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.

Review: POTUS: Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive

Any show that opens with Julie White screaming the c-word promises to be a wild ride, and POTUS: Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive does not dissapoint. Those seven magnificent women are: First Lady Margaret (Vanessa Williams), the president’s criminally-minded sister Bernadette (Lea DeLaria), chief of staff Harriet (White), press secretary Jean (Suzy Nakamura), starchy personal secretary Stephanie (Rachel Dratch), “bimbo eruption” Dusty (Julianne Hough), and journalist / mother Chris (Lilli Cooper).

Every single woman is hugely accomplished – even the supposedly ditzy Dusty has surprising hidden talents. While there are side slights at the present political climate, POTUS is mostly about the larger patriarchal idiocy of having charismatic but incompetent men in power, while these goddesses do the grunt work. This is the biggest laugh out loud comedy we’ve had in a very long time, so continuously hilarious it hurts.

Playwright Selina Fellinger spins chaos with pitch perfect precision, combining dialogue that’s both foul-mouthed and witty (often at the same time) with frenetic farcical door-slamming. Beowulf Barrit’s rotating set accelerates with the action until it’s turning like a carousel at the height of the second act’s high-speed pandemonium.

Director Susan Stroman keeps a zippy, even dizzy pace for the whole evening, with an exactitude of movement worthy of her legendary musical theatre work. The entire ensemble is flawless, but there are two definite standouts. Julie White is among the most gifted comic actors of our day, and she’s in her finest fettle here. But Rachel Dratch truly outdoes herself! When her nerdy character accidentally ingests a very powerful psychotropic drug, she reels into some of the most insane (and skilled) slapstick I’ve ever seen. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Hangmen

Strange. Macabre. Very funny. Martin McDonagh. These six words fit perfectly together, in the most natural way (or is it “unnatural”?). The playwright has made his career creating the very best dark comedies of the contemporary stage and screen. His newest play, Hangmen mostly happens in Lancashire in November 1965, just as capital punishment was being abolished in Britain, putting hangmen, whose numbers were already dwindling, completely out of work.

In the play, we follow fictional hangman Harry Wade (David Threlfall), a typical McDonagh comic bastard, who is in many ways awful (he killed people for a living, for goodness sake), but also has redeeming qualities. He now owns a pub, as did the historical “last hangman” Albert Pierrepoint, who has a presence is the play, and the mention of whose name makes Harry bristle.

Harry is joined behind the bar by his wife Alice (Tracie Bennett in full Brit broad mode) and his socially awkard daughter Shirley (Gaby French). Harry is the closest thing the small city of Oldham has to a celebrity, and local newspaper reporter Clegg (Owen Campbell) come’s to Harry’s pub to cover how this executioner feels about being abruptly retired. While initially refusing to talk, Harry eventually sings like a bird, trashing his nemesis Pierrepoint, who executed many more people than Harry, but those dead included Nazis and women, whom Harry chooses not to count. A menacing Londoner named Mooney (Alfie Allen) throws this day even more out of whack.

This being a McDonagh play this is only the first of many twists, mostly of the sinister variety. While he has made some terrific films, McDonagh is without a doubt a creature of the theatre, and I’m thrilled we have him back. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Lillias White

In this show, Lillias White literally GIVES. ME. LIFE! And that isn’t a misuse of “literally” – her tribute to Sarah Vaughan “Divine Sass” made me feel more alive than just about anything other show since cabaret came back. Much of it is due to Lillias’s abundant spontaneity. The night I saw it, someone shouted “What are you doing the rest of you life?” leading her to launch into an a capella version of the song of the same name, accepting lyric prompts from the audience (especially from a handsome young man named Julian).

Lillias is on a mission to portray Vaughan in a stage musical, and if anyone has the chops to do it, it’s her. In this show, White addresses Vaughan’s signature songs with an expressiveness and virtuosity every bit worthy of the Divine Sarah. White has one of those thunderclap voices, like Darlene Love or Martha Wash, that electrifies and illuminates everything it touches. And with the inspiration of sassy Sarah – and an adoring audience – she positively soars.

White is a bawdy lady – many moons ago me and my husband got drunk with her after a Christine Ebersole show, and without much effort we got her to sing “Big Fat Daddy” to me. She leans into that lustiness here, since, like her, Vaughan had a taste for men, especially of the younger variety. Vaughan’s “An Occasional Man” is the perfect vehicle for that heat, and White kills it. Another Vaughan staple “Misty” gets two full versions, the first a ballad approach reflecting the sentimental lyrics of the song, and then an amazing fast, scat-laden jazz take. Wow!

While everybody in the band plays magnificently, the solos of bassist Jonathan Michel display a remarkable originality (for fellow lovers of the bassline, he is as expressive as Haden or Entwhistle). As for the woman herself, as always a great artist and warm presence. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

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.