Review: True West

A “straight boy play” that’s actually funny! More than that, a play that consciously caricatures many myths of the of the American heterosexual boy-man-child. Sam Shepard, True West‘s late playwright, was always more of a surrealist satirist than people give him credit for. He’s not celebrating the macho bad boy like Mamet or LaBute, but ruthlessly dissecting him. Shepard never lost an affection for the myth of the lonely cowboy, or the menacing trick of the Pintereque pause; however, he is also smart enough to know that they are myths and tricks, and clever enough to show them as such, again and again.

True West is about what happens when two adult brothers, aspiring screenwriter Austin (Paul Dano) and theiving drifter Lee (Ethan Hawke), cohabit in their vactioning mother’s house. Roles are reversed, hereditary alcoholism indulged, and general chaos wrecked as they try and live up to what they’ve seen in the movies, especially Westerns. Director James Macdonald does a great job balancing the play’s symbolic and psychological components ‒ rightly placing a slightly stronger emphasis on the the symbolic, comic aspect of the show.

Austin initially presents as a milquetoast, but Dano finds darker colors from the very beginning. As he unravels under the pressure of Lee’s more obvious insanity, Dano shows terrific slapstick chops. Lee at first seems to be the kind of “man-boy with brooding menace” role that Hawke is known for, but Lee’s own transformations offer a whole other set of comedic opportunities, and Hawke takes full advantage.

The play is not what you would call “fully woke” ‒ it was written in 1983, for goodness sake ‒ but is certainly more evolved and self-aware than most straight male centered drama of the time. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

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Review: The Cher Show

This ain’t no chickenshit gig! Whatever problems it may have (mostly the structural difficulties all jukebox bio-musicals share), The Cher Show is rarely less than spectacular, and derives a lot of comedy from it’s sharp-toungued, free-speaking subject.

Cher is played by three different actresses of different ages. The real star is Stephanie J. Block as the mature Cher, who narrates the show and sings the biggest numbers. (This isn’t the first time Block has played a gay icon – she played Liza Minnelli in The Boy from Oz. Is she on a quest to play all of them?). Cher’s a perfect fit for Block, who makes playing to the back row seem effortless. She, and the other two Chers, sing in a loose imitation of Cher’s style, leaning more on delivering the emotional core of the songs than a precise impersonation.

Bob Mackie, whose outlandish costumes for TV’s The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour helped form Cher’s public persona, also designed the costumes for this. Aside from adding glamour to the proceedings – especially in an eye-popping production number that is all about those outfits – Mackie reminded me that under the sequins, he is a visual storyteller of the first order, and a surprisingly subtle one at that. The sparkle will hook you, but the details are where he really does his work.

Jason Moore’s fluid direction smartly leans into variety show glitz and giddy kitsch, and Christopher Gattelli’s choreography is here to entertain and astound you with it’s energy and flash. The Cher Show is hardly perfect, but it’s undeniably lots of fun, and recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Mean Girls

One of my favorite things about the stage musical adaptation of the film Mean Girls is just how much gayer conceiver and bookwriter Tina Fey has made the character of Damian Hubbard (Grey Henson), who now enters wearing an Alyssa Edwards t-shirt emblazoned with the word “beast” (thank you costume designer Gregg Barnes, for always going the extra gay glam mile). The new dialogue Fey has given him gives teeth to the assertion by his goth gal pal Janis Sarkisian (Barrett Wilbert Weed) that Damien is “too gay to function.” He even gets to lead a showstopping tap number to open the second act!

Since Fey’s adapting her own screenplay – and since she is one of the canniest living writers of comedy – Damien’s increased luminosity is only one of several improvements on the film. Fey quite rightly adds social media elements to her tale of high-school status-seeking, to appropriately toxic effect. Casey Nicholaw is exactly the right director-choreographer for this material, with crack timing in the books scenes and bristling energy in the dance numbers.

Nicholaw also assembled a truly stellar design team: scenic designer Scott Pask delivered my favorite innovation: a enormous stage-spanning half-circle cyclorama exclusively devoted to providing a canvas for the vivid, imaginative video design of Finn Ross and Adam Young. There’s nothing about the “cyc” that says Mean Girls, that work is done entirely by projection. A similar setup would be really terrific for doing shows in rotating repertory – what a great idea!

This is a show where you do go out singing the book scenes, but not in a bad way – it’s just as entertaining and smart as the film. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Frozen

Bringing to the stage something as spectacular as the Disney animated musical Frozen – an instant classic if there ever was one – is a singular challenge. Thank goodness that the film’s creative team created a very solid thematic and structural basis. There’s Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez’s earworm-packed music and lyrics (anybody wanna build a snowman…or just, let it go?). And then there’s Jennifer Lee’s imaginative screenplay, which very effectively satisfies expectations and defies them in equal measure.

For the stage version, thank goodness once again: the Lopezes and Lee have more than ably filled out their score and book. Lee has added detail to the relationship between royal sisters Elsa (a closeted ice sorceress) and Anna (a sheltered adventure seeker), and dimension to the imaginary Northern kingdom of Arendelle which they will one day rule.

In the new songs, the Lopezes have largely maintained the high quality of their film score. The biggest winner among the newbies is “Hygge,” the “charm song” / production number that opens the second act. It’s as delightfully loopy as any Mel Brooks showstopper, with sauna-centric choreography by Rob Ashford that gleefully recalls burlesque. Stephen Oremus works his usual magic with the orchestrations, giving this version a more specifically Scandinavian flair while pulling out all the stops when needed.

But any take on Frozen stands or falls on its Elsa. Caissie Levy is the one called to “Let It Go” in the glorious anthem of female self-empowerment that’s the show’s breakout hit. She’s got the high notes and the emotional heft needed, and she’s given a lift from an astonishing costume change from designer Christopher Oram and icily brilliant lighting from Natasha Katz. The rest of the cast are all just as excellent, especially Patti Murin who plays Anna with great warmth and comic ingenuity.

As always I have a smattering of issues. Does every major character have to have a heartfelt ballad in Act II? I mean it’s not a big enough problem to constitute proper “second act trouble” but it makes for some slight drag. Also, many of the theatrical tricks director Michael Grandage uses to make the Frozen magic are old-fashioned; which wouldn’t be a problem at all, really, except a small handful of them feel old-fashioned.

These are the merest of quibbles, and if you loved Frozen the film, you’ll find much to enjoy in Frozen: The Broadway Musical. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Ann Hampton Callaway

Ann Hampton Callaway is a multiplatinum-selling pop and jazz singer/songwriter best known for writing and singing the theme from the TV hit The Nanny. She is definitely on the jazzier end of cabaret, and that is the inspiration for her latest club act “Jazz Goes to the Movies” (Ann is also an out lesbian, who gave me the honor of being the journalist to do her “coming out interview” – you can read that here).

Ann remarks that while some people are “Deadheads” she’s a “Fredhead,” that is a fan of Fred Astaire, and she does several songs that Astaire originated in movies. “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” – an Irving Berlin song Fred sang to Ginger Rogers in Follow the Fleet – receives what is possiblly the most emotional reading of the evening. She applies the first line of the song to the present day: “There may be trouble ahead.” But in that connection she takes very seriously the remedy offered by the next couple of lines: “But while there’s music and moonlight and love and romance / Let’s face the music and dance.”

While Astaire was one of the great influences on Callaway, another was Ella Fitzgerald. So it’s completely natural that the feel of this show should be Fred’s crooning mixed with Ella’s sumptuous jazziness. On songs Ann herself sang for the movies – “Come Rain or Come Shine” from The Good Shepherd and “The Nearness of You” from Last Holiday – the jazz quotient is through the roof.

Callaway successfully covers a very wide range era-wise, from Astaire’s 1930s hits to “Pourquoi” (which Callaway wrote and sang for 2017’s Blind), crafting a loving musical history of the hope and joy jazz brings to the movies. Callaway achieves a kind of jazz-pop perfection, shimmery and rich. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Rita Wilson

This lady is right in the middle of a sound that has run through the blood of Los Angeles since two midwestern boys – Roger McGuinn and Gene Clark – met while gigging in L. A. in 1964, and formed the group Jet Set, later to become the Byrds when they added native Los Angeleans David Crosby and Chris Hillman. The Eagles perfected the sound in the the 1970s, and it has continued to be hugely influential. A native Los Angelean herself, Rita Wilson most resembles – in both her singing and her songwriting – Sheryl Crow, a singer / songwriter heavily influenced by the Eagles.

In the evening’s first song, from her self-titled first album, is “Along for the Ride” Wilson invites the the audience to “Roll the windows down / Come along for the ride.” Wilson is a fine, powerful singer in the folk and country inflected L. A. Tradition, and her band are highly polished professionals.

A handful of songs come from her self-titled 2015 album, but the bulk of the evening are new songs that presumably will be on her new album, forthcoming in the new year. The most memorable ones are ode to jealousy “New Girl,” the mildy trashy dive bar anthem “Pay Me in Wine,” and the attitude-serving “You’re Not the Boss of Me.” All point to increasing songwriting strength from this long-time actor, just recently turned singer /songwriter. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Dianna Agron

This ain’t Quinn Fabray at the Carlyle, kids. You can tell a lot about the actual person and artistry of one-time Glee star Dianna Agron from her recent marriage to folk rock band Mumford & Sons’ banjoist and guitarist Winston Marshall. This is a beautiful young woman with a gorgeous voice who is nowhere more comfortable than when she’s singing a cover of a 1960s folk rock chestnut.

With this act she’s making her first entry into the world of New York cabaret, starting at the very top. Understandably nervous on her opening night, which showed in her hesitant patter, she calmed right down when it came time to sing. No song was less than beautifully sung, but she was at her best when a song brought out the actress in her – most notably in “Bang Bang” a hit for Cher and then Nancy Sinatra, and “Play with Fire,” one of The Rolling Stones’ earlier bad boy songs to push their image toward the demonic.

There’s an enormous amount of potential here – I would give a lot to hear Agron’s liquid gold voice act the hell out of some of Marianne Faithfull’s darker material. But she needs very much to bring more of her considerable acting chops into her song interpretation. There were glimmers of that in this cabaret act, and they were tantalizingly excellent. The job in cabaret, as much as in theatre and film, is storytelling, and Agron needs to do more of that. I have full confidence that she is more than capable. (One techincal note: the show was overamplified for the tres intimate Cafe Carlyle. It could even be truly “unplugged,” totally unamplified).

Because really, I think if she comes in firing on all cylinders she could do truly legendary things in cabaret. Sing all of Faithfull’s Broken English, maybe? Or how about a whole Dylan album? You could call the show Blonde on Blonde on Blonde! In any event, Agron is already giving us enough wonderfully sung renditions of dauntingly complex songs that I can heartily recommend her act as it stands today.

For tickets, click here.

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