Category: Politics

Theatre Review: “The Humans”

THE_HUMANS_-_Sarah_Steele__Jayne_Houdyshell__Arian_Moayed._Photo_by_Brigitte_Lacombe

This is a major play, no doubt about it, but what a lot of critics and commentators seem to have missed is what a deeply political play it is. It focuses on the Irish-American Blake family, who have come to youngest daughter Brigid’s (Sarah Steele) sketchy tenement Chinatown apartment (a “duplex” by virtue of extending into a basement) to celebrate Thanksgiving. All of them are dealing with serious problems of one sort or another, which they face with a mix of willful but warm good humor and stoic endurance. What struck me was the lack of any social safety net to help them with their problems.

Even the arguably most affluent family member, lawyer sister Aimee (Cassie Beck), has no defense against being fired for not having enough billable hours, even though the reason was a debilitating illness. And working class father Erik (Reed Birney) and mother Deirdre (Jayne Houdyshell) from Scranton? Forget it, they just have to do whatever it takes to get by. This family could be poster children for the Sanders campaign.

What the critics didn’t miss – how could you – is that The Humans is a deeply humane and compassionate play, and, in spite of tackling difficult subjects, a sparklingly funny one. If society and government don’t have the backs of the Blake family, they certainly have each others’ – even in the most trying of circumstances, as the play’s last burst of dialogue suggests.

The cast is uniformly extraordinary, with my personal favorite being the always sparkling Houdyshell. Director Joe Mantello delineates ever turn of this intricate play, never missing a detail or a nuance. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

For more reviews and interviews by Jonathan Warman, see his blog Drama Queen.

Opera Review: “Maria Stuarda”

Maria Stuarda

Bravissima, Radvanovsky! This season Sondra Radvanovsky is proving her bel canto mettle by playing a trio of Tudor queens with starring roles in three operas by Gaetano Donizetti. This month, she plays the lead role in Maria Stuarda, better known in the English-speaking world as Mary, Queen of Scots. It’s a wonderful vehicle for her enormous, soaring, shimmering, effortless coloratura; this surely puts her in opera’s very highest circle of stars.

The opera gives us a highly fictionalized version of the final days of Mary Stuart, held prisoner by her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I. It follows Friedrich Schiller’s play of the same name in inventing a meeting between the two that never happened. Also, much is made of a supposed love between Elizabeth’s favorite courtier Robert Dudley of Leicester and Mary, when historically Leicester strongly resisted Elizabeth’s suggestion that he marry Mary to smooth things over politically.

Elza van den Heever’s performance as “Elizabetta” is vocally strong – she attacks the role with a brilliantine ferocity. Her physicalization also suggests a powerful and fierce woman, but with an odd twist. This Elizabetta struts and swaggers like a cowboy. It’s a strong choice, but also undeniably a strange one. As Maria, Radvanovsky is decidedly not a victim, defiant until the last possible moment, and then a beacon of radiant acceptance once it is clear there is no escape.

Director David McVicar’s production is stately and a tad solemn, but never descends into sleepy stasis. John McFarlane’s sets and costumes capture Elizabethan grandeur, though I wish he used a wider and more varied palette than white, black and red. I can hardly wait to see the conclusion of the triad, Roberto Devereaux, in which Radvanovsky will take her own turn playing the great Elizabeth. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Cabaret Review: Buster Poindexter

Buster Poindexter photo credit David Andrako

This guy’s smarter and wittier than the “worldly and urbane” Mick Jagger! So says legendary rock journalist Lisa Robinson in her recent memoir There Goes Gravity, and I’m inclined to believe her. David Johanson (aka Buster Poindexter) was arguably the king of rock in early 1970s New York, as the lead singer of glam punk legends the New York Dolls.

Poindexter is Johansen’s martini sipping, jacket required alter ego. At this point, after retiring and returning to the Buster multiple times, it essentially signifies that Johanson will be singing the Poindexter repertoire, while wearing a pompadour. When he talks about himself in the act, he calls himself David.

Johansen is at his best when assaying international material – a rattling version of calypso standard “Zombie Jamboree” is one of the high points, as is a ragged boogie take on Italo-pop classic “Volare” (made famous by Dean Martin). Sometimes the act veers even closer to pure rock-and-roll, as with his interpretation of “Piece of My Heart” that owes its arrangement to the hit Janis Joplin version (for the record, that’s a very good thing).

Johansen clearly has real affection for the pop standards and early R&B that form the backbone of this act. The fun here is hearing these songs given new life with a combination of excellent musicianship and gutbucket energy worthy of the New York Dolls.

And there’s nothing particularly ironic about the act, either – the closest Johansen comes to schtick are the Vegas jokes he tells between songs, and even these gems of bad taste feel somehow lovingly curated, and are sometimes presented with such conviction that the punchline arrives with unexpected surprise and joy. This act is a hard swinging good time, and definitely recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Opera Review: “Tosca”

Kristin Sampson as Tosca, James Valenti as Mario Cavaradossi and Michael Chioldi as Baron Scarpia Inaugural NYC Opera Performance General Director: Michael Capasso Conductor: Pacien Mazzagatti

New York City Opera is back! I have a personal reason for being excited – by the time I started reviewing opera in fall of 2013, their previous incarnation had already closed up shop and filed for bankruptcy, and I had definitely wanted to cover them. Plus, it’s just plain nice to have a middle-sized company, between the obligatory grandeur of the Met and the scrappy inventiveness of the indie opera companies dotting the city landscape.

This Tosca is staunchly traditional: it replicates the sets and costumes by Adolfo Hohenstein from the opera’s premiere production in 1900. Stage director Lev Pugliese may or may not be making an effort to replicate Nino Vignuzzi’s original staging; he certainly steers the staging to hit all the marks of a very traditional Tosca.

I’ve stated before that I only object to traditionalism when it gets in the way of imagination and entertainment. This production is definitely entertaining – Tosca is such a bodice-ripper that doing it straight-on can hardly fail to engage. And the cast is focused with the moment-to-moment flow of the story; this is decidely not Tosca on autopilot.

This production’s Cavaradossi, James Valenti, has a powerful and flexible voice, more than capable of meeting the dramatic and lyric sides of the role. Soprano Kristen Sampson gave Tosca a warmer shade than she usually gets – you got the feeling this Tosca was aware that her jealous feelings were probably unfounded. That’s not exactly the way the role’s written, but it’s not so strange as to be implausible, and gave Tosca some additional, and welcome, humanity.

The real story of this production, though, is Michael Chioldi as the ultimate opera villian Scarpia. He’s easily the best actor in the cast, projecting a truly elegant surface under which murky waters roil. This was definitely a “love to hate you” kind of Scarpia, with vocal power, confidence and technique to back it up. Overall, a rock-solid Tosca, not at all a bad way to get NYCO back on its feet.

For tickets, click here.

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

Cabaret Review: Tommy Tune

Tommy Tune photo credit David Andrako 2016_01_12_CafeCarlyle_15

This cabaret act is a testament to what a good director Tommy Tune is – and before you ask, yes, I do mean that as a compliment. Singing was never his leading talent, although he’s just fine at it, thank you. No, this club act makes it clear that it’s more about how he frames things.

And the frames are many: his angular shoulders and elbows, eccentric lighting cues which were clearly designed according to his specifications, the song selection (not a single ballad thank you), his tap dancing in almost every number. The songs are all familiar standards, but Tune’s long-time music director Michael Biagi drops in quotations from other music – a little “Rhapsody in Blue” here, a little Chicago there – that comment on the familiar songs like footnotes.

This also means that no one song stood out as a particularly effective interpretation. Rather, they were all effective numbers in a one-man musical about his career in showbiz. The genre is light-hearted backstage comedy, packed with joy and a little bit of rueful melancholy. He’s completely at ease and whimsical, which suits him very well.

At one point, he pays tribute to Charles “Honi” Coles his colleague in My One and Only, who had been a pioneer in tap dance and soft shoe since his youth in the early 20th Century. Tune recalls some private tap lessons with Coles, in which the master dancer instructed Tune to get progressively more “non-chalant.” And that accidentally points up this show’s one real problem – certain gestures, moments and ideas are so soft-pedaled that they don’t quite tell the story Tune likely wants them to. It’s not a major problem to have, and doesn’t prevent the evening from being quite entertaining. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

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