Review: Oklahoma!

Director Daniel Fish’s new production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!, in the broadest terms, does Act I as a picnic (where chili can actually be consumed over intermission), and Act II as a hoedown. The music (in Daniel Kluger’s very reduced orchestration) is performed in a style consistent with the Grand Old Opry in 1943, the year of the musical’s premiere. Fish’s staging sometimes recalls that Opry, especially in the way he has performers use standing mics.

I’m thinking Fish mostly wanted to stage the musical as simply as possible, letting the thematic points in Hammerstein’s mind rise to to the surface as naturally as possible. Fish does spice his minimalist approach with – by now fairly standard – postmodern techniques and touchs, sometimes pointlessly but more often to provactive effect. Through these effects Fish shows the main story of a tense love triangle in 1906 Oklahoma is even more complex and fraught – in many ways – than earlier productions suggested.

But the biggest joys in the production are the secondary comic characters. Mary Testa is perhaps the grittiest Aunt Eller ever, with her willful blindness to dangers, early in the show, explained in a later monologue about “toughness” that she and Fish underline in the most successful way. But Testa’s abundant comic gifts aren’t in any way held back, and she’s easily the strongest singer in the show.

Ali Stroker’s hilarious take on Ado Annie is surely the horniest ever, which makes her paring with the oddly sensual James Davis (playing the dim but sweet Will Parker) just about perfect. Overall, an imperfect but often insightful revival, which is rarely less than compulsively watchable. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

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Review: What the Constitution Means to Me

As a teenager, playwright and actress Heidi Schreck won her college tuition money in Constitutional debate competitions at VFW’s and other similar institutions across the country. In What the Constitution Means to Me, Schreck revisits those competitions to examine how her feelings about the document have changed – and how it has long failed to protect the bodies and lives of oppressed peoples like women and immigrants. And how, under conservative courts and administrations, such protections as those people have are consistently rolled back.

That may sound like material for an essay or a lecture, but Schreck makes exciting and frequently entertaining theatre out of this thorny subject. She does this mostly by bringing an intensely personal point of view to it, interjecting pop culture references from her teen years and today. Also, she uses what can be exciting and theatrical about the performance side of lectures, speeches and debates – time limits, spontanteity and conflict, for a start. It’s not for nothing that her director Oliver Butler co-founded a theatre company called The Debate Society.

There’s a lot that’s sneaky about What the Constitution. For one thing, it’s a full-on play disguised as a solo performance art show. In fact, at one point Schreck acidly observes that “I know some of you think I’ve gone off on a tangent but I promise you I haven’t. In spite of what some people think, this show is actually quite carefully constructed.”

In this play’s most important other role, Mike Iveson plays a VFW moderator, but his role morphs in surprising, effective and satisfying ways. And there are additional cast members whose function is such a delightful surprise I won’t spoil it. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Miz Cracker

Drag as a feminist act – that’s what Drag Race alum Miz Cracker is aiming at in her new cabaret show at the Laurie Beechman Theatre, “American Woman.” After appearing on the aforementioned reality show, Cracker noticed that her audience had shifted from mostly gay men to mostly women. This gave “her” pause – it makes sense to make jokes about gay sex if you’re speaking to gay men, but should you still be doing the same kind of act if your audience is women by more than half?

Cracker is “sorry / not sorry” for giving you a feminist TED talk with jokes, pop songs and choreography. Oh, and while we are on the subject, Le Miz gives you all of those New York drag traditions we love – Lypsinka-inspired lip-synch collage, cartwheels worthy of Candis Cayne (who was just at the Beechman last week), and even House of Ninja vogue moves – in ample supply. The “not sorry” comes with thought that “wouldn’t you have enjoyed algebra more if ‘teach’ threw in some costume changes?”

It’s not that drag queens can no longer do “funny pussy songs,” Cracker suggests, but they should maybe think a second about what it means to a woman to celebrate her pussy – and then does just such a number to illustrate what she has in mind. And so on through more and more serious feminist themes.

I saw her first performance of this show ever, and it still had some wrinkles. There’s an opening collage of beautiful powerful women of all types (wittily set to Smetana’s “My Fatherland”), but it’s overlong and doesn’t quite make sense, due to the fact we haven’t been clued into the feminist bent of the show yet. It would be more moving post-show, where it would make an effective crossover while Cracker changes outfits for the meet and greet. Plus, there are many repetitions that could easily be trimmed.

All in all, though, a remarkably intelligent and entertaining evening of drag. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

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.

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.