Review: Torch Song

Harvey Fierstein first became famous playing drag queen Arnold Beckoff, the central character in the play he wrote for himself, Torch Song Trilogy. As someone who covers a lot of gay theatre, most productions of this play I’ve seen make the mistake of casting someone in their 40s or 50s as Arnold, when Fierstein himself was in his 20s when he played the role. What a treat, then, to see Michael Urie, only in his 30s, perfectly cast in this fine revival.

Torch Song follows Beckoff from 1971 through 1980 as he negotiates finding love, and losing it. Instead of aping Fierstein’s gravely growl, Urie switches between his normal voice and, for added sissy sass, a variation on that cartoon queen Snagglepuss, even – though in this Broadway transfer that’s more organically incorporated into his mannerisms. Urie’s knack for comedy is wickedly sharp, especially in a hilarious backroom scene. He also plays less to Arnold tragic side, which oddly makes all the heartbreak he goes through that much sharper.

The last act is by far the juiciest part of the play, and Mercedes Ruehl makes a ferocious late entrance as Arnold’s mother. Also terrific is Michael Rosen as Arnold’s pretty younger boyfriend Alan, and Jack DiFalco as David, the smartass gay teen Arnold is planning to adopt. The production doesn’t get everything right – the design for 1971 looks and sounds like a few years later than that – but it gets very close. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Christopher Sieber

Christopher Sieber

I don’t think I’ve seen many cabaret shows that are more charming than Chris Sieber’s 54 Below debut “Minnesota Boy Does Well”. As is fitting for a cabaret debut from a Broadway baby like Sieber, this act is all about growing up theatrical, with memories of childhood lip-synching segueing seamlessly into regional shows, then into his Broadway debut (the cult favorite flop Triumph of Love) and beyond.

The act is dishy without being bitchy, insider-y without being insular, rueful without being resentful. Part of his charm comes from his corn-fed good looks and golden voice, but a larger part of it comes from the palpable and infectious joy he has in performing. When he invites the audience to sing along with “Daydream Believer” it is completely unforced, and we are effortlessly drawn into whistling along with Spamalot‘s “The Bright Side of Life” without his even asking.

Sieber has an extended sequence about the injuries he’s suffered on the boards – an occupational hazard he addresses with good humor and witty self-deprecation. He has another, decidedly more positive, extended sequence about the many people he has replaced on Broadway, which climaxes with his playing George opposite Harvey Fierstein’s Albin in La Cage Aux Folles.

Now, Sieber was the first George that has filled the La Cage line “plain old homosexual” with deep sincerity, and therein lies the key to the genius of his performance and his chemistry with Harvey. I have never felt the reality of that couple’s love as I did with them. Sieber’s George loved Albin so much that the audience was reduced to moved silence whenever Sieber expressed that love. His rendition of La Cage‘s “Song on the Sand” in this cabaret act was full of that feeling.

What I didn’t know, though, was that Sieber had played Albin on tour with George Hamilton as his George, and he closes this act with a highly emotional version of “I Am What I Am” that is easily the equal of George Hearn’s towering original or even Harvey’s. If you (like me) didn’t see Sieber sing this on tour, you absolutely can’t miss this – or, really, any of this act. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

CD Review: “Kinky Boots” (Original Broadway Cast Recording)

CD Kinky Boots

This is a splashly, colorful, drag-filled joyride of a show, with a soft-sold message of tolerance that never gets in the way of high-energy production numbers. Those numbers sound truly smashing on this lovingly produced cast recording, which has the bright energy and finish of a rock record. Cyndi Lauper’s music is appropriately emotional and propulsive. “History of Wrong Guys” is marvellously specific; delivered with wonderful comic timing by Annaleigh Ashford, it’s one of the album’s high points. Listening to this is almost as much as fun as seeing Kinky Boots, something not every cast recording achieves!

To purchase, click here.

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

Review: Kinky Boots

Kinky_Boots_Broadway_19_email_1

This is very much in the mold of musicals like Hairspray and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert – both shows in which Kinky Boots‘ director/choreographer Jerry Mitchell had a major hand, it should be mentioned. Like them it’s a splashy, colorful, drag-filled joyride of a show, with a soft-sold message of tolerance that never gets in the way of high-energy production numbers. And like those shows, I predict Kinky Boots will be a big fat hit (if I had to guess, I’d say bigger than Priscilla, not as big as Hairspray).

In Kinky Boots, Charlie Price suddenly inherits his father’s failing shoe factory in Northampton, England. Quite by accident, Charlie meets drag queen Lola, whose broken-down performance heels inspire Charlie to take the family business in a wild new direction.

This musical’s main pursuit is fizzy entertainment, and it more than achieves that goal. It’s much more cohesive than Mitchell’s previous directing foray Legally Blonde, leading me to feel that he has become that rarest of creatures, a director/choreographer who does both equally well. Harvey Fierstein’s book is his usual, delightful model of traditional Broadway with a gimlet eye but a heart of gold. Cyndi Lauper’s music is appropriately emotional and propulsive.

The show’s most major flaw – and it really isn’t that major – is that Lauper’s lyrics can sometimes be a little “on the nose” with things like “where do I fit in,” “is this my destiny,” “what do I really want,” and the like. But she certainly doesn’t do that all the time: her “History of Wrong Guys” is marvellously specific; delivered with wonderful comic timing by Annaleigh Ashford, it’s one of the show’s high points.

Also terrific is Billy Porter as Lola – he’s deliciously over-the-top, at one point turning “sex” into a three-syllable word. And as Simon, the man behind the Lola persona, Porter can also be quite poignantly understated. Stark Sands is also quite winning as factory owner Charlie. Ultimately, though, it doesn’t matter what I and other critics say. Kinky Boots is a breezy crowd pleaser that I for one have no hesitation in recommending.

For tickets, click here.

Review: Forbidden Broadway Alive and Kicking

Forbidden Broadway has relentlessly and lovingly assaulted the Great White Way since 1982, when 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.

After a break between 2009 and now, Forbidden Broadway is back with a vengeance. The show, as always, is wickedly clever from early on: A quartet wanders around the theatre district, stumbling down the aisle, saying “isn’t this the theatre where Forbidden Broadway used to play?” and then break into music from Brigadoon – a distant chorus chanting “Broadway’s on the brink-of-doom, brink-of-doom.”

The revival of Evita is the first proper target, featuring Ricky Martin singing “Living Evita Loca” and Elena Rogers singing of her “total lack of star quality” to the tune of “Buenos Aires”. Next up is Nice Work if You Can Get It, with the sharpest barbs reserved for Matthew Broderick (too easy?). Alessandrini always has an obvious soft spot for certain shows, and this season it’s Newsies, which he mostly dishes for its almost-too-frenetic energy. Some of the harshest barbs go to Once, though there’s some affectionate spoofing of Steven Hoggett’s angular choreography.

Act Two has Julie Taymor and Bono engaging a superhero battle, the gals from Smash fretting over the future of their series, a sharp critique of Tracie Bennett from Judy Garland herself and a Mormon parody which is mostly about Parker and Stone counting their money. 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.

Interview: Scott Wittman on “Jukebox Jackie”, 54 Below and “Smash”

Scott Wittman is a busy man. In addition to writing lyrics every week for Smash‘s show-within-a-show Bombshell (and serving as an executive producer for the NBC hit), and working as Creative Consultant for the much-anticipated new cabaret space 54 Below, he has conceived and directed Jukebox Jackie, currently playing at LaMaMa ETC. Jukebox Jackie: Snatches of Jackie Curtis is a collage of scenes, poetry, music and dance culled from the works of Jackie Curtis, who performed as both a man and a woman throughout his career in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, stating, “I’m not a boy, not a girl. I’m just me, Jackie.”

The man who said, “I’m just me, Jackie” was, in fact, a fixture during those radical years in New York’s clubs and theatres, including La MaMa, where Curtis was much-loved by La MaMa’s late founder and artistic director Ellen Stewart. Curtis pioneered the glam rock style of the 1970s, performing in drag in lipstick, glitter, bright red hair, trashed dresses and torn stockings. David Bowie was an early fan. Curtis went on to become one of the stars of Andy Warhol’s inner circle. Curtis began writing his own plays with casts starring fellow Warhol “superstars” Candy Darling and Holly Woodlawn, also at La MaMa. He wrote and often starred in such plays as Glamour, Glory and Gold (Robert DeNiro’s first stage appearance in 1967), Amerika Cleopatra with a cast featuring Harvey Fierstein and Femme Fatale with Patti Smith, Jayne County and Penny Arcade.

I sat down with Scott in a sunlit La MaMa rehearsal space to catch up on all of his fabulous pursuits.

Did you have a personal connection to Jackie Curtis?

I think that when I first came to New York and I saw Jackie – I didn’t know Jackie – but I saw some plays that Jackie was in, which made me want to be part of that. Jackie really influenced my aesthetic when I first came to New York, and was always in my head. What I’ve hoped to do with this is show Jackie as a writer. Jackie was part and parcel as a cast member in the plays he wrote – but when you take a step away and take a look at the vast amount of paper, of writing that he did, it’s really fascinating.

What’s really fascinating about Jackie is the variety of styles: from absurdist comedies where he would pull character names out of racing forms, to very structured pieces like one called Glamour, Glory and Gold – we do some scenes from that one – with a beginning middle and end and a clearly defined story, to the large number of poems he wrote, which I wasn’t aware of. We do one of those poems intact, called “B-Girls”, a really beautiful, evocative poem all about the denizens of Slugger Ann’s, which was at 12th Street and Second Avenue [Later gay bar Dick’s and currently the 13th Street Ale House]. Jackie’s grandmother was the bartender, and Jackie lived upstairs.

So what’s the format of Jukebox Jackie?

We’re trying to do for Jackie what Mamma Mia did for Abba. [Laughs.] All the people in the show are “fractions” of Jackie, because Jackie was many people, male, female and in between. There are four characters who speak from Jackie’s mind. All of the written material is by Jackie, every word, every journal entry. There’s a book called Superstar in a Housedress by Craig Highberger and that’s really been a touchstone. I gathered from other sources. I started to stumble on these songs that Jackie did in a cabaret act, which Jackie wrote lyrics for and someone else wrote the music, in one case Peter Allen. In our show there’s a song that Jackie only wrote the lyrics to, that I had Lance Horne write the music to. I also wanted to have songs that were in the soundtrack of my life at the time.

Jackie described New York as being like Brigadoon with steam coming out of a manhole cover, and that to me describes the creative period when I first moved here. It was kind of a magical time in New York. The scene we dive into in Jukebox Jackie has a lot of foul language and blow jobs and drugs, but there’s also a certain innocence to it which is so different from now. [To give you a taste of that era, here’s a YouTube video of 1970 SoHo loft party that Curtis attended]

Our cast, Justin Vivian Bond, Bridget Everett, Cole Escola, and Steel Burkhardt – to me, if Jackie were alive now these are the people he would be using in his shows. Justin is a singular interpreter of material, just like Jackie. It’s not a literal imitation, instead we’re really trying to evoke a time musically and creatively. This whole cast is fabulous storytellers. Bridget reminds me of Bridget Polk, Cole Escola is very much like Taylor Mead, Steel is very much like Joe Dellasandro, they all somehow preserve an element of those times.

What kind of shadow does Warhol cast on Jukbox Jackie?

There’s an element of that – The Factory was like MGM and Warhol was like Louis B. Mayer to Jackie and his other “superstars”, and we do pay some tribute to that, Cole embodies that a little bit. I also try to make it clear that it wasn’t a scary place like it has sometimes been portrayed. I’m sure I’ve gone the other direction and romanticized it a bit, you know the way Joan Crawford would say “I love Louis B. Mayer now.” Some of the music is the Velvet Underground, which also came out of the Factory, which adds another current to it.

Tell me about 54 Below, the new cabaret below Studio 54, how did that come about?

The guys who are doing that were producers on Hairspray, which was such a blessed experience. A few years ago Richard Frankel came to me and said we want to open this club, and we want you to be a sort of curator or “fairy godfather.” So I said I’d love to do that; when I came to New York it was the renaissance of cabaret – you couldn’t swing a cat without hitting one. For me, I would spend most of my nights in Reno Sweeney’s on 13th Street, where you see Edie Beale, Peter Allen, Barbara Cook – a really broad, eclectic booking policy. So with 54 Below’s director of programming Phil Bond, we’re trying to make that same thing happen with 54 Below. Justin Bond will be performing there, Jackie Hoffman – where else in three nights could you see Jackie, Justin and Patti LuPone. That to me feels right, it seems fun. It’s not like Feinstein’s it’s not like the Carlyle or Joe’s Pub. I think there’s a place for it. I remember being able to go to many cabarets, there was Freddy’s and the Grand Finale and Brothers and Sisters.

And this little television side project, Smash. What’s that whole experience been like for you?

Marc Shaiman and I love songwriting so that’s been great, being able to write and have a wide audience appreciate it. Writing new material every week, and then there’s six million people listening to your songs, which would never happen on Broadway. My proudest achievement, though Marc and I didn’t have much to do with the cover songs, was getting Anjelica Houston to sing “The September Song” in episode 14, that was my absolute favorite moment.

You even had a brief cameo in that scene, didn’t you, and Marc was the piano player…

I wanted to be there for her, it was a big moment, for her to sing, she had never sung in her life – and she did so beautifully, there’s nothing she can’t do.

So, with doing that for a year, and Catch Me if You Can in all of its incarnations around the world, there’s a lot of people telling me to “do this, do that, cut this, move that, stop here, no that part doesn’t work” and working on Jukebox Jackie has been a real tonic for me. I’ve wanted to come home and Ellen Stewart had asked me a few years ago, and it’s nice to be in an atmosphere with just a few people – some I’ve known a short time, some I’ve known a long time – that’s more relaxed. I also think Jackie needs to be recognized as the wonderful writer he was – I really hope by the end of the evening you’ll have a really good sense of the person and the work, the music and the time. It’s been fun – Jackie collaged life and I’ve re-collaged Jackie.

For tickets, click here.

Review: Newsies

Newsies has the Twinkiest. Chorus. Ever. On the top of that, it also features one of the sexiest young leading men to come along in years, Broadway-star-in-the-making Jeremy Jordan, who plays Jack Kelly, a charismatic newsboy in late 19th Century New York. Newsies is inspired by the real-life “Newsboy Strike of 1899,” in which one Kid Blink led a band of orphan and runaway newsies on a two-week-long strike against powerful newspaper publishers like Pulitzer and Hearst.

While there’s a lot about this show that is very traditional, even a bit formulaic (Jack Kelly isn’t nearly as eccentric as Kid Blink was), its heart is subtly subversive. I mean, this is a Disney musical aimed at tweens and teens that celebrates labor unions, for goodness sake. And I don’t know whether it was conscious or not, but director Jeff Calhoun’s staging and designer’s Tobin Ost’s set are very reminiscent of German director Erwin Piscator, who was one of the most passionate unionists the theatre has ever known.

And, while I might not be in any way the show’s target audience, Newsies still really hits home for me. Piscator is one of my biggest role models as a director, and, like gay rights pioneer Harry Hay (another role model), the combination of music and politics makes me emotional, even a bit weepy. It was hard for me to keep it together for the rousing cry to strike “The World Will Know” – this song in particular is Menken at his very best.

Kara Lindsay is terrific as Kelly’s love interest Katherine, especially in her soliloquy number “Watch What Happens”. I never saw the cult Disney film on which Newsies is based, but the stage version certainly stands sturdily on its own. Plus, all that twink eye candy doesn’t hurt one bit, especially as they spend what seem like minutes in midair executing Christopher Gattelli’s acrobatic choreography!

For tickets, click here.