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: The Sound Inside

This subtle play probes enormous life and death issues facing people with big intellects and small lives. Brilliant but defensive (and damaged?) Yale creative writing major Christopher Dunn (Will Hochman) vies for the attention of his self-possessed, reclusive professor Bella Baird (Mary-Louise Parker). She finds herself drawn to him, and mentors him in writing his novel. But life gets in the way, in a big way.

The Sound Inside is above all a vehicle for the actor playing Bella who either narrates or monologues for much of the play. Parker is at the peak of her powers here, playing playwright Adam Rapp’s sometimes purple prose with great precision and restraint. The problems she faces put her in contact with life’s biggest questions, and neither Bella nor Parker flinches in the face of these massive subjects. Hochman rises to her challenge, giving warmth and softness to a young man who could come off as unpleasant. Both performances are remarkably honest and vulnerable.

Director David Cromer does masterful work here, particularly in his collaboration with designers Heather Gilbert (lighting) and Aaron Rhyne (projections). Images and colors appear out of nowhere, and fade back into obscurity with equal delicacy. They wrap Alexander Woodward’s minimalist set in a cloak of mystery and darkness. Daniel Kluger’s music punctuates the play with the lightest of touches. Rapp, for his part, portrays the world of academia with a knowingness that is equal parts affectionate and cynical. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Marilyn Maye

She embraces her audience, she overpowers, she electrifies – Marilyn Maye is like no other singer. At 91, she sings and moves like a singer in their 40s. It might not be an exaggeration to call her the best jazz cabaret singer in the world. She’s certainly the last great performer in that style of her generation, still in astonishingly full command of her vocal powers. And at 54 Below right now, she’s turning her towering talent mostly to showtunes. Lucky us!

Maye has been rediscovered by New York audiences over the last decade or so, and you can feel the ever growing lovefest between fans old and new, which only adds to the fun. But she’s had fans in good places for a long time: Johnny Carson gave her a standing invitation to sing on “The Tonight Show” whenever possible, and she ended up appearing 76 times while Carson was in the chair, a record no singer has broken since!

She’s always included showtunes in her act, so there’s plenty of familiar stuff, especially from Hello Dolly and Mame, shows whose title roles she played in now-legendary regional productions. There are several other medleys, but Maye and her music director Billy Strich handle medleys in an unconventional way, undercutting their potential for corniness with thoughtful storytelling and sophisticated jazz musicianship. If you love show tunes sung in sparkling and surprising ways, it just doesn’t get any better than this.

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: The Height of the Storm

In Florian Zeller’s delicately surreal new play The Height of the Storm, Zeller investigates grief for the passing of a beloved spouse, as well as the difficulty of dealing with dementia in a spouse or parent. In the last few years, there have been a spate of excellent plays on Broadway dealing with many varieties of dementia – among them Zeller’s own The Father. While there are echoes of that play here, The Height of the Storm emphasizes the complete loss of your life partner, not you memories.

The play bounces back and forth between different narratives. In one, famous writer André (Jonathan Pryce) is grieving for his wife Madeleine (Eileen Atkins). In another, Madeleine is grieving for André. In yet another both are still alive, but André is slipping into dementia – actually this is happening in all of the narratives.

The play is complex enough that one can interpret it several ways. One person I spoke with perceived that this was all in André’s confused mind, as happened in The Father. I prefer to think that we are seeing several different realities play out, perhaps even more than the ones I described above. In one, André had an affair, in another it was a student of his that had the affair, etc., etc. Certainly Zeller keeps us on our toes with his imaginative and precise writing.

I have never seen Jonathan Pryce better. He moved me with his performance, which he has never done before. Eileen Atkins is also exceptional, and the supporting cast uniformly excellent. Director Jonathan Kent and lighting designer Hugh Vanstone help us track the shifting reality with intricately calibrated lighting changes working hand in hand with thoughtful, rigorous staging. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn 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.

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: Ethan Slater

In a really good way, Ethan Slater’s Feinstein’s/54 Below debut is about as far from his star-making role in Broadway’s SpongeBob SquarePants as possible. Here he emerges as a smart, earnest singer songwriter with impressive multi-instrumental skills. His songs have a quirky edge that reminds me of the solo work of Steven Page of Barenaked Ladies: like Page, Slater deals with themes of love, loss and healing, with rich veins of humor, ruefulness and wonder.

Slater is writing a handful of musicals, both on his own and with Nick Blaemire. One is intended as a film titled Write Me In, about two brothers, both writers. Another is a stage musical called Edge of the World, about a single father who relocates himself and his young son to Alaska – songs from this one are the majority of the evening’s repertoire. Thank goodness, too, that they are sturdy enough to sustain our interest, which bodes well for the musical itself.

There are a handful of songs not by Slater that help to anchor the evening. Folk music is an important background for Ethan, and he does one song apiece by Paul Simon and Dave Van Ronk early in the show. Tony Nominee that he is, he also does a smattering of musical theatre, including a very affecting rendition of “Happiness Is…” from You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, and his big number from SpongeBob, “(Just a) Simple Sponge.” To top it all off, Slater is blessed with a golden voice, and tons of affable charisma. 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.