Review: Charles Busch

Legendary playwright and actor Charles Busch’s current cabaret act – titled “Native New Yorker” – is in some ways a sequel to his previous autobiographical club act “My Kinda ’60s.” As with that act, we again find Charles in boy drag – albeit with a subtle dash of rouge, wearing a patterned iridescent suit of crimson and purple. Here, again, the lack of wigs and dresses also signifies that Charles is expressing something more personal and vulnerable.

That’s because this act is about Busch’s journey to being the camp drag star we know today. Busch is very precise about his pop culture references. He successfully catches the feeling of coming of age (as an artist) at a time when life felt like a non-stop party. As a matter of fact one of the definite high points of the show is a touching rendition of the titular disco song as an late night / early morning ballad.

The act isn’t all earnest sincerity, though there’s more of that than usual. There are still plenty of quoted classic movie star mannerisms. As always, he moves from one glittering camp archetype to another with effortless ease. It’s just the tone that has shifted. It’s fun, but the theme of seriously searching for your very own queer identity – which runs through all of his work – is much more explicit.

He has always combined elegantly languid, self-effacing charm with an effortlessly brassy glamour. Busch has a pleasantly throaty high tenor voice. As with the greatest cabaret singers, it’s all about how Busch acts the story and emotion of a song: He finds corners I didn’t know existed in Diana Ross’s “Touch Me in the Morning,” reinterpreting it as an older man letting go of a a younger lover.

Busch sincerely loves artifice, and he invests every moment he has on-stage with substantial style. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

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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.

Review: Pharoah Sanders

Jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman once called Pharoah Sanders “probably the best tenor player in the world.” Tenor saxophone, that is, and based on what I experienced seeing him at Birdland, I’d have to agree. But he’s more than that: there’s something visionary about Sanders. When he begins to play, the room he’s playing in feels somehow different, lighter.

Sanders was an important player in the frequently dissonant free jazz scene of the early 1960s, but as he embarked on a career as a leader rather than a sideman, he reinterpreted what the “free” in free jazz meant. For him, it meant free and full expression using any and all means available, the tonal as well as the atonal, the sweet as well as the dissonant. It also meant exploring freedom in the political sense, and above all in a spiritual sense. One can easily interpret Sanders work from the late 1960s onward as one long exploration of what it means to be spiritually free – and how does one express that in music?

The first composition he performed began with the band playing a gentle, soothing pentatonic wash for several minutes. When Sanders joined in at first he went with that gentle flow, but then there was one of those angular, sharp, atonal runs that were a hallmark of Pharoah’s early avant-garde work, appearing with the speed, suddenness and uncanniness of lightning in a clear blue sky.

Some other astonishing moments: at the end of a yearning ballad, Sanders slows everything down in a short coda in which every note surprises and yet is exactly right, especially the breathtaking second to last note at the very bottom of his instrument’s range. After which he immediately bounces into a playful blues that finds this physically frail septuagenarian dancing around and hamming it up, strumming his sax as if it was a guitar. In this number each of the sidemen gets an extended solo; Nate Reeves’s solo stands as the single best jazz bass solo I have ever heard, jumping back and forth between virtuosic techniques with impossible nimbleness.

And at the very end, Sanders played a bit of his epic statement of purpose “The Creator Has a Master Plan,” singing in a strong warm voice, gently emphasizing one word, to powerful effect: “The creator makes but one demand / Happiness through all the land.” Then he launches into John Coltrane’s masterpiece “A Love Supreme” for a few soaring minutes before concluding with a return to “Creator.” Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: The Waverly Gallery

This play is about Alzheimer’s. That is the major thing you have to be aware of, because if you’ve known someone with the affliction, this can be hard going. The Waverly Gallery is a very good play about Alzheimer’s, with some lighthearted stuff to make it all easier to take (until it isn’t). And at the heart of this revival is a stunning performance from the legendary Elaine May as the person suffering from Alzheimer’s, one Gladys Green.

One of the things that makes The Waverly Gallery more bearable – but ultimately more tragic – is that Gladys has a wonderful personality: intellectual, kind and generous. After working as a lawyer and social activist in her younger days, Gladys operated a small art gallery in Greenwich Village for many decades. The play finds her still running the gallery in the late 1980s and early 1990s, as the disease is affecting her more and more, and focuses on the effect of her decline on her family, especially her grandson Daniel (Lucas Hedges, who underplays the part marvelously).

May has the gargantuan task of inhabiting this vital, bright woman who thinks she’s still in full command of her faculties, while also showing us, scene by scene, exactly how much she’s losing her grip, bit by awful bit. It takes a razor-sharp mind to convey that change over the course of an evening, and May is sharp as a tack – even if Gladys isn’t – giving us a mesmerizing portrayal of fragility and decline. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: The Lifespan of a Fact

This is one tight little machine of a play, never letting up for much of its hour and a half. Even more, while it is dense and thematically packed, the play simultaneously retains a razor-sharp focus on character. This makes it particularly compelling. The Lifespan of a Fact is based on the true story of “What Happens There” an essay by John D’Agata (played here by Bobby Canavale) about the Las Vegas suicide of teenager Levi Presley. Jim Fingal (Daniel Radcliffe), assigned to fact check the piece, ignites a debate on the blurred lines of what passes for truth in literary nonfiction.

The play doesn’t directly address the present administration’s excessively unhinged grasp (or lack thereof) of what constitutes a fact. The closest it comes to that is Fingal warning D’Agata that, in this day and age, playing fast and loose with fact leads directly to unscrupulous or gullible people developing conspiracy theories. That said, its intelligent examination of the very nature of truth feels exceedingly timely. Radcliffe and Canavale are formidable as these two strong personalities, and Cherry Jones (“formidable” could be her middle name) is just as terrific as their editor Emily.

Director Leigh Silverman keep the tension, and propulsion, going in every moment. The Lifespan of a Fact rigorously explores the nature of accuracy in journalism, and the dangers of taking literary license when writing non-fiction, even if the aim is getting at deep truths. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Bernhardt / Hamlet

As a director, I have always practiced diversity in casting, and have long been persuaded of the justice of gender parity in casting, which, more often than not, means that women will be playing men. So the idea that a great actress should play Hamlet seems quite natural to me. I’m very much looking forward to Glenda Jackson playing King Lear later this season. However, I still feel that I’m in the minority here – a growing minority, to be sure, but I find I have to defend that line of thinking more than I’d like. More than feels right.

So just imagine, then, when well over a century ago “The Divine” Sarah Bernhardt let it be known she’d be playing Hamlet. It wasn’t 100% unheard of – Bernhardt herself had already played Lorenzo de’ Medici. But this was, you know, Hamlet! Ever-agile playwright Theresa Rebeck has fashioned a highly entertaining portrayal of the struggle Bernhardt faced in bringing her Hamlet to life.

Rebeck illuminates why a woman is an ideal choice to play the role, while also giving us insight into the artistic challenges facing Bernhardt in particular in making the role align with her decidedly majestic approach to acting. She also looks at the broader social situation in which playwrights offer Bernhardt roles that treat her as some ideal, rather than a complex human being – roles which would of course be a complete bore to play. Thus, Hamlet. As Bernhardt, Janet McTeer is scintillating and mesmerizing, just like you would want “The Divine Sarah” to be. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Nellie McKay

This cabaret act solidifies Nellie McKay’s right to be considered the 21st Century Blossom Dearie, but even more surreal, subversive and nutty. She’s a supreme stylist, with broad, substantial musical intelligence behind every single understated flourish. She combines heart-on-sleeve sincerity with supremely arch, dry wit; she’s utterly unique, her performance style multifarious and unpredictable, drawing ideas from extremely diverse eras and genres.

The act, at the Birdland Theater, is edgy even for a venue that regularly features post-bop royalty – she opens with the casually venomous “Inner Peace” from her 2004 debut album – all the while displaying musical taste and restraint so impeccable you dare not take issue with her cabaret bona fides. It’s 100% a solo act, just Nellie in a bejeweled drum majorette’s uniform, accompanying herself on piano, and exceptionally expressive ukulele (I’d go so far as to call her a virtuoso of the uke). Plus there’s a Hammond XK electric organ (a favorite instrument of mine) which adds just the right level of kooky spook to her original “Zombie.” Speaking of kooky, her version of the jazz ballad “Willow Weep for Me” breaks into wild boogie-woogie in the middle; it’s a left-field move, which somehow feels just right.

She becomes one with the piano, forcing you to focus on the nuances of both the music and the lyrics. While she still places a knowing distance between herself and the audience, this show finds her the most comfortable I’ve ever seen her just being her utterly unique self, communing with the vibe in the room. McKay’s a highly individual talent, with wildly crazy creativity to match her razor-like interpretive ability. She’s a true original, and it’s an exceptional pleasure to hear her in such an intimate setting. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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