Category: Theatre

Theatre Review: “Present Laughter”

Present LaughterSt. James Theatre

In aging matinee idol Garry Essendine, the central character in Present Laughter, playwright and gay sophisticate Noël Coward created one of the great comic monsters of the modern theater. All the greater because behind his arrogant, preening exterior, Garry is actually a compassionate, loving person, surprisingly devoted to the friends he so often bullies and insults. He just can’t help getting dazzled by his own brilliance (“I still maintain I should have been magnificent as Peer Gynt!”) — and who can’t identify with that?

It’s a truly luscious role, and Kevin Kline makes a full meal of it. He comically plays up Garry’s ego – he’s the most elaborately florid Garry, which is delicious. But he also takes Garry’s relationships with his tight-knit circle of friends totally to heart. This makes for a very textured Present Laughter. Even as you’re rolling your eyes at the excuses Garry makes for himself, you know he sincerely is trying to get it right. This is also the most precisely directed Present Laughter I’ve seen, thanks to Moritz von Stuelpnagel; every intention is crystal clear, and there’s plenty of truly inventive comic business.

While Garry struggles to plan his upcoming tour of Africa, his elegant London flat is invaded by all manner of vivid characters. Cobie Smulders, as femme fatale Joanna, positively slithers around the stage in costume designer Susan Hilferty’s gorgeous bias-cut gown. Kate Burton as Garry’s wife Liz is almost as plummy as Kline, and comedy treasure Kristine Nielsen is perfectly cast as his wry, indispensable secretary Monica. Highly 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: Latrice Royale

Latrice-Royale 2017

I knew from her last cabaret act that Latrice Royale can sing, y’all! And she’s actually pretty damn good at it! There’s no attempt at giving you “girl singer,” but she clearly models her approach to song interpretation on the likes of Aretha Franklin. She may not have Aretha’s pristine vocal instrument, but she certainly understands her lessons in musicality and expression. And her take on jazz composer Diane Schuur’s bluesy meditation “Life Goes On” (also the name of the show) makes a very good case for this solid but obscure song.

Like her previous act (titled Here’s to Life) Life Goes On is solidly in the mold of traditional autobiographical cabarets. However, since the earlier act told the story of most of Latrice’s life, and this is more of an update, the balance is slightly off. Both acts are more talk than song, but with less life material, some of the patter gets repetitive. Latrice has such presence that it never becomes unwatchable, but this particular show could use more songs for sure. Because when she sings something like “Nobody Does It Like Me” or the suggestive “Hot Nuts” it is pure drag gold.

Latrice Royale is backed by a very able jazz trio led by her fiance Christopher Hamblin on the piano. Life Goes On feels more polished than the cabaret acts I’ve seen from other Drag Race alumni, full of humor, soulfulness and candor. Latrice is the real thing, and I want to hear much more from her as a singer. Highly 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: “The Price”

The Price THE PRICE CAST Mark Ruffalo Victor Franz Tony Shalhoub Walter Franz Jessica Hecht Esther Franz Danny DeVito Gregory Solomon THE PRICE CREATIVE Arthur Miller Playwright Terry Kinney Director Derek McLane—Set Designer Sarah J. Holden—Costume Designer David Weiner—Lighting Designer Rob Milburn & Michael Bodeen—Sound Designers

I’m a little odd when it comes to Arthur Miller. The big hits, Death of a Salesman and The Crucible leave me cold. Oh, I can appreciate that they are thoughtful, insightful and well made, but beyond that? My fave Miller is the almost-never produced Depression epic, The American Clock. And now I can count The Price, about the lingering effects of the Depression thirty years on, as my second favorite.

Part of the reason I’ve taken to The Price: the usually too-earnest Miller injects some welcome humor into the proceedings, in the person of Gregory Solomon (Danny DeVito), an octogenarian furniture dealer. Solomon’s also a former vaudevillian, which is more than evident in the charm and by-play he brings to his negotiations. Solomon is hired by Victor Franz (Mark Ruffalo) to appraise his family’s furniture, all that is left of his father’s estate.

As Solomon, DeVito is impeccably cast. Imbuing Solomon with nearly inexhaustible spunk, DeVito makes sure that we know the man has a purpose for every word he says, though it is almost never just what’s on the surface. He puts him across as the kind of guy who will make you absolutely love him, even though he may be taking advantage of you. Victor does his best to resist his wiles, but can’t help admiring him.

Victor is the character on whom all the play’s action hinges, and Ruffalo does a terrific job of conveying how the trauma of the Depression has never ceased to haunt and petrify him. Jessica Hecht, who plays Victor’s wife Esther, is one of the most skilled interpreters of Miller around, and gives Esther a good deal more love of both her husband and life than is actually in the lines, to compelling effect. Tony Shalhoub plays Victor’s cynical doctor brother, and does a great job of projecting surface confidence, when really there’s a terror of the abyss below – just as affected by the Depression as Victor, in his own way. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

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