Review: Lackawanna Blues

In this solo play, Ruben Santiago-Hudson celebrates the woman who raised him in her boarding house in Lackawanna (just outside Buffalo) who is known variously as Nanny, Mother and Miss Rachel. He not only portrays himself and Miss Rachel, but also some 20 other boarders who passed through the house throughout the 1950s and 1960s, when Ruben was growing up.

I’m usually suspicious of shows that are written and directed by the same person; usually they’re much better at one job than the other. Here Santiago-Hudson does both, as well as playing every part. Based on the tour-de-force result, I’d say the man has earned his bona fides – then again, he has worked with the likes of playwright August Wilson as director and actor, and acted for legendary directors like George C. Wolfe and Lloyd Richards.

Miss Rachel would take care of anybody who needed it, which is why everybody called her “Mother.” In mid-century Lackawanna, this led to a motley collection of misfits and crazies passing through her doors, all of whom Santiago-Hudson portrays with great sensitivity. Many were harmless, but many were violent, and Ruben doesn’t shy away from this. Nanny herself fearlessly stood up to these toughs and abusers, which leads to some of the show’s most dramatic moments, as Santiago-Hudson contrasts their toxic rantings with Miss Rachel’s terrifyingly steely calm.

This show isn’t called a blues for nothing: Almost the entirety of the play is accompanied by blues guitar-playing from Junion Mack, recreating the score created by long-time Santiago-Hudson collaborator, the late Bill Sims Jr. Ruben himself is a talent ed harmonica player, and pipes in with his “harp” at judiciously selected moments. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Is This A Room

Is this a play? It certainly is a transcript of the FBI interrogation of Reality Winner (played here by Emily Davis), a 25-year-old former Air Force linguist charged with leaking evidence of Russian interference in U.S elections. On June 3, 2017, Winner was surprised at her home by the FBI. In Is This A Room, we witness that interaction, filtered through the lens of conceiver and director Tina Satter’s staging.

That filter is of very mixed quality. Some of Satter’s staging is quite elegant, especially the way she indicates redactions in the transcript through freezes, lighting shifts and blackouts. But some is decidedly heavy handed, creating Pinteresque menace where the transcript doesn’t suggest it.

Some moments do feel like TV cop procedural tropes, but that’s largely because those tropes are rooted in truth. There’s Agent Garrick (Pete Simpson), the “good cop” (but who is also clearly a skilled interrogator); Agent Taylor (Will Cobbs), the “bad cop” (but mostly just the strong, silent, sometimes kind cop) and the name-unknown grunt cop (Becca Blackwell). The cast is uniformly terrific with Davis and Simpson skillfully carrying most of the show’s weight.

I’ll allow that the course of the interrogation has significant innate drama, but ultimately isn’t very insightful. The most significantly dramatic thing about Winner’s story is that she received an inordinately long prison sentence for what was ultimately a minor security leak. But that’s a story that isn’t told here, save for brief voice over by the real life Winner at the end. That’s the story I’d be much more interested in seeing.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Chicken & Biscuits

The best way to see Chicken & Biscuits is to arrange to be in front of an enthusiastic church lady. By happy accident I was seated in front of just such a lady, who was definitely not shy with the occasional “Amen!!” and “Tell it!!” – it very much added to the fun of this already quite entertaining show.

The play focuses on the rivalry between the late pastor’s two daughters, the “holier-than-thou” Baneatta (Cleo King) and the flashily vulgar Beverly (Ebony Marshall-Oliver). Baneatta’s husband – and the church’s new pastor – Reginald (the magnificent as always Norm Lewis) tries to keep the peace while preparing the eulogy. There’s also a gay subplot involving Baneatta’s son Kenny (Devere Rogers) and his nebbishy Jewish boyfriend Logan (the ever-hilarious Michael Urie). Baneatta barely tolerates Logan, and Logan is terrified of Baneatta.

Director Zhailon Livingston (the youngest Black director in Broadway history) has assembled a first-rate group of physical comedians who deliver playwright Douglas Lyon’s zesty comic lines with flawless timing. Lewis in particular wonderfully manages a eulogy which begins with very awkward homilies, but eventually finds its way to barnstorming spirit and zeal (church lady loved that part too). The play deals with themes of forgiveness and kindness in well-tread ways, but since the world is in profound need of both qualities you won’t find me raising a strong objection. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

News: The Simsinz TONIGHT ONLY! (Friday 9/24)

One of New York’s best, most insane, drag shows returns for one night only, tonight, Friday September 24. The Simsinz is an unauthorized drag parody lipsynch tribute to The Simpsons which comes from the inventive mind of up and coming drag star Cissy Walken. In it Marge huffs ammonia and has hallucinations, while the rest of the family turns queer. A large portion of the lipsynch material comes from episodes that deal with gay themes. Even more, however, comes from pop songs and showtunes, and even some original material in which Walken sings in a perfect Marge Simpson voice (Walken has a reputation as a talented mimic, particularly for her Amy Winehouse).

Walken is a 2019 MAC Award nominee, and reigning Miss Stonewall. She stars as Marge, joined by Coco Taylor (host of Members Only Boylesque), Aria Derci, Pussy Willow and Andy Starling as a bevy of characters.

Even the male characters have exaggerated eyelashes and high heels. It’s shocking at first, but it is impossible to resist the charm of this loving tribute, especially from such a skilled company of lipsynchers. To say nothing of its sheer giddy comic loopiness – I mean the 11 O’Clock number goes to Ralph Wiggums for goodness sake!

The costume changes are truly dizzying, and the staging sophisticated and energetic. The last time I saw it, this joyous romp left me with a lasting grin on my face. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Pass Over

The simple fact offbeing back in a Broadway theatre, especially one as beautiful as the August Wilson, was a moving experience in and of itself. The play at that theatre, Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu’s Pass Over, is several things. For one thing, this black-themed surrealist drama is an opening bell for the Broadway community’s commitment to being more diverse going forward. The play itself certainly has its heart in the right place, but the realization of its high ideals is a mixed bag.

The play mostly draws its inspiration from Waiting for Godot. As in Beckett’s play, we have two protagonists trapped in their situation, in this case a desolate urban street-corner in place of Beckett’s country road. As in Beckett, one, Moses (Jon Michael Hill), is a pontificating top dog, the other, Kitch (Namir Smallwood), a goofy wild card.

My issue: the play works too hard to hew to the outline of Godot. The moments where it deviates the most from Beckett’s model are its most effective, and I wish there were more of them. In fact the best part of the play is its conclusion, where Nwandu abandons Godot for a rapturously strange evocation of the Book of Exodus (not to leer, but it also features nudity, and the actors have clearly been working on their assets).

Also, Moses exhibits traits of toxic masculinity, and while Nwandu has clearly made that character decision intentionally, she offers no coherent criticism of that syndrome – and this in a play jam-packed with coherent criticisms. This just puzzles me. Hill makes the best of it however, sensitively playing to the wounds that led Moses to construct this fiercely defensive emotional armor. In spite of its flaws, Pass Over is an exciting and dynamic return for Broadway, and I can recommend it.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Michael Feinstein

I am so happy that this show was my return to live performance. I’ve been a fan of Mr. Feinstein for a very long time, and much of the show was made up of songs I’d heard him do several times before. Michael being the sensitive interpreter he is, however, gave every song new layers in keeping with changed times. He gave a warm but wistful twist to this line in his opening song “It’s A Most Unusual Day” : “There are people meeting people / There is sunshine everywhere / There are people greeting people.”

Michael talked about how “The Great American Songbook” – that assortment of timeless songs he is so associated with – is an ever-evolving thing, as he introduced “You and Me Against the World.” Famous from a sentimental hit version by Helen Reddy, Michael really dug into the pain behind the song, which paradoxically made it more comforting.

Sometimes when Feinstein has done Marshall Barer’s Gay Pride-inspired “The Time Has Come” in the past it had something of a dreamy quality. This time there was a new firmness and confidence to it, allowing no doubt that, indeed, “The time has come / to heed a different drum.” Potent.

The show is entitled “Summertime Swing,” and it never swings harder than when Michael tears into Louis Jordan’s jump blues classic “Is You Is, Or Is You Ain’t My Baby” with a vengeance. As always, Michael gives you the story behind the song, which took composer Billy Austin from janitor to successful songwriter.

Michael closed with a stunning medley of songs sung by Frank Sinatra – who had been a help to Feinstein early in his career – ending with a vigorous, rousing version of “Theme from New York, New York” which clearly read as a celebration of the city’s culture returning to something resembling life. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: The Unsinkable Molly Brown

I admit I didn’t know much at all about Molly Brown or her namesake musical, aside from her surviving the sinking of the Titanic. So I come to this “revisal” with no prior prejudices. I’m not a huge fan of composer Meredith Willson’s music in the first place; the pastiche Americana of his big hit The Music Man decidedly doesn’t move me, though it works well for telling that particular story.

The man behind this revision, bookwriter Dick Scanlan, has done his research into the historical Molly, who it turns out was socially progressive and, eventually, a philanthropist and reformer. He thought that was a much more interesting story than the original production’s simple rags-to-riches angle. And I agree. That doesn’t make it into a first-rate musical – in sharp contrast to The Music Man none of its songs are instant earworms. It does, however, make it a rewarding evening of musical theatre.

Molly Brown, both the historical person (a Denver socialite) and the musical comedy character, fairly bursts with positivity and determination, so the actress who portrays her must possess abundant energy and charisma. This production’s Molly, Beth Malone, is blessed with a bounty of both qualities. Director / choreographer Kathleen Marshall deploys a very gifted ensemble with great creativity. Neither the show or the production is a masterpiece, but both are above average fun. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Grand Horizons

The cast was what most drew me to Grand Horizons. The opportunity to see Jane Alexander, Michael Urie, Priscilla Lopez and James Cameron together in a comedy – that’s just too tempting! I knew almost nothing else about the play going in, and playwright Bess Wohl – whose work I had not previously seen – pleasantly surprised me. Her comedy comes more from character than one-liners (save the odd blue word used solely for laughs), and she gets across more about human psychology than most comedies this hilarious ever manage.

Alexander and Cameron play married couple Bill and Nancy French, who have spent fifty years as husband and wife. As the show opens, we find them at an “independent living” house, silently preparing a meal with the kind of synchronization that only comes after many years of living together. Once they sit down to eat, Nancy announces that she wants a divorce.

Among other things, Grand Horizons examines the effect her decision has on their two grown children Brian (Urie) and Ben (Ben McKenzie). Brian is gay, has a tight relationship with Nancy and simply cannot understand why she would want to do this. Bill is taciturn as many men of his generation are, a quality he has passed on to his married son Ben – the chaotic consequences of not communicating is a major theme of the play.

I’ve never seen Jane Alexander do comedy, but I am not shocked that she plays it as superbly as anything she puts her mind to. We know Urie to be an excellent comic actor, and he’s as funny as ever. Cameron and McKenzie are given less to work with, but their silences speak volumes. Priscilla Lopez plays Carla, a contemporary of Bill and Nancy, and provides a marvelously colorful foil to Alexander’s patrician take on Nancy. Ashley Park delights as Ben’s pregnant wife, Jess. Maulik Pancholy is a sexy, riotous hot mess as Tommy, a horny and very frolicsome trick that Brian bring back to his parents residence late at night. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Beth Leavel

Despite this cabaret act being named “It’s Not About Me,” throughout Beth Leavel greatly relishes telling stories of her own long Broadway career. She barrels through it all with the ferocious commitment and incisive comic energy for which she’s most known.

She’s currently in between her much-loved turn playing Broadway diva Dee Dee in The Prom and creating the role of Miranda Priestly in Elton John’s musical version of The Devil Wears Prada. She opens with the song from The Prom which gives the act its title, blowing the roof off of Feinstein’s / 54 Below from the very beginning. Then she marries belting with a warm sense of welcoming in her take on Cole Porter’s “I Get A Kick Out Of You” the “you” in this case very clearly being the audience. In a typical pairing of sincerity with wisecracking, she notes she wants the show to feel like we’re all sitting around drinking in her living room – and then says that since everybody’s drinking we’re halfway there.

There are only about nine songs in the show, much of which she gives over to backstage stories told with much hilarity. Not only Broadway stories, but stories from regional theatre, where she has done such great roles as Dolly Levi and Mama Rose. And does she sing songs from those great roles? Oh yes she does, oh boy does she ever! I’m not going to tell you which ones; I’d rather you go “oh no she isn’t!” just like I did. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: The Inheritance

This is an exciting, thought-provoking show. I’ve seen it compared to Angels in America – they both involve gay American history and are split into two long parts – but they are quite different animals. Angels’ author Tony Kushner, tends toward broad scope and metaphysical philosophizing. The Inheritance‘s playwright Matthew Lopez, however, focuses on more human-scale stories. Yes, there is much in the play that underlines how much “the personal is the political,” but running time to one side, The Inheritance concentrates on relatively ordinary people navigating complicated lives.

Does it, then, justify that running time? Thankfully, yes. Lopez has a real gift for crafting believable and engaging characters. Because of this, over its many hours The Inheritance never lapses into tedium, no small accomplishment. Lopez loosely adapts E. M. Forster’s novel Howards End to 21st Century gay New York, following the interlinking lives of three generations of gay men searching for love and a place to call home. Like Forster’s book, the play interrogates social conventions and codes of conduct in relationships, but since the milieu is very different, Lopez reaches intriguingly different conclusions.

Lopez centers his story on Eric Glass (Kyle Soller, in a marvelously nuanced, even elegant portrayal), a a compassionate but conflicted native New Yorker. Also, Forster is not only the source of the plot’s outline, he also appears as a character, played with delicate dignity by Paul Hilton. He advises and inspires a young gay writer played by the remarkably talented (and toned!) Samuel H. Levine. Not for the only time, Lopez teases you with suspense – which of the characters that Levine plays is telling this story? Director Stephen Daldrey gives the narrative lots of air and makes weaving this complex tapestry seem breathtakingly easy. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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