Review: Tony Danza

Since his TV career descended from the stratospheric heights of hit after hit, namely Taxi and Who’s the Boss, Tony Danza has made an art of being an Italian-American boy from Brooklyn song-and-dance man. You know, in the tradition of guys named Crocetti and Benedetto. Ooops, I mean their stage names Dean Martin and Tony Bennett, and I forgot the one who didn’t change his last name, Sinatra. To be fair, only Bennett is the only one who comes close to Danza’s NYC bona fides. Even Sinatra was from, ahem, Hoboken.

Danza sings the songs that these goombahs made famous, but he really has Sinatra bona fides. He gained his love of “The Chairman of the Board” from his mother, who was one of the original “bobbysoxer” girls who first screamed for Frankie in New York’s Paramount Theatre in the early 1940s (think BTS stans today). Plus, in his Taxi days (late 1970s) one of Sinatra’s favorite songwriters Sammy Cahn took Danza under his wing and mentored him.

Now all of this is a long time ago, and Danza is frank (see what I did there?) about this – he says there are three stages of life: youth, middle age and “You look good!” And he does look good, and not just for that bracket. He does a Cahn medley that has real warmth to it. And that’s part of his charm overall – warmth and sincerity. Also special is his embrace of a lesser-known song, Artie Butler’s “I Don’t Remember Ever Growing Up”; what person past early middle age doesn’t understand that? Plus the fact that he peppers his Rat Pack-style crooning with above average tap dancing and ukulele playing…the guy has the spirit of a classic all-around entertainer. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Peter Cincotti

“Killer On The Keys” is the title song of Peter Cincotti’s upcoming album, and that phrase is an apt description of this wildly talented pianist-singer-songwriter. The first song in his act at the Cafe Carlyle is “Raise the Roof” and that he and his band do time and again. He’s a New Yorker through and through, and has been playing clubs here since he was a high schooler, some 20 years ago. By 18 he was working with legendary producer Phil Ramone on his first album, and getting raves playing the legendary Oak Room cabaret at the Algonquin Hotel.

How I haven’t seen Cincotti before now escapes me, he’s just the kind of jazzy cabaret artist I love – just think John Pizzarelli or Marilyn Maye (search for them on this site if you don’t already know). He’s backed by a very talented band; young for the most part (not for nothing, like he was when he started), save for tenor saxophonist Scott Kreitzer, who’s been working with him since the Oak Room.

It’s not all uptempo ravers, though there is a lot of that. While he does a good number of standards, both of the numbers mentioned above are Cincotti originals, and he is premiering a new one at the Carlyle, from his upcoming album. Called “Ghost of My Father” it details how his father, who died when his career was just taking off, has literally haunted him (mostly in a good way) ever since. A pensive ballad, accompanied only by himself on piano, it is as moving as the rest of the set is rousing.

He covers a great range of styles and material from Nat King Cole’s “Sweet Lorraine” to Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind”; his excellent jazzy version of Lady Gaga’s “Pokerface” – which he himself described as a McCoy Tyner / Herbie Hancock influenced arrangement – truly has to be heard to be believed. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Tammie Brown

Lady Bunny once talked about working with Valentina – she of the “french vanilla latte fantasy” – saying something to the effect of “She’s just like Tammie Brown or Alyssa Edwards, they all really are like that, all the time!” Surrealist drag queen Brown’s artistic core is, more than anything, as a hippie chic queerpunk singer-songwriter. There’s a hint of classic movie queen in her looks, but it seems that’s the equivalent of Debbie Harry or Grace Slick making something fabulous out of what they found in a thrift shop.

And while Tammie’s sense of humor is disarmingly unique, she’s not truly unprecedented. I could see her comfortably do her left-of-center thing at the Pyramid Club in the 1980s, at Club 57 or Max’s Kansas City in 1970s, or even in a Jackie Curtis extravaganza at LaMaMa in the late 1960s. However, queens this tripped-out are in short supply these days, so we should treat her as some kind of national treasure!

Brown also proudly owns her South Texas origins, singing a couple of songs with some Spanish, and showing love for all things Mexican (maybe there’s a Frida Kahlo influence here, too, eh?). Tammie struts sexily about the stage, singing to the actual tracks from her discography. The doubling of her recorded voice and her live voice is pleasantly freaky – and solid proof she always sings on tune.

Her songs remind me of an ’80s synthpop cover of a ’60s song – think Tiffany’s “I Think We’re Alone Now” or Bananarama’s “Venus” – but as written and performed on the legendary “good LSD” of the time when the songs were written. And her in-between patter veers between gleeful non sequiturs and political commentaries from the silly to the venomous. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Mr. Saturday Night

This tribute to Catskills comedy – as told through the life story of Buddy Young Jr. who goes from Borscht Belt headliner to TV star to obscurity – is equal parts classic comic shtick (delivered by one of our greatest living comedians) and schmaltz (leavened with flashes of genuine emotion). Billy Crystal plays Young with his usual verve, adding a little soft shoe and expessive singing to his performing repetoire. It’s a real shame that Mr. Saturday Night closes on September 4, it’s a genuinely pleasurable and charming musical – whose main aim is to (in the words of Crystal’s first song) provide “A Little Joy” – and how often do we get one of those?

While much of the plot takes place in 1994, we get generous servings of Buddy’s Catskills act and TV sketches, taking place in the late ’40s and early ’50s, in which Crystal shines the brightest, being on his home ground of stand-up. As Buddy watches the 1994 Emmy Awards, he sees his own face in the “In Memoriam” section. The fact that he actually isn’t dead gets him a new flash of celebrity, including an appearance on Today, which catches the eye of a major talent agency.

This is the kind of relatively light-hearted musical where you root for the main character to earn redemption and win out. The way he gets there may be a touch contrived, but is satifying nonetheless. The score, lyrics by Amanda Green and music by Jason Robert Brown, is brisk, tuneful and jazzy. Recommended, get it while you can!

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Mark Nadler Hart’s Desire

This ever-ambitious cabaret genius always seeks to challenge himself, and this time he has truly outdone himself. With Hart’s Desire, Mark Nadlercombines the words of playwright Moss Hart (from many sources) with lyrics by (unrelated) Lorenz Hart – which of course comes with music by Lorenz’s perrenial writing partner, composer Richard Rodgers. Both Harts were gay in a time when it was far less acceptable than today. Mark is no stranger to a gay theme, and has fashioned a gay musical romantic comedy that convicingly sounds like the year Nadler sets it in, 1943. You know, except for the gay thing.

Nadler presents Hart’s Desire as a backer’s audition – at the time, backer’s auditions were performed by the writers themselves, not actors. The musical is set at the opening of a Boston tryout for a play. Act I is before the opening, Act II after, and things do not seem to have gone well. With his usual exquisite taste, in addtion to Lorenz’s better known songs, Nadler uses obscure ones as well, such as the unfinished “Good Bad Woman” which Mark himself has completed. And of course he employs additional lyrics not included in the stage versions of Lorenz’s songs, especially for an extended version of “The Lady is a Tramp” as delivered by a brassy aging vaudvillian.

Mark “Mr. Showbiz” Nadler is at his most dazzling here, portraying eight characters without blurring the lines between them. He’s one of the greatest showmen of our time, singing, acting, tap-dancing madly, all the while playing a complex passage on the piano without even glancing at the keys. There are always many layers in a Mark Nadler show, ranging from the obvious to unspoken subtext, which gives an “oomph” far, far beyond your typical cabaret show, and that is true in spades in Hart’s Desire. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Jeff Harnar

A gay New York man who goes through “Living Alone and Liking It,” but later has thoughts of marriage, who spends nights both in glittering boîtes and sketchy dives, who has great sex, but also bad breakups that lead to murderous thoughts – does any of this sound familiar? Some of it does to me, and I’m sure some of you know a thing or two about these experiences. To quote singer Jeff Harnar about his new act and album I Know Things Now:“The words and music are Stephen Sondheim’s, but the story is mine.” It’s a very relatable story, told with much cleverness.

If you don’t know Sondheim, it’s still a wild ride from a fantastic singer and interpretive artist. But for a Sondheim fan like me it’s even more fun. Harnar often intjects references to songs he doesn’t even sing, like saying his evasive lover has gone to Barcelona (the title of a song from Company) in the middle of “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” from the same show. Some of the songs are a bit obscure, some are “Old Friends” (a song from Merrily We Roll Along).

I was particularly entertained by his mashup of “Buddy’s Blues” and “Sorry Grateful” which clearly depicted someone getting drunk at a gay bar – I don’t quite understand why the negative lines in “Buddy’s Blues” (and there are a lot of them) were delivered in the voice of Jimmy Durante, but it was in any event an amusingly absurd choice. His “breakup song” version of “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd” is one of the most terrifying renditions I’ve ever heard. Instead of depicting a figure out of horror, it relates the much more familiar feeling of wanting your loathsome ex dead. Eeek!

The album I Know Things Now – which has a 20 piece orchestra in place of the excellent jazz trio in the show – is out now on PS Classics. Both the show and album are highly recommended.

To buy the album, click here.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: POTUS: Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive

Any show that opens with Julie White screaming the c-word promises to be a wild ride, and POTUS: Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive does not dissapoint. Those seven magnificent women are: First Lady Margaret (Vanessa Williams), the president’s criminally-minded sister Bernadette (Lea DeLaria), chief of staff Harriet (White), press secretary Jean (Suzy Nakamura), starchy personal secretary Stephanie (Rachel Dratch), “bimbo eruption” Dusty (Julianne Hough), and journalist / mother Chris (Lilli Cooper).

Every single woman is hugely accomplished – even the supposedly ditzy Dusty has surprising hidden talents. While there are side slights at the present political climate, POTUS is mostly about the larger patriarchal idiocy of having charismatic but incompetent men in power, while these goddesses do the grunt work. This is the biggest laugh out loud comedy we’ve had in a very long time, so continuously hilarious it hurts.

Playwright Selina Fellinger spins chaos with pitch perfect precision, combining dialogue that’s both foul-mouthed and witty (often at the same time) with frenetic farcical door-slamming. Beowulf Barrit’s rotating set accelerates with the action until it’s turning like a carousel at the height of the second act’s high-speed pandemonium.

Director Susan Stroman keeps a zippy, even dizzy pace for the whole evening, with an exactitude of movement worthy of her legendary musical theatre work. The entire ensemble is flawless, but there are two definite standouts. Julie White is among the most gifted comic actors of our day, and she’s in her finest fettle here. But Rachel Dratch truly outdoes herself! When her nerdy character accidentally ingests a very powerful psychotropic drug, she reels into some of the most insane (and skilled) slapstick I’ve ever seen. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Hangmen

Strange. Macabre. Very funny. Martin McDonagh. These six words fit perfectly together, in the most natural way (or is it “unnatural”?). The playwright has made his career creating the very best dark comedies of the contemporary stage and screen. His newest play, Hangmen mostly happens in Lancashire in November 1965, just as capital punishment was being abolished in Britain, putting hangmen, whose numbers were already dwindling, completely out of work.

In the play, we follow fictional hangman Harry Wade (David Threlfall), a typical McDonagh comic bastard, who is in many ways awful (he killed people for a living, for goodness sake), but also has redeeming qualities. He now owns a pub, as did the historical “last hangman” Albert Pierrepoint, who has a presence is the play, and the mention of whose name makes Harry bristle.

Harry is joined behind the bar by his wife Alice (Tracie Bennett in full Brit broad mode) and his socially awkard daughter Shirley (Gaby French). Harry is the closest thing the small city of Oldham has to a celebrity, and local newspaper reporter Clegg (Owen Campbell) come’s to Harry’s pub to cover how this executioner feels about being abruptly retired. While initially refusing to talk, Harry eventually sings like a bird, trashing his nemesis Pierrepoint, who executed many more people than Harry, but those dead included Nazis and women, whom Harry chooses not to count. A menacing Londoner named Mooney (Alfie Allen) throws this day even more out of whack.

This being a McDonagh play this is only the first of many twists, mostly of the sinister variety. While he has made some terrific films, McDonagh is without a doubt a creature of the theatre, and I’m thrilled we have him back. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

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.