Review: Ain’t No Mo’

I was sorely disappointed at the early closing of KPOP, a tightly structured musical that offered freshness, originality and innovative spectacle. Closed before I could even finish a rave review! Perhaps the first musical that made me say “WERQ! LIVING!” Well, I uttered those very same words the following night at the equally fresh and original play Ain’t No Mo’, which, dammit, seemed to be heading for exactly the same fate. Then, luminaries from Tyler Perry to Shonda Rimes stepped in, buying out whole performances, earning the play a week’s reprieve, and dammit, I hope for more.

The premise of the comedy is stated as “What happens if the American government offered African Americans a one-way ticket back to Africa?” Part of the innovation at play here is the structure: it’s a series of comedy sketches that nonetheless are all in service of a single story arc. The tone is also innovative: while this is mostly a wickedly satirical comedy, it can turn tragic on a dime and not be shy about staying there for minutes at a time. One of the songs I was listening to while writing this review, “Drop Dat” by Willie Thee Bawdy, rhymed “books by bell hooks” with “hip hop Mel Brooks” – yep that’s Ain’t No Mo’!

The glue holding the play together is Peaches, the gate agent for the flight taking people back to Africa. When she says the flight number out loud – 1619 (the year the first African slaves were shipped to the colony of Virginia) – it sent a chill up my spine. Mind you, Peaches is played in drag by one Jordan E. Cooper, who is also the playwright, and as such, at 27, the youngest American playwright in Broadway history (there’s a “WERQ!”). We re-visit Peaches several times with increasing urgency (never losing the comic notes) and Cooper delivers whip-smart timing, alternately combining straight up laugh lines and finely graded nuance. And often enough, rage.

The remainder of the cast is very much on Cooper’s level. The costumes are fabulous (I would expect no less from Emilio Sosa), the sets subtle but expressive (I would expect no less from Scott Pask). Run, don’t walk to see this utterly unique and fantastic masterstroke. THE VERY HIGHEST RECOMMENDATION!!

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey

This man and wife duo are doing a fabulous new show at the Cafe Carlyle, called “East Side After Dark” perhaps in tribute to Carlyle mainstay Bobby Short’s classic 1960 live album “On The East Side” (which by the way was actually not recorded at the Carlyle). John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey start with “Cheerful Little Earful”, a charmer which was first made famous by Fanny Brice.

After that, the East Side theme to one side, the pair launched into a pair of songs that praise the city more generally, the relatively obscure “When You’re Far Away from New York Town” and the song that made Rodgers and Hart’s names “Manhattan”. John gets all the jokes in the song – which is a loving satire of a bustling, smelly city – and communicates them elegantly to the audience.

The act is intended as a tribute to Upper East Side clubs of yore. The comically named Upstairs at the Downstairs is mentioned several times. There is also a loving tribute to John’s late father, jazz legend Bucky Pizzarelli, who was ironically requested to play “Pick Yourself Up” at a funeral. Jessica gets her own “after dark” spotlight with a mellifluous rendition of Blossom Dearie’s “Moonlight Savings Time”.

The continue the theme with late night cabaret legend Dave Frishberg’s “I’m Hip” which Molaskey puts her own parody lyric spin singing in a second pass, which is all about her recent hip surgery. Pizzarelli then concludes with Rodgers and Hammerstein’s biting take on racism “Carefully Taught”. Upon which Molaskey adds that they will close all of their shows “until it no longer applies” (unfortunately probably not anytime soon). Overall, the singing’s smart, the music’s deftly swung and the atmosphere sparkles. Cabaret doesn’t get much better than this.

For tickets, click here.

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

The Village: A Disco Musical

Extended through Saturday October 22, The Village is at its most charmingwhen writing love letters to disco. Nora Burns’s comedy is subtitled A Disco Musical, and while it’s not technically a musical (precious little live singing) the constant flow of recorded disco – and really good disco at that – is what really propels it.

Set in 1979 New York City, The Village centers around Trade (Antony Cherrie), a hustler living in the apartment of an older gentleman, George (Cluck Blasius). He brings home his latest trick, Steve (Ever Chavez) a charming NYU student – a cute “twink,” though at the time the word was “chicken” – and the story is nominally about them falling into bed and then love. But, as the title suggests, this is really more the story of a community, the vibrant gay scene of the time, set against the grit and glamour of the Manhattan of that era. One of the stronger elements is Robin Carrigan’s lively choreography, reflecting with verve and musicality the show’s disco soundtrack.

While Burns’s script is packed with her usual acidly sarcastic humor, the structure is a bit, well, lumpy. There’s a lot of “fourth wall breaking” and much of it is clever, but in the end there’s way too much of it. It’s as though every character in a Deadpool movie were talking to the camera most of the time. It can get a little wearying. Also, while the initial idea of creating an Our Town for 1970s NYC was an ingenious one, like many “inspired by” shows, The Village stumbles when it hews too closely to its model, and gets a real lift when it leans into being its own frisky self.

Mostly, though, The Village is a sexy, goofy lark, executed by an attractive, energetic, committed and talented ensemble cast. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Tony Danza

Since his TV career descended from the stratospheric heights of hit after hit, namely Taxi and Who’s the Boss, Tony Danza has made an art of being an Italian-American boy from Brooklyn song-and-dance man. You know, in the tradition of guys named Crocetti and Benedetto. Ooops, I mean their stage names Dean Martin and Tony Bennett, and I forgot the one who didn’t change his last name, Sinatra. To be fair, only Bennett is the only one who comes close to Danza’s NYC bona fides. Even Sinatra was from, ahem, Hoboken.

Danza sings the songs that these goombahs made famous, but he really has Sinatra bona fides. He gained his love of “The Chairman of the Board” from his mother, who was one of the original “bobbysoxer” girls who first screamed for Frankie in New York’s Paramount Theatre in the early 1940s (think BTS stans today). Plus, in his Taxi days (late 1970s) one of Sinatra’s favorite songwriters Sammy Cahn took Danza under his wing and mentored him.

Now all of this is a long time ago, and Danza is frank (see what I did there?) about this – he says there are three stages of life: youth, middle age and “You look good!” And he does look good, and not just for that bracket. He does a Cahn medley that has real warmth to it. And that’s part of his charm overall – warmth and sincerity. Also special is his embrace of a lesser-known song, Artie Butler’s “I Don’t Remember Ever Growing Up”; what person past early middle age doesn’t understand that? Plus the fact that he peppers his Rat Pack-style crooning with above average tap dancing and ukulele playing…the guy has the spirit of a classic all-around entertainer. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Tammie Brown

Lady Bunny once talked about working with Valentina – she of the “french vanilla latte fantasy” – saying something to the effect of “She’s just like Tammie Brown or Alyssa Edwards, they all really are like that, all the time!” Surrealist drag queen Brown’s artistic core is, more than anything, as a hippie chic queerpunk singer-songwriter. There’s a hint of classic movie queen in her looks, but it seems that’s the equivalent of Debbie Harry or Grace Slick making something fabulous out of what they found in a thrift shop.

And while Tammie’s sense of humor is disarmingly unique, she’s not truly unprecedented. I could see her comfortably do her left-of-center thing at the Pyramid Club in the 1980s, at Club 57 or Max’s Kansas City in 1970s, or even in a Jackie Curtis extravaganza at LaMaMa in the late 1960s. However, queens this tripped-out are in short supply these days, so we should treat her as some kind of national treasure!

Brown also proudly owns her South Texas origins, singing a couple of songs with some Spanish, and showing love for all things Mexican (maybe there’s a Frida Kahlo influence here, too, eh?). Tammie struts sexily about the stage, singing to the actual tracks from her discography. The doubling of her recorded voice and her live voice is pleasantly freaky – and solid proof she always sings on tune.

Her songs remind me of an ’80s synthpop cover of a ’60s song – think Tiffany’s “I Think We’re Alone Now” or Bananarama’s “Venus” – but as written and performed on the legendary “good LSD” of the time when the songs were written. And her in-between patter veers between gleeful non sequiturs and political commentaries from the silly to the venomous. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Mr. Saturday Night

This tribute to Catskills comedy – as told through the life story of Buddy Young Jr. who goes from Borscht Belt headliner to TV star to obscurity – is equal parts classic comic shtick (delivered by one of our greatest living comedians) and schmaltz (leavened with flashes of genuine emotion). Billy Crystal plays Young with his usual verve, adding a little soft shoe and expessive singing to his performing repetoire. It’s a real shame that Mr. Saturday Night closes on September 4, it’s a genuinely pleasurable and charming musical – whose main aim is to (in the words of Crystal’s first song) provide “A Little Joy” – and how often do we get one of those?

While much of the plot takes place in 1994, we get generous servings of Buddy’s Catskills act and TV sketches, taking place in the late ’40s and early ’50s, in which Crystal shines the brightest, being on his home ground of stand-up. As Buddy watches the 1994 Emmy Awards, he sees his own face in the “In Memoriam” section. The fact that he actually isn’t dead gets him a new flash of celebrity, including an appearance on Today, which catches the eye of a major talent agency.

This is the kind of relatively light-hearted musical where you root for the main character to earn redemption and win out. The way he gets there may be a touch contrived, but is satifying nonetheless. The score, lyrics by Amanda Green and music by Jason Robert Brown, is brisk, tuneful and jazzy. Recommended, get it while you can!

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Mark Nadler Hart’s Desire

This ever-ambitious cabaret genius always seeks to challenge himself, and this time he has truly outdone himself. With Hart’s Desire, Mark Nadlercombines the words of playwright Moss Hart (from many sources) with lyrics by (unrelated) Lorenz Hart – which of course comes with music by Lorenz’s perrenial writing partner, composer Richard Rodgers. Both Harts were gay in a time when it was far less acceptable than today. Mark is no stranger to a gay theme, and has fashioned a gay musical romantic comedy that convicingly sounds like the year Nadler sets it in, 1943. You know, except for the gay thing.

Nadler presents Hart’s Desire as a backer’s audition – at the time, backer’s auditions were performed by the writers themselves, not actors. The musical is set at the opening of a Boston tryout for a play. Act I is before the opening, Act II after, and things do not seem to have gone well. With his usual exquisite taste, in addtion to Lorenz’s better known songs, Nadler uses obscure ones as well, such as the unfinished “Good Bad Woman” which Mark himself has completed. And of course he employs additional lyrics not included in the stage versions of Lorenz’s songs, especially for an extended version of “The Lady is a Tramp” as delivered by a brassy aging vaudvillian.

Mark “Mr. Showbiz” Nadler is at his most dazzling here, portraying eight characters without blurring the lines between them. He’s one of the greatest showmen of our time, singing, acting, tap-dancing madly, all the while playing a complex passage on the piano without even glancing at the keys. There are always many layers in a Mark Nadler show, ranging from the obvious to unspoken subtext, which gives an “oomph” far, far beyond your typical cabaret show, and that is true in spades in Hart’s Desire. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: A Strange Loop

The frankest description of gay sex I have ever seen on a Broadway stage, that’s for sure – especially in song called “Inwood Daddy” (you can see where that’s going) ! And a refreshingly frank look at the problems gay black men face. I mean right off the bat the lead character Usher describes himself as “a young overweight-to-obese homosexual and/or gay and/or queer, cisgender male, able-bodied university-and-graduate-school educated, musical-theater writing, Disney-ushering, broke-ass middle-class far-Left-leaning Black-identified-and-classified American descendant of slaves full of self-conscious femme energy…thinks he’s probably a vers bottom.”

A Strange Loop is in many ways an autobiographical show. Jaquel Spivey is so terrific as Usher that at least one audience member I taked to thought he actually was the author-composer of the show, one Michael R. Jackson, who won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for this. It is very black and deeply queer, is artistically successful and tuneful and funny into the equation – so exciting.

His thoughts (and other people) are represented by a (excellent) six-person chorus. Usher is plauged by self-doubt. Primarily that he wants to authenticly represent himself in the musical he is writing, but worries that white audiences wont get his black experience, and black audiences won’t get his queer experience. He is also conflicted that he has an “Inner White Girl” which he cherishs but also disturbs him. He loves his parents and seeks their love – they do love him, but don’t really accept him. They are deeply religious, so they don’t tolerate his gay identity. Instead of the autobiographical show he is working on, they want him to create a “a nice, clean Tyler-Perry-like gospel play,” which drives Usher crazy.

Jackson is that rarest of musical theatre creatures, a composer-lyricist-bookwriter who is superb at all three. I can’t wait to see what he does next. Highly reccomended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Jeff Harnar

A gay New York man who goes through “Living Alone and Liking It,” but later has thoughts of marriage, who spends nights both in glittering boîtes and sketchy dives, who has great sex, but also bad breakups that lead to murderous thoughts – does any of this sound familiar? Some of it does to me, and I’m sure some of you know a thing or two about these experiences. To quote singer Jeff Harnar about his new act and album I Know Things Now:“The words and music are Stephen Sondheim’s, but the story is mine.” It’s a very relatable story, told with much cleverness.

If you don’t know Sondheim, it’s still a wild ride from a fantastic singer and interpretive artist. But for a Sondheim fan like me it’s even more fun. Harnar often intjects references to songs he doesn’t even sing, like saying his evasive lover has gone to Barcelona (the title of a song from Company) in the middle of “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” from the same show. Some of the songs are a bit obscure, some are “Old Friends” (a song from Merrily We Roll Along).

I was particularly entertained by his mashup of “Buddy’s Blues” and “Sorry Grateful” which clearly depicted someone getting drunk at a gay bar – I don’t quite understand why the negative lines in “Buddy’s Blues” (and there are a lot of them) were delivered in the voice of Jimmy Durante, but it was in any event an amusingly absurd choice. His “breakup song” version of “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd” is one of the most terrifying renditions I’ve ever heard. Instead of depicting a figure out of horror, it relates the much more familiar feeling of wanting your loathsome ex dead. Eeek!

The album I Know Things Now – which has a 20 piece orchestra in place of the excellent jazz trio in the show – is out now on PS Classics. Both the show and album are highly recommended.

To buy the album, click here.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: POTUS: Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive

Any show that opens with Julie White screaming the c-word promises to be a wild ride, and POTUS: Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive does not dissapoint. Those seven magnificent women are: First Lady Margaret (Vanessa Williams), the president’s criminally-minded sister Bernadette (Lea DeLaria), chief of staff Harriet (White), press secretary Jean (Suzy Nakamura), starchy personal secretary Stephanie (Rachel Dratch), “bimbo eruption” Dusty (Julianne Hough), and journalist / mother Chris (Lilli Cooper).

Every single woman is hugely accomplished – even the supposedly ditzy Dusty has surprising hidden talents. While there are side slights at the present political climate, POTUS is mostly about the larger patriarchal idiocy of having charismatic but incompetent men in power, while these goddesses do the grunt work. This is the biggest laugh out loud comedy we’ve had in a very long time, so continuously hilarious it hurts.

Playwright Selina Fellinger spins chaos with pitch perfect precision, combining dialogue that’s both foul-mouthed and witty (often at the same time) with frenetic farcical door-slamming. Beowulf Barrit’s rotating set accelerates with the action until it’s turning like a carousel at the height of the second act’s high-speed pandemonium.

Director Susan Stroman keeps a zippy, even dizzy pace for the whole evening, with an exactitude of movement worthy of her legendary musical theatre work. The entire ensemble is flawless, but there are two definite standouts. Julie White is among the most gifted comic actors of our day, and she’s in her finest fettle here. But Rachel Dratch truly outdoes herself! When her nerdy character accidentally ingests a very powerful psychotropic drug, she reels into some of the most insane (and skilled) slapstick I’ve ever seen. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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