Review: Leslie Jordan

Well, queens, it doesn’t get much better — or much gayer — than Leslie Jordan’s one-man show. Leslie, who describes himself as “the gayest man I know,” also claims that he was put on this Earth to be a comic scene-stealer (who met his only match playing opposite Megan Mullally on Will & Grace). This innate gift gives the fey, diminutive Jordan more than enough power to thoroughly command a stage all by himself.

He looks at the profound self-doubt that comes with growing up queer and hyper-effeminate in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and the booze and drugs he used to overcome that doubt. As emotional as things might get, though, a laugh is never far off in this show. Like in the outlandish report of “how I got that role,” namely Beverly Leslie in Will & Grace: he describes his Emmy win for that role in great and hilariously self-deprecating detail. There’s plenty of dish about Hollywood: No outing – he describes John Ritter as “a great friend to the queers but a reeeaal pussyhound” – but we definitely get the lowdown on who has a legendary dick that Leslie repeatedly begs to see…and who will sue you for looking at them wrong.

This isn’t just a laugh-so-hard-you-cry look at the world through ultra-queer eyes (though it is that in spades), it’s also an often moving look at the very best and worst of what queer culture has to offer. Most moving of all, he describes how he threw all of his emotion about both his father and the lives lost in the Pulse nightclub massacre into throwing the first pitch at a baseball game. He threw with such passion that one of the pros said he could have had a career as a pitcher.

I can’t think of another autobiographical show that is more pure, unadulterated fun than Exposed! — it makes a convincing case for Jordan being one of the very greatest queer comic talents of our time.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Jitney

I am a huge fan of playwright August Wilson; I consider him second only to Tennessee Williams in my reckoning of the greatest American playwrights of all time. Jitney was the first to be written of his “Century Cycle” plays – a set of ten incredibly powerful works about the African-American experience in each decade of the 20th Century – but the last to be produced on Broadway. It is also, I believe the only of the cycle plays to have been written in the decade it portrays.

Set in the Hill District of Pittsburgh (as most of the Century Cycle is) Jitney focuses on an office out of which a motley crew make a living by driving unlicensed cabs, the “Jitneys” of the title. When the city threatens to board up the business and the boss’ estranged son returns from prison, pressure reaches a boiling point.

Jitney is clearly the work of a young playwright – the exposition is presented a touch too baldly, and certain transitions are managed with a jarring suddenness that feels accidental rather than intentional. That said, the characters are every bit as vividly drawn as in any other Century Cycle play, and Wilson’s acclaimed mastery of language – in registers ranging from gleefully gritty to eloquently elevated – is already complete and confident.

Director Ruben Santiago-Hudson has been steeped in Wilson’s plays, as performer as well as director, more that just about anybody else. And indeed, Santiago-Hudson knows just where to lean into the young Wilson’s prophetically strong moments, and when to drive his ultra-solid cast carefully over the speed bump. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Carrie

This latest incarnation of the legendarily troubled musical by Michael Gore and Dean Pitchford, is an entertaining mess – not great, but not awful. Its infamous 1988 Broadway run reportedly had some of the worst problems of tone and taste, in any art form, ever. This new version has solved the problems of taste – the worst moments here are just inept, not truly tasteless – but only partially solved those of tone.

Based on the hit Stephen King book and Brian DePalma film of the same name, Carrie tells the story of the titular high school misfit, an outcast who’s bullied by both the school’s mean girls and her religious nut of a mother. But Carrie’s telekinetic, and this mix of oppression and the supernatural has horrific consequences.

Even in the Broadway flop version, audiences and critics could already see that the scenes between Carrie and her mother Margaret were genuinely riveting music drama, and that’s true here too. Marin Mazzie delivers a Margaret whose turn to religion is an understandable escape from the evils of of an over-sexualized, man-dominated world. Molly Ranson can stand up to Mazzie in the singing department, and manages to make some sense of Carrie’s bruised and buffeted personality, no small feat.

It was the scenes with the high school kids that led to the most egregious lapses in the Broadway production, and they are still problematic here. The opening number “In” was originally sung by only the girls in gym class. It’s now sung by the entire “high school” ensemble, in a tone that suggests the simmering angst of Spring Awakening. It makes more sense as an isolated number now, but still doesn’t properly manage our expectations of what we are about to see.

Because Carrie isn’t particularly about the angst of those kids, it’s about Carrie dealing with their brutal indifference to her angst. The high school scenes and songs veer toward the stereotyped and campy, and are perversely more successful and entertaining when they do so. But bookwriter Lawrence D. Cohen hasn’t intentionally set out in this direction, and his own attitude toward the high school experience is frustratingly ambivalent – not a good attitude to have when working on a story about the most horrific prom ever.

For all that, though, I kept finding myself reflecting on what I would have thought of this had I no knowledge of the show’s notorious history. On those terms, Carrie is an entertaining mixed bag, modestly tuneful and vigorously staged by Stafford Arima. Worth seeing both for its place in musical theatre history, and in its own right as an Off-Broadway diversion.

For tickets, click here.