Review: John Pizzarelli & His Quartet

John Pizzarelli always scales the heights of cabaret’s jazzier side with astonishing musicianship and elan. This remains true whether he’s leading a big band or a small combo. His current engagement at Birdland is billed as the John Pizzarelli Quartet, but when John did a head count at the top of the show, he counted five musicians, and then decided to call it “John Pizzarelli and his Quartet.”

Pizzarelli works with a profound musical intelligence. John has a particular genius is in his chordal improvisations, finding hidden musical meanings in the most familiar of standards. Only this evening isn’t about standards in the way most of John’s shows are. Instead Pizzarelli focuses on pop / rock singer /songwriters starting with less well known songs like Van Morrison’s “Tupelo Honey” and Broce Spingteen’s “Tenth Avenue Freezeout” and moving to bigger hits like Steely Dan’s “Rikki Don’t Lose that Number” and Elton John’s “Honky Cat.”

For previous cabaret acts, John had often subtly framed songs “in the style of” a particular jazzman. Here, however, he is commits to doing these pop songs in a jazzy Pizzarelli family style, saying early on that “we’ll play lots of different songs, but they will all sound something like that – and that’s the way we like it!!!”

It’s common courtesy in a jazz setting to applaud for a bit after everbody’s solos, and indeed bandleader John frequently points at one of the instrumentalists as if to say “give it up for so-and-so”! More often in this show, though, the onslaught of flashy jazziness is so relentless that you don’t applaud for fear of missing something amazing. Neither jazz nor cabaret gets much better than this.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: The Unsinkable Molly Brown

I admit I didn’t know much at all about Molly Brown or her namesake musical, aside from her surviving the sinking of the Titanic. So I come to this “revisal” with no prior prejudices. I’m not a huge fan of composer Meredith Willson’s music in the first place; the pastiche Americana of his big hit The Music Man decidedly doesn’t move me, though it works well for telling that particular story.

The man behind this revision, bookwriter Dick Scanlan, has done his research into the historical Molly, who it turns out was socially progressive and, eventually, a philanthropist and reformer. He thought that was a much more interesting story than the original production’s simple rags-to-riches angle. And I agree. That doesn’t make it into a first-rate musical – in sharp contrast to The Music Man none of its songs are instant earworms. It does, however, make it a rewarding evening of musical theatre.

Molly Brown, both the historical person (a Denver socialite) and the musical comedy character, fairly bursts with positivity and determination, so the actress who portrays her must possess abundant energy and charisma. This production’s Molly, Beth Malone, is blessed with a bounty of both qualities. Director / choreographer Kathleen Marshall deploys a very gifted ensemble with great creativity. Neither the show or the production is a masterpiece, but both are above average fun. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Grand Horizons

The cast was what most drew me to Grand Horizons. The opportunity to see Jane Alexander, Michael Urie, Priscilla Lopez and James Cameron together in a comedy – that’s just too tempting! I knew almost nothing else about the play going in, and playwright Bess Wohl – whose work I had not previously seen – pleasantly surprised me. Her comedy comes more from character than one-liners (save the odd blue word used solely for laughs), and she gets across more about human psychology than most comedies this hilarious ever manage.

Alexander and Cameron play married couple Bill and Nancy French, who have spent fifty years as husband and wife. As the show opens, we find them at an “independent living” house, silently preparing a meal with the kind of synchronization that only comes after many years of living together. Once they sit down to eat, Nancy announces that she wants a divorce.

Among other things, Grand Horizons examines the effect her decision has on their two grown children Brian (Urie) and Ben (Ben McKenzie). Brian is gay, has a tight relationship with Nancy and simply cannot understand why she would want to do this. Bill is taciturn as many men of his generation are, a quality he has passed on to his married son Ben – the chaotic consequences of not communicating is a major theme of the play.

I’ve never seen Jane Alexander do comedy, but I am not shocked that she plays it as superbly as anything she puts her mind to. We know Urie to be an excellent comic actor, and he’s as funny as ever. Cameron and McKenzie are given less to work with, but their silences speak volumes. Priscilla Lopez plays Carla, a contemporary of Bill and Nancy, and provides a marvelously colorful foil to Alexander’s patrician take on Nancy. Ashley Park delights as Ben’s pregnant wife, Jess. Maulik Pancholy is a sexy, riotous hot mess as Tommy, a horny and very frolicsome trick that Brian bring back to his parents residence late at night. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Lionel Hampton Big Band Featuring Jason Marsalis

Vibraphonist Lionel Hampton’s big band made history with the song “Flyin’ Home” in 1942, all but inventing “jump blues,” the immediate precursor to rhythm & blues. The band took the bluesier side of swing – think Count Basie – and added a heavier, insistent beat, as well as honking, even screaming solos from all the brass, especially the tenor saxophone.

Hampton passed in 2002. The Lionel Hampton Estate, eager to have the Big Band reactivated, granted permission in March of 2015 to launch the Lionel Hampton Big Band. This new edition is entirely composed of people who had played with “Hamp.” The Estate also handpicked Jason Marsalis, Wynton Marsalis’s youngest brother (16 years younger), to occupy Hampton’s own position behind the vibes. Like the others, Marsalis had played with Hampton – in his case as a drummer for two gigs in New Orleans.

I’m thrilled to declare that this band jumps and honks just as hard as ever, tearing into “Flyin’ Home” and “Hey Bop a Re Bop” with intense energy. They also play standards with equal parts verve and virtuosity, tunes like “Night In Tunisia” (using Dizzy Gillespie’s own arrangement, no less) and “Cherokee.”

In addition to all this great music, the band also relate with relish stories about the very quirky and fun-loving Mr. Hampton, ranging from off-color jokes that he liked to tell during his performances to fond reminiscences about both learning from and teaching their every-curious leader. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: The Hot Sardines

This band is on a mission to put the “hot” back into “hot jazz.” Think Louis Armstrong’s legendary Hot Five and Hot Seven combos, with a pinch of the gutbucket grit of swing revivalists like Big Bad Voodoo Daddy. Their repertoire tends to pre-1930 songs, popularized by the likes of Sophie Tucker and Mamie Smith. Lead singer Elizabeth Bougerol is openly committed to “infotainment,” detailing the difficulty Tucker faced early in her career, and her later support for black artists like Smith.

Bougerol and pianist / bandleader Evan Palazzo met in 2007 after they both answered a Craigslist ad about a jazz jam session above a Manhattan noodle shop. Palazzo passed her litmus test – he knew Fats Waller’s “Your Feet’s Too Big” and could play it off the top of his head. Since then they have been increasing the size of the ensemble; it’s presently a hot eight-piece. Perhaps most inventively, the band includes a tap dancer, A. C. Lincoln, who intentionally plays the part of a percussionist more than a dancer. He favors the earlier, heavier style of tap called “hoofing,” which fits in perfectly with the Sardines’ highly rhythmic, hard-swinging sound.

Bougerol was born in France and injects the occasional French-language vocal into the mix, regardless of whether the song was originally in French or not. This sort of playful irreverence forms a central part of the band’s aesthetic, showing up in Palazzo’s frisky fugue-like intro to “Comes Love,” and in Bougerol’s discoursing on the “single-entendre” metaphors that blues singers used for dirty or “hokum” songs. They then launch into the hokum classic “Jelly Roll” with bouncy abandon. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Beth Leavel

Despite this cabaret act being named “It’s Not About Me,” throughout Beth Leavel greatly relishes telling stories of her own long Broadway career. She barrels through it all with the ferocious commitment and incisive comic energy for which she’s most known.

She’s currently in between her much-loved turn playing Broadway diva Dee Dee in The Prom and creating the role of Miranda Priestly in Elton John’s musical version of The Devil Wears Prada. She opens with the song from The Prom which gives the act its title, blowing the roof off of Feinstein’s / 54 Below from the very beginning. Then she marries belting with a warm sense of welcoming in her take on Cole Porter’s “I Get A Kick Out Of You” the “you” in this case very clearly being the audience. In a typical pairing of sincerity with wisecracking, she notes she wants the show to feel like we’re all sitting around drinking in her living room – and then says that since everybody’s drinking we’re halfway there.

There are only about nine songs in the show, much of which she gives over to backstage stories told with much hilarity. Not only Broadway stories, but stories from regional theatre, where she has done such great roles as Dolly Levi and Mama Rose. And does she sing songs from those great roles? Oh yes she does, oh boy does she ever! I’m not going to tell you which ones; I’d rather you go “oh no she isn’t!” just like I did. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Liz Callaway & Ann Hampton Calllway

If your heartstrings aren’t thrumming a few numbers into into this sister act, then I’m sorry to say you simply don’t have a heart. “Broadway the Calla-way” brings some of Broadway’s most emotional songs together with two of the greatest voices to thread the boards. Liz and Ann Hampton Callaway gloriously display the power of siblings harmonizing. They seemingly possess quite different voices. Liz has a muscular yet elegant Broadway soprano, and Ann has a wide-ranging jazz monster of a voice.

And yet, when they harmonize, the blending is utterly seamless, sometimes to the point of not being able to determine who’s singing what vocal line. You can hear this best in a medley of “The Schuyler Sisters” and “Lullaby of Broadway” early in the show. They also have great comic chemistry, doing a barbed version of Gypsy’s “Some People” that’s as hilarious as it is mellifluous – with props no less.

Both sisters soar solo for stretches of the show. Ann shines with an emotional and detailed reading of the tender “If He Walked Into My Life” from Mame, and Liz does a version of “The Music and the Mirror ” from A Chorus Line that can hold its head up with any other version of the song, perhaps not surprising since it is most often sung by dancer-actors rather than a nonpareil singer-actor like Liz.

It’s also clear that the sisters have a lot of gay men in their circle! When word got out that they were putting a show of Broadway song together, oh boy did they get phone calls, e-mails and texts offering suggestions of duets they absolutely must do together. They include a bunch of these suggestions in what they call they “The Huge Medley.” I won’t give away the exact songs – they’re just too delicious – but let’s just say they involve major gay icons belting their brains out. So gay and so fun! Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Candis Cayne & Lina Bradford

They. Are. Legendary. They call themselves drag goddesses, and, honey, they aren’t even trying to be modest when they say it. Besides, “drag queens” suggests boys in dresses, and both Candis and Lina have long since identified as trans women. They are both transgender trailblazers of no doubt – Candis was the first transgender actress playing a regular transgender character in television history, and Lina blazed her own trails as an international DJ. But long before that they were two of the most exciting performers on the drag scene, especially when these sisters performed together.

They are, individually and together, the best dancers in the lip-synching world, so it’s altogether fitting that their show “Life Becomes Her” has lots of fantastic lip-synching and dancing. They hit the stage like a fireball, doing the big fight scene from the film Death Becomes Her, complete with accurate Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn costumes. Then they launch into a high-kicking version of Loni Clark’s “Rushing,” the kind of deep house classic that was their signature style at venues from Palladium to Barracuda and beyond.

The greatest pleasure for me, though, was seeing how much they’ve polished their comedy. They always incorporated humor into their lip-synch (Lina’s no stranger to making faces), but the timing of their patter has become something special. The show is a bit on the long side, but they are so engaging that you almost don’t want it to end. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Forbidden Broadway The Next Generation

Forbidden Broadway has relentlessly and lovingly assaulted the Great White Way since 1982, when lyricist/conceiver Gerard Alessandrini, then a struggling singer-actor, created the first edition for himself and his friends to perform. It lampooned the Broadway shows and stars of the day – to put things in perspective that was the year Cats (a top Alessandrini target) opened, and Ethel Merman (who has turned up frequently in the revue over the years) still had two years to live.

This new edition, subtitled The Next Generation takes aim at Hadestown first featuring “Andre De Sheilds” singing “Forbidden Hadestown” – about the harshest thing Alessandrini has to say about this show, which he clearly liked, is that it is “pretentious.” Next up is Moulin Rouge , which Alessandrini uses to roundly eviscerate jukebox musicals as a whole.

Some of the harshest barbs go to Renee Zellweger in Judy – Alessandrini has Judy Garland sing “Zellweger stinks in my part” to the tune of “Zing Went the Strings.” His song about Fosse/Verdon is basically a love letter, as is a number he has Mary Poppins sing about beloved flops, “The Place Where the Lost Shows Go.” The finale, as often is the case for Forbidden Broadway, is a love note to the future of musical theater. Alessandrini seems to see plenty of hope (which he didn’t in 1982), and that’s a very good sign.

For tickets, click here.

For more more about Jonathan Warman’s directing work see jonathanwarman.com

Review: Raja

This queen repeats herself sometimes. You know what, though, Raja looked into the cause of this issue, and found the theme of her new show “Lush Life,” which is all about the weed and wine she cheerfully admits to consuming before during and after the show. She explains that lush means luscious, extra and (in her words) a “moderate alcoholic” – all qualities she proudly owns, and uses to entertain her adoring audience.

It doesn’t hurt that with a little wine in her, Raja instinctively swirls, twirls and dips with aplomb whenever there’s music. That makes me wish the ratio of talk to music favored music more, even though her monologues are spiritually and politically deft and intelligent.

She’s one of the most effortlessly stylish queens ever to appear on Drag Race, and she features a little bit of everything in this show: some singing, some monologuing about contemporary issues, and a whole lot of fashion fierceness (three fabulous glimmering monochrome outfits). As a matter of fact, she opens the show singing – not lipsynching – Madonna’s “Vogue,” giving you fantastic body and face. There’s your admission fee covered right there. Raja has a warm charismatic presence, which makes you think she’d be able to put over just about anything she wanted. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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