Review: Leopoldstadt

The titular traditionally Jewish district of Vienna is the setting for Tom Stoppard’s latest play, also among his best in my opinion. This district was Jewish long ago, in the 1600s, when it was called Im Werd. Ironically it was renamed Leopoldstadt for Emperor Leopold I, who drove the Jews out of Austria. Later rulers allowed some Jewish families back, but it took time to rebuild. None of this is the subject of Leopoldstadt. Instead it follows a wealthy Jewish family between the years 1899 and 1955. If you know European history you can see where this is going, but Stoppard rings some very interesting changes on one’s expectations.

In 1899, Jewish Vienna – and Vienna in general – was at its most vibrant. Psychology legend Sigmund Freud lived there, the great composer and conductor Gustav Mahler was in residence (he later was director of the New York Philharmonic and Metropolitan Opera), both of whom are referenced in this scene, to the effect “they belong to us.” And they were just the tip of the iceberg for that era of Jewish Vienna. As years pass WW I and the Russian Revolution lead to disillusionment among the family.

Then comes the Anschluss – the annexation of Austria into Nazi Germany. The family hurriedly devises escape plans, but the Nazis march into their house. This, however, is not the end of this very twisty scene. In 1955, the family members who have survived the Holocaust return to the house. The genius of Stoppard here is that he communicates not only the human cost of the Holocaust – although he does that, to devastating effect – but also the loss of a whole culture of immeasurable importance to Europe’s artistic and intellectual history.

The large cast of this epic play is uniformly excellent, especially the players in the 1955 scene: Jenna Augen, Brandon Uranowitz and Arty Froushan. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Ain’t No Mo’

I was sorely disappointed at the early closing of KPOP, a tightly structured musical that offered freshness, originality and innovative spectacle. Closed before I could even finish a rave review! Perhaps the first musical that made me say “WERQ! LIVING!” Well, I uttered those very same words the following night at the equally fresh and original play Ain’t No Mo’, which, dammit, seemed to be heading for exactly the same fate. Then, luminaries from Tyler Perry to Shonda Rimes stepped in, buying out whole performances, earning the play a week’s reprieve, and dammit, I hope for more.

The premise of the comedy is stated as “What happens if the American government offered African Americans a one-way ticket back to Africa?” Part of the innovation at play here is the structure: it’s a series of comedy sketches that nonetheless are all in service of a single story arc. The tone is also innovative: while this is mostly a wickedly satirical comedy, it can turn tragic on a dime and not be shy about staying there for minutes at a time. One of the songs I was listening to while writing this review, “Drop Dat” by Willie Thee Bawdy, rhymed “books by bell hooks” with “hip hop Mel Brooks” – yep that’s Ain’t No Mo’!

The glue holding the play together is Peaches, the gate agent for the flight taking people back to Africa. When she says the flight number out loud – 1619 (the year the first African slaves were shipped to the colony of Virginia) – it sent a chill up my spine. Mind you, Peaches is played in drag by one Jordan E. Cooper, who is also the playwright, and as such, at 27, the youngest American playwright in Broadway history (there’s a “WERQ!”). We re-visit Peaches several times with increasing urgency (never losing the comic notes) and Cooper delivers whip-smart timing, alternately combining straight up laugh lines and finely graded nuance. And often enough, rage.

The remainder of the cast is very much on Cooper’s level. The costumes are fabulous (I would expect no less from Emilio Sosa), the sets subtle but expressive (I would expect no less from Scott Pask). Run, don’t walk to see this utterly unique and fantastic masterstroke. THE VERY HIGHEST RECOMMENDATION!!

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: A Christmas Carol

There have been a lot of stage adaptations of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol: This holiday chestnut is an audience favorite, and – even better for theatres’ budgets – in the public domain. The best I have ever seen was a very warm and spectacular version on Broadway in 2019, which had the cast tossing and passing clementines and cookies to the audience before the show. This season’s Broadway version is second only to that one, but takes an opposite approach, leaning into the Gothic elements of what is essentially a ghost story.

In fact it’s so Gothic that in place of those clementines there are eerie sounds in the house, and a dimly lit ornate coffin on the stage. A sudden total blackout accompanied by a loud thud of a sound cue reconfirms the chilly, ominous tone. When the lights come back on, the brilliant Jefferson Mays begins narrating a version of the story closely adapted from an abridged version Dickens himself took on many a reading tour. Not for nothing Jefferson Mays is listed in the program simply as “The Mourner.”

But this is certainly not just a reading. The work of all the designers, especially Projection Designer Lucy Mackinnon, transmit the spectral atmosphere with great ingenuity – as spectacular as that 2019 production in an entirely different way.

Mays, long since known to be the master of playing multiple characters, plays no less than 50 here. Most effective: a Jacob Marley who truly appears to have cold dead eyes, a Bob Crachit who is genuinely warmly self-effacing, and of course Scrooge himself, whose arc of redemption Mays gives real heft. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey

This man and wife duo are doing a fabulous new show at the Cafe Carlyle, called “East Side After Dark” perhaps in tribute to Carlyle mainstay Bobby Short’s classic 1960 live album “On The East Side” (which by the way was actually not recorded at the Carlyle). John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey start with “Cheerful Little Earful”, a charmer which was first made famous by Fanny Brice.

After that, the East Side theme to one side, the pair launched into a pair of songs that praise the city more generally, the relatively obscure “When You’re Far Away from New York Town” and the song that made Rodgers and Hart’s names “Manhattan”. John gets all the jokes in the song – which is a loving satire of a bustling, smelly city – and communicates them elegantly to the audience.

The act is intended as a tribute to Upper East Side clubs of yore. The comically named Upstairs at the Downstairs is mentioned several times. There is also a loving tribute to John’s late father, jazz legend Bucky Pizzarelli, who was ironically requested to play “Pick Yourself Up” at a funeral. Jessica gets her own “after dark” spotlight with a mellifluous rendition of Blossom Dearie’s “Moonlight Savings Time”.

The continue the theme with late night cabaret legend Dave Frishberg’s “I’m Hip” which Molaskey puts her own parody lyric spin singing in a second pass, which is all about her recent hip surgery. Pizzarelli then concludes with Rodgers and Hammerstein’s biting take on racism “Carefully Taught”. Upon which Molaskey adds that they will close all of their shows “until it no longer applies” (unfortunately probably not anytime soon). Overall, the singing’s smart, the music’s deftly swung and the atmosphere sparkles. Cabaret doesn’t get much better than this.

For tickets, click here.

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

The Village: A Disco Musical

Extended through Saturday October 22, The Village is at its most charmingwhen writing love letters to disco. Nora Burns’s comedy is subtitled A Disco Musical, and while it’s not technically a musical (precious little live singing) the constant flow of recorded disco – and really good disco at that – is what really propels it.

Set in 1979 New York City, The Village centers around Trade (Antony Cherrie), a hustler living in the apartment of an older gentleman, George (Cluck Blasius). He brings home his latest trick, Steve (Ever Chavez) a charming NYU student – a cute “twink,” though at the time the word was “chicken” – and the story is nominally about them falling into bed and then love. But, as the title suggests, this is really more the story of a community, the vibrant gay scene of the time, set against the grit and glamour of the Manhattan of that era. One of the stronger elements is Robin Carrigan’s lively choreography, reflecting with verve and musicality the show’s disco soundtrack.

While Burns’s script is packed with her usual acidly sarcastic humor, the structure is a bit, well, lumpy. There’s a lot of “fourth wall breaking” and much of it is clever, but in the end there’s way too much of it. It’s as though every character in a Deadpool movie were talking to the camera most of the time. It can get a little wearying. Also, while the initial idea of creating an Our Town for 1970s NYC was an ingenious one, like many “inspired by” shows, The Village stumbles when it hews too closely to its model, and gets a real lift when it leans into being its own frisky self.

Mostly, though, The Village is a sexy, goofy lark, executed by an attractive, energetic, committed and talented ensemble cast. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: The Kite Runner

I am one of the few people who hasn’t read Khaled Hosseini’s novel The Kite Runner, so I came to Matthew Spangler’s stage adaptation with fresh eyes. And to me, it is a profoundly moving story, deftly told. Many have said the novel is better – but isn’t it always? Novels have time to linger on an image or a thought, and in the compressed world of theatre, you can’t do as much of that. You tell me the novel is better, and I tell you the adaptation, taken by itself, is one of the most powerful plays I have seen in recent memory. The story remains lucidly expessed, the emotional undertow, deeply poingant.

For one thing, director Giles Croft staging is satisfyingly fluid and compelling. For another, Amir Arison (The Blacklist) gives a profoundly emotional performance as narrator and central character Amir, so good that I hope he is remembered when Tony nominations come around. Amir grew up in Kabul, back when it was peaceful and prosperous, the son of a wealthy Pashtun merchant. He becomes close to Hassan (a very expressive Eric Sirakian), the son of his father’s servant, who is Hazara, an ethnic group much discriminated against by Pashtuns.

At a vital moment, Amir betrays Hassan, and the remainder of the tale follows his guilt and eventual redemption. It also tells of the travails of the Afghan nation since Amir’s 1970s youth. He and his father Baba (Faran Tahir) become refugees when the Soviets invade, and settle into a working class life in Northern California. Events compel Amir to go to Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, where he is horrified by the deterioration and violence visited on his homeland.

I can’t say it enough, this is powerful, cathartic theatre, truly a must-see. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Mr. Saturday Night

This tribute to Catskills comedy – as told through the life story of Buddy Young Jr. who goes from Borscht Belt headliner to TV star to obscurity – is equal parts classic comic shtick (delivered by one of our greatest living comedians) and schmaltz (leavened with flashes of genuine emotion). Billy Crystal plays Young with his usual verve, adding a little soft shoe and expessive singing to his performing repetoire. It’s a real shame that Mr. Saturday Night closes on September 4, it’s a genuinely pleasurable and charming musical – whose main aim is to (in the words of Crystal’s first song) provide “A Little Joy” – and how often do we get one of those?

While much of the plot takes place in 1994, we get generous servings of Buddy’s Catskills act and TV sketches, taking place in the late ’40s and early ’50s, in which Crystal shines the brightest, being on his home ground of stand-up. As Buddy watches the 1994 Emmy Awards, he sees his own face in the “In Memoriam” section. The fact that he actually isn’t dead gets him a new flash of celebrity, including an appearance on Today, which catches the eye of a major talent agency.

This is the kind of relatively light-hearted musical where you root for the main character to earn redemption and win out. The way he gets there may be a touch contrived, but is satifying nonetheless. The score, lyrics by Amanda Green and music by Jason Robert Brown, is brisk, tuneful and jazzy. Recommended, get it while you can!

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Mark Nadler Hart’s Desire

This ever-ambitious cabaret genius always seeks to challenge himself, and this time he has truly outdone himself. With Hart’s Desire, Mark Nadlercombines the words of playwright Moss Hart (from many sources) with lyrics by (unrelated) Lorenz Hart – which of course comes with music by Lorenz’s perrenial writing partner, composer Richard Rodgers. Both Harts were gay in a time when it was far less acceptable than today. Mark is no stranger to a gay theme, and has fashioned a gay musical romantic comedy that convicingly sounds like the year Nadler sets it in, 1943. You know, except for the gay thing.

Nadler presents Hart’s Desire as a backer’s audition – at the time, backer’s auditions were performed by the writers themselves, not actors. The musical is set at the opening of a Boston tryout for a play. Act I is before the opening, Act II after, and things do not seem to have gone well. With his usual exquisite taste, in addtion to Lorenz’s better known songs, Nadler uses obscure ones as well, such as the unfinished “Good Bad Woman” which Mark himself has completed. And of course he employs additional lyrics not included in the stage versions of Lorenz’s songs, especially for an extended version of “The Lady is a Tramp” as delivered by a brassy aging vaudvillian.

Mark “Mr. Showbiz” Nadler is at his most dazzling here, portraying eight characters without blurring the lines between them. He’s one of the greatest showmen of our time, singing, acting, tap-dancing madly, all the while playing a complex passage on the piano without even glancing at the keys. There are always many layers in a Mark Nadler show, ranging from the obvious to unspoken subtext, which gives an “oomph” far, far beyond your typical cabaret show, and that is true in spades in Hart’s Desire. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: A Strange Loop

The frankest description of gay sex I have ever seen on a Broadway stage, that’s for sure – especially in song called “Inwood Daddy” (you can see where that’s going) ! And a refreshingly frank look at the problems gay black men face. I mean right off the bat the lead character Usher describes himself as “a young overweight-to-obese homosexual and/or gay and/or queer, cisgender male, able-bodied university-and-graduate-school educated, musical-theater writing, Disney-ushering, broke-ass middle-class far-Left-leaning Black-identified-and-classified American descendant of slaves full of self-conscious femme energy…thinks he’s probably a vers bottom.”

A Strange Loop is in many ways an autobiographical show. Jaquel Spivey is so terrific as Usher that at least one audience member I taked to thought he actually was the author-composer of the show, one Michael R. Jackson, who won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for this. It is very black and deeply queer, is artistically successful and tuneful and funny into the equation – so exciting.

His thoughts (and other people) are represented by a (excellent) six-person chorus. Usher is plauged by self-doubt. Primarily that he wants to authenticly represent himself in the musical he is writing, but worries that white audiences wont get his black experience, and black audiences won’t get his queer experience. He is also conflicted that he has an “Inner White Girl” which he cherishs but also disturbs him. He loves his parents and seeks their love – they do love him, but don’t really accept him. They are deeply religious, so they don’t tolerate his gay identity. Instead of the autobiographical show he is working on, they want him to create a “a nice, clean Tyler-Perry-like gospel play,” which drives Usher crazy.

Jackson is that rarest of musical theatre creatures, a composer-lyricist-bookwriter who is superb at all three. I can’t wait to see what he does next. Highly reccomended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Jeff Harnar

A gay New York man who goes through “Living Alone and Liking It,” but later has thoughts of marriage, who spends nights both in glittering boîtes and sketchy dives, who has great sex, but also bad breakups that lead to murderous thoughts – does any of this sound familiar? Some of it does to me, and I’m sure some of you know a thing or two about these experiences. To quote singer Jeff Harnar about his new act and album I Know Things Now:“The words and music are Stephen Sondheim’s, but the story is mine.” It’s a very relatable story, told with much cleverness.

If you don’t know Sondheim, it’s still a wild ride from a fantastic singer and interpretive artist. But for a Sondheim fan like me it’s even more fun. Harnar often intjects references to songs he doesn’t even sing, like saying his evasive lover has gone to Barcelona (the title of a song from Company) in the middle of “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” from the same show. Some of the songs are a bit obscure, some are “Old Friends” (a song from Merrily We Roll Along).

I was particularly entertained by his mashup of “Buddy’s Blues” and “Sorry Grateful” which clearly depicted someone getting drunk at a gay bar – I don’t quite understand why the negative lines in “Buddy’s Blues” (and there are a lot of them) were delivered in the voice of Jimmy Durante, but it was in any event an amusingly absurd choice. His “breakup song” version of “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd” is one of the most terrifying renditions I’ve ever heard. Instead of depicting a figure out of horror, it relates the much more familiar feeling of wanting your loathsome ex dead. Eeek!

The album I Know Things Now – which has a 20 piece orchestra in place of the excellent jazz trio in the show – is out now on PS Classics. Both the show and album are highly recommended.

To buy the album, click here.

For tickets, click here.

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