Review: Lackawanna Blues

In this solo play, Ruben Santiago-Hudson celebrates the woman who raised him in her boarding house in Lackawanna (just outside Buffalo) who is known variously as Nanny, Mother and Miss Rachel. He not only portrays himself and Miss Rachel, but also some 20 other boarders who passed through the house throughout the 1950s and 1960s, when Ruben was growing up.

I’m usually suspicious of shows that are written and directed by the same person; usually they’re much better at one job than the other. Here Santiago-Hudson does both, as well as playing every part. Based on the tour-de-force result, I’d say the man has earned his bona fides – then again, he has worked with the likes of playwright August Wilson as director and actor, and acted for legendary directors like George C. Wolfe and Lloyd Richards.

Miss Rachel would take care of anybody who needed it, which is why everybody called her “Mother.” In mid-century Lackawanna, this led to a motley collection of misfits and crazies passing through her doors, all of whom Santiago-Hudson portrays with great sensitivity. Many were harmless, but many were violent, and Ruben doesn’t shy away from this. Nanny herself fearlessly stood up to these toughs and abusers, which leads to some of the show’s most dramatic moments, as Santiago-Hudson contrasts their toxic rantings with Miss Rachel’s terrifyingly steely calm.

This show isn’t called a blues for nothing: Almost the entirety of the play is accompanied by blues guitar-playing from Junion Mack, recreating the score created by long-time Santiago-Hudson collaborator, the late Bill Sims Jr. Ruben himself is a talent ed harmonica player, and pipes in with his “harp” at judiciously selected moments. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Pass Over

The simple fact offbeing back in a Broadway theatre, especially one as beautiful as the August Wilson, was a moving experience in and of itself. The play at that theatre, Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu’s Pass Over, is several things. For one thing, this black-themed surrealist drama is an opening bell for the Broadway community’s commitment to being more diverse going forward. The play itself certainly has its heart in the right place, but the realization of its high ideals is a mixed bag.

The play mostly draws its inspiration from Waiting for Godot. As in Beckett’s play, we have two protagonists trapped in their situation, in this case a desolate urban street-corner in place of Beckett’s country road. As in Beckett, one, Moses (Jon Michael Hill), is a pontificating top dog, the other, Kitch (Namir Smallwood), a goofy wild card.

My issue: the play works too hard to hew to the outline of Godot. The moments where it deviates the most from Beckett’s model are its most effective, and I wish there were more of them. In fact the best part of the play is its conclusion, where Nwandu abandons Godot for a rapturously strange evocation of the Book of Exodus (not to leer, but it also features nudity, and the actors have clearly been working on their assets).

Also, Moses exhibits traits of toxic masculinity, and while Nwandu has clearly made that character decision intentionally, she offers no coherent criticism of that syndrome – and this in a play jam-packed with coherent criticisms. This just puzzles me. Hill makes the best of it however, sensitively playing to the wounds that led Moses to construct this fiercely defensive emotional armor. In spite of its flaws, Pass Over is an exciting and dynamic return for Broadway, and I can recommend it.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Beth Leavel

Despite this cabaret act being named “It’s Not About Me,” throughout Beth Leavel greatly relishes telling stories of her own long Broadway career. She barrels through it all with the ferocious commitment and incisive comic energy for which she’s most known.

She’s currently in between her much-loved turn playing Broadway diva Dee Dee in The Prom and creating the role of Miranda Priestly in Elton John’s musical version of The Devil Wears Prada. She opens with the song from The Prom which gives the act its title, blowing the roof off of Feinstein’s / 54 Below from the very beginning. Then she marries belting with a warm sense of welcoming in her take on Cole Porter’s “I Get A Kick Out Of You” the “you” in this case very clearly being the audience. In a typical pairing of sincerity with wisecracking, she notes she wants the show to feel like we’re all sitting around drinking in her living room – and then says that since everybody’s drinking we’re halfway there.

There are only about nine songs in the show, much of which she gives over to backstage stories told with much hilarity. Not only Broadway stories, but stories from regional theatre, where she has done such great roles as Dolly Levi and Mama Rose. And does she sing songs from those great roles? Oh yes she does, oh boy does she ever! I’m not going to tell you which ones; I’d rather you go “oh no she isn’t!” just like I did. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: The Inheritance

This is an exciting, thought-provoking show. I’ve seen it compared to Angels in America – they both involve gay American history and are split into two long parts – but they are quite different animals. Angels’ author Tony Kushner, tends toward broad scope and metaphysical philosophizing. The Inheritance‘s playwright Matthew Lopez, however, focuses on more human-scale stories. Yes, there is much in the play that underlines how much “the personal is the political,” but running time to one side, The Inheritance concentrates on relatively ordinary people navigating complicated lives.

Does it, then, justify that running time? Thankfully, yes. Lopez has a real gift for crafting believable and engaging characters. Because of this, over its many hours The Inheritance never lapses into tedium, no small accomplishment. Lopez loosely adapts E. M. Forster’s novel Howards End to 21st Century gay New York, following the interlinking lives of three generations of gay men searching for love and a place to call home. Like Forster’s book, the play interrogates social conventions and codes of conduct in relationships, but since the milieu is very different, Lopez reaches intriguingly different conclusions.

Lopez centers his story on Eric Glass (Kyle Soller, in a marvelously nuanced, even elegant portrayal), a a compassionate but conflicted native New Yorker. Also, Forster is not only the source of the plot’s outline, he also appears as a character, played with delicate dignity by Paul Hilton. He advises and inspires a young gay writer played by the remarkably talented (and toned!) Samuel H. Levine. Not for the only time, Lopez teases you with suspense – which of the characters that Levine plays is telling this story? Director Stephen Daldrey gives the narrative lots of air and makes weaving this complex tapestry seem breathtakingly easy. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: A Christmas Carol

This is quite possibly the best stage adaptation of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol I’ve seen. And there have been a lot of them: This holiday chestnut is an audience favorite, and – even better for theatres’ budgets – in the public domain. For this Broadway version, which originated at London’s Old Vic, adaptor Jack Thorne brilliantly interweaves sharp social commentary (never far away in Dickens) with ineffable warmth and joy.

Director Matthew Warchus greatly magnifies that warmth even before the show starts, with the cast tossing and passing clementines and cookies to the audience. They even chat congenially with the audience – a friend of mine had some lovely face time with Andrea Martin (who plays the Spirit of Christmas Past). The smell of people peeling clementines hugely helps to conjure the Christmas spirit. Get there early!

Our Scrooge is Cambpell Scott (whose father George C. Scott played the role in a terrific 1984 TV movie adaptation). He brings great nuance to the role, with flashes of vulnerability even early on, which clearly unnerve Scrooge, but also foreshadow his eventual change of heart. And when that change of heart comes, Warchus turns the warmth and joy all the way up with another bit of audience interaction which spectacularly embraces the entire theatre.

Rob Howell’s set envelops the theatre as well, with Victorian lanterns in huge numbers hanging over the stage and audience. Thorne treats the story as an ensemble piece, and when that ensemble includes performers as fine as Martin and LaChanze, you know you’re in good hands. In another super-smart twist, Tiny Tim is played by a differently-abled boy (Jai Ram Srinivasan at the performance I attended) which makes the scenes with him – which can be mawkishly sentimental – much more realistic and all the more genuinely touching for it. 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: The Great Society

Robert Schenkkan compellingly told how Lyndon B. Johnson won the 1964 election in his play All The Way. After Johnson won, he passionately articulated a bold plan to build a just society for all Americans, an agenda of several acts he collectively called “The Great Society.” In the play The Great Society, Schenkkan’s sequel to All the Way, we explore how LBJ went from his landslide victory to his exhausted decision not to run for re-election just three years later.

“The Great Society” was one of the most ambitious reform programs in American history, but would eventually be derailed by ruthless Republican stonewalling, as LBJ himself sank into the quagmire that was the Vietnam War. The Great Society‘s inventive creative team brings this very troubled period of history to vibrant life. Director Bill Rauch deftly arranges the frequent shifts in locale and mood with deceptive simplicity. It also helps that playwright Robert Schenkkan successfully conveys a strong sense of time, place and stakes in every line of his jazzy dialogue.

Playing LBJ, Brian Cox brilliantly captures that president’s tireless energy and ruthless political gamesmanship being worn away by circumstances out of his control. The Great Society has the heft of a Shakespeare history play, which is unsurprising given the play’s origin as a commission from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Cox’s almost tragic performance as Johnson is the real heart of this production, a moving portrait of a man’s ambitions and dreams rapidly evaporating. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn 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: 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: 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.