Review: The Simsinz

This is absolutely insane! And I definitely mean that as a complement! This unauthorized drag parody lipsynch tribute to The Simpsons comes from the inventive mind of up and coming drag star Cissy Walken. In The Simsinz, Marge huffs ammonia and has hallucinations, while the rest of the family turns queer. A large portion of the lipsynch material comes from episodes that deal with gay themes. Even more, however, comes from pop songs and showtunes, and even some original material in which Walken sings in a perfect Marge Simpson voice (Walken has a reputation as a talented mimic, particularly for her Amy Winehouse).

In The Simsinz, drag culture collides head-on with The Simpsons – even the male characters have exaggerated eyelashes and high heels. It’s shocking at first, but it is impossible to resist the charm of this loving tribute, especially from such a skilled company of lipsynchers. To say nothing of its sheer giddy comic loopiness – I mean the 11 O’Clock number goes to Ralph Wiggums for goodness sake!

In addition to Walken, Coco Taylor (host of Members Only Boylesque), Aria Derci, Pussy Willow and Andy Starling play a bevy of characters. I really couldn’t tell you who played what because the costume changes are truly dizzying, and the staging sophisticated and energetic. While the sound editing is impressive on a Lypsinka level, there are still kinks to be worked out – Maggie’s pacifier was truly deafening. Even with such hiccups, though, this joyous romp left me with a lasting grin on my face. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Latrice Royale

Large-and-in-charge Latrice Royale has crafted her latest cabaret show – entitled “Here’s to Life 2019” – solidly in the mold of traditional autobiographical cabarets. Her first cabaret show, called simply “Here’s to Life” was powerful and entertaining, telling as did her story from growing up gay in Compton, to finding her drag vision in Miami, and ultimately to the trail of tribulations that led up to the “unfortunate incarceration” she sometimes referred to when she was on Season 4 of Drag Race. She followed that up with shows that detailed her life since Drag Race. Those, while still entertaining, felt a bit thin by comparison, because they covered a shorter, less drama-packed time span. Now, she’s giving us the best of both worlds, keeping the strongest bits of her original show while keeping us updated on her life – in this case her marriage to her music director Christopher Hamblin.

It’s more talk than song, and Latrice’s story-telling is well served by her warm authenticity and infectious positivity. I would definitely like to hear her sing more, though, because she’s actually pretty damn good at it! There’s no attempt at giving you “girl singer” – “Barry White in drag” is how she describes her basso stylings – but she clearly models her approach to song interpretation on the likes of Aretha Franklin. She may not have Aretha’s pristine vocal instrument but she certainly understands her lessons in musicality and expression. And her take on cabaret standard “Here’s to Life” marks the first time I’ve heard it as a determined look at the future rather than a wistful look back.

Latrice is backed by a very able jazz trio led by her hubby on the piano. This feels more polished than the cabaret acts I’ve seen from other Drag Race alumni, while still running a bit on the long side (don’t repeat your thematic points, girl, we got you the first time). Latrice is the real thing, and I want to hear much more from her as a singer. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Lillias White

The title of Lillias White’s latest cabaret act is “Make Someone Happy.” It’s predicated on the thought that “the whole world, not just the United States” is a shit-show, and, given the circumstances, it’s better to craft a show that makes the audience feel better when they leave, than when they came in. That’s why she belts numbers like the title song, “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive,” and Nat “King” Cole’s “That’s All,” bringing them to fiery life.

The show, the advance press says, “features standards for the world of Broadway, film, and jazz.” It might well have also mentioned blues; plus, White addresses it all with that particular sort of expressiveness and virtuosity that is native to soul and jazz. White has one of those thunderclap voices, like Darlene Love or Martha Wash, that electrifies and illuminates everything it touches. The Brooklyn native made her Broadway debut in Barnum in 1981. She played Effie in the 1987 revival of Dreamgirls – really a Broadway return of the original production’s tour – a show she describes as life-changing, and she does a towering rendition of that show’s “I Am Changing.”

For her role as Sonja in Cy Coleman’s The Life, she won the Tony, Drama Desk, and Outer Critics Circle Awards, and she gives that show’s “(Getting Too Old for) The Oldest Profession” a riotous go. She excuses the number’s raunchiness by warning that “I take no responsibility for what Sonja says to you while I’m out!” Always a great artist, always a warm presence. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: John Pizzarelli

It’s common courtesy in a jazz setting to applaud for a bit after everybody’s solos, and indeed bandleader John Pizzarelli 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.

It’s always great to see a cabaret performer you’ve seen with smaller combos perform with a big band. Seeing John Pizzarelli with Swing 7 – a seven piece rhythm and brass band – is “too marvelous for words.” He embodies cabaret’s jazzier side with astonishing elan and profound musical intelligence. Especially in the evening’s climax, Duke Ellington’s “C Jam Blues” (otherwise known as “Duke’s Place”) in which John and the band solo with vigor, verve and virtuosity.

John plays guitar with amazing fluidity and elegance, with nonpareil mastery of a technique called “guitar harmonics” that produces high notes of extraordinary expressiveness. Pizzarelli finds many ways to put his own interpretive twist on the songs he performs. He has a particular genius for chordal improvisations, exposing hidden musical meanings in the most familiar of standards.

Also, as a singer John is very sensitive to the multiple meanings a good lyric can have, and has an uncanny ability to communicate several at once. Overall, the singing’s smart, the music’s deftly swung and the atmosphere sparkles. 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: Leslie Jordan

This stand-up show at The Green Room 42 is a laugh-so-hard-you-cry look at the world through ultra-queer eyes. He outlandishly recalls “how I got that role,” namely Beverly Leslie in Will & Grace. He describes his Emmy win for that role in great and hilariously self-deprecating detail. There’s plenty of dish about Hollywood: No outing – he describes John Ritter as “a great friend to the queers but a reeeaal pussyhound” – but we definitely get the lowdown on who has a legendary dick that Leslie repeatedly begs to see…and who is nothing but mean and nasty.

Leslie, who describes himself as “the gayest man I know,” also claims that he was put on this Earth to be a comic scene-stealer (who met his only match playing opposite Megan Mullally on Will & Grace). This innate gift gives the fey, diminutive Jordan more than enough power to thoroughly command a stage all by himself.

This show is also an often moving look at the very best and worst of what queer culture has to offer. Jordan looks at the profound self-doubt that comes with growing up queer and hyper-effeminate in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Most moving of all, he describes how he threw all of his emotion about both his father and the lives lost in the Pulse nightclub massacre into throwing the first pitch at a baseball game. He threw with such passion that one of the pros said he could have had a career as a pitcher.

I can’t think of another autobiographical show that is more pure, unadulterated fun than Exposed! — it makes a convincing case for Jordan being one of the very greatest queer comic talents of our time.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Galas

Diva! Here we have one diva (in the most positive goddess-like sense) playing another diva (in both senses). Well, it’s a little more complicated than that. We have a man with goddess-like acting gifts (Everett Quinton) portraying a fictionalized version of opera diva Maria Callas. Drag doesn’t get much higher than this.

The play is Galas by the late great Charles Ludlam, Everett’s partner in art and life – and the greatest playwright to come out of the Ridiculous Theatre movement. Now Quinton is directing and playing the lead role in Galas in its first New York revival since its original 1983 run.

As director, Everett fills the play with truly “Ridiculous”detail, as well as lots of warmth and romanticism, appropriate to the story of a diva with such great skills at singing Romantic Era opera. As an actor, Galas confirms Quinton as the greatest living actor in the Ridiculous tradition – and among the best in any tradition, as far as I’m concerned.

He attacks the role with great precision, and the almost supernatural conviction that is the hallmark of great Ridiculous acting, expertly playing the deep seriousness of this tragicomedy as well (its actual subtitle is “A Modern Tragedy” but it’s far too funny for that). Everett is the ideal interpreter of Ludlam’s plays, knowing when to be loyal to what Charles had already done, and when to push things even further into preposterousness to keep it fresh.

This is above all a star vehicle for the actor playing Galas, but there is one other fantastic performance in this production, as well as someone who shines in a smaller part. On the fantastic side is Jenne Vath as the diva’s mad maid Bruna. The role is nutty as hell and Vath plays it to the hilt. And, as Galas’s romantic rival Athina, Maude Lardener Burke leads you to believe – in a very few lines – that she is every bit as formidable as the great singer.

The production’s venue is the acoustically unforgiving main hall of St. John’s Lutheran Church, and its biggest flaw is lack of vocal projection equal to the echo-y space. That is for sure, a mere quibble when you are seeing such a great artist as Quinton vigorously at work. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: BenDeLaCreme

So I thought a show about matrimony would be less searching than a show about astrophysics or a 14th Century Italian epic poem, BenDeLaCreme’s previous two topics.

I was wrong.

Ready to Be Committed goes right to the tough questions: what is love anyway? Should people even get married, since matrimony’s roots are in a system which treated women as property? The first question is addressed in a rap entitled “Lovesickness” which traces theories about the nature and source of love from the ancients to modern neurochemistry. The second question gets a hard going-over in a parody of “Single Ladies” called “Medieval Ladies.”

This show is lighthearted in the sense that the queen otherwise known as Ben Putnam is back to playing a bit of a ditz this time around. It’s her wedding day, but she forgot to get a groom – so she goes on Grindr to find one. Which leads to all kinds of hilarious misunderstandings. I can give this much away because BenDaLa’s brilliance really shows up in the details.

BenDeLaCreme takes the best of clowning, drag, circus, burlesque and puppetry and whips them into something new, fascinating and intensely intelligent. Not only that, she uses these popular forms to probe the very biggest questions, switching from deep existential angst to spiritual lightness in the space of a minute – in between double entendres about sex and booze.

She is not only all about fantastic and ridiculous artifice, but also ultimately about what that artifice can communicate and express about deeper things, like ethics and how to take care of ourselves and each other. She delivers a show that’s equal parts cheeky fun and insightful art, no small feat. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Jinkx Moonsoon & Major Scales

Picture a maniac Jinkx Monsoon being psychoanalyzed by her musical counterpart, pianist / composer / raconteur Major Scales. This show features almost entirely original music, all from her album The Ginger Snapped, also the title of the show. This is a return engagement, and the show has definitely grown into something more hilarious and special.

Their first New York cabaret show, The Vaudevillians, was such a runaway success that it’s become a running joke in their shows that “I think the audience was expecting The Vaudevillians. Oops!” While good for a laugh, that self-deprecation isn’t necessary, since this show is equally accomplished – certainly it digs into deeper themes.

Monsoon and Scales are more entertaining and smart than the vast majority of the competition. The material from the album is heavily influenced by New Wave (heck the B-52’s Fred Schneider even guests on one track). They’ve traded the glam medical smocks they wore during the show’s first run (pictured above) for simpler, chicer outfits. Simple yet fabulous.

The Ginger Snapped is light years more thoughtful, tuneful and original than your typical cabaret drag act, while rarely being less than acidly hilarious. Very funny but with genuine rage and love just below the surface. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Liz Callaway

This award-winning singer / actress set out to do a nondescript cabaret show with what she thought was the rather generic name of “Sets in the City.” But as so often happens when putting a good cabaret act together, a show name or a group of songs reveal more than you intended. Liz Callaway has ended up with a show that deals with some pretty serious themes of nostalgia, New York, and the changing landscape of urbanism – with some grand belting, emoting and storytelling in the process. Not very nondescript, is it?

Callaway has a muscular Broadway soprano, and she can deliver both hair-raising high notes and detailed, fully-acted song interpretation. She opens with Cole Porter’s heartfelt “I Happen to Like New York” – or at least she reveals how truly heartfelt the song is. Then she launches into Ed Kleban’s masterfully written “Better” and Bacharach and David’s “Always Something There to Remind Me” – for no better reason than they’re great songs, she sounds great singing them, and music director Alex Rybeck has devised glittering, inventive arrangements for them.

Touching on the theme of nostalgia, she sings Irving Berlin’s “I Got the Sun in the Morning,” cuz she sang it in a review at Rainbow and Stars. More personally she sings Ahrens and Flaherty’s “Something Beautiful” because she discovered that the song is about a photograph Lynn Ahrens’s father had taken of a tree – a tree that happened to be in Central Park (back, inevitably, to “the city”). There’s more to the song, and the way Liz sings it, but I can’t give everything away.

But the definitive tear-jerker comes – as it often does with Liz – totally from left field. Callaway embraces the lost masterpiece that is Chuck Mangione’s “Land of Make Believe” with an ebullience, joy and hope that cut to the heart of what makes the song great. I can’t convey to you the way this made the hair stand up on the back of my neck and brought a tear to my I eye; I mean “Oh my god you guys Liz Callaway is totally singing ‘Land of Make Believe’!!!” really isn’t saying it right. It might give a clue to this magic, that this song was an anthem at 1970s multicultural queer club The Loft, one of the touchstones of that ineffable, indescribable something that has made this city special from time immemorial. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Interview: Everett Quinton in “Galas”

I have had the great pleasure of directing Ridiculous Theatre legend Everett Quinton twice, in the New York premiere of Tennessee Williams’s Now the Cats with Jewelled Claws and a staged reading of Charles Ludlam’s Medea. The Williams play got some terrific reviews, which you can read here (and you can see some lovely photos here). Charles Ludlam was perhaps the greatest playwright to come out of the Ridiculous Theatre movement, and Everett was his partner in art and life.

Now Quinton is directing and playing the lead role in Ludlam’s fictionalized tribute to opera diva Maria Callas, entitled Galas, in its first New York revival since its original 1983 run. I sat down with this humble genius to talk about it.

So how did this revival of Galas come about?

It was suggested last fall. I’ve been working with the Yorick Theatre Company. Chris Johnson, who is the Artistic Director of Yorick, talked with Pastor Mark Erson who is the Artistic Director of Theatre at St. John’s Church on Christoper Street, where Yorick performs. They came up with the idea of doing Galas – because of the Stonewall 50th anniversary and World Pride – suggested it to me and I said “good.”

Is this a role you’ve wanted to do?

Yeah, people over the years have suggested it, but there was never the opportunity to do it. Now that it has, I’d be a fool to say no; its a terrific part. I’m having fun with it. When you’re directing it and you’re in it, like I am with this, there are so many pots on the stove. But now me and the other actors are starting to cook! [Laughs] I love the actors in this group, they’re a wonderful group and we’re finding our way.

There’s humor in everything Charles wrote, but am I right in thinking this is one of his more serious plays?

It does play as more serious, yes. That’s the beauty of it. It starts out one way and it flips midway, which is not accidental on Charles’s part. You carefully study the script and he sets up the flip early on. I’m really enjoying exploring that. When I was in the original production, for which I also did the costumes, I didn’t worry about the big picture. So that’s a joy of this production for me. It’s around this time that Charles blossoms from a good writer into a really fabulous one, so skillful. We all improve as we go along, right?

Funny thing is, this big play was originally supposed to be a two-hander for me and him, about an actress and her maid. I don’t know what was going on at the time that provoked him to turn it into a life of Maria Callas. Because usually that’s the way he worked, something in the air tweaked him.

I know this is fictionalized – she’s named Galas not Callas – but I recall that it actually tracks pretty closely with Callas’s life.

Pretty closely, except there’s a couple of things I couldn’t make sense of and then I realized that’s the fictionalized part. I thought I knew from the original production that the last act takes place in Paris – and it doesn’t [Laughs], that’s the fictional part. But it is a close tribute, and I’m using her speaking voice. All of the scene changes are her singing.

I love that Callas demanded a dollar more than all her contemporaries – she would say “so-and-so’s getting so much so I want a dollar more.” I love her arrogance, and when you realize who those contemporaries were, you realize oh my God she had cojones, she had ovaries. [Laughs]

Are you an opera fan yourself?

A fan, yeah. I have no intellectual conceptions about it, I just love it. Tony Randall called it the greatest of art forms, which is arguable. Those singers just do so many wonderful things. I mean I walk around the apartment pretending to be one. When I got the costumes for the original production, I had a decent budget and I found this beautiful green dress for Charles to wear as Galas. But when I first got it home, I wore it and went around the apartment pretending I was soprano Shirley Verrett [Laughs]. So I’m a lip synch opera queen. Charles liked opera but there were bigger opera queens in the company and our chatter could annoy him. I called it “gay baseball,” we talk about opera and musicals like straight guys talk about baseball.

For tickets, click here.

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