Review: The Great Society

Robert Schenkkan compellingly told how Lyndon B. Johnson won the 1964 election in his play All The Way. After Johnson won, he passionately articulated a bold plan to build a just society for all Americans, an agenda of several acts he collectively called “The Great Society.” In the play The Great Society, Schenkkan’s sequel to All the Way, we explore how LBJ went from his landslide victory to his exhausted decision not to run for re-election just three years later.

“The Great Society” was one of the most ambitious reform programs in American history, but would eventually be derailed by ruthless Republican stonewalling, as LBJ himself sank into the quagmire that was the Vietnam War. The Great Society‘s inventive creative team brings this very troubled period of history to vibrant life. Director Bill Rauch deftly arranges the frequent shifts in locale and mood with deceptive simplicity. It also helps that playwright Robert Schenkkan successfully conveys a strong sense of time, place and stakes in every line of his jazzy dialogue.

Playing LBJ, Brian Cox brilliantly captures that president’s tireless energy and ruthless political gamesmanship being worn away by circumstances out of his control. The Great Society has the heft of a Shakespeare history play, which is unsurprising given the play’s origin as a commission from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Cox’s almost tragic performance as Johnson is the real heart of this production, a moving portrait of a man’s ambitions and dreams rapidly evaporating. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

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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.

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: 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.

Review: Unitard

Hard-hitting, R-rated, queer as fuck sketch comedy is what this trio does. I mean their new show is called Badassy which kind of tells you what you need to know. They all have other careers, Mike Albo as a writer, Nora Burns and David Ilku as actors, but there’s a special, danagerous alchemy that happens when they come together as Unitard.

The opening salvos in Badassy are a “hanky code” parody whose targets range far and wide, followed by a sketch about a pair of New Yorkers (Burns and Albo) complaining about the Donald’s vile capers, while their waiter (Ilku) is playing a darker game only revealed at the end. Later in the show, all three participate in a “name that school shooting” sketch that breaks down in a very meta way, as the trio speaks in their voices about the limits of comedy.

While group sketches make up most of the show, some of the best moments are solo moments. Burns is hilarious as a particularly preening version of Ann Coulter. When Albo faces some credit card problems, he is subjected to an increasingly embarrasing accounting of his spending (in a voice-over by Ilku) in which the card company rep has insight into his most mortifying motives.

I think my favorite though is when Ilku, as an older but still hopping club kid, let’s you know in ballroom lingo all the things he hates and loves. He hates being co-opted by Pose, for one. But then, in the bit’s climax, he joyously namechecks all the greats of New York drag, performance art and music who are still at it. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Ink

Playwright James Graham has crafted a Faustian story based solidly on real events. It’s 1969 London, and a devilish thirtysomething Rupert Murdoch (Bertie Carvel) is expanding beyond his Australian newspaper empire by acquiring English daily The Sun. He enlists Larry Lamb (Jonny Lee Miller) – at the time editor for a Manchester paper – to take over the underperforming Sun and turn it around by any means necessary.

Lamb is the biggest, showiest role in Ink and Miller goes for it with gusto. At the performance I attended, a printer’s mallet fell off the stage and without missing a beat Miller lept off the stage to retrieve it. He totally blazes through the role. Murdoch is a smaller but pivotal role, and Carvel gives him a oddly powerful, evil slouch.

But Ink is much more than a two-hander, and director Rupert Goold weaves a dazzlingly theatrical tapestry from Graham’s play. Mod dancing punctuates the scenes, and projections whizz and pulsate. It’s this kind of surreal sizzle that makes Goold one of my favorite directors, and he’s at the top of his game here.

Graham and Goold cool things off in Act II to take time examining two key moments in the Sun‘s history: the kidnapping of Murdoch family friend Muriel McKay, and Lamb convincing Stephanie Rahn (Rana Roy) to “take it all off” for the first installment of the notorious “Page 3” pictures. When we first meet Rahn in Act I, much is made of her changing her name from Kahn to Rahn for her modelling work – maybe this had a foreshadowing effect for British audiences, but it falls flat here. It is one of very few hiccups in this otherwise riveting show. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Tootsie

Composer David Yazbek is probably the guy you want to have on the job when you’re adapting a successful film comedy to a successful musical comedy. He’s had several triumphs in that area, most notably The Full Monty and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. It’s a very happy thing, then, that his score for Tootsie is every bit as good as those. It spends most of its time in his Sondheim-meets-Steely-Dan comfort zone, which is more than fine by me.

Patter songs, which Yazbek excels at, are more abundant here than in his other shows. Certainly every song gets the feel of the character – and the moment they’re in – exactly right. For my money, he’s one of the very best American musical composers of his generation, certainly the most underrated.

The tricky part: the story of a man taking a woman’s job away is a hard sell these days, for good reason. The task of making that work falls largely to bookwriter Robert Horn, and even if he doesn’t always suceed, boy does he make a valiant effort. On the other hand, his book is never less than meticulously crafted and wickedly, wittily funny. It’s every bit they equal of the source material, which was by comic genius Larry Gelbart, no small feat.

Horn’s hilarious book – which transfers the milieu from soap opera to Broadway musical – is delivered by some of the finest comic actors around. Julie Halston is a standout as hard-nosed producer with a heart of gold Rita Mitchell. Of course the key to making any version of Tootsie work is casting the right actor as Michael Dorsey / Dorothy Michaels, and Satino Fontana is ideal. His flexible tenor makes us believe that everybody else believes Dorothy is not only a woman, but an experienced musical theatre character actress. Plus, Fontana’s energy is unflagging in what must be a truly exhausting role. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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