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.

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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: 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: Count Basie Orchestra

You need a big brassy voice to sing over the Count Basie Orchestra – of its 20+ pieces, over 90% are brass. Carmen Bradford belts the Etta James classic “At Last” with more vigor and bluesiness than I’ve ever heard it done, so she certainly fits the the bill (and gives me Obama nostalgia). Basie’s orchestra powers through its extensive repertoire, dynamic and forceful as ever, even though Count Basie passed in 1983.

This big band has continuously toured (with the shortest of breaks in the early 1950s) for 84 years now. I attribute their longevity and continued popularity to the fact that they are “the band that plays the blues” as their motto goes. A certain bluesiness has never gone out of fashion, being an important part of jazz, rock and hip-hop. They were “rhythm and blues” long before that term existed, and still can’t be beat for rhythm or blues today.

Add to that the fact that they are one of the most musically virtuosic of the traditional big bands around! Their command of volume control, both loud and soft, is astonishing. There’s even a number in their current songlist at Birdland where they put this on gratuitous display. Bandleader Scotty Barnhart gave the signal to bring the volume down, again and again, until you think they couldn’t get any quieter, and then take it down some more. Astonishing.

Though the band is known for the tightness of its ensemble playing, each member of the orchestra is a serious soloist in their own right. For the number “Basie Power” the alto sax section of Dave Glasser and Markus Howell traded solos with an intensity that edged towards bebop. Hot hot hot. 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.