Category: Music

Cabaret Review: John Pizzarelli

John Pizzarelli photo credit David Andrako 2017_04_25_Carlyle_02

This is “too marvelous for words”: John Pizzarelli, top exponent of cabaret’s jazzier side, plays a show composed only of songs written by Johnny Mercer, arguably the greatest lyricist of the Great American Songbook. And, as always, he does it with astonishing elan and profound musical intelligence.

John’s guitar style is amazingly fluid and elegant, with nonpareil mastery of a technique called “guitar harmonics” that produces high notes of extraordinary expressiveness. For Mercer’s “Skylark” he plays an entire melodic line in harmonics, which is not only very unusual (and I’m guessing difficult), but very beautiful and quite evocative of birdsong.

Pizzarelli is also a great interpretive artist in more ways than one. 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 Mercer, whose wit can be very subtle indeed.

It’s not that surprising for Pizzarelli to do a show exclusively devoted to Mercer. His one and only appearance on Broadway was in the highly conceptual Mercer revue Dream (he opens this act with the title song) and he met his wife Jessica Molasky while working on that show. But, hey, it’s also kind of hard to go wrong with an all-Mercer show in any event.

It’s common courtesy in a jazz setting to applaud for a bit after everybody’s solos, and indeed bandleader John frequently points at one of the instrumentalists as if to say “give it up for so-and-so”! More often in this show, though, the onslaught of flashy jazziness is so relentless that you don’t applaud for fear of missing something amazing. Neither jazz nor cabaret gets much better than this.

For tickets, click here.

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

Theatre Review: “War Paint”

WAR PAINT [0174]_ Steffanie Leigh, Christine Ebersole, Mary Claire King, Photo by Joan Marcus, 2017

Some of Broadway’s most solid craftsmen worked on War Paint, and it shows. Most of the creative team previously worked on Grey Gardens, and while this isn’t up to the caliber of that show, it’s still pretty darn good. War Paint follows the decades-long rivalry of cosmetics pioneers Elizabeth Arden (Christine Ebersole) and Helena Rubinstein (Patti LuPone), who between them defined beauty standards for the first half of the 20th Century.

The score by composer Scott Frankel and lyricist Michael Korie evokes all kinds of music from the 1930s through the 1960s, with generous doses of big band-style swing. Doug Wright’s book, together with Korie’s lyrics, uses the fierce competition between these two female titans of industry to examine their differences, but more importantly to shed light on the similar challenges they both faced in the male-dominated business world.

Of course, the main draw is seeing not one but two living legends in the lead roles. The songs for Ebersole and LuPone go beyond intelligently painting the personalities of the two main characters – they are as exquisitely tailored for their talents as are their glamorous Catherine Zuber-designed outfits. This is nowhere more apparent than in their twin 11 O’Clock numbers. When Christine finishes her song “Pink” – as pure Ebersole as anything Frankel and Korie gave her in Grey Gardens – it’s hard to imagine they could top it. And they don’t, exactly – Patti’s “Forever Beautiful” is more of a lateral move, just as astonishing a number, and ideal for LuPone.

It’s very well-crafted, but not perfect: There are moments when the dramatic tension goes a bit slack, until our heroines have a new historical problem to face. It’s an inherent weakness of most historically-based theatre, and therefore one I am quick to forgive. For the most part, War Paint is smart and marvelously stylish entertainment. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Theatre Review: “The View UpStairs”

View UpStairs_photobyKurtSneddon413

On the basis of this show, Max Vernon is definitely a musical theatre songwriting talent to keep an eye on. The score is far and away the strongest part of The View UpStairs; it sounds like a mix of Jonathan Larson, Boy George’s Taboo and Marc Bolan at his glammiest, and that’s a pretty spicy musical gumbo. The show takes us to the UpStairs Lounge, a vibrant early 1970s gay dive bar in the French Quarter of New Orleans, which was the site of a terrible anti-gay attack – to learn more about it go see the show.

The book is a somewhat different story. Vernon also wrote the book, and as with most musical theatre books by songwriters, it’s the weakest link in the show. It’s not that Vernon lacks talent as a writer; some of his lyrics are very fine indeed. Plus the book gets the job done better than some, and has a few genuinely entertaining moments. Far too often, though, you can feel the story’s gears moving until we get into a song. The story is told through the eyes of a young gay guy from 2017 transported back to 1973, and – a handful of strong insights at the very end of the show aside – the device is more awkward than it is revealing.

Under Scott Ebersold’s canny and vigorous direction, the cast is uniformly fine and strongly committed to the show, which makes any problems much easier to take. The hearts of everybody involved are definitely in the right place. This is Vernon’s first Off-Broadway show, I truly can’t wait to see where he goes next. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Cabaret Review: John O’Hurley

John O'Hurley photo credit David Andrako

This man has a finely tuned sense of the absurd, but he’s also capable of sincerity so complete that it’s almost embarrassing. Best known as J. Peterman on the NBC sitcom Seinfeld and as a champion on Dancing with the Stars, the early decades of O’Hurley’s career saw him as a fixture of daytime TV soap operas. More recently, he has spent a lot of time playing Billy Flynn in Broadway’s Chicago. Frankly, I think he’d be a revelation in something by Samuel Beckett, but maybe that’s just me.

His current club act at the Café Carlyle is called “A Man with Standards” a reference both to growing up in a more sentimental time, and to the Great American Songbook. As far as the songs go, they’re more 1950s swinging chart hits than the pre-WW II showtunes I associate with “the Songbook” – no Gershwin, Porter or the like. The closest he comes to that is Johnny Mercer’s later hit “Moon River”. That’s not a big deal, however; he does it all with panache and an enormous booming voice that almost renders amplification redundant.

There’s much talk of Sinatra. Most of it is in the abstract, but O’Hurley also tells about singing Sinatra’s own “You Will Be My Music” at a celebration Sinatra attended, and how much he prized Frank’s approval. Toward the end of the show, O’Hurley sings several songs written by Anthony Newley, and the fit of singer and material is terrific. If there ever was a songwriter who seamlessly combined the absurd and the sentimental, it was Newley, and he finds an ideal interpreter in O’Hurley – I’d love to see a whole show of him singing nothing but Newley. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Theatre Review: “Come from Away”

COME FROM AWAY, Photo by Matthew Murphy, 2017

First off I want to give director Christopher Ashley a warm welcome back to Broadway, where he hasn’t directed in many years. He directed many of my favorite Broadway shows – from musical hit Xanadu to unjustly maligned brilliant flop comedy The Smell of the Kill. His work on new musical Come from Away is among the most expertly executed and tightly paced I’ve seen from him, and that’s saying something. Welcome back, Mr. Ashley!

Come from Away tells the story of what happened in Gander, Newfoundland in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks. With U.S. airspace closed, 38 planes and 6,579 passengers were forced to land in Gander, which had an unusually large airport, a relic of pre-jet air travel. Ashley keeps things moving with grace and ease.

This remarkable story is told with compassion but isn’t mawkishly sentimental; it deals with a national trauma, but comes at it from an oblique angle. Anybody who was in New York that day doesn’t need to be reminded of what it looked like, and thankfully Come from Away doesn’t use those images.

The married team of Irene Sankoff and David Hein co-wrote the book and score. The well-constructed and engaging book is stronger than the Celtic-folk-inflected score, which is pleasant enough, but not particularly memorable, except for “Me and the Sky” which tells the story of Beverley Bass, the first woman to captain on commercial fights (Jenn Colella knocks it out of the ballpark). Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

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