Review: Seth’s Broadway Breakdown

Seth Rudetsky is best known as a host on SiriusXM’s “On Broadway” channel, but is almost as well known for his YouTube videos “deconstructing” showtunes – hilariously analyzing them second by second to show what is amazing about them, as well as moments that make no musical sense. For years he’s been doing live shows compiling those deconstructions, under titles like Seth’s Big Fat Broadway Show (now the name of one of his SiriusXM programs) and Deconstructing Broadway.

He’s back onstage with this fresh new version of that show that frames these analyses with the fanciful idea that Broadway left us for the last year and a half because we didn’t properly thank Broadway for all the wonderful things it gives us. So Seth will “break it down” for us.

First off he addresses a misconception that he hates “legit” sopranos – not true, he just loves belters more! From which point he gives us an gleefully detailed history of high belting, from Ethel Merman’s trademark high B, thorough Nell Carter’s high E in Ain’t Misbehavin’, to Patti LuPone’s 16 high E’s going to a high G in Evita. He goes on to compare LuPone’s version to Madonna’s movie version, which does not go in Madonna’s favor, to say the least. Howlingly funny.

In addition to having us listen along to Broadway cast recordings, Rudetsky joyfully lip-syncs, demonstrates techniques in his own voice where he can, and plays examples of arranging techniques on the piano. In particular he dissects an Osmond family Fiddler on the Roof where the arrangements blithely ignore what the songs are actually about, to hilariously ridiculous effect.

There are also archive recordings and live stuff that Seth, as a longtime Broadway musician and insider, has special access to. After seeing this show, you’ll have a clear idea of things like the difference between chest voice and head voice, especially when that head voice is “unwelcome,” which he explains through a side-splittingly funny deconstruction of “Do Re Mi” from The Sound of Music. Seth’s overjoyed that Broadway is back, and I’m thrilled he’s sharing that joy with us. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

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: Chicken & Biscuits

The best way to see Chicken & Biscuits is to arrange to be in front of an enthusiastic church lady. By happy accident I was seated in front of just such a lady, who was definitely not shy with the occasional “Amen!!” and “Tell it!!” – it very much added to the fun of this already quite entertaining show.

The play focuses on the rivalry between the late pastor’s two daughters, the “holier-than-thou” Baneatta (Cleo King) and the flashily vulgar Beverly (Ebony Marshall-Oliver). Baneatta’s husband – and the church’s new pastor – Reginald (the magnificent as always Norm Lewis) tries to keep the peace while preparing the eulogy. There’s also a gay subplot involving Baneatta’s son Kenny (Devere Rogers) and his nebbishy Jewish boyfriend Logan (the ever-hilarious Michael Urie). Baneatta barely tolerates Logan, and Logan is terrified of Baneatta.

Director Zhailon Livingston (the youngest Black director in Broadway history) has assembled a first-rate group of physical comedians who deliver playwright Douglas Lyon’s zesty comic lines with flawless timing. Lewis in particular wonderfully manages a eulogy which begins with very awkward homilies, but eventually finds its way to barnstorming spirit and zeal (church lady loved that part too). The play deals with themes of forgiveness and kindness in well-tread ways, but since the world is in profound need of both qualities you won’t find me raising a strong objection. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

News: The Simsinz TONIGHT ONLY! (Friday 9/24)

One of New York’s best, most insane, drag shows returns for one night only, tonight, Friday September 24. The Simsinz is an unauthorized drag parody lipsynch tribute to The Simpsons which comes from the inventive mind of up and coming drag star Cissy Walken. In it 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).

Walken is a 2019 MAC Award nominee, and reigning Miss Stonewall. She stars as Marge, joined by Coco Taylor (host of Members Only Boylesque), Aria Derci, Pussy Willow and Andy Starling as a bevy of characters.

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!

The costume changes are truly dizzying, and the staging sophisticated and energetic. The last time I saw it, 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: 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: Michael Feinstein

I am so happy that this show was my return to live performance. I’ve been a fan of Mr. Feinstein for a very long time, and much of the show was made up of songs I’d heard him do several times before. Michael being the sensitive interpreter he is, however, gave every song new layers in keeping with changed times. He gave a warm but wistful twist to this line in his opening song “It’s A Most Unusual Day” : “There are people meeting people / There is sunshine everywhere / There are people greeting people.”

Michael talked about how “The Great American Songbook” – that assortment of timeless songs he is so associated with – is an ever-evolving thing, as he introduced “You and Me Against the World.” Famous from a sentimental hit version by Helen Reddy, Michael really dug into the pain behind the song, which paradoxically made it more comforting.

Sometimes when Feinstein has done Marshall Barer’s Gay Pride-inspired “The Time Has Come” in the past it had something of a dreamy quality. This time there was a new firmness and confidence to it, allowing no doubt that, indeed, “The time has come / to heed a different drum.” Potent.

The show is entitled “Summertime Swing,” and it never swings harder than when Michael tears into Louis Jordan’s jump blues classic “Is You Is, Or Is You Ain’t My Baby” with a vengeance. As always, Michael gives you the story behind the song, which took composer Billy Austin from janitor to successful songwriter.

Michael closed with a stunning medley of songs sung by Frank Sinatra – who had been a help to Feinstein early in his career – ending with a vigorous, rousing version of “Theme from New York, New York” which clearly read as a celebration of the city’s culture returning to something resembling life. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: John Pizzarelli & His Quartet

John Pizzarelli always scales the heights of cabaret’s jazzier side with astonishing musicianship and elan. This remains true whether he’s leading a big band or a small combo. His current engagement at Birdland is billed as the John Pizzarelli Quartet, but when John did a head count at the top of the show, he counted five musicians, and then decided to call it “John Pizzarelli and his Quartet.”

Pizzarelli works with a profound musical intelligence. John has a particular genius is in his chordal improvisations, finding hidden musical meanings in the most familiar of standards. Only this evening isn’t about standards in the way most of John’s shows are. Instead Pizzarelli focuses on pop / rock singer /songwriters starting with less well known songs like Van Morrison’s “Tupelo Honey” and Broce Spingteen’s “Tenth Avenue Freezeout” and moving to bigger hits like Steely Dan’s “Rikki Don’t Lose that Number” and Elton John’s “Honky Cat.”

For previous cabaret acts, John had often subtly framed songs “in the style of” a particular jazzman. Here, however, he is commits to doing these pop songs in a jazzy Pizzarelli family style, saying early on that “we’ll play lots of different songs, but they will all sound something like that – and that’s the way we like it!!!”

It’s common courtesy in a jazz setting to applaud for a bit after everbody’s solos, and indeed bandleader John 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. 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: The Unsinkable Molly Brown

I admit I didn’t know much at all about Molly Brown or her namesake musical, aside from her surviving the sinking of the Titanic. So I come to this “revisal” with no prior prejudices. I’m not a huge fan of composer Meredith Willson’s music in the first place; the pastiche Americana of his big hit The Music Man decidedly doesn’t move me, though it works well for telling that particular story.

The man behind this revision, bookwriter Dick Scanlan, has done his research into the historical Molly, who it turns out was socially progressive and, eventually, a philanthropist and reformer. He thought that was a much more interesting story than the original production’s simple rags-to-riches angle. And I agree. That doesn’t make it into a first-rate musical – in sharp contrast to The Music Man none of its songs are instant earworms. It does, however, make it a rewarding evening of musical theatre.

Molly Brown, both the historical person (a Denver socialite) and the musical comedy character, fairly bursts with positivity and determination, so the actress who portrays her must possess abundant energy and charisma. This production’s Molly, Beth Malone, is blessed with a bounty of both qualities. Director / choreographer Kathleen Marshall deploys a very gifted ensemble with great creativity. Neither the show or the production is a masterpiece, but both are above average fun. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Grand Horizons

The cast was what most drew me to Grand Horizons. The opportunity to see Jane Alexander, Michael Urie, Priscilla Lopez and James Cameron together in a comedy – that’s just too tempting! I knew almost nothing else about the play going in, and playwright Bess Wohl – whose work I had not previously seen – pleasantly surprised me. Her comedy comes more from character than one-liners (save the odd blue word used solely for laughs), and she gets across more about human psychology than most comedies this hilarious ever manage.

Alexander and Cameron play married couple Bill and Nancy French, who have spent fifty years as husband and wife. As the show opens, we find them at an “independent living” house, silently preparing a meal with the kind of synchronization that only comes after many years of living together. Once they sit down to eat, Nancy announces that she wants a divorce.

Among other things, Grand Horizons examines the effect her decision has on their two grown children Brian (Urie) and Ben (Ben McKenzie). Brian is gay, has a tight relationship with Nancy and simply cannot understand why she would want to do this. Bill is taciturn as many men of his generation are, a quality he has passed on to his married son Ben – the chaotic consequences of not communicating is a major theme of the play.

I’ve never seen Jane Alexander do comedy, but I am not shocked that she plays it as superbly as anything she puts her mind to. We know Urie to be an excellent comic actor, and he’s as funny as ever. Cameron and McKenzie are given less to work with, but their silences speak volumes. Priscilla Lopez plays Carla, a contemporary of Bill and Nancy, and provides a marvelously colorful foil to Alexander’s patrician take on Nancy. Ashley Park delights as Ben’s pregnant wife, Jess. Maulik Pancholy is a sexy, riotous hot mess as Tommy, a horny and very frolicsome trick that Brian bring back to his parents residence late at night. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Lionel Hampton Big Band Featuring Jason Marsalis

Vibraphonist Lionel Hampton’s big band made history with the song “Flyin’ Home” in 1942, all but inventing “jump blues,” the immediate precursor to rhythm & blues. The band took the bluesier side of swing – think Count Basie – and added a heavier, insistent beat, as well as honking, even screaming solos from all the brass, especially the tenor saxophone.

Hampton passed in 2002. The Lionel Hampton Estate, eager to have the Big Band reactivated, granted permission in March of 2015 to launch the Lionel Hampton Big Band. This new edition is entirely composed of people who had played with “Hamp.” The Estate also handpicked Jason Marsalis, Wynton Marsalis’s youngest brother (16 years younger), to occupy Hampton’s own position behind the vibes. Like the others, Marsalis had played with Hampton – in his case as a drummer for two gigs in New Orleans.

I’m thrilled to declare that this band jumps and honks just as hard as ever, tearing into “Flyin’ Home” and “Hey Bop a Re Bop” with intense energy. They also play standards with equal parts verve and virtuosity, tunes like “Night In Tunisia” (using Dizzy Gillespie’s own arrangement, no less) and “Cherokee.”

In addition to all this great music, the band also relate with relish stories about the very quirky and fun-loving Mr. Hampton, ranging from off-color jokes that he liked to tell during his performances to fond reminiscences about both learning from and teaching their every-curious leader. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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