Review: Paramour

Photo: PARAMOUR on Broadway - A Cirque du Soleil Musical; Cast: Indigo: Ruby Lewis A.J.: Jeremy Kushnier Joey: Ryan Vona B-Roll video shoot photographed: Monday, May 2, 2016; 10:30 AM at the Lyric Theatre/Broadway, New York; Photograph: © 2016 RICHARD TERMINE PHOTO CREDIT - RICHARD TERMINE

Even though Paramour is billed as a tribute to the golden age of Hollywood, it actually harks back to something much older, that great predecessor to musical comedy the “extravaganza.” A hundred years ago and more, these variety shows veiled with the thinnest of plots were thick on the ground, with titles like A Yankee Circus on Mars. One of the biggest hits of this kind was a version of The Wizard of Oz that had as much to do with Frank Baum’s books as – well, as Paramour has to do with Orson Welles.

And, judged as an extravaganza, Paramour is a marvelous success! The quality and daring of the circus acts that are the show’s real raison d’être are light years beyond anything that could even be imagined in those extravaganzas of old. The show’s design elements are truly eye-filling and -pleasing, combining state of the art technology with tricks that were old when A Yankee Circus on Mars hit the boards in 1905.

If anything I feel like the plot of Paramour should have been thinner. It tells the story of a love triangle between a Svengali director, a young starlet-in-the-making and her piano player. The only purpose of the plot is to provide a frame for Hollywood-inspired spectacle, but every so often, Paramour‘s writers seem to take the whole thing too seriously, which lands us in some of the evening’s most leaden moments.

Paramour is at it its best when taking spectacular flight, and thankfully that’s most of the time. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Fully Committed

Fully Committed Lyceum Theatre Jessie Tyler Ferguson FULLY COMMITTED - PRODUCTION CREDITS  Person Placeholder Becky Mode Playwright  Jason Moore Jason Moore Director  Derek McLane Derek McLane Scenic Design  Person Placeholder Sarah Laux Costume Design  Person Placeholder Ben Stanton Lighting Design  Jill Du Boff Jill BC Du Boff Sound Design  Person Placeholder Polk & Co. General Press Representative  Person Placeholder Matt Polk Press Representative  Person Placeholder Tom D'Ambrosio Press Representative  Person Placeholder Jeffrey Fauver Press Representative  Barbara Whitman Barbara Whitman Producer  Patrick Catullo Patrick Catullo Producer

Jesse Tyler Ferguson has always balanced sweet likability with just a dash of acidic bite, and both qualities serve him well in Fully Committed. He brings a lot of warmth when he plays the central character Sam, a reservationist at one of New York’s trendiest restaurants. He also plays all of the people calling the restaurant – more than 40 in all – and has plenty of opportunity to display that comedic acidity playing the more venomous callers. That sweetness and acidity come together deliciously when Sam slyly gets back at some of his oppressors.

Ferguson isn’t afraid to go over the top when the character calls for it, and throws himself into the whole affair with great energy and elan, but every moment stays rooted in reality. Director Jason Moore must surely take some credit for that as well – both the dynamism and rootedness.

Playwright Becky Mode has aimed at creating a generally light hearted satire, and has successful hit that target. Though the play premiered in 1999, Mode has updated it to be thoroughly in line with today’s culinary trends and pop culture. There are hints at more emotional depth when dealing with Sam’s recently widowed father, but it never gets so heavy that it bogs down what is clearly Fully Committed‘s main ambition: pure entertainment. High art this ain’t, but that doesn’t really matter. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Cagney

CAGNEY 8

As energetic and optimistic as its subject, this James Cagney bio-musical is fizzy fun with just enough seriousness to make it a satisfying tribute to the pugnacious movie star. The show is above all a vehicle for Robert Creighton, who physically resembles Cagney, and who – more importantly – shares Cagney’s charisma and fleeted-footed dancing ability.

Creighton also wrote a handful of songs in the show’s score, showing a gift for doing pastiches of corny 1920s vaudeville, the milieu where Cagney got his show-biz start. The remainder of the business-like score is mostly by Christopher McGovern. The climaxes of both acts are nearly century-old production numbers composed by George M. Cohan, who Cagney played in the 1941 movie musical Yankee Doodle Dandy.

Director Bill Castellino keeps the show moving at a sprightly clip. The creative team in general have made the smart decision to emphasize the singing and dancing hoofer Cagney over the silver screen tough guy. For one thing, that’s the way Cagney himself would have wanted it – he hated being typecast as a gangster – and for another, more singing and dancing is obviously going to make a more entertaining musical.

Which brings us to the choreography of Joshua Bergasse, which elevates the evening from fun to truly fabulous entertainment. Of course Cagney/Cohan-style tap dance “hoofing” is the order of the day, and the routines Bergasse gives the cast are truly riveting.

Sometimes I feel bookwriter Peter Colley setting up a scene for no other reason than requiring the character’s to tap dance – a cordial competition between Cagney and his friend Bob Hope (Jeremy Benton) springs to mind. But as long as the ensuing number is as exciting as these are, frankly I don’t give a damn. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Disaster!

DISASTER! 3 6525_Faith Prince, Kevin Chamberlin, Kerry Butler, photo by Jeremy Daniel Photography, 2016

When the willfully silly Disaster! is funny, it’s one of the funniest shows in town. Plus, you will simply not hear the 1970s disco and pop rock songs that make up its score sung better anywhere – in some cases they outshine the original. Broadway musician and comedian Seth Rudetsky got together with director Jack Plotnick to write this loving tribute to disaster movies of the 1970s (The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno, etc.). They’ve added an extra thick layer of camp, making Disaster! musically to 1970s pop rock what Rock of Ages is to hair metal.

Rudetsky also plays “disaster expert” Ted, who everybody thinks is crazy for predicting Manhattan’s first floating casino and discotheque is destined for all kinds of trouble. “No,” says Ted, “I’ve asked a therapist and humorless and crazy are not the same thing!” It’s a funny line, but don’t you believe it – Rudetsky’s deadpan timing is actually pretty damn hilarious.

Plotnick’s direction is deft, dynamic and fluid, aided and abbeted by witty, driving work from choreographer JoAnn M. Hunter. Rudetsky and Plotnick are both beloved in the Broadway community, so it’s hardly surprising that they put together a stunning cast, particularly Faith Prince as a Long Island housewife with a dark secret (with hilarious symptoms), and Jennifer Simard as a nun whose demeanor runs from comically repressed to manically released.

Designers Tobin Ost (sets) and William Ivey Long (costumes) combine the necessarily over-the-top tackiness of the subject with theatrical cleverness and a certain glee. Disaster is plenty of fun – at its best, close to comedy heaven – and recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Drop Dead Perfect

DROP-DEAD-PERFECT Everett-Quinton-left-Michael-Keyloun-standing-and-Jason-Cruz-right-in-photo-by-John-Quilty.

Well, this is fun! Drop Dead Perfect may not be the most substantial show ever to pay homage to “Ridiculous theatre”, but it is undeniably frisky and entertaining. It doesn’t hurt that it stars Everett Quinton, the greatest living actor in the Ridiculous tradition (and among the very best in any tradition, as far as I’m concerned).

In a story right out of the Alfred Hitchcock playbook, Quinton plays Idris Seabright, a wealthy, eccentric Key West grand dame with a psychotically unhealthy obsession with decorum and stillness, embodied by her love of painting still life. When Idris’s ward Vivien (Jason Edward Cook) threatens to abandon her to pursue sculpture in Greenwich Village, and handsome young Cuban relative Ricardo (Jason Cruz) turns up out of nowhere, her “still” life erupts into unhinged mayhem.

Idris is a delicious gargoyle of a role, and Quinton attacks it with high energy, maniacal precision and an almost supernatural conviction. Quinton expertly adds a sense of real danger and moments of sudden deep seriousness into the mix as well.

Director Joe Brancato has successfully led the other actors to a similarly vivid, kaleidoscopic acting style. Cook, for one, has created such a believably feminine character that other audience members I spoke with were surprised to see the name Jason in the program.

Both Jasons (Cook and Cruz) have a gift for athletic comedy, which Brancato uses to great advantage. Timothy C. Goodwin, who plays both the narrator and Idris’s lawyer Phineas, has a more wry, low key demeanor, which acts as a wonderful anchor and foil for the loons bouncing of the walls around him.

As the names Vivien and Ricardo suggest, this frothy concoction owes at least as much to I Love Lucy as to Hitchcock. Indeed there are Lucy references laced liberally (and comically) throughout the story. Drop Dead Perfect succeeds as a lighthearted tribute to Ridiculous theatre, and is in any event lots of fun. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: The Heidi Chronicles

Heidi Chronicles, The Music Box Theatre

Wendy Wasserstein’s feminist drama has aged surprisingly well. Mad Men‘s Elizabeth Moss plays Heidi Holland, an art historian who has, broadly speaking, been more successful in her career than her life. From the perspective of 1989, she looks back on bright promises of her generation, the “baby boomers”, with mixed feelings.

The feminism Wasserstein expresses in The Heidi Chronicles isn’t particularly radical – Heidi makes a point several times throughout the show that she never burned a bra. Rather, the play examines the hopes and dreams made possible by the “consciousness raising” and political protest of the ’60s and ’70s.

Moss is ideally cast as Heidi, who’s sort of a more intellectual younger cousin to Peggy Olsen, Moss’s Mad Men character. Moss’s performance ranges from wryly engaging – especially when speaking about the women artists who are Heidi’s specialty – to achingly touching.

I’ve been following rising star Tracee Chimo since her early off-off-Broadway work, and it’s really a joy to follow her going from strength to strength. Chimo plays four sharply distinct characters; I particularly enjoyed her portrayals of both the play’s most radical character (a ’60s lesbian activist) and its most mainstream (an ’80s talk show maven). She’s one of the real treasures of New York theatre.

Also terrific are Jason Biggs as the smart but patriarchal Scoop – the man Heidi can’t quite shake – and Bryce Pinkham as her gay best friend Peter – the man Heidi couldn’t ever have, but truly loves. Pam MacKinnon’s direction is penetrating and precise, bracing and brisk, with a very small number of missteps where playing things broader would have been better. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: On the Twentieth Century

On the 20th 0903- Karl, Chenoweth

Witnessing Kristen Chenoweth at the top of her form and perfectly cast is the whole reason to see this revival. The show’s creators, composer Cy Coleman and wordsmiths Betty Comden and Adolph Green, were all masters of musical theatre, but On the Twentieth Century is nobody’s best work. Don’t get me wrong, the musical is very entertaining and quite well-crafted, but it finally works best as a star vehicle. And, thank goodness, Chenoweth is one hell of a star!

Chenoweth plays bawdy and chic Hollywood star Lily Garland, whom bankrupt theater producer Oscar Jaffee (Peter Gallagher) wants to cajole into playing the lead in his new, yet-unwritten epic drama. This madcap pursuit takes place aboard the Twentieth Century, a luxury train travelling from Chicago to New York City. Chenoweth is truly incandescent here, her frisky comic chops ideally matched to Comden and Green’s smartalecky wit.

Gallagher is far nuttier and better looking than David Belasco, the fading impresario on whom Jaffee’s based. Not to mention hammier, in a good way (although he would be hard pressed to out-ham Andy Karl as vain, muscle-bound movie leading man Bruce Granit)! Director Scott Ellis is having a lot of success this season combining fearless comic actors with suitably over-the-top characters, both here and in You Can’t Take It With You. His staging also imparts a much needed impish energy to the show.

There’s also an adorable quartet of train porters – who execute some of the best moves I’ve seen from choreographer Warren Carlyle. They even get a showstopping number of their own, the Act II opener “Life’s a Train”. The whole show is never less thans a giddy good time. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: The Elephant Man

Elephant Man, The Booth Theatre

This proves – as no doubt it was intended to – that Bradley Cooper is a bona fide stage actor with considerable chops, not just a slumming movie star. Often, when a star of Cooper’s magnitude shows up on Broadway, the best news that can be expected is that they didn’t suck, but didn’t quite hold the stage either. Not the case here: Cooper is the real deal.

Based on the life of Joseph Merrick, The Elephant Man tells the story of a 19th-century British man who became a star of the traveling freak show circuit. When a concerned doctor named Treves (Alessandro Nivola) takes Merrick in, the “elephant man” surprises him, not only with his quick intelligence, but also with his very human hunger for approval.

While Merrick’s deformities might seem to cry out for prosthetics (as were used in the 1980 David Lynch film of the same name), playwright Bernard Pomerance insists that he be portrayed by an able-bodied actor contorting himself into Merrick’s posture. Cooper is more than game for this, and pulls it off more naturally than any other actor I have seen in the role.

It doesn’t hurt that this is easily director Scott Ellis’s best work to date, finding as he does the humor and style in this often grim story. This is the most incisive direction I’ve seen from him, and he is much assisted by Timothy R. Mackabee’s fluid set design. Victorian in its details but minimalist in its fundamental conception, Mackabee’s approach is a marvellous marriage of imagination and function.

Pomerance has made the play as much Dr. Treves’s story as it is Merrick’s. Alessandro Nivola is excellent as the already deeply conflicted doctor, who is only driven further into confusion by Merrick’s predicament.

This may read like an unqualified rave; I have to admit that the play itself, while smart and engaging, is not one of my all-time favorites. Still, when faced with a production as immaculate as this one, it does prove hard to resist. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: The Passion of the Crawford

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In this riveting evening of lip-synch, there’s a lot of people up on that stage, even though there’s only two bodies. John Epperson lip-synchs an interview Joan Crawford gave in 1973 in New York’s Town Hall. Or is it Epperson as his drag persona Lypsinka as Crawford?

Not to mention that some of the additional audio is Faye Dunaway portraying Crawford in Mommie Dearest, and some other cues are extracted from films where Crawford is portraying yet another “somebody else.” And then there’s the interviewer, lip-synched in most performances by Steve Cuiffo (Hairspray lyricist and generally brilliant man of the theatre Scott Wittman will perform the role November 18 through December 1).

Epperson provides further, fruitful complications. This is no straight-up impression or imitation. Instead, Epperson’s gestures and expressions provide a constant, running commentary on what Crawford’s saying – and what she isn’t. For example, whenever the subject of “the children” comes up, Epperson executes an almost ritualistic dusting of the hands.

Epperson has structured the evening so that it does indeed play like a passion play, an “imitation of the Christ,” with spiritual themes, struggles, and, finally, uplift. In a costume by Ramona Ponce and crimson jewelry by Robert Sorrell, Epperson resembles a particularly regal and sanguine version of Crawford. The interview might be the centerpiece, but the keystone of this show is Crawford’s reading of Max Ehrmann’s prayerful poem “Desiderata”, which opens with: “Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible without surrender be on good terms with all persons.” Not qualities often associated with Crawford’s persona or reputation.

In the most Lypsinka-like portion of the evening, Epperson answers multiple ringing phones. Unlike the original version of this popular Lyp routine, though, all of the voices are Crawford or Dunaway – certainly no Bette Davis exclaiming “You didn’t!”

This is lip-synch as high art. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

For more reviews and interviews by Jonathan Warman, see his blog Drama Queen.

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

Review: Lypsinka: The Boxed Set

Lypsinka Box Set

Lypsinka long since turned the drag queen craft of lip-synching into high art. In The Boxed Set, the artist otherwise known as John Epperson refines and reconnects the various pieces he has been doing since the 1980s, in a sort of greatest hits collection. He has done this compilation before, and this time around the thematic strains about identity, gender and madness have just gotten clearer and stronger.

Thank goodness, though, that increased clarity has done nothing to diminish the fundamental strangeness of the Lyp’s audio collages. One of the great pleasures of Epperson’s brand of lip-synch is the way it doesn’t so much tell a story as paint a picture. An Ethel Merman outburst next to a Dolores Gray tune, next to Faye Dunaway channeling Joan Crawford, next to the Crawford herself, next to a Vegas bopper you’ve never heard of – these juxtapositions are the very things that make both the surrealism and the sharp insights happen.

Those things, and the very precision of the lip-synch. You can’t do the things Lypsinka does without meticulous attention to the basic craft of lip-synch, and her talent in this arena is unparalleled, awe-inspiring. And Epperson’s background in dance just adds to the meticulous construction.

Sometimes Lypsinka will play a moment straight, but just as often she takes a wisp of irony in the original and puts it under a magnifying glass with a look, a sneer, or even a limb that seems to be rebelling against her brain. But never doubt that even that rebellion is under Epperson’s laser-sharp control.

What can I say? This is 5-star, 10s across the board, the gold standard of drag queen artistry. This gets my very highest recommendation. What haven’t you bought your tickets yet? For those tickets, click here.

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