Review: John Pizzarelli & His Quartet

John Pizzarelli always scales the heights of cabaret’s jazzier side with astonishing musicianship and elan. This remains true whether he’s leading a big band or a small combo. His current engagement at Birdland is billed as the John Pizzarelli Quartet, but when John did a head count at the top of the show, he counted five musicians, and then decided to call it “John Pizzarelli and his Quartet.”

Pizzarelli works with a profound musical intelligence. John has a particular genius is in his chordal improvisations, finding hidden musical meanings in the most familiar of standards. Only this evening isn’t about standards in the way most of John’s shows are. Instead Pizzarelli focuses on pop / rock singer /songwriters starting with less well known songs like Van Morrison’s “Tupelo Honey” and Broce Spingteen’s “Tenth Avenue Freezeout” and moving to bigger hits like Steely Dan’s “Rikki Don’t Lose that Number” and Elton John’s “Honky Cat.”

For previous cabaret acts, John had often subtly framed songs “in the style of” a particular jazzman. Here, however, he is commits to doing these pop songs in a jazzy Pizzarelli family style, saying early on that “we’ll play lots of different songs, but they will all sound something like that – and that’s the way we like it!!!”

It’s common courtesy in a jazz setting to applaud for a bit after everbody’s solos, and indeed bandleader John frequently points at one of the instrumentalists as if to say “give it up for so-and-so”! More often in this show, though, the onslaught of flashy jazziness is so relentless that you don’t applaud for fear of missing something amazing. Neither jazz nor cabaret gets much better than this.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: The Unsinkable Molly Brown

I admit I didn’t know much at all about Molly Brown or her namesake musical, aside from her surviving the sinking of the Titanic. So I come to this “revisal” with no prior prejudices. I’m not a huge fan of composer Meredith Willson’s music in the first place; the pastiche Americana of his big hit The Music Man decidedly doesn’t move me, though it works well for telling that particular story.

The man behind this revision, bookwriter Dick Scanlan, has done his research into the historical Molly, who it turns out was socially progressive and, eventually, a philanthropist and reformer. He thought that was a much more interesting story than the original production’s simple rags-to-riches angle. And I agree. That doesn’t make it into a first-rate musical – in sharp contrast to The Music Man none of its songs are instant earworms. It does, however, make it a rewarding evening of musical theatre.

Molly Brown, both the historical person (a Denver socialite) and the musical comedy character, fairly bursts with positivity and determination, so the actress who portrays her must possess abundant energy and charisma. This production’s Molly, Beth Malone, is blessed with a bounty of both qualities. Director / choreographer Kathleen Marshall deploys a very gifted ensemble with great creativity. Neither the show or the production is a masterpiece, but both are above average fun. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Grand Horizons

The cast was what most drew me to Grand Horizons. The opportunity to see Jane Alexander, Michael Urie, Priscilla Lopez and James Cameron together in a comedy – that’s just too tempting! I knew almost nothing else about the play going in, and playwright Bess Wohl – whose work I had not previously seen – pleasantly surprised me. Her comedy comes more from character than one-liners (save the odd blue word used solely for laughs), and she gets across more about human psychology than most comedies this hilarious ever manage.

Alexander and Cameron play married couple Bill and Nancy French, who have spent fifty years as husband and wife. As the show opens, we find them at an “independent living” house, silently preparing a meal with the kind of synchronization that only comes after many years of living together. Once they sit down to eat, Nancy announces that she wants a divorce.

Among other things, Grand Horizons examines the effect her decision has on their two grown children Brian (Urie) and Ben (Ben McKenzie). Brian is gay, has a tight relationship with Nancy and simply cannot understand why she would want to do this. Bill is taciturn as many men of his generation are, a quality he has passed on to his married son Ben – the chaotic consequences of not communicating is a major theme of the play.

I’ve never seen Jane Alexander do comedy, but I am not shocked that she plays it as superbly as anything she puts her mind to. We know Urie to be an excellent comic actor, and he’s as funny as ever. Cameron and McKenzie are given less to work with, but their silences speak volumes. Priscilla Lopez plays Carla, a contemporary of Bill and Nancy, and provides a marvelously colorful foil to Alexander’s patrician take on Nancy. Ashley Park delights as Ben’s pregnant wife, Jess. Maulik Pancholy is a sexy, riotous hot mess as Tommy, a horny and very frolicsome trick that Brian bring back to his parents residence late at night. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Lionel Hampton Big Band Featuring Jason Marsalis

Vibraphonist Lionel Hampton’s big band made history with the song “Flyin’ Home” in 1942, all but inventing “jump blues,” the immediate precursor to rhythm & blues. The band took the bluesier side of swing – think Count Basie – and added a heavier, insistent beat, as well as honking, even screaming solos from all the brass, especially the tenor saxophone.

Hampton passed in 2002. The Lionel Hampton Estate, eager to have the Big Band reactivated, granted permission in March of 2015 to launch the Lionel Hampton Big Band. This new edition is entirely composed of people who had played with “Hamp.” The Estate also handpicked Jason Marsalis, Wynton Marsalis’s youngest brother (16 years younger), to occupy Hampton’s own position behind the vibes. Like the others, Marsalis had played with Hampton – in his case as a drummer for two gigs in New Orleans.

I’m thrilled to declare that this band jumps and honks just as hard as ever, tearing into “Flyin’ Home” and “Hey Bop a Re Bop” with intense energy. They also play standards with equal parts verve and virtuosity, tunes like “Night In Tunisia” (using Dizzy Gillespie’s own arrangement, no less) and “Cherokee.”

In addition to all this great music, the band also relate with relish stories about the very quirky and fun-loving Mr. Hampton, ranging from off-color jokes that he liked to tell during his performances to fond reminiscences about both learning from and teaching their every-curious leader. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: The Hot Sardines

This band is on a mission to put the “hot” back into “hot jazz.” Think Louis Armstrong’s legendary Hot Five and Hot Seven combos, with a pinch of the gutbucket grit of swing revivalists like Big Bad Voodoo Daddy. Their repertoire tends to pre-1930 songs, popularized by the likes of Sophie Tucker and Mamie Smith. Lead singer Elizabeth Bougerol is openly committed to “infotainment,” detailing the difficulty Tucker faced early in her career, and her later support for black artists like Smith.

Bougerol and pianist / bandleader Evan Palazzo met in 2007 after they both answered a Craigslist ad about a jazz jam session above a Manhattan noodle shop. Palazzo passed her litmus test – he knew Fats Waller’s “Your Feet’s Too Big” and could play it off the top of his head. Since then they have been increasing the size of the ensemble; it’s presently a hot eight-piece. Perhaps most inventively, the band includes a tap dancer, A. C. Lincoln, who intentionally plays the part of a percussionist more than a dancer. He favors the earlier, heavier style of tap called “hoofing,” which fits in perfectly with the Sardines’ highly rhythmic, hard-swinging sound.

Bougerol was born in France and injects the occasional French-language vocal into the mix, regardless of whether the song was originally in French or not. This sort of playful irreverence forms a central part of the band’s aesthetic, showing up in Palazzo’s frisky fugue-like intro to “Comes Love,” and in Bougerol’s discoursing on the “single-entendre” metaphors that blues singers used for dirty or “hokum” songs. They then launch into the hokum classic “Jelly Roll” with bouncy abandon. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Beth Leavel

Despite this cabaret act being named “It’s Not About Me,” throughout Beth Leavel greatly relishes telling stories of her own long Broadway career. She barrels through it all with the ferocious commitment and incisive comic energy for which she’s most known.

She’s currently in between her much-loved turn playing Broadway diva Dee Dee in The Prom and creating the role of Miranda Priestly in Elton John’s musical version of The Devil Wears Prada. She opens with the song from The Prom which gives the act its title, blowing the roof off of Feinstein’s / 54 Below from the very beginning. Then she marries belting with a warm sense of welcoming in her take on Cole Porter’s “I Get A Kick Out Of You” the “you” in this case very clearly being the audience. In a typical pairing of sincerity with wisecracking, she notes she wants the show to feel like we’re all sitting around drinking in her living room – and then says that since everybody’s drinking we’re halfway there.

There are only about nine songs in the show, much of which she gives over to backstage stories told with much hilarity. Not only Broadway stories, but stories from regional theatre, where she has done such great roles as Dolly Levi and Mama Rose. And does she sing songs from those great roles? Oh yes she does, oh boy does she ever! I’m not going to tell you which ones; I’d rather you go “oh no she isn’t!” just like I did. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Clint Holmes and Billy Stritch with The Christian Tamburr Trio

Cabaret legend Billy Stritch has teamed with jazz singer Clint Holmes for an act at the Birdland Theater entitled “Straighten Up and Fly Right” which pays tribute to the great Nat “King” Cole. Given this combination of performers, it’s not a surprise that the show is jazzy as heck. Pianist / vibraphonist Christian Tamburr and his trio up the jazz ante further still, at one point leaving Tamburr chuckling “so many notes, so many notes!”

Every arrangement, most of them by Tamburr, are wonderfully complex but leave a lot of room for spontaneity from any or all parties. They open with a swinging version of “Straighten Up and Fly Right” which relies heavily on the marvelous way Stritch and Holmes’s voices blend, especially when they harmonize. They harmonize a lot over the course of the evening, sometimes on an equal footing, sometimes as backup for each other, always to good effect.

Clint Holmes has established himself as a cabaret artist of great intelligence. He has been a Las Vegas performer for decades, but exhibits none of the negative qualities you associate with Vegas. He only has the good Vegas stuff: He is nothing if not sincere and authentic, and possesses a magnetic stage presence and a practiced but subtle showmanship that underlines what’s important in the show without overselling it. Stritch has a lot to do in the show, but Holmes has the lion’s share of solo singing, a wonderful thing, especially in those moments when he has his sensitive way with Cole’s more famous ballads.

Stritch’s part of the evening is more of the infotainment variety of cabaret, which I very much mean as a compliment. He unearths some of Cole’s more obscure numbers, and gives them nuanced, memorable readings. Together, they make very high end cabaret. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: The Inheritance

This is an exciting, thought-provoking show. I’ve seen it compared to Angels in America – they both involve gay American history and are split into two long parts – but they are quite different animals. Angels’ author Tony Kushner, tends toward broad scope and metaphysical philosophizing. The Inheritance‘s playwright Matthew Lopez, however, focuses on more human-scale stories. Yes, there is much in the play that underlines how much “the personal is the political,” but running time to one side, The Inheritance concentrates on relatively ordinary people navigating complicated lives.

Does it, then, justify that running time? Thankfully, yes. Lopez has a real gift for crafting believable and engaging characters. Because of this, over its many hours The Inheritance never lapses into tedium, no small accomplishment. Lopez loosely adapts E. M. Forster’s novel Howards End to 21st Century gay New York, following the interlinking lives of three generations of gay men searching for love and a place to call home. Like Forster’s book, the play interrogates social conventions and codes of conduct in relationships, but since the milieu is very different, Lopez reaches intriguingly different conclusions.

Lopez centers his story on Eric Glass (Kyle Soller, in a marvelously nuanced, even elegant portrayal), a a compassionate but conflicted native New Yorker. Also, Forster is not only the source of the plot’s outline, he also appears as a character, played with delicate dignity by Paul Hilton. He advises and inspires a young gay writer played by the remarkably talented (and toned!) Samuel H. Levine. Not for the only time, Lopez teases you with suspense – which of the characters that Levine plays is telling this story? Director Stephen Daldrey gives the narrative lots of air and makes weaving this complex tapestry seem breathtakingly easy. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Liz Callaway & Ann Hampton Calllway

If your heartstrings aren’t thrumming a few numbers into into this sister act, then I’m sorry to say you simply don’t have a heart. “Broadway the Calla-way” brings some of Broadway’s most emotional songs together with two of the greatest voices to thread the boards. Liz and Ann Hampton Callaway gloriously display the power of siblings harmonizing. They seemingly possess quite different voices. Liz has a muscular yet elegant Broadway soprano, and Ann has a wide-ranging jazz monster of a voice.

And yet, when they harmonize, the blending is utterly seamless, sometimes to the point of not being able to determine who’s singing what vocal line. You can hear this best in a medley of “The Schuyler Sisters” and “Lullaby of Broadway” early in the show. They also have great comic chemistry, doing a barbed version of Gypsy’s “Some People” that’s as hilarious as it is mellifluous – with props no less.

Both sisters soar solo for stretches of the show. Ann shines with an emotional and detailed reading of the tender “If He Walked Into My Life” from Mame, and Liz does a version of “The Music and the Mirror ” from A Chorus Line that can hold its head up with any other version of the song, perhaps not surprising since it is most often sung by dancer-actors rather than a nonpareil singer-actor like Liz.

It’s also clear that the sisters have a lot of gay men in their circle! When word got out that they were putting a show of Broadway song together, oh boy did they get phone calls, e-mails and texts offering suggestions of duets they absolutely must do together. They include a bunch of these suggestions in what they call they “The Huge Medley.” I won’t give away the exact songs – they’re just too delicious – but let’s just say they involve major gay icons belting their brains out. So gay and so fun! Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: A Christmas Carol

This is quite possibly the best stage adaptation of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol I’ve seen. And there have been a lot of them: This holiday chestnut is an audience favorite, and – even better for theatres’ budgets – in the public domain. For this Broadway version, which originated at London’s Old Vic, adaptor Jack Thorne brilliantly interweaves sharp social commentary (never far away in Dickens) with ineffable warmth and joy.

Director Matthew Warchus greatly magnifies that warmth even before the show starts, with the cast tossing and passing clementines and cookies to the audience. They even chat congenially with the audience – a friend of mine had some lovely face time with Andrea Martin (who plays the Spirit of Christmas Past). The smell of people peeling clementines hugely helps to conjure the Christmas spirit. Get there early!

Our Scrooge is Cambpell Scott (whose father George C. Scott played the role in a terrific 1984 TV movie adaptation). He brings great nuance to the role, with flashes of vulnerability even early on, which clearly unnerve Scrooge, but also foreshadow his eventual change of heart. And when that change of heart comes, Warchus turns the warmth and joy all the way up with another bit of audience interaction which spectacularly embraces the entire theatre.

Rob Howell’s set envelops the theatre as well, with Victorian lanterns in huge numbers hanging over the stage and audience. Thorne treats the story as an ensemble piece, and when that ensemble includes performers as fine as Martin and LaChanze, you know you’re in good hands. In another super-smart twist, Tiny Tim is played by a differently-abled boy (Jai Ram Srinivasan at the performance I attended) which makes the scenes with him – which can be mawkishly sentimental – much more realistic and all the more genuinely touching for it. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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