Review: Beth Leavel

Despite this cabaret act being named “It’s Not About Me,” throughout Beth Leavel greatly relishes telling stories of her own long Broadway career. She barrels through it all with the ferocious commitment and incisive comic energy for which she’s most known.

She’s currently in between her much-loved turn playing Broadway diva Dee Dee in The Prom and creating the role of Miranda Priestly in Elton John’s musical version of The Devil Wears Prada. She opens with the song from The Prom which gives the act its title, blowing the roof off of Feinstein’s / 54 Below from the very beginning. Then she marries belting with a warm sense of welcoming in her take on Cole Porter’s “I Get A Kick Out Of You” the “you” in this case very clearly being the audience. In a typical pairing of sincerity with wisecracking, she notes she wants the show to feel like we’re all sitting around drinking in her living room – and then says that since everybody’s drinking we’re halfway there.

There are only about nine songs in the show, much of which she gives over to backstage stories told with much hilarity. Not only Broadway stories, but stories from regional theatre, where she has done such great roles as Dolly Levi and Mama Rose. And does she sing songs from those great roles? Oh yes she does, oh boy does she ever! I’m not going to tell you which ones; I’d rather you go “oh no she isn’t!” just like I did. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Clint Holmes and Billy Stritch with The Christian Tamburr Trio

Cabaret legend Billy Stritch has teamed with jazz singer Clint Holmes for an act at the Birdland Theater entitled “Straighten Up and Fly Right” which pays tribute to the great Nat “King” Cole. Given this combination of performers, it’s not a surprise that the show is jazzy as heck. Pianist / vibraphonist Christian Tamburr and his trio up the jazz ante further still, at one point leaving Tamburr chuckling “so many notes, so many notes!”

Every arrangement, most of them by Tamburr, are wonderfully complex but leave a lot of room for spontaneity from any or all parties. They open with a swinging version of “Straighten Up and Fly Right” which relies heavily on the marvelous way Stritch and Holmes’s voices blend, especially when they harmonize. They harmonize a lot over the course of the evening, sometimes on an equal footing, sometimes as backup for each other, always to good effect.

Clint Holmes has established himself as a cabaret artist of great intelligence. He has been a Las Vegas performer for decades, but exhibits none of the negative qualities you associate with Vegas. He only has the good Vegas stuff: He is nothing if not sincere and authentic, and possesses a magnetic stage presence and a practiced but subtle showmanship that underlines what’s important in the show without overselling it. Stritch has a lot to do in the show, but Holmes has the lion’s share of solo singing, a wonderful thing, especially in those moments when he has his sensitive way with Cole’s more famous ballads.

Stritch’s part of the evening is more of the infotainment variety of cabaret, which I very much mean as a compliment. He unearths some of Cole’s more obscure numbers, and gives them nuanced, memorable readings. Together, they make very high end cabaret. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Liz Callaway & Ann Hampton Calllway

If your heartstrings aren’t thrumming a few numbers into into this sister act, then I’m sorry to say you simply don’t have a heart. “Broadway the Calla-way” brings some of Broadway’s most emotional songs together with two of the greatest voices to thread the boards. Liz and Ann Hampton Callaway gloriously display the power of siblings harmonizing. They seemingly possess quite different voices. Liz has a muscular yet elegant Broadway soprano, and Ann has a wide-ranging jazz monster of a voice.

And yet, when they harmonize, the blending is utterly seamless, sometimes to the point of not being able to determine who’s singing what vocal line. You can hear this best in a medley of “The Schuyler Sisters” and “Lullaby of Broadway” early in the show. They also have great comic chemistry, doing a barbed version of Gypsy’s “Some People” that’s as hilarious as it is mellifluous – with props no less.

Both sisters soar solo for stretches of the show. Ann shines with an emotional and detailed reading of the tender “If He Walked Into My Life” from Mame, and Liz does a version of “The Music and the Mirror ” from A Chorus Line that can hold its head up with any other version of the song, perhaps not surprising since it is most often sung by dancer-actors rather than a nonpareil singer-actor like Liz.

It’s also clear that the sisters have a lot of gay men in their circle! When word got out that they were putting a show of Broadway song together, oh boy did they get phone calls, e-mails and texts offering suggestions of duets they absolutely must do together. They include a bunch of these suggestions in what they call they “The Huge Medley.” I won’t give away the exact songs – they’re just too delicious – but let’s just say they involve major gay icons belting their brains out. So gay and so fun! Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: A Christmas Carol

This is quite possibly the best stage adaptation of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol I’ve seen. And there have been a lot of them: This holiday chestnut is an audience favorite, and – even better for theatres’ budgets – in the public domain. For this Broadway version, which originated at London’s Old Vic, adaptor Jack Thorne brilliantly interweaves sharp social commentary (never far away in Dickens) with ineffable warmth and joy.

Director Matthew Warchus greatly magnifies that warmth even before the show starts, with the cast tossing and passing clementines and cookies to the audience. They even chat congenially with the audience – a friend of mine had some lovely face time with Andrea Martin (who plays the Spirit of Christmas Past). The smell of people peeling clementines hugely helps to conjure the Christmas spirit. Get there early!

Our Scrooge is Cambpell Scott (whose father George C. Scott played the role in a terrific 1984 TV movie adaptation). He brings great nuance to the role, with flashes of vulnerability even early on, which clearly unnerve Scrooge, but also foreshadow his eventual change of heart. And when that change of heart comes, Warchus turns the warmth and joy all the way up with another bit of audience interaction which spectacularly embraces the entire theatre.

Rob Howell’s set envelops the theatre as well, with Victorian lanterns in huge numbers hanging over the stage and audience. Thorne treats the story as an ensemble piece, and when that ensemble includes performers as fine as Martin and LaChanze, you know you’re in good hands. In another super-smart twist, Tiny Tim is played by a differently-abled boy (Jai Ram Srinivasan at the performance I attended) which makes the scenes with him – which can be mawkishly sentimental – much more realistic and all the more genuinely touching for it. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Candis Cayne & Lina Bradford

They. Are. Legendary. They call themselves drag goddesses, and, honey, they aren’t even trying to be modest when they say it. Besides, “drag queens” suggests boys in dresses, and both Candis and Lina have long since identified as trans women. They are both transgender trailblazers of no doubt – Candis was the first transgender actress playing a regular transgender character in television history, and Lina blazed her own trails as an international DJ. But long before that they were two of the most exciting performers on the drag scene, especially when these sisters performed together.

They are, individually and together, the best dancers in the lip-synching world, so it’s altogether fitting that their show “Life Becomes Her” has lots of fantastic lip-synching and dancing. They hit the stage like a fireball, doing the big fight scene from the film Death Becomes Her, complete with accurate Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn costumes. Then they launch into a high-kicking version of Loni Clark’s “Rushing,” the kind of deep house classic that was their signature style at venues from Palladium to Barracuda and beyond.

The greatest pleasure for me, though, was seeing how much they’ve polished their comedy. They always incorporated humor into their lip-synch (Lina’s no stranger to making faces), but the timing of their patter has become something special. The show is a bit on the long side, but they are so engaging that you almost don’t want it to end. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Marilyn Maye

She embraces her audience, she overpowers, she electrifies – Marilyn Maye is like no other singer. At 91, she sings and moves like a singer in their 40s. It might not be an exaggeration to call her the best jazz cabaret singer in the world. She’s certainly the last great performer in that style of her generation, still in astonishingly full command of her vocal powers. And at 54 Below right now, she’s turning her towering talent mostly to showtunes. Lucky us!

Maye has been rediscovered by New York audiences over the last decade or so, and you can feel the ever growing lovefest between fans old and new, which only adds to the fun. But she’s had fans in good places for a long time: Johnny Carson gave her a standing invitation to sing on “The Tonight Show” whenever possible, and she ended up appearing 76 times while Carson was in the chair, a record no singer has broken since!

She’s always included showtunes in her act, so there’s plenty of familiar stuff, especially from Hello Dolly and Mame, shows whose title roles she played in now-legendary regional productions. There are several other medleys, but Maye and her music director Billy Strich handle medleys in an unconventional way, undercutting their potential for corniness with thoughtful storytelling and sophisticated jazz musicianship. If you love show tunes sung in sparkling and surprising ways, it just doesn’t get any better than this.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Forbidden Broadway The Next Generation

Forbidden Broadway has relentlessly and lovingly assaulted the Great White Way since 1982, when lyricist/conceiver Gerard Alessandrini, then a struggling singer-actor, created the first edition for himself and his friends to perform. It lampooned the Broadway shows and stars of the day – to put things in perspective that was the year Cats (a top Alessandrini target) opened, and Ethel Merman (who has turned up frequently in the revue over the years) still had two years to live.

This new edition, subtitled The Next Generation takes aim at Hadestown first featuring “Andre De Sheilds” singing “Forbidden Hadestown” – about the harshest thing Alessandrini has to say about this show, which he clearly liked, is that it is “pretentious.” Next up is Moulin Rouge , which Alessandrini uses to roundly eviscerate jukebox musicals as a whole.

Some of the harshest barbs go to Renee Zellweger in Judy – Alessandrini has Judy Garland sing “Zellweger stinks in my part” to the tune of “Zing Went the Strings.” His song about Fosse/Verdon is basically a love letter, as is a number he has Mary Poppins sing about beloved flops, “The Place Where the Lost Shows Go.” The finale, as often is the case for Forbidden Broadway, is a love note to the future of musical theater. Alessandrini seems to see plenty of hope (which he didn’t in 1982), and that’s a very good sign.

For tickets, click here.

For more more about Jonathan Warman’s directing work see jonathanwarman.com