Review: Ann Hampton Callaway

Ann Hampton Callaway wrote and sang the theme from the TV hit The Nanny, or as she likes to call it “my accountant’s favorite song.” As you might guess from that swinging tune, she definitely thrives on the jazzier end of cabaret, and that inspired her to craft a loving musical history of the hope and joy jazz brings to the movies. To wit, her latest club act “Jazz Goes to the Movies.” (Ann is also an out lesbian, who gave me the honor of being the journalist to do her “coming out interview” – you can read that here).

Ella Fitzgerald greatly influenced Callaway, so it’s completely natural this show should find Ann mixing Ella’s sumptuous syncopation and scat with Fred Astaire’s crooning (more on that in a moment). On songs Ann herself sang for the movies – “Come Rain or Come Shine” from The Good Shepherd and “The Nearness of You” from Last Holiday – the jazz quotient is through the roof.

As to Astaire, Ann remarks that while some people are “Deadheads” she’s a “Fredhead,” and she interprets several songs that Astaire originated in movies. “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” – an Irving Berlin number Fred sang to Ginger Rogers in Follow the Fleet – receives a very emotional reading. She applies the first line of the song to the present day: “There may be trouble ahead.” But in that connection she takes very seriously the remedy offered by the next couple of lines: “But while there’s music and moonlight and love and romance / Let’s face the music and dance.”

Even more emotional is her Pride-themed take on Rodgers and Hart’s “My Funny Valentine.” Callaway relates that when lyricist Lorenz Hart received this gorgeous and melancholy melody from Rodgers, the closeted Hart looked in the mirror and wrote the words he longed to have some man sing to him. The song moved Callaway (and us) so much, that she had to sing The Nanny theme to lift her own spirits.

She even extends her “movie” theme to the recent remake of A Star is Born. No, she doesn’t sing that song, but she does her own take on “La Vie en Rose” (which Gaga sings in a bar in the film), including Callaway’s own intro – a brief love letter to the city of Paris. Callaway, as always, achieves a kind of jazz-pop perfection, shimmery and rich. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Advertisements

Review: Mark Nadler

Cabaret star Mark Nadler is one of the greatest showmen of our time, leaping from floor to piano bench, keeping steady eye contact with the audience – all the while playing a complex passage on the piano without even glancing at the keys. In “The Old Razzle Dazzle,” his new show about lies, lying and liars, Nadler plays and sings with his usual virtuosic abandon, in a show constructed with his usual passionate intelligence. And as usual, the show is stunning, perhaps among his best.

Also, a Mark Nadler show is always working on at least 3 or 4 tracks of thought. With the subject being lies, it’s pretty obvious that the current occupant of the White House is the ultimate target. But Nadler takes his time getting there. He starts out with the white lie, enumerated in Dave Frishberg’s “Blizzard of Lies” – which already starts getting political with lines like “I didn’t inhale” and “I am not a crook.”

Then he launches into the lies we say to children with a tellingly long medley – he starts with “Wishing on a Star” and ends with the thought of “if all else fails scare the bejesus out of them” before launching into “Oogie Boogie’s Song” from The Nightmare Before Christmas.

Early in the show, Nadler says “everything in this show is a lie” but it pretty quickly becomes clear that itself is a lie. Oh there are plenty of outrageous lies in the show, but the most important parts are true, and many of the worst lies are delivered with heavy sarcasm. The line, however, does have the positive effect of encouraging a skeptical frame of mind.

I don’t want to give everything away, but I’ll say that some of the most affecting moments deal with romantic self-deception – especially “The Lies of Handsome Men” and the Alan Menken rarity “Lie to Me” – and when Nadler does finally get to the egregious lies of the current administration, he does it with a tap dance. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Unitard

Hard-hitting, R-rated, queer as fuck sketch comedy is what this trio does. I mean their new show is called Badassy which kind of tells you what you need to know. They all have other careers, Mike Albo as a writer, Nora Burns and David Ilku as actors, but there’s a special, danagerous alchemy that happens when they come together as Unitard.

The opening salvos in Badassy are a “hanky code” parody whose targets range far and wide, followed by a sketch about a pair of New Yorkers (Burns and Albo) complaining about the Donald’s vile capers, while their waiter (Ilku) is playing a darker game only revealed at the end. Later in the show, all three participate in a “name that school shooting” sketch that breaks down in a very meta way, as the trio speaks in their voices about the limits of comedy.

While group sketches make up most of the show, some of the best moments are solo moments. Burns is hilarious as a particularly preening version of Ann Coulter. When Albo faces some credit card problems, he is subjected to an increasingly embarrasing accounting of his spending (in a voice-over by Ilku) in which the card company rep has insight into his most mortifying motives.

I think my favorite though is when Ilku, as an older but still hopping club kid, let’s you know in ballroom lingo all the things he hates and loves. He hates being co-opted by Pose, for one. But then, in the bit’s climax, he joyously namechecks all the greats of New York drag, performance art and music who are still at it. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Tootsie

Composer David Yazbek is probably the guy you want to have on the job when you’re adapting a successful film comedy to a successful musical comedy. He’s had several triumphs in that area, most notably The Full Monty and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. It’s a very happy thing, then, that his score for Tootsie is every bit as good as those. It spends most of its time in his Sondheim-meets-Steely-Dan comfort zone, which is more than fine by me.

Patter songs, which Yazbek excels at, are more abundant here than in his other shows. Certainly every song gets the feel of the character – and the moment they’re in – exactly right. For my money, he’s one of the very best American musical composers of his generation, certainly the most underrated.

The tricky part: the story of a man taking a woman’s job away is a hard sell these days, for good reason. The task of making that work falls largely to bookwriter Robert Horn, and even if he doesn’t always suceed, boy does he make a valiant effort. On the other hand, his book is never less than meticulously crafted and wickedly, wittily funny. It’s every bit they equal of the source material, which was by comic genius Larry Gelbart, no small feat.

Horn’s hilarious book – which transfers the milieu from soap opera to Broadway musical – is delivered by some of the finest comic actors around. Julie Halston is a standout as hard-nosed producer with a heart of gold Rita Mitchell. Of course the key to making any version of Tootsie work is casting the right actor as Michael Dorsey / Dorothy Michaels, and Satino Fontana is ideal. His flexible tenor makes us believe that everybody else believes Dorothy is not only a woman, but an experienced musical theatre character actress. Plus, Fontana’s energy is unflagging in what must be a truly exhausting role. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: What the Constitution Means to Me

As a teenager, playwright and actress Heidi Schreck won her college tuition money in Constitutional debate competitions at VFW’s and other similar institutions across the country. In What the Constitution Means to Me, Schreck revisits those competitions to examine how her feelings about the document have changed – and how it has long failed to protect the bodies and lives of oppressed peoples like women and immigrants. And how, under conservative courts and administrations, such protections as those people have are consistently rolled back.

That may sound like material for an essay or a lecture, but Schreck makes exciting and frequently entertaining theatre out of this thorny subject. She does this mostly by bringing an intensely personal point of view to it, interjecting pop culture references from her teen years and today. Also, she uses what can be exciting and theatrical about the performance side of lectures, speeches and debates – time limits, spontanteity and conflict, for a start. It’s not for nothing that her director Oliver Butler co-founded a theatre company called The Debate Society.

There’s a lot that’s sneaky about What the Constitution. For one thing, it’s a full-on play disguised as a solo performance art show. In fact, at one point Schreck acidly observes that “I know some of you think I’ve gone off on a tangent but I promise you I haven’t. In spite of what some people think, this show is actually quite carefully constructed.”

In this play’s most important other role, Mike Iveson plays a VFW moderator, but his role morphs in surprising, effective and satisfying ways. And there are additional cast members whose function is such a delightful surprise I won’t spoil it. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Miz Cracker

Drag as a feminist act – that’s what Drag Race alum Miz Cracker is aiming at in her new cabaret show at the Laurie Beechman Theatre, “American Woman.” After appearing on the aforementioned reality show, Cracker noticed that her audience had shifted from mostly gay men to mostly women. This gave “her” pause – it makes sense to make jokes about gay sex if you’re speaking to gay men, but should you still be doing the same kind of act if your audience is women by more than half?

Cracker is “sorry / not sorry” for giving you a feminist TED talk with jokes, pop songs and choreography. Oh, and while we are on the subject, Le Miz gives you all of those New York drag traditions we love – Lypsinka-inspired lip-synch collage, cartwheels worthy of Candis Cayne (who was just at the Beechman last week), and even House of Ninja vogue moves – in ample supply. The “not sorry” comes with thought that “wouldn’t you have enjoyed algebra more if ‘teach’ threw in some costume changes?”

It’s not that drag queens can no longer do “funny pussy songs,” Cracker suggests, but they should maybe think a second about what it means to a woman to celebrate her pussy – and then does just such a number to illustrate what she has in mind. And so on through more and more serious feminist themes.

I saw her first performance of this show ever, and it still had some wrinkles. There’s an opening collage of beautiful powerful women of all types (wittily set to Smetana’s “My Fatherland”), but it’s overlong and doesn’t quite make sense, due to the fact we haven’t been clued into the feminist bent of the show yet. It would be more moving post-show, where it would make an effective crossover while Cracker changes outfits for the meet and greet. Plus, there are many repetitions that could easily be trimmed.

All in all, though, a remarkably intelligent and entertaining evening of drag. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Karen Mason

This diva’s big, expressive voice is one of Broadway’s most under-utilized treasures, and her new cabaret act “For The First Time” puts it on impressive display. She’s long been one of New York’s most beloved cabaret artists, but she’s been away for more than a year, touring North America in a first-class tour of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Love Never Dies, playing – as she puts it – “the up for anything, party-loving Madame Giry.”

The new act marks her return to NYC, and pays tribute to “firsts” throughout Mason’s career. Above all it celebrates the songwriters she feels honored to have known personally. Some of these songs were written for her, some she was the person who sang the first demos. And some she includes just because she likes them. The “first” that truly unites all the songs in the show, however, is the fact that Mason has never sung any of them on a cabaret stage before.

Mason is a songwriter’s favorite, I think, because she generally sticks closer to the melody of songs than many contemporary Broadway performers. Its not because she’s trying to create any definitive version of these songs, but because she trusts the talent of the people she’s working with, and tells exactly the story the song sets out to tell.

Highlights include the little-known Barbra Streisand ballad “If I Close My Eyes,” by Billy Goldenberg and Alan and Marilyn Bergman; and two great comic numbers: Shelly Markham’s “Things I Learned Along the Way” (with specialty lyrics skewering the current occupant of the White House) and Sheldon Harnick’s priceless operetta pastiche “The Ballad of The Shape of Things” (hilariously detailing the geometry of a woman scorned). Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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