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: Marilyn Maye

I don’t often refer to the marvelous Marilyn Maye’s age, but since the title of her new show at 54 Below is “I Wish I were 90 Again,” I can divulge that the show celebrates her turning 91. I can think of no other singer who possesses Maye’s combination of interpretive ability, rhythmic verve, and, yes, vocal range, as impressive as that of just about any singer 50 years her junior. Ella Fitzgerald once called her “the greatest white female singer in the world” — that’s no exaggeration.

This show opens like gangbusters, opening with two of her brassiest, beltiest signature songs “It’s Today” and “You’re Gonna Hear from Me.” She’s fantastic throughout, singing songs of love and celebration — with a breif detour into melancholy in a medley centered on the word “blue.” Her repertoire for the evening ranges from Melissa Manchester’s clear-eyed romance “Come In From The Rain” to a rollicking and vituousic take on Leiber & Stoller’s “I’m A Woman.”

This is a classic act in every sense of the phrase. Maye is a jazz-pop singer worthy of being included in the company of Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn or Blossom Dearie, and her phrasing is the finest I’ve heard in that style from a living singer — for she truly is the last of that generation of singers. Maye exquisitely tailors her style of singing to the individual song, smooth for the ballads, swinging for the standards, and truly gritty for the bluesier numbers. If you love classic songs sung like they’re meant to be sung, it doesn’t get any better than this.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Kiss Me, Kate

It’s hard to go wrong with an evening of Cole Porter sung well, whatever shape that takes. If that shape happens to be a sparkling revival of what is arguably his best score, Kiss Me, Kate, all the better. Roundabout Theatre’s new Broadway revival is just such a creature, a fine example of the delicious pleasures that traditional musical comedy can offer.

Kiss Me, Kate follows exes Fred Graham (Will Chase) and Lilli Vanessi (Kelly O’Hara) during out of town tryouts for a musical version of Shakespeare’s The Taming of The Shrew that Fred has devised as a vehicle for them. They spar onstage and off, reflecting the fractious relationship of the characters they play in the Shakespeare.

The biggest pleasure here, unsurpisingly, is O’Hara’s gorgeous renditions of Porter songs. Her “So In Love” nears being a definitive version, but her “I Hate Men” is a revelation for other reasons: she’s not in a rage, but instead calmly laying out why men are awful. That’s part and parcel of a general reimaging of the show to empower Lilli, which also involves some tweaks to book and lyrics by the brilliant Amanda Green.

Another standout is Warren Carlyle’s choreography, some of the best I’ve evver seen from him. In “Bianca” he has Corbin Bleu althletically tapping up and down steep sets of stairs. A truly stunning “Too Darn Hot” has flashes of Fosse and “eccentric dancing” woven into a dazzling tapestry of dance that is Carlyle’s own. 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: Karen Mason

This diva’s big, expressive voice is one of Broadway’s most under-utilized treasures, and her new cabaret act “For The First Time” puts it on impressive display. She’s long been one of New York’s most beloved cabaret artists, but she’s been away for more than a year, touring North America in a first-class tour of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Love Never Dies, playing – as she puts it – “the up for anything, party-loving Madame Giry.”

The new act marks her return to NYC, and pays tribute to “firsts” throughout Mason’s career. Above all it celebrates the songwriters she feels honored to have known personally. Some of these songs were written for her, some she was the person who sang the first demos. And some she includes just because she likes them. The “first” that truly unites all the songs in the show, however, is the fact that Mason has never sung any of them on a cabaret stage before.

Mason is a songwriter’s favorite, I think, because she generally sticks closer to the melody of songs than many contemporary Broadway performers. Its not because she’s trying to create any definitive version of these songs, but because she trusts the talent of the people she’s working with, and tells exactly the story the song sets out to tell.

Highlights include the little-known Barbra Streisand ballad “If I Close My Eyes,” by Billy Goldenberg and Alan and Marilyn Bergman; and two great comic numbers: Shelly Markham’s “Things I Learned Along the Way” (with specialty lyrics skewering the current occupant of the White House) and Sheldon Harnick’s priceless operetta pastiche “The Ballad of The Shape of Things” (hilariously detailing the geometry of a woman scorned). Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Justin Vivian Bond

I’ve often referred to Judy Collins as a river of song – it just flows out of her in a gorgeous shimmering stream. Justin Vivian Bond is more like a tower of song – mysterious, imposing, beautiful, powerful and sometimes explosive. JVB’s current show “Under the Influence” is a tribute to Collins, part of Collins’ 2019 Vanguard Award and Residency at Joe’s Pub.

V considers Judy Collins to be v’s own spiritual baby sitter and music teacher. Collins significantly if indirectly educated Justin in music – all by the songs and songwriters Collins covered. So, with only a couple exceptions, Bond performs songs written by songwriters she discovered through Collins – but which Judy herself did not sing.

Bond’s taste in songs is impeccable, and v approaches them 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. V turns David Crosby’s “Almost Cut My Hair” into something more rawly emotional, and fiercely sharpens the danger in Leonard Cohen’s “First We Take Manhattan” (in probably the best version of that song I’ve ever heard). V’s climactic rendition of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” truly burns down the house.

One of the best features of all of Bond’s shows is v’s 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.com.

Review: Candis Cayne

This transgender trailblazer – she was the first transgender actress playing a regular transgender character in television history – has also long been one of the most exciting performers on the drag scene. She’s probably one of the best dancers in the lip-synching world, so it’s altogether fitting that her show “Hi, Gorgeous!” has lots of fantastic lip-synching and dancing. She hits the stage like a fireball, doing not one but two high-energy Kay Thompson barnstormers (“Think Pink” and “Clap Yo’ Hands”), kicking so high that she almost kicks herself in the face.

The great pleasure for me, though, was discovering how much she’s polished her comedy. She always incorporated humor into her lip-synch, but her timing in her between-song storytelling has become something special. The show is a bit on the long side, but Candis is so engaging that you almost don’t want it to end.

While she is at heart a dancing showgirl, Candis shows some range in her song choices, from trip hop band Portishead’s “Give Me a Reason” (which was a great comfort to her when in the midst of her transition) to Heart’s “Alone” (in which she hilariously portrays a stalker). Cayne let us know she’s been out of it for a while, with sinus infections and neck injuries, but if she hadn’t mentioned it I wouldn’t have known; she always gives it her all. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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