Review: Raja

This queen repeats herself sometimes. You know what, though, Raja looked into the cause of this issue, and found the theme of her new show “Lush Life,” which is all about the weed and wine she cheerfully admits to consuming before during and after the show. She explains that lush means luscious, extra and (in her words) a “moderate alcoholic” – all qualities she proudly owns, and uses to entertain her adoring audience.

It doesn’t hurt that with a little wine in her, Raja instinctively swirls, twirls and dips with aplomb whenever there’s music. That makes me wish the ratio of talk to music favored music more, even though her monologues are spiritually and politically deft and intelligent.

She’s one of the most effortlessly stylish queens ever to appear on Drag Race, and she features a little bit of everything in this show: some singing, some monologuing about contemporary issues, and a whole lot of fashion fierceness (three fabulous glimmering monochrome outfits). As a matter of fact, she opens the show singing – not lipsynching – Madonna’s “Vogue,” giving you fantastic body and face. There’s your admission fee covered right there. Raja has a warm charismatic presence, which makes you think she’d be able to put over just about anything she wanted. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Shuga Cain

Who knew that Drag Race alum Shuga Cain named herself after Shug Avery, the juke joint singer from The Color Purple! Just to make the point crystal clear, in her cabaret act Sweet Dreams Shuga does numbers from not one but two different versions of The Color Purple.

From the movie – which she identifies as the film that most inpired her personally and artistically – she does Shug’s love song to Miss Celie “Sister.” It’s the only song Cain sings live (all the others are lip synchs), and she’s very self-depricating about the quality of her singing. She doesn’t have to be: she’s better than a lot of ladymen from the show, and could definitely do more of it in her act. The other Color Purple song she does is a lip synch of “I’m Here” as sung by Cynthia Erivo in the stage musical. She nails this one to the ceiling, making it a fitting climax to her act.

Her show, called Sweet Dreams, is very much in the autobiographical mode of many solo drag shows. What sets Shuga apart though, is the chatty just-between-us-gurls tone that makes you feel that she’s talking to just you. It’s clear that she primarily considers herself a comedy queen – she attributes her allegedly sub-par singing to “too much tequila and dick” – and she is indeed a laugh and a half. Cain also happily identifies herself as an “80s baby” and does a megamix by divas such as Janet, Whitney, Mariah and the like, which she delivers with high-energy bounce. The whole evening is boisterous fun, and definitely recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Justin Vivian Bond

I’ve often referred to Judy Collins as a river of song – it just flows out of her in a gorgeous shimmering stream. Justin Vivian Bond is more like a tower of song – mysterious, imposing, beautiful, powerful and sometimes explosive. JVB’s current show “Under the Influence” is a tribute to Collins, part of Collins’ 2019 Vanguard Award and Residency at Joe’s Pub.

V considers Judy Collins to be v’s own spiritual baby sitter and music teacher. Collins significantly if indirectly educated Justin in music – all by the songs and songwriters Collins covered. So, with only a couple exceptions, Bond performs songs written by songwriters she discovered through Collins – but which Judy herself did not sing.

Bond’s taste in songs is impeccable, and v approaches them with the touch of a very careful curator. A curator, that is, who finds what is most explosive in the art they’re presenting, and then promptly detonates it. V turns David Crosby’s “Almost Cut My Hair” into something more rawly emotional, and fiercely sharpens the danger in Leonard Cohen’s “First We Take Manhattan” (in probably the best version of that song I’ve ever heard). V’s climactic rendition of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” truly burns down the house.

One of the best features of all of Bond’s shows is v’s acidly funny, stream of consciousness, between-song patter (which has had the downside of making certain shows marathon length, but not here). As always Bond is hilariously entertaining, wildly imaginative and vividly expressive. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Dianna Agron

“High-falutin’ honky-tonk” – that’s my “elevator pitch” for Diana Agron’s current cabaret act at the Café Carlyle. She originally designed her songlist to compliment her first run at the Carlyle, which found her singing the music of “some of the finest male-fronted acts of the ’70s.” Here, she mainly covers songs originally done by other women. She keeps breaking her own rules to put together a show that feels right, which makes it harder to explain, asking the audience if they have any suggestions.

The former Glee star recently married folk rock band Mumford & Sons’ banjoist and guitarist Winston Marshall. Her own musical aesthetic lines up less with Glee, and more with the style of her husband’s band. This is a beautiful young woman with a gorgeous voice who is nowhere more comfortable than when she’s singing a cover of a 1960s folk rock chestnut or 1950s standard.

On her first run, Agron was hesitant when it come to patter, but calmed right down when it came time to sing. She’s not necessarily more eloquent between songs this time, but she’s all-around more confident and in command, which lends her off-hand comments a kind of raffish charm. No song was less than beautifully sung, and, as before, she performs best when a song brings out the actress in her – most notably in Eartha Kitt’s wicked signature tune “I Want to Be Evil” and Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day.”

There’s an enormous amount of potential here – I would give a lot to hear Agron’s huskily golden yet liquid voice act the hell out of some of June Christie’s sophisticated material. The job in cabaret, as much as in theatre and film, is storytelling, and Agron is getting better at doing that in this format. In any event, Agron gives us enough wonderfully sung renditions of dauntingly complex songs that I can heartily recommend her.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Justin Vivian Bond

This show was intended to be called “Justin Vivian Bond is Regifted,” but somewhere between the time when Bond sent v’s title and blurb to the Joe’s Pub office and the time the tickets were printed, some device somewhere “auto-corrected” the title to “Justin Vivian Bond is Refrigerated.” JVB figured “well, the tickets have been printed,” kinda liked the title, and thought it wouldn’t take much to move the show in that direction. One of the adjustments v made was to open with a passionate version of Annie Lennox’s “Cold,” setting up the “fire and ice” dynamic that has always been JVB’s wheelhouse.

The legendary Kiki & Herb Christmas shows of yore were full of vitriol and blasphemy. More love than vitriol now (though when v touches on a subject worth the vitriol, v doesn’t hold back), and an end to blaspheming in favor of something more spiritually positive: Bond now puts v’s own pagan ambivalence about Christmas at the heart of the show. For instance there’s a dark little medley celebrating the winter solstice, dedicated to Judy Collins.

The musical backing from Matt Ray on piano, Nath Ann Carrera on guitar and Claudia Chopek on violin is sophisticated and rich. There’s nothing particularly jazzy about the arrangements – if anything they are redolent of folk rock and chamber pop – but there is a powerful sense of improvisational give and take.

Bond is one of the most original and potent performers of our time, whom I think everybody should see at least once. Or more often – there’s something new and freshly rewarding about every single performance.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Pharoah Sanders

Jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman once called Pharoah Sanders “probably the best tenor player in the world.” Tenor saxophone, that is, and based on what I experienced seeing him at Birdland, I’d have to agree. But he’s more than that: there’s something visionary about Sanders. When he begins to play, the room he’s playing in feels somehow different, lighter.

Sanders was an important player in the frequently dissonant free jazz scene of the early 1960s, but as he embarked on a career as a leader rather than a sideman, he reinterpreted what the “free” in free jazz meant. For him, it meant free and full expression using any and all means available, the tonal as well as the atonal, the sweet as well as the dissonant. It also meant exploring freedom in the political sense, and above all in a spiritual sense. One can easily interpret Sanders work from the late 1960s onward as one long exploration of what it means to be spiritually free – and how does one express that in music?

The first composition he performed began with the band playing a gentle, soothing pentatonic wash for several minutes. When Sanders joined in at first he went with that gentle flow, but then there was one of those angular, sharp, atonal runs that were a hallmark of Pharoah’s early avant-garde work, appearing with the speed, suddenness and uncanniness of lightning in a clear blue sky.

Some other astonishing moments: at the end of a yearning ballad, Sanders slows everything down in a short coda in which every note surprises and yet is exactly right, especially the breathtaking second to last note at the very bottom of his instrument’s range. After which he immediately bounces into a playful blues that finds this physically frail septuagenarian dancing around and hamming it up, strumming his sax as if it was a guitar. In this number each of the sidemen gets an extended solo; Nate Reeves’s solo stands as the single best jazz bass solo I have ever heard, jumping back and forth between virtuosic techniques with impossible nimbleness.

And at the very end, Sanders played a bit of his epic statement of purpose “The Creator Has a Master Plan,” singing in a strong warm voice, gently emphasizing one word, to powerful effect: “The creator makes but one demand / Happiness through all the land.” Then he launches into John Coltrane’s masterpiece “A Love Supreme” for a few soaring minutes before concluding with a return to “Creator.” Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Raja

One of the most effortlessly stylish queens ever to appear on Drag Race, Raja is doing her second solo cabaret show at the Laurie Beechman Theatre. Titled Masque, the show features a little bit of everything: some singing, some monologuing about contemporary issues, and a whole lot of fashion fierceness.

As a matter of fact, after singing one of her original songs in a bejeweled and horned mask, Raja says “this is the part of the show where I do nothing but fucking model for two and a half minutes,” proceeding to give indescribable body and face to Right Said Fred’s “I’m Too Sexy.” There’s your admission fee covered right there.

And even though she says “that all the choreography you’re going to get” after a handful of hip bumps in her first sung cover of the evening – Tina Turner’s “Private Dancer” – don’t you believe it. Raja instinctively swirls, twirls and dips with aplomb whenever there’s music. That makes me wish the ratio of talk to music favored music more, even though the monologues are spiritually and politically deft and intelligent. Maybe a tad repetitive, but I’ll chalk that up to the weed and wine she cheerfully admits to having taken in.

Raja has a warm charismatic presence, which makes you think she’d be able to put over just about anything she wanted. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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