Review: Lillias White

In this show, Lillias White literally GIVES. ME. LIFE! And that isn’t a misuse of “literally” – her tribute to Sarah Vaughan “Divine Sass” made me feel more alive than just about anything other show since cabaret came back. Much of it is due to Lillias’s abundant spontaneity. The night I saw it, someone shouted “What are you doing the rest of you life?” leading her to launch into an a capella version of the song of the same name, accepting lyric prompts from the audience (especially from a handsome young man named Julian).

Lillias is on a mission to portray Vaughan in a stage musical, and if anyone has the chops to do it, it’s her. In this show, White addresses Vaughan’s signature songs with an expressiveness and virtuosity every bit worthy of the Divine Sarah. White has one of those thunderclap voices, like Darlene Love or Martha Wash, that electrifies and illuminates everything it touches. And with the inspiration of sassy Sarah – and an adoring audience – she positively soars.

White is a bawdy lady – many moons ago me and my husband got drunk with her after a Christine Ebersole show, and without much effort we got her to sing “Big Fat Daddy” to me. She leans into that lustiness here, since, like her, Vaughan had a taste for men, especially of the younger variety. Vaughan’s “An Occasional Man” is the perfect vehicle for that heat, and White kills it. Another Vaughan staple “Misty” gets two full versions, the first a ballad approach reflecting the sentimental lyrics of the song, and then an amazing fast, scat-laden jazz take. Wow!

While everybody in the band plays magnificently, the solos of bassist Jonathan Michel display a remarkable originality (for fellow lovers of the bassline, he is as expressive as Haden or Entwhistle). As for the woman herself, as always a great artist and warm presence. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Justin Vivian Bond

This trans legend is among the most unique interpreters of song: she can go from tender vulnerablity to smirking irony to howling rage, sometimes in the same song. Her taste is impeccable, and she approaches her selections with the touch of a very careful curator. A curator, that is, who finds what is most explosive in the art they’re presenting, and then promptly detonates it. Justin Vivian Bond is a tower of song – mysterious, imposing, beautiful, powerful.

JVB’s current show “Oh Mary, It’s Spring!” is nothing more or less than a selection of songs about or written by women named Mary. To hear Bond tell it, she’s never been particularly good at remembering people’s names, and it has only gotten worse as she gets older (she celebrated her 59th birthday during the run). So she’s taken to calling everyone “Mary.” And why not!

Bond comes roaring out of the gate with The Association’s “Along Comes Mary”, all strut and swagger. In her version of Mary MacGregor’s “Torn Between Two Lovers” she comes out into the house and sings directly to more than two men in the audience (myself included the night I went), commenting afterwards “all that polyamorous queer love has my head spinning!”

JVB delivers a powerfully understated rendition of singer-songwrigter Mary Gauthier’s amazing “Mercy”, which Bond introduces with a story about her conflicted relationship with her late father. The song expands to encompass the mercy that country and life itself needs right now, which she delivers with controlled passion. Her version of Jimi Hendrix’s “The Wind Cries Mary” goes the opposite direction: she truly screams the lyric “the wind / screams Mary”, to great effect.

One of the best features of all of Bond’s shows is her acidly funny, stream of consciousness, between-song patter (which has had the downside of making certain shows marathon length, but not here). As always Bond is hilariously entertaining, wildly imaginative and vividly expressive. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: John Pizzarelli

Pianist Isiah J. Thompson, bassist Mike Karn, guitarist and vocalist John Pizzarelli – this trio attacks with flashy jazziness so relentlessly that you don’t applaud for fear of missing something amazing. Pizzarelli has framed this particular act as “Stage and Screen.” That casts a very wide net, since the vast majority of the Great American Songbook comes from Broadway or movie musicals. It works out to be just another excellent show from the John Pizzarelli Trio, packed with the very jazziest interpretations of standards selected with exquisite taste.

Particularly moving was a instrumental solo from John of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “This Nearly Was Mine” and Sondheim’s “Send In The Clowns”, favorites of his father, guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli. Bucky passed away from COVID in 2020, and John teared up while playing this medley. John plays guitar with amazing fluidity and elegance, with nonpareil mastery of a technique called “guitar harmonics” that produces high notes of extraordinary expressiveness. He mixed harmonics with regular virtuosity for this medley, to beautiful effect.

Then again, 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. After a stirring yet playful rendition of “Rhode Island is Famous for You” (made famous by Blossom Dearie), John noted that he had done several “list” songs in a row, only to launch into another list song , “I Love Betsy” from Jason Robert Brown’s Broadway show Honeymoon in Vegas (“I like Shake Shack, I like MoMA, and New Jersey’s ripe aroma…Heck, there’s lots of stuff I like, but I love Betsy and she loves me. She likes hockey, no I swear, she likes guys with thinning hair”).

John Pizzarelli embodies cabaret’s jazzier side with astonishing elan and profound musical intelligence. 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. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

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: John Lloyd Young

It’s no wonder John Lloyd Young was cast many moons ago in Jersey Boys to originate the role of Frankie Valli, in the process becoming the only American actor to win the Tony, Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle, and Theater World Awards for a Broadway debut. He has one of the most mighty high tenors in all of musical theatre, paired with a falsetto which perhaps surpasses even Valli’s own in sheer power. He’s back at the Café Carlyle, where he just opened a new show for one short week.

Charismatic and still boyishly handsome in his mid-40s, Young still sings the Valli songs that made his name (he knows where his bread is buttered), but the remainder of his present act is satisfyingly eclectic. He burns through “Show And Tell”, the 1973 Jerry Fuller hit made famous by Al Wilson. He positively floats away in his version of The Stylistics’ “You are Everything”, paying homage to another great falsetto singer, Russell Thompkins, Jr. The evening’s most surprising number: “Ming Ri Tian Ya”, a Mandarin Chinese soundtrack ballad, telling a tragic story of love thwarted by death. Just the kind of “big sing” this son of Irish and Welsh melodrama loves to sing. Young, pardon the phrase, kills it. (He will be alternating it with other non-English songs throughout the run).

The only other musician on-stage, on piano and keyboards, is Tommy Faragher, a veteran songwriter (Taylor Dayne’s “With Every Beat of My Heart”) and Grammy-nominated producer (Glee‘s “Teenage Dream” featuring Darren Criss). He and Young wrote the break-up ballad “Cold Dawn Calling” – Young’s lyrics are not only emotional but also artfully wrought, and he sings them with an extra bit of heat. Faragher has a solo spot, doing a heartfelt cover of Sam Cooke’s “Bring It On Home to Me”. He does a more than creditable job, but I wish Young had sung backup on the call-and-response chorus. After all, Cooke’s backup singer was none other than the legendary Lou Rawls.

Young deliveres every note of every song with sophistication and passionate musical precision. He possesses an affable, assured presence, and displays a droll, disarming intelligence in his patter. Young relates “you never know who you are going to run into at the Carlyle Hotel,” revealing that Faragher had found himself at the bar sitting next to none other than Sir Paul McCartney. Young then launched into a blazing rendition of McCartney’s “Maybe I’m Amazed”. And maybe I am. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Dianna Agron

While she has always been an immensely talented singer, I feel like Dianna Agron’s current act at the Cafe Carlyle really finds her coming into her own. Agron applies her huskily golden yet liquid voice to some very “Carlyle” material, including Bobby Short’s “You Fascinate Me So” and Eartha Kitt’s “I Want To Be Evil”. When Agron goes after a song, she always acts the hell out of it, which makes her an exceptional interpreter and storyteller.

Folk rock, the meat of Agron’s first two shows at the Carlyle, is largely absent here, replaced by “songbook” and “soul,” both of which she excels at. She keeps breaking her own rules to put together a show that feels right; her baseline here is a show that is fun and pleasurable, and she has more than succeeded.

A couple of times she asked her band to take it back to the top. She seemed slightly embarrassed – Dianna I am here to tell you that one of the most gratifying experiences I have ever had in cabaret was when Keely Smith unashamedly said “no that wasn’t good, lets do it again.” Own your mistakes, and be proud of the artistry which compels you to be the best version of the song you are singing! No apologies!

That said, Agron is all-around more confident and in command, which lends her off-hand comments a raffish charm. No song was less than beautifully sung, and she performs best when a song brings out the actress in her – most notably “It’s Oh So Quiet” (orginated by Betty Hutton, and returned to fame in Björk’s cover version). Agron in every case gives us wonderfully sung renditions of dauntingly complex songs. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Hamilton Leithauser

Although he opened his act at the Cafe Carlyle with a Randy Newman song – and spent years fronting indie rock darlings The Walkmen – there’s something about every song Hamilton Leithauser sings that arcs toward Bob Dylan. When he sings quietly, it’s in a Dylansque talk-sing, but when he rocks out, it is clear that he has a much stronger voice than ol’ Bob ever did. His show is full of wonderful songs, but he has not yet figured out how to perform them in an intimate setting.

Leithauser’s lyrics tend toward the literate and witty, but it is difficult to hear them when he is singing to a back row that is many yards further than the Carlyle’s actual back row. To be clear, I am not one of those critics who goes “rock music is too loud”: I grew up on punk and post-punk. But literally read the room. David Johansen, Judy Collins and Joan Osborne – all big room fillers for decades – all have successfully done so. And in every case with strong nods to Dylan (is the Carlyle trying to book Bob? It would be oddly perfect).

Also, Leithauser openly said he was telling the short version of several songs’ backstories. That’s misunderstanding what cabaret is about – this is a place for talking and storytelling. Tell the long version. On the plus side, Leithauser’s lyrics often surprise and conjure evocative images. Mostly the songs break towards hope, but with a rueful awareness of the difficulties life puts in your way. While it is definitely a work in progress, I still recommended this.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.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: John Pizzarelli

John Pizzarelli, top exponent of cabaret’s jazzier side, gives us a show in tribute to jazz piano great George Shearing, who was known for his urbane sound and light, genteel touch – much as Mr. Pizzarelli is today. This show at Birdland Jazz Club opens with “Lullaby of Birdland”, a jazz standard which Shearing composed as the theme for a live broadcast from the club in 1952.

John plays guitar in an amazingly fluid and elegant style, with nonpareil mastery of a technique called “guitar harmonics” that produces high notes of extraordinary expressiveness. He outdid himself with this technique in “A Shine on Your Shoe”: he had me wondering “where is that violin? Where are those bells?” All these impersonations of other instruments accomplished with harmonics. Stunning.

Pizzarelli brilliantly interprets music in many ways. He has a particular genius for chordal improvisations, finding 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. Both qualities are ideal when assaying Shearing’s repertoire.

It’s not that surprising for Pizzarelli to do a show exclusively devoted to the memory of George Shearing. Their styles align very naturally, and in fact they recorded an album together in 2002, The Rare Delight of You. As always, John performs with astonishing elan and profound musical intelligence. Neither jazz nor cabaret gets much better than this. Highly recommended.

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.