle will hook you, but the details are where he really does his work.

Jason Moore’s fluid direction smartly leans into variety show glitz and giddy kitsch, and Christopher Gattelli’s choreography is here to entertain and astound you with it’s energy and flash. The Cher Show is hardly perfect, but it’s undeniably lots of fun, and recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Liz Callaway

This award-winning singer / actress delivers both hair-raising high notes and detailed, fully-acted musical storytelling with her muscular Broadway soprano. She’s crafted her current act at Feinstein’s / 54 Below as a love letter to the women who have inspired her, calling it A Hymn to Her. Liz’s heroines come from all walks of life, and Callaway takes advantage of this to create an eclectic show.

She opens with The Mary Tyler Moore Show theme, “Love Is All Around,” because who doesn’t love Mary Richards? Callaway marvelously captures the song’s feeling of youthful hope. The show then briefly heads in an autobiographical direction as she intersperses a low-key take on “Broadway Baby” with humorous tales of her exciting first days as a working actor in New York.

Liz points out that your heroes don’t have to be older than you, and gives high praise to Sara Bareilles before performing a moving rendition of “Everything Changes” from Bareilles’s Waitress. There’s also a heroine not actually mentioned but implied in Callaway’s pairing of Carole King’s “Being At War with Each Other” and her sister Ann Hampton Callaway’s “At the Same Time” – both songs have been sung by Barbra Streisand. That’s not the only reason they go well together: they are both heartfelt pleas for peace.

Callaway has a wonderful sense of humor, which produced two of my favorite moments in the show. She’s obsessed with Julia Child, and did a little known song of Leonard Bernstein’s called “Plum Pudding” which is simply a recipe for the titular dish, delivered as a tricky patter song. Callaway takes satirical aim at tricky patter in the show’s other comical highlight, one of Callaway’s signature songs “Another Hundred Lyrics.” Songwriter Lauren Mayer’s re-lyricizing of Sondheim’s “Another Hundred People,” it gently pokes fun at Sondheim’s willful complexity. It’s no less complicated than a Sondheim song – perhaps its even moreso – and Callaway executes it flawlessly. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Lady Bunny

Once upon a time, Lady Bunny lip-synched her own voice for her song parodies, both medleys and single-song versions but now she does them live. It’s skipping a step and she’s actually a somewhat soulful singer, so this arrangement works well. She’s even writing some original stuff, a jazz song, even! Okay, so it’s called “I Gave Head to Mr. Ed,” but still!

Of course for her famous, zany Laugh-In style routines, she still lip-synchs and there was a number where she performed the thoughts expressed in her voice-over, but didn’t actually mouth the words. This “Lady” doesn’t put limits on what she’s going to say or do in her new cabaret act “Pig In A Wig” – one of the great charms of this show is its spontaneity.

Bunny is one of the smartest drag queens ever, even if the majority of her act is a steady stream of dick and poop jokes. She’s a powerful presence who also posses a terrific sense of when to keep it light. Girl knows just how to milk it!

She never stays in one mode for too long, and while she might go all stream of consciousness at certain points, she never quite seems to ramble. The Lady isn’t afraid of sentiment, but she’s not sappy – It’s a terrific balance, and probably the only way you could tell these on the edge jokes in a way that’s funny rather that truly offensive. She’s an energetic, mostly-for-the-laughs winner – definitely the funniest gay show in town!

For tickets, click here.

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