Review: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Jackie Hoffman gets entrance applause!! That just tells me that some things are right in the world, even with all the daily head-slapping news. Of course, this is due mostly to her big role in TV’s Feud as Joan Crawford maid Mamacita, but she is just as much fun as the permanently sozzled Mrs. Teevee in Charlie in the Chocolate Factory.

This musical is based on the children’s book of the same name, as was the 1971 film Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. While the show uses a couple of beloved songs by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse from the film, the majority of the colorful and exuberant score is by Hairspray scribes Marc Shaiman (composer) and Scott Wittman (lyricist). The story (if somehow you’re not aware) follows chocolate-loving child Charlie Bucket as he longs for a “golden ticket” to tour master chocolatier Willy Wonka’s factory.

Shaiman’s music is charming – full of tasty licks as usual – and you can’t spell Wittman without “wit.” It is most unfortunate that muddy sound design often obscures those witty lyrics. Christian Borle portrays Wonka with his usual élan, with somewhat more humanity than previous incarnations. Director Jack O’Brien has presented a smaller-scale production than Sam Mendes on the West End, and while I’m not sure that was the right decision, it’s still sufficiently splashy and vivid. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

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Review: Rumer Willis

Rumer Willis photo credit credit David Andrako 2016_04_05_CafeCarlyle_20

This girl is the real deal! Rumer Willis may be the oldest daughter of actors Bruce Willis and Demi Moore, but to quote the song “God Bless the Child” – of which she sings a rousing rendition – she’s definitely “got her own!” Willis covers a very diverse array of material in her Café Carlyle debut, ranging from Kander & Ebb (she did make her Broadway debut in Chicago, after all) to Wynnonie Harris’s hilarious 1951 r&b shouter “Bloodshot Eyes”, to poppier neo-soul material by the likes of Amy Winehouse and Hozier.

Vocally, Willis resembles journeyman soul ladies of the 1960s like Barbara Lewis and Gloria Jones; not the most towering vocal instrument, but strong, flexible and quite expressive. She’s really good at getting inside the character of a song and acting – no, soulfully living its story.

Her between-song patter is relaxed, but could use some shaping. She shows enough potential that it would be worth the time of one of the masters of cabaret writing/directing – a Scott Wittman or Barry Kleinbort, say – to help her out. Slumming, she isn’t, for sure: Willis and music director James Sampliner have definitely given the evening a great ebb and flow. Never too many ballads together or anything like that.

Whether you like it hot and hard-driving or cool and smooth, Willis does it all with an ease and élan beyond her 27 years. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: The Passion of the Crawford

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In this riveting evening of lip-synch, there’s a lot of people up on that stage, even though there’s only two bodies. John Epperson lip-synchs an interview Joan Crawford gave in 1973 in New York’s Town Hall. Or is it Epperson as his drag persona Lypsinka as Crawford?

Not to mention that some of the additional audio is Faye Dunaway portraying Crawford in Mommie Dearest, and some other cues are extracted from films where Crawford is portraying yet another “somebody else.” And then there’s the interviewer, lip-synched in most performances by Steve Cuiffo (Hairspray lyricist and generally brilliant man of the theatre Scott Wittman will perform the role November 18 through December 1).

Epperson provides further, fruitful complications. This is no straight-up impression or imitation. Instead, Epperson’s gestures and expressions provide a constant, running commentary on what Crawford’s saying – and what she isn’t. For example, whenever the subject of “the children” comes up, Epperson executes an almost ritualistic dusting of the hands.

Epperson has structured the evening so that it does indeed play like a passion play, an “imitation of the Christ,” with spiritual themes, struggles, and, finally, uplift. In a costume by Ramona Ponce and crimson jewelry by Robert Sorrell, Epperson resembles a particularly regal and sanguine version of Crawford. The interview might be the centerpiece, but the keystone of this show is Crawford’s reading of Max Ehrmann’s prayerful poem “Desiderata”, which opens with: “Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible without surrender be on good terms with all persons.” Not qualities often associated with Crawford’s persona or reputation.

In the most Lypsinka-like portion of the evening, Epperson answers multiple ringing phones. Unlike the original version of this popular Lyp routine, though, all of the voices are Crawford or Dunaway – certainly no Bette Davis exclaiming “You didn’t!”

This is lip-synch as high art. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

For more reviews and interviews by Jonathan Warman, see his blog Drama Queen.

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

Review: John Epperson: Show Trash

Show Trash

The artist otherwise known as Lypsinka takes off the wigs, makeup and sound design, and – lo and behold – is still an engaging entertainer without all that. Sure, John Epperson sans the Lyp armor is a very different sort of performer, but his much more traditional cabaret act Show Trash holds the stage, with considerable grace.

Show Trash is in many ways a Lypsinka origin story, showing how this small-town Mississippi boy eventually blossomed into an emblem of all that is worldly. It takes a few songs before we turn to his childhood on Hazelhurt, Mississippi (2010 population: 4,009). This is a good thing – one of Epperson’s great gifts is his ability to reveal hidden dimensions using surprising juxtapositions. Though that gift is used with more subtlety that in the Lypsinka shows, it still gives freshness to an essentially autobiographical act.

Epperson gives us a more exposed, vulnerable side of himself in Show Trash. He reveals that Lypsinka’s brashness comes in part from a desire to mask his own reticence about performing (he’s gotten over that: in addition to this show, Lypsinka has made increasing numbers of appearance in “straight” plays).

In the show, Epperson accompanies himself on piano. His first notable artistic efforts were on the piano: he was a rehearsal pianist for American Ballet Theater in the 1970s and 1980s, playing for the likes of Baryshnikov and Marakova. While this provided him entree into a world he loved – he tells many engaging stories from those years – it stifled his own creative impulses. From this unmet need sprang Lypsinka.

There are glimpses of the Lyp, as Epperson’s lip-synchs to some Hazelhurst favorites or flashes a particularly sharp hand gesture. Barry Kleinbort is the one of the great masters of cabaret direction, and his sensitive work here includes the supple use of home movies and photos to reinforce Epperson’s story. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Lypsinka: The Boxed Set

Lypsinka Box Set

Lypsinka long since turned the drag queen craft of lip-synching into high art. In The Boxed Set, the artist otherwise known as John Epperson refines and reconnects the various pieces he has been doing since the 1980s, in a sort of greatest hits collection. He has done this compilation before, and this time around the thematic strains about identity, gender and madness have just gotten clearer and stronger.

Thank goodness, though, that increased clarity has done nothing to diminish the fundamental strangeness of the Lyp’s audio collages. One of the great pleasures of Epperson’s brand of lip-synch is the way it doesn’t so much tell a story as paint a picture. An Ethel Merman outburst next to a Dolores Gray tune, next to Faye Dunaway channeling Joan Crawford, next to the Crawford herself, next to a Vegas bopper you’ve never heard of – these juxtapositions are the very things that make both the surrealism and the sharp insights happen.

Those things, and the very precision of the lip-synch. You can’t do the things Lypsinka does without meticulous attention to the basic craft of lip-synch, and her talent in this arena is unparalleled, awe-inspiring. And Epperson’s background in dance just adds to the meticulous construction.

Sometimes Lypsinka will play a moment straight, but just as often she takes a wisp of irony in the original and puts it under a magnifying glass with a look, a sneer, or even a limb that seems to be rebelling against her brain. But never doubt that even that rebellion is under Epperson’s laser-sharp control.

What can I say? This is 5-star, 10s across the board, the gold standard of drag queen artistry. This gets my very highest recommendation. What haven’t you bought your tickets yet? For those tickets, click here.

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

Review: Christine Ebersole

christine-ebersole_original 2014

For her first long cabaret run in two years, Christine Ebersole returns to 54 Below with a glorious new show. What really distinguishes this show from her previous cabaret turns (they’ve all been glorious) is the touch of Musical Director Bette Sussman, who brings with her a big, rock-ish band and a jazz-pop polish reminiscent of arranger William S. Fischer’s work on the classic Bette Midler album The Divine Miss M (Sussman has collaborated with Midler herself on more than one occasion). In any event, and in case you didn’t know, I am here to tell you that Christine Ebersole is faaaaaabulous!

Though Ebersole is primarily known as a Broadway diva, and her most recent CD was a very jazzy affair, this is her most rock and roll act to date. This time, you’re more likely to run into a Fleetwood Mac or Burt Bacharach tune than a Cole Porter or Johnny Mercer standard (though she does a beautiful rendition of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Something Good”). She even does a breathtaking turn on a classic Diana Ross song, and I am not going to spoil your surprise by telling you which one. Because you are going to see this show, you know!

Ebersole absolutely brings to pop-rock the same elegant power she brings to musical theater and jazz. When she sings “Woodstock” it is far more than just a cabaret singer singing a Joni Mitchell song. The song itself has only grown in power over the years, overtaking the event it describes in its ability to evoke yearning idealism. Christine imbues it with a searing emotion and intelligence that communicates so much: a sense of history that includes the Vietnam War and 9/11, and a passionate sense that we mustn’t allow history to extinguish that idealism. Fiery and profound, all in one go.

All that, plus an insane version of “Revolutionary Costume for Today” from Grey Gardens (for which Ebersole won her second Tony) that is simultaneously hilarious and roof-raising. Another cabaret act from this lady that just sparkles like the finest champagne – Faaaaaabulous!

For tickets, click here. Seriously, go back, click the link and buy your tickets now.

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

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.