Review: for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf

There is a lot of joy in for colored girls…, most of it connected to music and dancing, especially the salsa dura of artists like Willie Colón and Eddie Palmieri. Playwright Ntozake Shange did call the play a “choreopoem” after all. But there is also a lot of terror and sadness at the way black women are treated by men. Unfortunately, this is still as timely as ever.

for colored girls is a series of vignettes of life as a black woman that crisscrosses the United States and all kinds of experiences, from the ecstatic to the devestating. We meet, for example, a teenage girl in St. Louis who falls in love with a historical personage she read about in a book: Toussaint L’Ouverture, a heroic leader of the 1790s Haitian Revolution. On her search for him she meets a real St. Louis boy also named Toussaint – and suddenly is less interested in finding M. L’Overture. This sort of fabulist poeticism provides stark contrast to the play’s darkest moments, which include evocations of rape and murder.

The power of this choreopoem can be found in Shange’s truly pungent writing, with lines as powerful as these: “I found God in myself and I loved Her – fearlessly,” “six blocks of cruelty piled up on itself,” “I couldn’t stand being colored and sorry at the same time – it seems redundant in the modern world” “I survive on intimacy and tomorrow,” “I was missing something promised,” – truly an endless flow of pithy, evocative language.

Director and choreographer Camille A. Brown – the first black woman in many decades to execute both roles on Broadway – conveys a propulsive rhythm even in the stillest scenes, which really revs up when paired with composers Martha Redbone and Aaron Whitby’s updated take on salsa dura. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: To My Girls

A gay sitcom that occassionally gets serious enough to register some important issues, especially those dealing with race and class, To My Girls is, in the main, pretty darn funny. Playwright JC Lee writes zingers that land because they a) tell the truth about joys of gay friendship or b) clock the little hypocrisies and unacknowledged prejudices that trouble such friendships. Does he cut much deeper than that? No. But how many gay plays that have reached the Off-Broadway scene this season have cut even that far? So, To My Girls is sufficiently insightful and entertaining…and sooo gay…to get my approval.

A group of gay friends who met in Brooklyn in the mid-2000s reuinite in 2022 in Palm Springs for a weekend getaway. Things don’t go particularly well, partially because most of them are growing wise to the fact that gorgeous, winsome white manchild Curtis (Jay Armstrong Johnson) is something of a narcissitic jerk underneath it all. We start off thinking this is his story, but it slowly becomes clear that the central character is his South Asian-American best friend Castor (Maulik Pancholy), who is the main object of both Curtis’s charm and his selfish manipulations.

Also in for the weekend from NYC is Leo (Britton Smith), who is what folks in the storytelling business call a “normative” character, that is, the truth-teller and voice of reason. Arriving to stir things up is Castor’s chiseled 20-something trick Omar (Noah J. Ricketts), who unexpectedly turns out to be the smartest person in the play. They are renting the place from gay eminence grise Bernie (Bryan Batt in his finest fettle) who is simulataneously insightful, and perhaps the biggest hypocrite of all.

These gurls musical taste seems to have frozen in time at 2008 (though Castor is revealed to be a fan of the 2010s vintage star Carly Rae Jepsen) – Britney reigns, and current divas like Dua Lipa or Lizzo get nary a mention. This could easily be a conscious choice on Lee’s part, since the arc of the play is from being trapped in the past to envisioning a better future. Lee gets points for addressing race and class, which few enough gay plays do. For that, and for its abundant humor, I can happily recommend To My Girls.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Plaza Suite

Playwright Neil Simon has never been my cup of tea, especially his early plays. From 1983’s Brighton Beach Memoirs onwards, I can appreciate his fully matured skill. And he had a gift for one-liners from his beginning in the TV comedy writing rooms of the 1950s, which makes even his most lackluster plays passably amusing. But on a thematic level, meh – too mild and old-fashioned. Plaza Suite (which originally opened in 1968) is on the high end of the “passably amusing” stack, moving from moody quippiness to increasingly entertaining farce.

The play is in three acts, but the only character that appears in all three is Suite 917 of the Plaza Hotel – so beautiful recreated by set designer John Lee Beatty that it got its own entrance applause as the curtain went up. Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick play a different couple in each act.

The first one finds a businessman and his suspicious wife on their anniversary (during which the marriage essentially unravels). In the second, a successful Hollywood producer attempts to seduce a girlfriend from long ago in their smallish hometown of Tenafly, New Jersey. The final act is a raucous farce about a middle-aged couple whose daughter, in an attack of wedding day jitters, has locked herself in the bathroom.

Broderick and (especially) Parker are in fine form, especially since director John Benjamin Hickey has both doing the damn best phyisical comedy I have ever seen either do, which considerably elevates the production’s funny quotient. Jane Greenwood’s costumes are as handsome and well-considered as Beatty’s set, and are perfect for SJP. Yes, I know she can make anything look good, but these fit as well as the chic leather gloves Greenwood gives her in the second act. The best outfits conjure the Pucci / Gucci side of 60s “mod” with great élan.

It also helps a great deal that well-executed featherweight comedy is what the doctor ordered when the news is as grim as it tends to be these days. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: John Pizzarelli

John Pizzarelli, top exponent of cabaret’s jazzier side, gives us a show in tribute to jazz piano great George Shearing, who was known for his urbane sound and light, genteel touch – much as Mr. Pizzarelli is today. This show at Birdland Jazz Club opens with “Lullaby of Birdland”, a jazz standard which Shearing composed as the theme for a live broadcast from the club in 1952.

John plays guitar in an amazingly fluid and elegant style, with nonpareil mastery of a technique called “guitar harmonics” that produces high notes of extraordinary expressiveness. He outdid himself with this technique in “A Shine on Your Shoe”: he had me wondering “where is that violin? Where are those bells?” All these impersonations of other instruments accomplished with harmonics. Stunning.

Pizzarelli brilliantly interprets music in many ways. He has a particular genius for chordal improvisations, finding hidden musical meanings in the most familiar of standards. Also, as a singer John is very sensitive to the multiple meanings a good lyric can have, and has an uncanny ability to communicate several at once. Both qualities are ideal when assaying Shearing’s repertoire.

It’s not that surprising for Pizzarelli to do a show exclusively devoted to the memory of George Shearing. Their styles align very naturally, and in fact they recorded an album together in 2002, The Rare Delight of You. As always, John performs with astonishing elan and profound musical intelligence. Neither jazz nor cabaret gets much better than this. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Company

Easily the best thing I’ve seen since live performance returned to New York, it’s no surprise that this is that good. First, it’s one of Stephen Sondheim’s very best musicals. Then it’s Marianne Elliott in the director’s chair, and she’s is probably the only stage director whose work manages to surprise me every 10 minutes. And then this cast! A troupe headlined by talents Katrina Lenk and Patti LuPone that includes exceptionally talented actors such as Claybourne Elder and Christopher Fitzgerald in ensemble roles? You just can’t go wrong.

It is so satisfying that this production of Company is as good in fact as it looks on paper. Elliott had the brilliant idea or changing the bachelor Bobby of the original production into bachelorette Bobbie. As well, she has set the production in the present day, not 1970. Both choices illuminate the musical in ways that are truly fresh.

The male Bobby was always a bit opaque, perhaps a little dull even. Bobbie on the other hand, has more interesting issues: does she want to give up her hard-fought freedom? How much does she really want to be a mother? (There’s even a whole “baby” dream ballet, truly haunting, almost a nightmare). The stakes are significantly higher, and Lenk brilliantly plays every moment.

Elliott’s staging is her usual neon-tinged phantasmagoria which suits this show to a T, giving the whole matter a “Bobbie in Wonderland” feel – as non-linear as the musical itself. As the gimlet-eyed alcoholic matron Joanne, Patti LuPone delivers her trademark razor-sharp timing to fantastic effect. Another brilliant change finds “Amy” changed to “Jamie” a gay man about to marry his long-time boyfriend. Matt Doyle is neurotic perfection in the role, delivering one of Sondheim’s most difficult songs “I’m Not Getting Married Today” with dazzling precision and virtuosity.

I don’t think I could recommend a show more highly than I recommend this one. Truly a must-see.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: To Build A Soul (Justin Elizabeth Sayre)

Justin Elizabeth Sayre – the long-term chairman of “The International Order of Sodomites” – is back in town! This time with a solo autobiographical show detailing his life-long love affair with the theatre. In Sayre’s own words “Written during the pandemic, To Build a Soul is a love letter to the theatre if I never made it back. For the last two years, like so many artists, I wondered if we would ever make it back. If I would ever be able to return to the magic trick of live performance, to which I have dedicated most of my life. If I had one last chance, if I had one more try to stand on a stage and tell my story, what story would I tell? What would I want people to know? To Build a Soul, is that. A sort of farewell, and a call to the future all in one. Plus laughs, because, my god, I think we all need them.”

As such, this is more impassioned and has higher stakes than the kind of storytelling “stand up” Sayre became noted for in his wildly popular variety show The Meeting* (they returns to the variety format in January with the even queerer Assorted Fruit at Joe’s Pub). Sayre occasionally waxes poetic in this piece, though their sassy sissy wit is never far away. His tough yet femme persona remains in glorious effect, brassy as ever.

Sayre spends much time talking about feeling different as a child, including one occasion where a elementary school teacher labels them “too creative for his own good” in which, even though they were years away from puberty, they felt the underlying meaning of being “too faggot for your own faggot, faggot” (they also more objectively thought it was one of the stupidest things they’d ever heard). Performance, be it music or theatre, was Sayre’s saving grace from a very young age.

Sayre’s stories and thoughts are engaging at every turn. As always Sayre delivers a thoughtful but still very hilarious show I can happily highly recommend.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Trouble in Mind

It’s no accident that the cast of Trouble in Mind, a play, features musical theatre powerhouses like LaChanze and Chuck Cooper – music features prominently in the play, in both positive and negative ways. Alice Childress wrote this backstage drama in the mid-1950s; it follows rehearsalsfor Chaos in Belleville, a patronizing anti-lynching play written by a white author (never seen), and directed by a white man Al Manners (Michael Zegen), who fancies himself a genius, but turns out to be a talentless tyrannical hack.

The positive musical moments are singing for just the joy of it. The negative moments are stereotypical spirituals written into Chaos which Manners thinks he can coach his black cast members to do better. LaChanze plays leading actress Wiletta Mayer, the person who ends up locking horns with Manners the most, in spite of advising a young actor to keep his head down when dealing with “the man.”

Childress uses the intrigues of the rehearsal process to deeply delve into the psychology of race relations as they stood in the 1950s. While it’s clear that Trouble deals with serious themes, I should be clear that it is a very lively play, brimming over with humor and spirit. Cooper supplies a lot of the comic relief as Sheldon, an older actor for whom humor is a defense mechanism. All of the characters are three-dimensional, however, and as such Sheldon also gets a very emotional monologue about witnessing a lynching.

Trouble in Mind was an Off-Broadway success when it first appeared in 1955, and producers were interested in taking it to Broadway. They asked Childress to soften it, very ironic since major themes of the play include learning to stand up for yourself and ask the important questions. Childress predictably refused, and it has taken 66 years for it to finally arrive. It’s a very engaging play, emotionally and intellectually, and I’m so glad it’s here. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Christmas Spectacular Starring the Radio City Rockettes

This show first and foremost earns the right to be called spectacular, driven by the amazing unison dancing of the Rockettes themselves, but hugely abetted by Radio City’s stunning hydraulics system and dazzling projections by Obscura Digital and batwin + robin. It is also unapologetically schmaltzy and sentimental, but all that sweetness is cut by a strain of jazziness – both in the music and dancing – that runs throughout. The sheer virtuosity of all involved also elevates it above mere treacle.

Of course the Rockettes are the star of the show. The opening number “Santa’s Reindeer” totally whets the appetite for what follows. Highlights include a “Here Comes Santa Claus” number where Santas keep multiplying – I’m thinking the entire adult company suited up for this one – and a finale satisfyingly full of high kicks. Some of the best numbers, though, are some of the oldest ones: “Parade of the Wooden Soldiers” which has been a part of the show largely unchanged since 1933, a “Living Nativity” which has evolved considerably from that time to this, and a somewhat newer but still classic delight called “Rag Dolls” which at one point features a teddy bear in a pink tutu.

Director/choreographer Julie Branam has pulled together a daunting number of elements and collaborators to put together an extravaganza that can hold its head up in the tradition of Rockettes’ legendary holiday-season shows. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Thoughts of a Colored Man

This is a “slice of life in a neighborhood” play, let’s settle that first. And a pretty damn good one. Much was made in the marketing of elements of slam poetry, but there’s only a sprinkling of that here, like a splash of hot sauce. The neighborhood in question is a mostly black neighborhood in Brooklyn, where gentrification is encroaching, barbershops being replaced by Whole Foods and Paris Baguette.

At basis it is a love letter to the camaraderie of black men, symbolized by such barbershops. But Thoughts of a Colored Man is also rigorously critical of not only the daunting challenges created by systemic racism, but also the failings, individually and collectively, of black men. While the characters all have allegorical names like Love and Anger, they are actually finely etched characters who all have their good points and flaws – which is one the play’s great virtues.

While there are whiffs of toxic masculinity here and there, there is also an extraordinary moment when, in the key barbershop scene (one of the longest in the show), Lust (Da’Vinchi) tells a “fag joke” and is immediately rebuked by the shop’s long-time owner Wisdom (Esau Pritchett), allowing gay man Happiness (Bryan Terrell Clark), who is new to the neighborhood, to come out by the end of the scene.

Happiness gets a couple more scenes, one a monologue detailing the difficulties faced by a middle-class black man married to a white man, including “being too black for my white friends and too white for my black friends.” He also has a scene with Depression (Forrest McClendon), a man who studied to be a engineer but was forced by circumstance to take a low-paying job at Whole Foods.

All the actors are seriously impressive performers and director Steve H. Broadnax III’s staging is understated while still being very dynamic. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Dana H

While actress Deirdre O’Connell expertly lip-syncs this entire show, this is galaxies away from, say, Lypsinka. O’Connell lip-syncs to recorded interviews of playwright Lucas Hnath’s mother Dana, regarding her harrowing experience being kidnapped by a murderously insane white supremacist in 1997 (Hnath edited the interviews into a cohesive hour-long piece). O’Connell is amazingly precise, down to every jangle of Dana’s bracelets, yet also brings a layer of expert acting to it that elevates the whole affair. Steve Cuiffo, the Lip Sync Consultant, must have a lock on that area of expertise – he has indeed been known to Lypsinka. He has certainly coached O’Connell well, she never misses a second.

Dana has long been a hospice chaplain in Florida, and in ’97 a suicidal Aryan Brotherhood member came under her care and became attached to her. Eventually he took her captive and tormented her for five months. Dana is quick witted and hardy, so her description of these events rarely descends into self pity. She is, if anything, oddly detached, which makes hearing about this horrible experience somewhat more bearable. But it becomes clear that she was truly powerless in a way she could not have understood before these events.

Director Les Waters stages the evening very minimally, with Dana mostly narrating events from a chair in a motel room (her captor essentially moved them from motel to motel). The moments that depart from that format are all the more effective because of the contrast with that simplicity. Mikhail Fiksel’s audio editing and sound design is truly a marvel. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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