Category: Top Diva

Cabaret Review: Chita Rivera

CHITA-RIVERA-red-1-PHOTO-BY-LAURA-MARIE-DUNCAN-003

Every time you see Chita Rivera, you learn a lesson about performing. How to make an announcement about your legs with a piece of fabric. How to “make a huge entrance” when you have in fact been discreetly hidden in plain sight on stage for five minutes. In the case of her current cabaret act at the Café Carlyle, I learned why her, Liza Minnelli and other dancers favor sequined pantsuits; they are to dancers’ bodies what orchestrations are to a piano score: they amplify and glorify even the smallest movement. And Chita’s body needs amplification for the movements she makes in the small 2 feet by 4 feet area allowed her on the tiny Carlyle stage.

That said, those sequins are just razzle-dazzle in the service of an already great theatrical presence. She holds nothing back in this act, this diva is cutting loose as only she can. When she sang “Where Am Going” from Sweet Charity, she shed new light for me not only on that song, but on all of Sweet Charity. I understand the song now as an existential awakening for an already worldly woman, and the show as almost as profound as the Fellini film that inspired it.

Chita was always at her best playing “existential musical comedy” and thus became the muse for people with that aesthetic, first Bob Fosse, but then, more deeply, Fred Ebb and John Kander. No shock then that the majority of songs in the show come from a collaboration with either Fosse or Kander & Ebb.

She almost launches into “All That Jazz,” the most spectacular of her many signature Kander & Ebb numbers, at the top of the show. When she finally does it as her finale, it’s more than satisfying, it’s positively gratifying.

Chita never falters. About the worst I can say is that she didn’t sing the entirety of “America” from West Side Story. I am a Leonard Bernstein fanatic, this is his centennial and “America” is one of my most beloved Bernstein songs. Chita sings the hell out of her “America” fragment, leaving someone like me begging for more. But that would be greedy with all the artistic riches on display here. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Theatre Review: “The Little Foxes”

LILLIAN HELLMAN’S THE LITTLE FOXESDirected by Daniel SullivanWith Laura Linney, Cynthia NixonDarren Goldstein, Michael McKean, Richard ThomasDavid Alford, Michael Benz, Francesca Carpanini, Caroline Stefanie Clay, Charles Turner

This is easily the most entertaining serious play I’ve seen so far this Broadway season. Plays like Oslo and Indecent may be more insightful, even edifying, but Lillian Hellman’s 1939 poisoned chestnut The Little Foxes has far more spicy melodrama. Sure, those other plays don’t exactly fail at entertainment, and Foxes does have some serious issues on its mind, but the reason to see it is exactly the same reason you watch a suspensefully-plotted soap opera.

Set in 1900 Alabama, The Little Foxes follows Regina Giddens – a template for Alexis Carrington, without a doubt – and her conniving brothers as they claw and scratch their way towards wealth and power. Caught in the middle, among others, are Regina’s cultured and much-abused sister-in-law Birdie and Regina’s principled but deathly ill husband Horace.

In a bit of stunt casting, Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon trade off playing Regina and Birdie (a smaller but still quite juicy role). The night I saw it, Linney was a steely marvel as Regina, and Nixon heartbreakingly vulnerable and sincere as Birdie.

Either way director Daniel Sullivan has crafted a production so rock-solid, and intelligently observed in its details, that any skilled actor would feel secure and supported. Set designer Scott Pask delivers a drawing room that has exactly the right feeling of severe, effortful elegance. Costume designer Jane Greenwood nails the armor-like padded crispness needed to convey Regina’s intimidatingly powerful presence.

The supporting cast is every bit as potent as the leads. Richard Thomas gives the ill Horace a wounded gravitas which makes him a worthy opponent for Regina even in his diminished state. Michael McKean brings disturbing warmth to mastermind brother Ben, and Darren Goldstein shows us the insecurity behind brother Oscar’s bluster (to great effect). At its core, The Little Foxes is a ripping yarn and this production gives that full play. Highly recommended.

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.

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: Suzanne Vega

Suzanne Vega photo credit David Andrako

I’ve said before that New York-themed shows seem to make the best fit for the Café Carlyle. Suzanne Vega is one of those performers who is quintessentially New York without even trying, like David Johanson or Debbie Harry (both of whom have played the Carlyle). Her current show goes further: Its core is a bunch of songs from her new album and show called Lover, Beloved, which is about novelist Carson McCullers, a Southerner by birth, but a true New Yorker by choice. There’s even a song called “New York is My Destination.”

McCullers was disgusted by the intolerance she witnessed growing up in Georgia, arrived in New York in her early twenties and wrote with great compassion about outcasts. As far as I can tell Lover, Beloved alternates between monologue and song, all written in McCullers’s voice. The songs from this project are every bit as good as Vega’s older songs, which are among the sturdiest, most original and beautiful that the singer / songwriter tradition has produced.

Speaking of those older songs, she opens with “Fat Man and Dancing Girl” which has chillingly fresh resonance in the era of the El Cheeto. Vega later juxtaposes one of her classic misfit anthems “Left of Center” with an even more potent new one “I Never Wear White,” to great effect.

And when you come to her biggest hits, well, “Luka” is merely a good song – that became a massive hit – by someone who regularly wrote much better ones. It’s to Vega’s credit that she sings it simply and cleanly, without a hint of condescension to the song or the audience.

“Tom’s Diner,” by contrast, comes across as a real monster live, showing itself to be one of Vega’s very best. A big reason that this song comes across so well is Gerry Leonard, her musical director and guitarist. A self-professed “equipment geek” Leonard turns his electric guitar into a whole band, rhythm section included. Stunning, and highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

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