Review: for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf

There is a lot of joy in for colored girls…, most of it connected to music and dancing, especially the salsa dura of artists like Willie Colón and Eddie Palmieri. Playwright Ntozake Shange did call the play a “choreopoem” after all. But there is also a lot of terror and sadness at the way black women are treated by men. Unfortunately, this is still as timely as ever.

for colored girls is a series of vignettes of life as a black woman that crisscrosses the United States and all kinds of experiences, from the ecstatic to the devestating. We meet, for example, a teenage girl in St. Louis who falls in love with a historical personage she read about in a book: Toussaint L’Ouverture, a heroic leader of the 1790s Haitian Revolution. On her search for him she meets a real St. Louis boy also named Toussaint – and suddenly is less interested in finding M. L’Overture. This sort of fabulist poeticism provides stark contrast to the play’s darkest moments, which include evocations of rape and murder.

The power of this choreopoem can be found in Shange’s truly pungent writing, with lines as powerful as these: “I found God in myself and I loved Her – fearlessly,” “six blocks of cruelty piled up on itself,” “I couldn’t stand being colored and sorry at the same time – it seems redundant in the modern world” “I survive on intimacy and tomorrow,” “I was missing something promised,” – truly an endless flow of pithy, evocative language.

Director and choreographer Camille A. Brown – the first black woman in many decades to execute both roles on Broadway – conveys a propulsive rhythm even in the stillest scenes, which really revs up when paired with composers Martha Redbone and Aaron Whitby’s updated take on salsa dura. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: To My Girls

A gay sitcom that occassionally gets serious enough to register some important issues, especially those dealing with race and class, To My Girls is, in the main, pretty darn funny. Playwright JC Lee writes zingers that land because they a) tell the truth about joys of gay friendship or b) clock the little hypocrisies and unacknowledged prejudices that trouble such friendships. Does he cut much deeper than that? No. But how many gay plays that have reached the Off-Broadway scene this season have cut even that far? So, To My Girls is sufficiently insightful and entertaining…and sooo gay…to get my approval.

A group of gay friends who met in Brooklyn in the mid-2000s reuinite in 2022 in Palm Springs for a weekend getaway. Things don’t go particularly well, partially because most of them are growing wise to the fact that gorgeous, winsome white manchild Curtis (Jay Armstrong Johnson) is something of a narcissitic jerk underneath it all. We start off thinking this is his story, but it slowly becomes clear that the central character is his South Asian-American best friend Castor (Maulik Pancholy), who is the main object of both Curtis’s charm and his selfish manipulations.

Also in for the weekend from NYC is Leo (Britton Smith), who is what folks in the storytelling business call a “normative” character, that is, the truth-teller and voice of reason. Arriving to stir things up is Castor’s chiseled 20-something trick Omar (Noah J. Ricketts), who unexpectedly turns out to be the smartest person in the play. They are renting the place from gay eminence grise Bernie (Bryan Batt in his finest fettle) who is simulataneously insightful, and perhaps the biggest hypocrite of all.

These gurls musical taste seems to have frozen in time at 2008 (though Castor is revealed to be a fan of the 2010s vintage star Carly Rae Jepsen) – Britney reigns, and current divas like Dua Lipa or Lizzo get nary a mention. This could easily be a conscious choice on Lee’s part, since the arc of the play is from being trapped in the past to envisioning a better future. Lee gets points for addressing race and class, which few enough gay plays do. For that, and for its abundant humor, I can happily recommend To My Girls.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Lady Bunny

This old queen has written new material (so much so that she has to read some of it off notes on a music stand)! In the same old spirit – zany lip-synched Laugh-In style routines, fully sung filthy song parodies, and the like – but now with melodies from Cardi B, Lizzo and Ariana Grande in addition to Toni Braxton, Madonna and Gaga. This “Lady” doesn’t put limits on what she’s going to say or do in her new cabaret act “Unmasked and Unfiltered” – one of the great charms of this show is its spontaneity.

Bunny repeatedly proves she 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 projects a powerful presence and also possesses 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. Bunny isn’t afraid of sentiment, but she’s not sappy – she strikes a terrific balance, and it’s probably the only way you could tell these on-the-edge jokes in a manner that tickles the funny bone rather that truly offends.

As has become customary in cabaret drag, Bunny covers her major costume change with a YouTube video (Varla Jean Merman was the innovator of this approach many years ago). This one’s an hilarious parody song “Cumming Like a Firework” based on the explosive Katy Perry tune. It shows the hilariously low level of this energetic, all-for-laughs winner – definitely the funniest gay show in town! Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Plaza Suite

Playwright Neil Simon has never been my cup of tea, especially his early plays. From 1983’s Brighton Beach Memoirs onwards, I can appreciate his fully matured skill. And he had a gift for one-liners from his beginning in the TV comedy writing rooms of the 1950s, which makes even his most lackluster plays passably amusing. But on a thematic level, meh – too mild and old-fashioned. Plaza Suite (which originally opened in 1968) is on the high end of the “passably amusing” stack, moving from moody quippiness to increasingly entertaining farce.

The play is in three acts, but the only character that appears in all three is Suite 917 of the Plaza Hotel – so beautiful recreated by set designer John Lee Beatty that it got its own entrance applause as the curtain went up. Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick play a different couple in each act.

The first one finds a businessman and his suspicious wife on their anniversary (during which the marriage essentially unravels). In the second, a successful Hollywood producer attempts to seduce a girlfriend from long ago in their smallish hometown of Tenafly, New Jersey. The final act is a raucous farce about a middle-aged couple whose daughter, in an attack of wedding day jitters, has locked herself in the bathroom.

Broderick and (especially) Parker are in fine form, especially since director John Benjamin Hickey has both doing the damn best phyisical comedy I have ever seen either do, which considerably elevates the production’s funny quotient. Jane Greenwood’s costumes are as handsome and well-considered as Beatty’s set, and are perfect for SJP. Yes, I know she can make anything look good, but these fit as well as the chic leather gloves Greenwood gives her in the second act. The best outfits conjure the Pucci / Gucci side of 60s “mod” with great élan.

It also helps a great deal that well-executed featherweight comedy is what the doctor ordered when the news is as grim as it tends to be these days. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Mark Nadler

Mark (“Mr. Entertainment”) Nadler packs a whole lot of fun into his monthly “Cabaret Hootenanny” at the Friar’s Club. On and off over the years Nadler has hosted a legendary “Broadway Hootenanny” at Sardi’s. No intellectual layering like you find in Mark’s more thematically focused solo shows. Just pure cabaret fun, with guest stars galore.

Nadler has earned the right to be thought of as one of the greatest showmen of our time, capable of leaping from floor to piano bench, tap-dancing madly, singing and keeping steady eye contact with the audience – all this while playing a complex passage on the piano without even glancing at the keys. All that is possible, even likely at these shows. Genuinely anything can happen at one of these “Hootenannies”, and it usually does. They are one-of-a-kind events that are unique to that particular venue and the people who perform there.

Throughout it all, Mark Nadler entertains in his inimitable fashion, keeping the audience in stitches with outrageous comedy. This is as giddily entertaining – and breathtakingly smart – as cabaret gets.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Company

Easily the best thing I’ve seen since live performance returned to New York, it’s no surprise that this is that good. First, it’s one of Stephen Sondheim’s very best musicals. Then it’s Marianne Elliott in the director’s chair, and she’s is probably the only stage director whose work manages to surprise me every 10 minutes. And then this cast! A troupe headlined by talents Katrina Lenk and Patti LuPone that includes exceptionally talented actors such as Claybourne Elder and Christopher Fitzgerald in ensemble roles? You just can’t go wrong.

It is so satisfying that this production of Company is as good in fact as it looks on paper. Elliott had the brilliant idea or changing the bachelor Bobby of the original production into bachelorette Bobbie. As well, she has set the production in the present day, not 1970. Both choices illuminate the musical in ways that are truly fresh.

The male Bobby was always a bit opaque, perhaps a little dull even. Bobbie on the other hand, has more interesting issues: does she want to give up her hard-fought freedom? How much does she really want to be a mother? (There’s even a whole “baby” dream ballet, truly haunting, almost a nightmare). The stakes are significantly higher, and Lenk brilliantly plays every moment.

Elliott’s staging is her usual neon-tinged phantasmagoria which suits this show to a T, giving the whole matter a “Bobbie in Wonderland” feel – as non-linear as the musical itself. As the gimlet-eyed alcoholic matron Joanne, Patti LuPone delivers her trademark razor-sharp timing to fantastic effect. Another brilliant change finds “Amy” changed to “Jamie” a gay man about to marry his long-time boyfriend. Matt Doyle is neurotic perfection in the role, delivering one of Sondheim’s most difficult songs “I’m Not Getting Married Today” with dazzling precision and virtuosity.

I don’t think I could recommend a show more highly than I recommend this one. Truly a must-see.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: To Build A Soul (Justin Elizabeth Sayre)

Justin Elizabeth Sayre – the long-term chairman of “The International Order of Sodomites” – is back in town! This time with a solo autobiographical show detailing his life-long love affair with the theatre. In Sayre’s own words “Written during the pandemic, To Build a Soul is a love letter to the theatre if I never made it back. For the last two years, like so many artists, I wondered if we would ever make it back. If I would ever be able to return to the magic trick of live performance, to which I have dedicated most of my life. If I had one last chance, if I had one more try to stand on a stage and tell my story, what story would I tell? What would I want people to know? To Build a Soul, is that. A sort of farewell, and a call to the future all in one. Plus laughs, because, my god, I think we all need them.”

As such, this is more impassioned and has higher stakes than the kind of storytelling “stand up” Sayre became noted for in his wildly popular variety show The Meeting* (they returns to the variety format in January with the even queerer Assorted Fruit at Joe’s Pub). Sayre occasionally waxes poetic in this piece, though their sassy sissy wit is never far away. His tough yet femme persona remains in glorious effect, brassy as ever.

Sayre spends much time talking about feeling different as a child, including one occasion where a elementary school teacher labels them “too creative for his own good” in which, even though they were years away from puberty, they felt the underlying meaning of being “too faggot for your own faggot, faggot” (they also more objectively thought it was one of the stupidest things they’d ever heard). Performance, be it music or theatre, was Sayre’s saving grace from a very young age.

Sayre’s stories and thoughts are engaging at every turn. As always Sayre delivers a thoughtful but still very hilarious show I can happily highly recommend.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Trouble in Mind

It’s no accident that the cast of Trouble in Mind, a play, features musical theatre powerhouses like LaChanze and Chuck Cooper – music features prominently in the play, in both positive and negative ways. Alice Childress wrote this backstage drama in the mid-1950s; it follows rehearsalsfor Chaos in Belleville, a patronizing anti-lynching play written by a white author (never seen), and directed by a white man Al Manners (Michael Zegen), who fancies himself a genius, but turns out to be a talentless tyrannical hack.

The positive musical moments are singing for just the joy of it. The negative moments are stereotypical spirituals written into Chaos which Manners thinks he can coach his black cast members to do better. LaChanze plays leading actress Wiletta Mayer, the person who ends up locking horns with Manners the most, in spite of advising a young actor to keep his head down when dealing with “the man.”

Childress uses the intrigues of the rehearsal process to deeply delve into the psychology of race relations as they stood in the 1950s. While it’s clear that Trouble deals with serious themes, I should be clear that it is a very lively play, brimming over with humor and spirit. Cooper supplies a lot of the comic relief as Sheldon, an older actor for whom humor is a defense mechanism. All of the characters are three-dimensional, however, and as such Sheldon also gets a very emotional monologue about witnessing a lynching.

Trouble in Mind was an Off-Broadway success when it first appeared in 1955, and producers were interested in taking it to Broadway. They asked Childress to soften it, very ironic since major themes of the play include learning to stand up for yourself and ask the important questions. Childress predictably refused, and it has taken 66 years for it to finally arrive. It’s a very engaging play, emotionally and intellectually, and I’m so glad it’s here. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Seth’s Broadway Breakdown

Seth Rudetsky is best known as a host on SiriusXM’s “On Broadway” channel, but is almost as well known for his YouTube videos “deconstructing” showtunes – hilariously analyzing them second by second to show what is amazing about them, as well as moments that make no musical sense. For years he’s been doing live shows compiling those deconstructions, under titles like Seth’s Big Fat Broadway Show (now the name of one of his SiriusXM programs) and Deconstructing Broadway.

He’s back onstage with this fresh new version of that show that frames these analyses with the fanciful idea that Broadway left us for the last year and a half because we didn’t properly thank Broadway for all the wonderful things it gives us. So Seth will “break it down” for us.

First off he addresses a misconception that he hates “legit” sopranos – not true, he just loves belters more! From which point he gives us an gleefully detailed history of high belting, from Ethel Merman’s trademark high B, thorough Nell Carter’s high E in Ain’t Misbehavin’, to Patti LuPone’s 16 high E’s going to a high G in Evita. He goes on to compare LuPone’s version to Madonna’s movie version, which does not go in Madonna’s favor, to say the least. Howlingly funny.

In addition to having us listen along to Broadway cast recordings, Rudetsky joyfully lip-syncs, demonstrates techniques in his own voice where he can, and plays examples of arranging techniques on the piano. In particular he dissects an Osmond family Fiddler on the Roof where the arrangements blithely ignore what the songs are actually about, to hilariously ridiculous effect.

There are also archive recordings and live stuff that Seth, as a longtime Broadway musician and insider, has special access to. After seeing this show, you’ll have a clear idea of things like the difference between chest voice and head voice, especially when that head voice is “unwelcome,” which he explains through a side-splittingly funny deconstruction of “Do Re Mi” from The Sound of Music. Seth’s overjoyed that Broadway is back, and I’m thrilled he’s sharing that joy with us. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Chicken & Biscuits

The best way to see Chicken & Biscuits is to arrange to be in front of an enthusiastic church lady. By happy accident I was seated in front of just such a lady, who was definitely not shy with the occasional “Amen!!” and “Tell it!!” – it very much added to the fun of this already quite entertaining show.

The play focuses on the rivalry between the late pastor’s two daughters, the “holier-than-thou” Baneatta (Cleo King) and the flashily vulgar Beverly (Ebony Marshall-Oliver). Baneatta’s husband – and the church’s new pastor – Reginald (the magnificent as always Norm Lewis) tries to keep the peace while preparing the eulogy. There’s also a gay subplot involving Baneatta’s son Kenny (Devere Rogers) and his nebbishy Jewish boyfriend Logan (the ever-hilarious Michael Urie). Baneatta barely tolerates Logan, and Logan is terrified of Baneatta.

Director Zhailon Livingston (the youngest Black director in Broadway history) has assembled a first-rate group of physical comedians who deliver playwright Douglas Lyon’s zesty comic lines with flawless timing. Lewis in particular wonderfully manages a eulogy which begins with very awkward homilies, but eventually finds its way to barnstorming spirit and zeal (church lady loved that part too). The play deals with themes of forgiveness and kindness in well-tread ways, but since the world is in profound need of both qualities you won’t find me raising a strong objection. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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