Review: Tony Danza

Since his TV career descended from the stratospheric heights of hit after hit, namely Taxi and Who’s the Boss, Tony Danza has made an art of being an Italian-American boy from Brooklyn song-and-dance man. You know, in the tradition of guys named Crocetti and Benedetto. Ooops, I mean their stage names Dean Martin and Tony Bennett, and I forgot the one who didn’t change his last name, Sinatra. To be fair, only Bennett is the only one who comes close to Danza’s NYC bona fides. Even Sinatra was from, ahem, Hoboken.

Danza sings the songs that these goombahs made famous, but he really has Sinatra bona fides. He gained his love of “The Chairman of the Board” from his mother, who was one of the original “bobbysoxer” girls who first screamed for Frankie in New York’s Paramount Theatre in the early 1940s (think BTS stans today). Plus, in his Taxi days (late 1970s) one of Sinatra’s favorite songwriters Sammy Cahn took Danza under his wing and mentored him.

Now all of this is a long time ago, and Danza is frank (see what I did there?) about this – he says there are three stages of life: youth, middle age and “You look good!” And he does look good, and not just for that bracket. He does a Cahn medley that has real warmth to it. And that’s part of his charm overall – warmth and sincerity. Also special is his embrace of a lesser-known song, Artie Butler’s “I Don’t Remember Ever Growing Up”; what person past early middle age doesn’t understand that? Plus the fact that he peppers his Rat Pack-style crooning with above average tap dancing and ukulele playing…the guy has the spirit of a classic all-around entertainer. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Peter Cincotti

“Killer On The Keys” is the title song of Peter Cincotti’s upcoming album, and that phrase is an apt description of this wildly talented pianist-singer-songwriter. The first song in his act at the Cafe Carlyle is “Raise the Roof” and that he and his band do time and again. He’s a New Yorker through and through, and has been playing clubs here since he was a high schooler, some 20 years ago. By 18 he was working with legendary producer Phil Ramone on his first album, and getting raves playing the legendary Oak Room cabaret at the Algonquin Hotel.

How I haven’t seen Cincotti before now escapes me, he’s just the kind of jazzy cabaret artist I love – just think John Pizzarelli or Marilyn Maye (search for them on this site if you don’t already know). He’s backed by a very talented band; young for the most part (not for nothing, like he was when he started), save for tenor saxophonist Scott Kreitzer, who’s been working with him since the Oak Room.

It’s not all uptempo ravers, though there is a lot of that. While he does a good number of standards, both of the numbers mentioned above are Cincotti originals, and he is premiering a new one at the Carlyle, from his upcoming album. Called “Ghost of My Father” it details how his father, who died when his career was just taking off, has literally haunted him (mostly in a good way) ever since. A pensive ballad, accompanied only by himself on piano, it is as moving as the rest of the set is rousing.

He covers a great range of styles and material from Nat King Cole’s “Sweet Lorraine” to Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind”; his excellent jazzy version of Lady Gaga’s “Pokerface” – which he himself described as a McCoy Tyner / Herbie Hancock influenced arrangement – truly has to be heard to be believed. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Tammie Brown

Lady Bunny once talked about working with Valentina – she of the “french vanilla latte fantasy” – saying something to the effect of “She’s just like Tammie Brown or Alyssa Edwards, they all really are like that, all the time!” Surrealist drag queen Brown’s artistic core is, more than anything, as a hippie chic queerpunk singer-songwriter. There’s a hint of classic movie queen in her looks, but it seems that’s the equivalent of Debbie Harry or Grace Slick making something fabulous out of what they found in a thrift shop.

And while Tammie’s sense of humor is disarmingly unique, she’s not truly unprecedented. I could see her comfortably do her left-of-center thing at the Pyramid Club in the 1980s, at Club 57 or Max’s Kansas City in 1970s, or even in a Jackie Curtis extravaganza at LaMaMa in the late 1960s. However, queens this tripped-out are in short supply these days, so we should treat her as some kind of national treasure!

Brown also proudly owns her South Texas origins, singing a couple of songs with some Spanish, and showing love for all things Mexican (maybe there’s a Frida Kahlo influence here, too, eh?). Tammie struts sexily about the stage, singing to the actual tracks from her discography. The doubling of her recorded voice and her live voice is pleasantly freaky – and solid proof she always sings on tune.

Her songs remind me of an ’80s synthpop cover of a ’60s song – think Tiffany’s “I Think We’re Alone Now” or Bananarama’s “Venus” – but as written and performed on the legendary “good LSD” of the time when the songs were written. And her in-between patter veers between gleeful non sequiturs and political commentaries from the silly to the venomous. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Mr. Saturday Night

This tribute to Catskills comedy – as told through the life story of Buddy Young Jr. who goes from Borscht Belt headliner to TV star to obscurity – is equal parts classic comic shtick (delivered by one of our greatest living comedians) and schmaltz (leavened with flashes of genuine emotion). Billy Crystal plays Young with his usual verve, adding a little soft shoe and expessive singing to his performing repetoire. It’s a real shame that Mr. Saturday Night closes on September 4, it’s a genuinely pleasurable and charming musical – whose main aim is to (in the words of Crystal’s first song) provide “A Little Joy” – and how often do we get one of those?

While much of the plot takes place in 1994, we get generous servings of Buddy’s Catskills act and TV sketches, taking place in the late ’40s and early ’50s, in which Crystal shines the brightest, being on his home ground of stand-up. As Buddy watches the 1994 Emmy Awards, he sees his own face in the “In Memoriam” section. The fact that he actually isn’t dead gets him a new flash of celebrity, including an appearance on Today, which catches the eye of a major talent agency.

This is the kind of relatively light-hearted musical where you root for the main character to earn redemption and win out. The way he gets there may be a touch contrived, but is satifying nonetheless. The score, lyrics by Amanda Green and music by Jason Robert Brown, is brisk, tuneful and jazzy. Recommended, get it while you can!

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Mark Nadler Hart’s Desire

This ever-ambitious cabaret genius always seeks to challenge himself, and this time he has truly outdone himself. With Hart’s Desire, Mark Nadlercombines the words of playwright Moss Hart (from many sources) with lyrics by (unrelated) Lorenz Hart – which of course comes with music by Lorenz’s perrenial writing partner, composer Richard Rodgers. Both Harts were gay in a time when it was far less acceptable than today. Mark is no stranger to a gay theme, and has fashioned a gay musical romantic comedy that convicingly sounds like the year Nadler sets it in, 1943. You know, except for the gay thing.

Nadler presents Hart’s Desire as a backer’s audition – at the time, backer’s auditions were performed by the writers themselves, not actors. The musical is set at the opening of a Boston tryout for a play. Act I is before the opening, Act II after, and things do not seem to have gone well. With his usual exquisite taste, in addtion to Lorenz’s better known songs, Nadler uses obscure ones as well, such as the unfinished “Good Bad Woman” which Mark himself has completed. And of course he employs additional lyrics not included in the stage versions of Lorenz’s songs, especially for an extended version of “The Lady is a Tramp” as delivered by a brassy aging vaudvillian.

Mark “Mr. Showbiz” Nadler is at his most dazzling here, portraying eight characters without blurring the lines between them. He’s one of the greatest showmen of our time, singing, acting, tap-dancing madly, all the while playing a complex passage on the piano without even glancing at the keys. There are always many layers in a Mark Nadler show, ranging from the obvious to unspoken subtext, which gives an “oomph” far, far beyond your typical cabaret show, and that is true in spades in Hart’s Desire. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: A Strange Loop

The frankest description of gay sex I have ever seen on a Broadway stage, that’s for sure – especially in song called “Inwood Daddy” (you can see where that’s going) ! And a refreshingly frank look at the problems gay black men face. I mean right off the bat the lead character Usher describes himself as “a young overweight-to-obese homosexual and/or gay and/or queer, cisgender male, able-bodied university-and-graduate-school educated, musical-theater writing, Disney-ushering, broke-ass middle-class far-Left-leaning Black-identified-and-classified American descendant of slaves full of self-conscious femme energy…thinks he’s probably a vers bottom.”

A Strange Loop is in many ways an autobiographical show. Jaquel Spivey is so terrific as Usher that at least one audience member I taked to thought he actually was the author-composer of the show, one Michael R. Jackson, who won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for this. It is very black and deeply queer, is artistically successful and tuneful and funny into the equation – so exciting.

His thoughts (and other people) are represented by a (excellent) six-person chorus. Usher is plauged by self-doubt. Primarily that he wants to authenticly represent himself in the musical he is writing, but worries that white audiences wont get his black experience, and black audiences won’t get his queer experience. He is also conflicted that he has an “Inner White Girl” which he cherishs but also disturbs him. He loves his parents and seeks their love – they do love him, but don’t really accept him. They are deeply religious, so they don’t tolerate his gay identity. Instead of the autobiographical show he is working on, they want him to create a “a nice, clean Tyler-Perry-like gospel play,” which drives Usher crazy.

Jackson is that rarest of musical theatre creatures, a composer-lyricist-bookwriter who is superb at all three. I can’t wait to see what he does next. Highly reccomended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Jeff Harnar

A gay New York man who goes through “Living Alone and Liking It,” but later has thoughts of marriage, who spends nights both in glittering boîtes and sketchy dives, who has great sex, but also bad breakups that lead to murderous thoughts – does any of this sound familiar? Some of it does to me, and I’m sure some of you know a thing or two about these experiences. To quote singer Jeff Harnar about his new act and album I Know Things Now:“The words and music are Stephen Sondheim’s, but the story is mine.” It’s a very relatable story, told with much cleverness.

If you don’t know Sondheim, it’s still a wild ride from a fantastic singer and interpretive artist. But for a Sondheim fan like me it’s even more fun. Harnar often intjects references to songs he doesn’t even sing, like saying his evasive lover has gone to Barcelona (the title of a song from Company) in the middle of “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” from the same show. Some of the songs are a bit obscure, some are “Old Friends” (a song from Merrily We Roll Along).

I was particularly entertained by his mashup of “Buddy’s Blues” and “Sorry Grateful” which clearly depicted someone getting drunk at a gay bar – I don’t quite understand why the negative lines in “Buddy’s Blues” (and there are a lot of them) were delivered in the voice of Jimmy Durante, but it was in any event an amusingly absurd choice. His “breakup song” version of “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd” is one of the most terrifying renditions I’ve ever heard. Instead of depicting a figure out of horror, it relates the much more familiar feeling of wanting your loathsome ex dead. Eeek!

The album I Know Things Now – which has a 20 piece orchestra in place of the excellent jazz trio in the show – is out now on PS Classics. Both the show and album are highly recommended.

To buy the album, click here.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Lillias White

In this show, Lillias White literally GIVES. ME. LIFE! And that isn’t a misuse of “literally” – her tribute to Sarah Vaughan “Divine Sass” made me feel more alive than just about anything other show since cabaret came back. Much of it is due to Lillias’s abundant spontaneity. The night I saw it, someone shouted “What are you doing the rest of you life?” leading her to launch into an a capella version of the song of the same name, accepting lyric prompts from the audience (especially from a handsome young man named Julian).

Lillias is on a mission to portray Vaughan in a stage musical, and if anyone has the chops to do it, it’s her. In this show, White addresses Vaughan’s signature songs with an expressiveness and virtuosity every bit worthy of the Divine Sarah. White has one of those thunderclap voices, like Darlene Love or Martha Wash, that electrifies and illuminates everything it touches. And with the inspiration of sassy Sarah – and an adoring audience – she positively soars.

White is a bawdy lady – many moons ago me and my husband got drunk with her after a Christine Ebersole show, and without much effort we got her to sing “Big Fat Daddy” to me. She leans into that lustiness here, since, like her, Vaughan had a taste for men, especially of the younger variety. Vaughan’s “An Occasional Man” is the perfect vehicle for that heat, and White kills it. Another Vaughan staple “Misty” gets two full versions, the first a ballad approach reflecting the sentimental lyrics of the song, and then an amazing fast, scat-laden jazz take. Wow!

While everybody in the band plays magnificently, the solos of bassist Jonathan Michel display a remarkable originality (for fellow lovers of the bassline, he is as expressive as Haden or Entwhistle). As for the woman herself, as always a great artist and warm presence. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Justin Vivian Bond

This trans legend is among the most unique interpreters of song: she can go from tender vulnerablity to smirking irony to howling rage, sometimes in the same song. Her taste is impeccable, and she approaches her selections with the touch of a very careful curator. A curator, that is, who finds what is most explosive in the art they’re presenting, and then promptly detonates it. Justin Vivian Bond is a tower of song – mysterious, imposing, beautiful, powerful.

JVB’s current show “Oh Mary, It’s Spring!” is nothing more or less than a selection of songs about or written by women named Mary. To hear Bond tell it, she’s never been particularly good at remembering people’s names, and it has only gotten worse as she gets older (she celebrated her 59th birthday during the run). So she’s taken to calling everyone “Mary.” And why not!

Bond comes roaring out of the gate with The Association’s “Along Comes Mary”, all strut and swagger. In her version of Mary MacGregor’s “Torn Between Two Lovers” she comes out into the house and sings directly to more than two men in the audience (myself included the night I went), commenting afterwards “all that polyamorous queer love has my head spinning!”

JVB delivers a powerfully understated rendition of singer-songwrigter Mary Gauthier’s amazing “Mercy”, which Bond introduces with a story about her conflicted relationship with her late father. The song expands to encompass the mercy that country and life itself needs right now, which she delivers with controlled passion. Her version of Jimi Hendrix’s “The Wind Cries Mary” goes the opposite direction: she truly screams the lyric “the wind / screams Mary”, to great effect.

One of the best features of all of Bond’s shows is her acidly funny, stream of consciousness, between-song patter (which has had the downside of making certain shows marathon length, but not here). As always Bond is hilariously entertaining, wildly imaginative and vividly expressive. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: John Pizzarelli

Pianist Isiah J. Thompson, bassist Mike Karn, guitarist and vocalist John Pizzarelli – this trio attacks with flashy jazziness so relentlessly that you don’t applaud for fear of missing something amazing. Pizzarelli has framed this particular act as “Stage and Screen.” That casts a very wide net, since the vast majority of the Great American Songbook comes from Broadway or movie musicals. It works out to be just another excellent show from the John Pizzarelli Trio, packed with the very jazziest interpretations of standards selected with exquisite taste.

Particularly moving was a instrumental solo from John of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “This Nearly Was Mine” and Sondheim’s “Send In The Clowns”, favorites of his father, guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli. Bucky passed away from COVID in 2020, and John teared up while playing this medley. John plays guitar with amazing fluidity and elegance, with nonpareil mastery of a technique called “guitar harmonics” that produces high notes of extraordinary expressiveness. He mixed harmonics with regular virtuosity for this medley, to beautiful effect.

Then again, Pizzarelli finds many ways to put his own interpretive twist on the songs he performs. He has a particular genius for chordal improvisations, exposing hidden musical meanings in the most familiar of standards. After a stirring yet playful rendition of “Rhode Island is Famous for You” (made famous by Blossom Dearie), John noted that he had done several “list” songs in a row, only to launch into another list song , “I Love Betsy” from Jason Robert Brown’s Broadway show Honeymoon in Vegas (“I like Shake Shack, I like MoMA, and New Jersey’s ripe aroma…Heck, there’s lots of stuff I like, but I love Betsy and she loves me. She likes hockey, no I swear, she likes guys with thinning hair”).

John Pizzarelli embodies cabaret’s jazzier side with astonishing elan and profound musical intelligence. Also, as a singer John is very sensitive to the multiple meanings a good lyric can have, and has an uncanny ability to communicate several at once. Overall, the singing’s smart, the music’s deftly swung and the atmosphere sparkles. Neither jazz nor cabaret gets much better than this. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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