Review: Ann Hampton Callaway

Ann Hampton Callaway wrote and sang the theme from the TV hit The Nanny, or as she likes to call it “my accountant’s favorite song.” As you might guess from that swinging tune, she definitely thrives on the jazzier end of cabaret, and that inspired her to craft a loving musical history of the hope and joy jazz brings to the movies. To wit, her latest club act “Jazz Goes to the Movies.” (Ann is also an out lesbian, who gave me the honor of being the journalist to do her “coming out interview” – you can read that here).

Ella Fitzgerald greatly influenced Callaway, so it’s completely natural this show should find Ann mixing Ella’s sumptuous syncopation and scat with Fred Astaire’s crooning (more on that in a moment). On songs Ann herself sang for the movies – “Come Rain or Come Shine” from The Good Shepherd and “The Nearness of You” from Last Holiday – the jazz quotient is through the roof.

As to Astaire, Ann remarks that while some people are “Deadheads” she’s a “Fredhead,” and she interprets several songs that Astaire originated in movies. “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” – an Irving Berlin number Fred sang to Ginger Rogers in Follow the Fleet – receives a very emotional reading. She applies the first line of the song to the present day: “There may be trouble ahead.” But in that connection she takes very seriously the remedy offered by the next couple of lines: “But while there’s music and moonlight and love and romance / Let’s face the music and dance.”

Even more emotional is her Pride-themed take on Rodgers and Hart’s “My Funny Valentine.” Callaway relates that when lyricist Lorenz Hart received this gorgeous and melancholy melody from Rodgers, the closeted Hart looked in the mirror and wrote the words he longed to have some man sing to him. The song moved Callaway (and us) so much, that she had to sing The Nanny theme to lift her own spirits.

She even extends her “movie” theme to the recent remake of A Star is Born. No, she doesn’t sing that song, but she does her own take on “La Vie en Rose” (which Gaga sings in a bar in the film), including Callaway’s own intro – a brief love letter to the city of Paris. Callaway, as always, achieves a kind of jazz-pop perfection, shimmery and rich. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

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Review: Galas

Diva! Here we have one diva (in the most positive goddess-like sense) playing another diva (in both senses). Well, it’s a little more complicated than that. We have a man with goddess-like acting gifts (Everett Quinton) portraying a fictionalized version of opera diva Maria Callas. Drag doesn’t get much higher than this.

The play is Galas by the late great Charles Ludlam, Everett’s partner in art and life – and the greatest playwright to come out of the Ridiculous Theatre movement. Now Quinton is directing and playing the lead role in Galas in its first New York revival since its original 1983 run.

As director, Everett fills the play with truly “Ridiculous”detail, as well as lots of warmth and romanticism, appropriate to the story of a diva with such great skills at singing Romantic Era opera. As an actor, Galas confirms Quinton as the greatest living actor in the Ridiculous tradition – and among the best in any tradition, as far as I’m concerned.

He attacks the role with great precision, and the almost supernatural conviction that is the hallmark of great Ridiculous acting, expertly playing the deep seriousness of this tragicomedy as well (its actual subtitle is “A Modern Tragedy” but it’s far too funny for that). Everett is the ideal interpreter of Ludlam’s plays, knowing when to be loyal to what Charles had already done, and when to push things even further into preposterousness to keep it fresh.

This is above all a star vehicle for the actor playing Galas, but there is one other fantastic performance in this production, as well as someone who shines in a smaller part. On the fantastic side is Jenne Vath as the diva’s mad maid Bruna. The role is nutty as hell and Vath plays it to the hilt. And, as Galas’s romantic rival Athina, Maude Lardener Burke leads you to believe – in a very few lines – that she is every bit as formidable as the great singer.

The production’s venue is the acoustically unforgiving main hall of St. John’s Lutheran Church, and its biggest flaw is lack of vocal projection equal to the echo-y space. That is for sure, a mere quibble when you are seeing such a great artist as Quinton vigorously at work. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: BenDeLaCreme

So I thought a show about matrimony would be less searching than a show about astrophysics or a 14th Century Italian epic poem, BenDeLaCreme’s previous two topics.

I was wrong.

Ready to Be Committed goes right to the tough questions: what is love anyway? Should people even get married, since matrimony’s roots are in a system which treated women as property? The first question is addressed in a rap entitled “Lovesickness” which traces theories about the nature and source of love from the ancients to modern neurochemistry. The second question gets a hard going-over in a parody of “Single Ladies” called “Medieval Ladies.”

This show is lighthearted in the sense that the queen otherwise known as Ben Putnam is back to playing a bit of a ditz this time around. It’s her wedding day, but she forgot to get a groom – so she goes on Grindr to find one. Which leads to all kinds of hilarious misunderstandings. I can give this much away because BenDaLa’s brilliance really shows up in the details.

BenDeLaCreme takes the best of clowning, drag, circus, burlesque and puppetry and whips them into something new, fascinating and intensely intelligent. Not only that, she uses these popular forms to probe the very biggest questions, switching from deep existential angst to spiritual lightness in the space of a minute – in between double entendres about sex and booze.

She is not only all about fantastic and ridiculous artifice, but also ultimately about what that artifice can communicate and express about deeper things, like ethics and how to take care of ourselves and each other. She delivers a show that’s equal parts cheeky fun and insightful art, no small feat. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Jinkx Moonsoon & Major Scales

Picture a maniac Jinkx Monsoon being psychoanalyzed by her musical counterpart, pianist / composer / raconteur Major Scales. This show features almost entirely original music, all from her album The Ginger Snapped, also the title of the show. This is a return engagement, and the show has definitely grown into something more hilarious and special.

Their first New York cabaret show, The Vaudevillians, was such a runaway success that it’s become a running joke in their shows that “I think the audience was expecting The Vaudevillians. Oops!” While good for a laugh, that self-deprecation isn’t necessary, since this show is equally accomplished – certainly it digs into deeper themes.

Monsoon and Scales are more entertaining and smart than the vast majority of the competition. The material from the album is heavily influenced by New Wave (heck the B-52’s Fred Schneider even guests on one track). They’ve traded the glam medical smocks they wore during the show’s first run (pictured above) for simpler, chicer outfits. Simple yet fabulous.

The Ginger Snapped is light years more thoughtful, tuneful and original than your typical cabaret drag act, while rarely being less than acidly hilarious. Very funny but with genuine rage and love just below the surface. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Liz Callaway

This award-winning singer / actress set out to do a nondescript cabaret show with what she thought was the rather generic name of “Sets in the City.” But as so often happens when putting a good cabaret act together, a show name or a group of songs reveal more than you intended. Liz Callaway has ended up with a show that deals with some pretty serious themes of nostalgia, New York, and the changing landscape of urbanism – with some grand belting, emoting and storytelling in the process. Not very nondescript, is it?

Callaway has a muscular Broadway soprano, and she can deliver both hair-raising high notes and detailed, fully-acted song interpretation. She opens with Cole Porter’s heartfelt “I Happen to Like New York” – or at least she reveals how truly heartfelt the song is. Then she launches into Ed Kleban’s masterfully written “Better” and Bacharach and David’s “Always Something There to Remind Me” – for no better reason than they’re great songs, she sounds great singing them, and music director Alex Rybeck has devised glittering, inventive arrangements for them.

Touching on the theme of nostalgia, she sings Irving Berlin’s “I Got the Sun in the Morning,” cuz she sang it in a review at Rainbow and Stars. More personally she sings Ahrens and Flaherty’s “Something Beautiful” because she discovered that the song is about a photograph Lynn Ahrens’s father had taken of a tree – a tree that happened to be in Central Park (back, inevitably, to “the city”). There’s more to the song, and the way Liz sings it, but I can’t give everything away.

But the definitive tear-jerker comes – as it often does with Liz – totally from left field. Callaway embraces the lost masterpiece that is Chuck Mangione’s “Land of Make Believe” with an ebullience, joy and hope that cut to the heart of what makes the song great. I can’t convey to you the way this made the hair stand up on the back of my neck and brought a tear to my I eye; I mean “Oh my god you guys Liz Callaway is totally singing ‘Land of Make Believe’!!!” really isn’t saying it right. It might give a clue to this magic, that this song was an anthem at 1970s multicultural queer club The Loft, one of the touchstones of that ineffable, indescribable something that has made this city special from time immemorial. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Interview: Everett Quinton in “Galas”

I have had the great pleasure of directing Ridiculous Theatre legend Everett Quinton twice, in the New York premiere of Tennessee Williams’s Now the Cats with Jewelled Claws and a staged reading of Charles Ludlam’s Medea. The Williams play got some terrific reviews, which you can read here (and you can see some lovely photos here). Charles Ludlam was perhaps the greatest playwright to come out of the Ridiculous Theatre movement, and Everett was his partner in art and life.

Now Quinton is directing and playing the lead role in Ludlam’s fictionalized tribute to opera diva Maria Callas, entitled Galas, in its first New York revival since its original 1983 run. I sat down with this humble genius to talk about it.

So how did this revival of Galas come about?

It was suggested last fall. I’ve been working with the Yorick Theatre Company. Chris Johnson, who is the Artistic Director of Yorick, talked with Pastor Mark Erson who is the Artistic Director of Theatre at St. John’s Church on Christoper Street, where Yorick performs. They came up with the idea of doing Galas – because of the Stonewall 50th anniversary and World Pride – suggested it to me and I said “good.”

Is this a role you’ve wanted to do?

Yeah, people over the years have suggested it, but there was never the opportunity to do it. Now that it has, I’d be a fool to say no; its a terrific part. I’m having fun with it. When you’re directing it and you’re in it, like I am with this, there are so many pots on the stove. But now me and the other actors are starting to cook! [Laughs] I love the actors in this group, they’re a wonderful group and we’re finding our way.

There’s humor in everything Charles wrote, but am I right in thinking this is one of his more serious plays?

It does play as more serious, yes. That’s the beauty of it. It starts out one way and it flips midway, which is not accidental on Charles’s part. You carefully study the script and he sets up the flip early on. I’m really enjoying exploring that. When I was in the original production, for which I also did the costumes, I didn’t worry about the big picture. So that’s a joy of this production for me. It’s around this time that Charles blossoms from a good writer into a really fabulous one, so skillful. We all improve as we go along, right?

Funny thing is, this big play was originally supposed to be a two-hander for me and him, about an actress and her maid. I don’t know what was going on at the time that provoked him to turn it into a life of Maria Callas. Because usually that’s the way he worked, something in the air tweaked him.

I know this is fictionalized – she’s named Galas not Callas – but I recall that it actually tracks pretty closely with Callas’s life.

Pretty closely, except there’s a couple of things I couldn’t make sense of and then I realized that’s the fictionalized part. I thought I knew from the original production that the last act takes place in Paris – and it doesn’t [Laughs], that’s the fictional part. But it is a close tribute, and I’m using her speaking voice. All of the scene changes are her singing.

I love that Callas demanded a dollar more than all her contemporaries – she would say “so-and-so’s getting so much so I want a dollar more.” I love her arrogance, and when you realize who those contemporaries were, you realize oh my God she had cojones, she had ovaries. [Laughs]

Are you an opera fan yourself?

A fan, yeah. I have no intellectual conceptions about it, I just love it. Tony Randall called it the greatest of art forms, which is arguable. Those singers just do so many wonderful things. I mean I walk around the apartment pretending to be one. When I got the costumes for the original production, I had a decent budget and I found this beautiful green dress for Charles to wear as Galas. But when I first got it home, I wore it and went around the apartment pretending I was soprano Shirley Verrett [Laughs]. So I’m a lip synch opera queen. Charles liked opera but there were bigger opera queens in the company and our chatter could annoy him. I called it “gay baseball,” we talk about opera and musicals like straight guys talk about baseball.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Mark Nadler

Cabaret star Mark Nadler is one of the greatest showmen of our time, leaping from floor to piano bench, keeping steady eye contact with the audience – all the while playing a complex passage on the piano without even glancing at the keys. In “The Old Razzle Dazzle,” his new show about lies, lying and liars, Nadler plays and sings with his usual virtuosic abandon, in a show constructed with his usual passionate intelligence. And as usual, the show is stunning, perhaps among his best.

Also, a Mark Nadler show is always working on at least 3 or 4 tracks of thought. With the subject being lies, it’s pretty obvious that the current occupant of the White House is the ultimate target. But Nadler takes his time getting there. He starts out with the white lie, enumerated in Dave Frishberg’s “Blizzard of Lies” – which already starts getting political with lines like “I didn’t inhale” and “I am not a crook.”

Then he launches into the lies we say to children with a tellingly long medley – he starts with “Wishing on a Star” and ends with the thought of “if all else fails scare the bejesus out of them” before launching into “Oogie Boogie’s Song” from The Nightmare Before Christmas.

Early in the show, Nadler says “everything in this show is a lie” but it pretty quickly becomes clear that itself is a lie. Oh there are plenty of outrageous lies in the show, but the most important parts are true, and many of the worst lies are delivered with heavy sarcasm. The line, however, does have the positive effect of encouraging a skeptical frame of mind.

I don’t want to give everything away, but I’ll say that some of the most affecting moments deal with romantic self-deception – especially “The Lies of Handsome Men” and the Alan Menken rarity “Lie to Me” – and when Nadler does finally get to the egregious lies of the current administration, he does it with a tap dance. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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