Review: I’ll Eat You Last

One of Broadway's biggest stars is back — as one of Hollywood's biggest star-makers! BETTE MIDLER returns to Broadway as the legendary Hollywood superagent in I'LL EAT YOU LAST: A Chat with Sue Mengers.  For over 20 years, Sue's clients were the talk o

What a great way to end the Broadway season! I’m definitely a fan of Bette Midler, and, somewhat more randomly, a fan of the real-life woman she’s portraying, Sue Mengers, the first female Hollywood superagent, who dominated the town during the wild and woolly 1970s. So I had a great time simply being in the presence of Midler and Mengers, as squired onto the Broadway stage by a writer and director who are among the best and brightest Broadway has to offer (John Logan and Joe Mantello, respectively).

As is related early on in I’ll Eat You Last, Mengers was a childhood refugee from Hitler’s Germany, and worked her way up the agenting business through a little bit of charm and a ton of chutzpah. Midler and Logan have very successfully channeled both those qualities, resulting in one of the most generously entertaining one-person shows in some time.

Midler, it bears saying, has never been only a pop singer and screen actor. She began her career in 1960s New York in the plays of off-off-Broadway legend Tom Eyen (who would go on to co-conceive and write the book for Dreamgirls), went on to replace one of the daughters in the original Broadway run of Fiddler on the Roof, and headline highly theatrical stage shows from gay bathhouses to cabarets to arenas. So it’s no surprise that she easily holds the stage with chops and charisma to spare.

That’s even though she remains seated throughout the great majority of the show, as many have noted. Although Mengers could work a phone with the vigor of a prizefighter, she was notoriously physically inactive, so I don’t know why some people expect a realistic representation of her to suddenly start walking all over the place. Grow up, kiddies.

Mengers was one of Hollywood’s favorite party hostesses, a smart and funny woman who made those around her feel their smartest and funniest. In the production’s most effective bit of alchemy, Midler has brought that feeling into the Booth Theatre, and it’s a truly wonderful feeling in which to bathe.

For tickets, click here.

Review: Motown

Motown: The Musical Lunt-Fontanne Theatre

I’ll admit I’m biased – I may not be a boomer who lived through the glory days of Motown, but I have loved Detroit soul for as long as I can remember. So, even though Motown the Musical isn’t as well constructed as, say, Dreamgirls (ahem), I still had a royally good time.

We see the story of the legendary record label’s rise from the point of view of its founder Berry Gordy. It’s more than a little telling that Berry Gordy, in addition to being the musical’s central character, is also the bookwriter and producer.

So, is the story the show tells self-serving as a result? Very much so! But I was surprised and pleased to find that matters much less than I thought it would. I think this is in large part due to the man playing Gordy, Brandon Victor Dixon – he plays the role with such commitment and conviction that even if we find what Gordy (both character and bookwriter) says is occasionally perhaps a half-truth, we never doubt for a second that Gordy the character believes it totally, and means every word he says. That helps in a big way.

You would hope that something called Motown the Musical would do right by the music itself, and, hip hooray, it does! The label produced such a huge amount of stunningly good music that some of it inevitably gets compressed into medleys and the like, but thankfully never in a way that feels rushed. Ethan Popp and Bryan Crook’s arrangements are suitably theatrical while always remaining faithful to what made the originals so great.

Often, when I mention the sound design of a musical it’s to complain about it, but in the case of Motown the Musical it’s quite the opposite. Ladies and gentlemen, take note – this is how you amplify music for the theatre! Sound designer Peter Hylenski makes sure the bass booms when it should boom and the cymbal hisses when it should hiss, all the while never getting in the way of every last lyric being crystal clear. This is a new gold standard, and Hylenski deserves a Tony for it.

Director Charles Randolph-Wright’s direction is spot-on, especially when it comes to setting a clear emotional context for the “in-performance” songs. Choreography by Patricia Wilcox and Warren Adams is even more on target, to the point of being positively eerie – yes indeed, Jackie Wilson moved exactly like that, and so did Mary Wells and Diana Ross and so on.

But, as with Kinky Boots, what I say hardly matters, this is an honest-to-goodness critic-proof hit. For what it’s worth I found it often thrilling, and came very close to loving it.

For tickets, click here.

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

I am directing “Hard Sparkle: The Short Plays of J. Stephen Brantley”

This October I will direct Hard Sparkle: The Short Plays of J. Stephen Brantley. Performances are for two nights only October 29 & 30 at The Duplex.

I have collaborated with J. Stephen more frequently than any other playwright. He is the most singular American playwrighting talent I’ve come across in any context, one of the most distinctive voices in the country. I am honored – astonished almost – to have worked with him as often as I have. He has rich reserves of humanity and compassion, and wry humor. His writing – which vibrates with rock and roll energy and yet possesses sweetness and aching psychological subtlety – is highly stimulating and challenging. He is very inspired by the voice of individual actors, and rehearsal (which he loves) especially fires his deeply theatrical imagination. I am thrilled to be pulling together some of his best work for this special, two-night-only showcase.

The plays are:

Nevertheless – After nearly stabbing her husband at the breakfast table, Iris walked out of her Park Avenue apartment bound for Nashville, Tennessee. Returning to the dingy barroom where she misspent her twenties, she hopes to recapture some of the excitement of a bygone era. What Iris finds is Trevor, a washed-up-before-he-started country crooner, the hard truth, and a new start.

Hard Sparkle – Actress Anne Eaton-Hart has taken to her bed. Swindled of millions and having lost an Emmy to Susan Lucci, Anne is convinced she’s dying. While her devoted accountant Eddie does his level best to lift her spirits, nothing less than divine intervention will resurrect the self-obsessed star.

Break – During the late hours of a summer night on the coast of Eastern Long Island, a displaced Englishman and the drug addict who breaks into his home confront their differences and, more importantly, discover their secret similarities.

Hard Sparkle runs October 29 & 30 at 7pm. The Duplex is located at 61 Christopher Street at Seventh Avenue. Tickets are $12 plus a 2 drink minimum. To purchase tickets, call (212) 255-5438 or visit www.theduplex.com.

For more about my  directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Review: Alec Mapa

I’m more than a little partial to comedy that tells a story; Lily Tomlin’s Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe and Jonny McGovern’s Dirty Stuff are two of my favorite performance pieces ever. I also really like evenings that combine stand-up with gay-themed narrative, like most of Judy Gold’s recent work. So I’m not in the least surprised that I positively love Baby Daddy, the act that “America’s Gaysian Sweetheart” Alec Mapa is currently doing at the Laurie Beechman Theater.

The show is mostly about what has happened since Mapa and his husband, documentary film producer Jamison Hebert, adopted a five-year old black boy from Compton. Mapa has structured the act very intelligently, starting with up-to-the-minute topical material (Ann Romney’s “you people” gaffe was one of the first subjects the night I went), passing gradually to stuff about the funnier side of parenting, and zeroing in the more touching side of parenthood only as the show approaches its end.

Alec includes every side of his life in this act: lost luggage on the way to gay cruises, mid-life crisis circuit partying, and musing on the possibility that Christina Crawford was a thankless brat. Mapa is my favorite kind of comedy writer, one who realizes than scatological humor and intellectual wit aren’t mutually exclusive, as a matter of fact they can happen in the same line.

Mapa name-checks musical theatre in general – and Dorothy Loudon in particular – as being the well-spring of his desire to perform. Mapa self-deprecatingly says that this show isn’t going to reach Loudon-worthy heights (though for my money it gets much closer to that kind of incandescence than stand-up usually does). Mapa spins gay parenthood into show biz gold – ya better not miss it, kid!

For tickets, click here.