Review: War Paint

Some of Broadway’s most solid craftsmen worked on War Paint, and it shows. Most of the creative team previously worked on Grey Gardens, and while this isn’t up to the caliber of that show, it’s still pretty darn good. War Paint follows the decades-long rivalry of cosmetics pioneers Elizabeth Arden (Christine Ebersole) and Helena Rubinstein (Patti LuPone), who between them defined beauty standards for the first half of the 20th Century.

The score by composer Scott Frankel and lyricist Michael Korie evokes all kinds of music from the 1930s through the 1960s, with generous doses of big band-style swing. Doug Wright’s book, together with Korie’s lyrics, uses the fierce competition between these two female titans of industry to examine their differences, but more importantly to shed light on the similar challenges they both faced in the male-dominated business world.

Of course, the main draw is seeing not one but two living legends in the lead roles. The songs for Ebersole and LuPone go beyond intelligently painting the personalities of the two main characters – they are as exquisitely tailored for their talents as are their glamorous Catherine Zuber-designed outfits. This is nowhere more apparent than in their twin 11 O’Clock numbers. When Christine finishes her song “Pink” – as pure Ebersole as anything Frankel and Korie gave her in Grey Gardens – it’s hard to imagine they could top it. And they don’t, exactly – Patti’s “Forever Beautiful” is more of a lateral move, just as astonishing a number, and ideal for LuPone.

It’s very well-crafted, but not perfect: There are moments when the dramatic tension goes a bit slack, until our heroines have a new historical problem to face. It’s an inherent weakness of most historically-based theatre, and therefore one I am quick to forgive. For the most part, War Paint is smart and marvelously stylish entertainment. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

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Review: Bad with Money

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Director Ben Rimalower is making a second career of turning life’s lemons into the lemonade of serio-comic one man shows, which he performs rather than directs (Aaron Mark directs Rimalower, and you have to give Mark credit for having the requisite boldness to direct a director). First there was Patti Issues, which detailed his complex relationships with both his heroine Patti LuPone and his own father. Now, in Bad with Money, he goes into his even more complex relationship with cash and credit.

While Rimalower again brings wit and humor to the story – especially jokes and references designed to tickle theatre fanatics and insiders – the tone here is a bit more shaded and muted. He’s come to some kind of resolution in his relationship with Patti and Daddy; not so much with his addictive desire for the more, more, more than money can buy.

As such, Bad with Money isn’t as quite as breathlessly entertaining as Patti Issues. Neither does it have any particularly deep insights into the consumer culture that so grips Rimalower. This isn’t a huge problem, and in a way makes for a more truthfully ambivalent story. While his stories about going into prostitution are salacious and mostly fun, the stories about charging a boss’s account and dipping into a show’s budget are more dark and poignant.

It’s a complex story, involving lots of travel around the country, a large cast (though Rimalower only acts out a handful of the people he mentions), name changes and the difficult ebb and flow of a life in the theatre. It testifies to Rimalower’s skill as both writer and performer that very nearly every moment is crystal clear. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Patti Issues

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This one-man show is quite possibly the gayest show in town. Ben Rimalower, a director making his writing/performing debut with this piece, tells his own story of a gay man dealing with his estranged father – who is also gay – interspersed with Patti LuPone diva-worship. Gay, gay, gay!

Rimalower has deftly combined his family history, a story that anybody can relate to, with jokes and references designed to tickle theatre fanatics and insiders. I have to admit that I have come to this particular party very late – Patti Issues has been running weekly for the better part of a year at the Duplex – so it comes as no surprise that Rimalower has the pacing of this story down pat. It’s generally a breathless pace, which works great for the comedy, but Rimalower also has a director’s sense of when a moment needs to sit or simmer (the show was actually directed by Aaron Mark, to whom I have to give credit for having the requisite boldness to direct a director).

It’s a complex story, involving lots of travel around the country, a large cast (though Rimalower only acts out a handful of the people he mentions), name changes and the difficult ebb and flow of a life in the theatre. It testifies to Rimalower’s skill as both writer and perform that very nearly every moment is crystal clear.

It’s also impressive that Ben never whitewashes the setbacks that happen in every theatrical career. As a director myself, I could definitely identify with those moments when you think one thing is going to lead to another – and it doesn’t.

LuPone herself played a role in one of Rimalower’s bigger disappointments, and he renders that moment very movingly, but just as movingly narrates how he took a deep breath and turned that lemon of a moment into lemonade, saving both face and his warm relationship with the diva. Highly entertaining, sometimes moving and definitely recommended.

For tickets, click here.

Review: Forbidden Broadway Alive and Kicking

Forbidden Broadway has relentlessly and lovingly assaulted the Great White Way since 1982, when 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.

After a break between 2009 and now, Forbidden Broadway is back with a vengeance. The show, as always, is wickedly clever from early on: A quartet wanders around the theatre district, stumbling down the aisle, saying “isn’t this the theatre where Forbidden Broadway used to play?” and then break into music from Brigadoon – a distant chorus chanting “Broadway’s on the brink-of-doom, brink-of-doom.”

The revival of Evita is the first proper target, featuring Ricky Martin singing “Living Evita Loca” and Elena Rogers singing of her “total lack of star quality” to the tune of “Buenos Aires”. Next up is Nice Work if You Can Get It, with the sharpest barbs reserved for Matthew Broderick (too easy?). Alessandrini always has an obvious soft spot for certain shows, and this season it’s Newsies, which he mostly dishes for its almost-too-frenetic energy. Some of the harshest barbs go to Once, though there’s some affectionate spoofing of Steven Hoggett’s angular choreography.

Act Two has Julie Taymor and Bono engaging a superhero battle, the gals from Smash fretting over the future of their series, a sharp critique of Tracie Bennett from Judy Garland herself and a Mormon parody which is mostly about Parker and Stone counting their money. 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.

Review: Jackie Hoffman

Jackie Hoffman, one of the city’s best comic singing actresses, creates cabaret acts that tell hilarious self-deprecating tales about the sad state of her career. It really doesn’t matter if she’s actually doing fine career-wise, she always manages to find the wickedly funny downside. The first number in her act at 54 Below – which actually opened the space two days before Patti LuPone, she hastens to point out – is punningly called “Bottom” and sarcastically celebrates climbing her way up to the basement (of Studio 54).

Jackie emphasizes observational humor here more than in previous acts, but the observations she makes are many times more twisted and cutting than in traditional standup. For example, one of the funniest recurring themes in her comedy is a strong dislike of small children, which she details here in a hilarious song about the over-diagnosis of autism.

While she clearly isn’t above making jokes at her own expense, Jackie exudes more and more confidence every time I see her. She can also be surprisingly humble and warm, and she incorporates those qualities more subtly and seamlessly here than before.

Jackie Hoffman’s cabaret shows have long been one of my very favorite things in the whole New York performance world, and this one more than lives up to that standard. Acid humor that never gets all the way to self pity, a great character actress who just gets more glamorous while never losing her razor edge – long may Jackie roar!

For tickets, click here.

Review: Patti LuPone

The much-anticipated cabaret 54 Below has finally opened! And they’ve opened with a real bang, a new cabaret act from Broadway legend Patti LuPone, that (figuratively) blows the roof off this basement boîte.

Entitled “Far Away Places” after a song popularized by Bing Crosby (which Patti gives a tender reading), the act looks towards places distant in both time and space, from Old Bilbao to 1970s New York City. The various songs add up to a search for a place packed with excitement and danger, with references both explicit and subtle to the excitement and danger that happened upstairs at Studio 54 in the late 70s.

And not just upstairs; the club itself occupies the space that used to be the ramshackle “VIP” room where Halston and Bianca Jagger (allegedly) snorted cocaine. Director Scott Wittman (also 54 Below’s “fairy godfather” creative consultant) makes sure that that thrilling tension permeates the act from beginning to end.

Not that LuPone needs that much help to be thrilling. This is one of those cabaret acts that climaxes every ten minutes or so, and Patti hits all of those climaxes out of the ballpark. Cole Porter’s kooky “Come to the Supermarket in Old Peking”, Johnny Mercer’s venomous “I Wanna Be Around”, Kurt Weill’s bloodthirsty “Pirate Jenny” – these songs sung by the belt-astic LuPone are an incredibly good thing. She’s giving it everything she’s got, and that’s a helluva lot.

She’s also marvelous in the act’s quiet moments, from the abovementioned “Far Away Places” to lovely songs from her most recent star turns in Sweeny Todd and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. A singer-actress as potent as Patti LuPone performing this kind of high-octane act is undeniably the stuff of cabaret legend. I wish “broken legs” to all of the performers who are to follow her at 54 Below, because she has set the bar very high indeed.

For tickets, click here.