The title of Mario Cantone's one-person Broadway show, Laugh Whore, is disarmingly accurate. There is no cohesive theme or arc to the evening; it exists solely as a vehicle for Cantone to get as many laughs as he can with whatever material he's got. And make no mistake about it -- he gets his laughs.
If you're a longtime Cantone fan, chances are that you've heard much of this show before. There are, for instance, routines that reach back to such ancient comedic touchstones as Michael Jackson's plastic surgery and Andrew Lloyd Webber's Cats. Dated? Yes. Funny? Also yes. Cantone gets away with a lot of stale material simply because he's very good at what he does. Among his many attributes, he's a great mimic, able to toss off a wide range of celebrity voices at mach (or "mock") speed. He's also a surprisingly good physical clown; he gets a lot of laughs from the way he throws himself around the stage.
Much of his humor skims along the surface; there is nothing at stake in the jokes. It's only when he turns serious in the second act and offers a dark, risky routine built around the deaths of his mother and father that the comedy has genuine bite. This section is, by far, the most artful and impressive part of the show. One wishes that there were more such material in Laugh Whore.
All the News That Fits, They Sing
The topical musical revue, once a Broadway staple, has its own contemporary Off-Broadway champion in satiric songwriter Rick Crom. His current show, Newsical, playing Upstairs at Studio 54, is a sharply observed send-up of American culture, politics, and people. Like Forbidden Broadway, it has carried over some of its best material from last year's edition but it has been updated with some new songs and blackouts that zing and zap.
The targets range from botox to airport security, from Governor Arnold to the outcome of Tuesday's election. New material is regularly added to keep the show current. Crom, a modern-day Tom Lehrer, targets both the political right and left with his clever lyrics. A smart show in content, Newsical is also intelligently directed by Donna Drake, who paces it briskly and wisely gives her talented four-person cast room to be independently creative.
The strong cast features Kim Cea, Todd Alan Johnson, Jeff Skowron, and -- in a standout, star-making performance -- Stephanie Kurtzuba. Last seen and admired by these critics in the otherwise awesomely awful The Joys of Sex, the versatile Kurtzuba displays superb musical comedy chops in a variety of roles. Her standout numbers include an amazingly well acted song about meeting a guy online as well as a Liza Minnelli bit that's as audacious as it is side-splittingly funny. Remember her name: Kurtzuba's going to be cast in everything after this.
Tricks? No Treats
It's a dirty trick, indeed, to find the radiantly talented Judith Ivey in the shrill and opaque one-person show Dirty Tricks at the Public Theater. A supposed glimpse into the madwoman of Watergate, the outspoken Martha Mitchell (wife of Richard Nixon's attorney general, John Mitchell), the show is a stark disappointment.
Martha was a fascinating footnote during the Watergate era but John Jeter's play harps on her eccentric nature (for laughs?) and never reveals a believable human being. Margaret Whitton's direction doesn't help: everything is over-the-top, loud, and obvious. In other words, Dirty Tricks is lacking in subtlety, which is usually Judith Ivey's trademark. As Martha Mitchell, she has mostly one note to play -- and it doesn't play well.
The Oak Room is currently featuring the award-winning jazz artist Paula West with the Eric Reid Trio. West, usually a contemplative entertainer who tends to explore her material in a slow, cautious style, has revved up her approach here and gives her program of mostly familiar standards a surprisingly lively and robust treatment. Reid's personality, as well as his musical direction, adds an additional dynamic to the show; his playful ways help West break through her aloof demeanor to reveal a warmer self. These two worked together last year at the Oak Room with excellent results, and this show is an extension of that excellence. West continues at the Oak Room through next week.
If there is one person working in cabaret right now who could almost instantly jump to star status, it's Mark McCombs. A wildly talented writer-performer who creates hilarious Southern trash characters and infuses them with rich, quirky personalities, McCombs is just a phone call away from landing a Saturday Night Live job or its equivalent. He is a plum comic performer waiting to be picked by the first TV producer lucky enough to stumble across his fall-off-your-chair act, which recently concluded at Don't Tell Mama. (Stranger things have happened!) From a sly, middle-aged busybody talking gossip on the phone to an adorable little boy on a sugar high who accidentally says the darkest, darnedest things, McCombs' assemblage of wounded, whacked-out characters borders on creative genius. He's not telling jokes, he's bringing to life seriously funny character pieces that oftentimes are as touching as they are outlandishly hysterical. If he tied each of these pieces ever so slightly closer together, the texture of the entire show would deepen tenfold. If there is any justice in show business, McCombs will go very, very far.
The Duplex has done what few clubs have ever done before and turned the late Friday night time slot into a gold mine. The club's booker, Phil Geoffrey Bond, is not only getting full houses for late shows starting at 11pm on Fridays, he's keeping the crowd there till 4am! Bond has done this through the establishment of an open mike night devoted to the songs of just one composer per month. It started in October with a celebration of the songs of Stephen Sondheim and, on the different Fridays when we were there, singers just kept coming in as the night wore on. Ironically, precious few of them got through a Sondheim song without going up on the lyrics, but the audience -- us excepted -- didn't seem to mind. These sessions feature the talented Ray Fellman at the piano; two gifted singers who double as waiters, Brandon Cutrell and Kate Pazakis, serve as hosts. At last week's show, Kate Pazakis honored November's composer, Stephen Schwartz, with a stunning version of "Defying Gravity" from Wicked. Singing Schwartz's songs or, for that matter, the songs of anyone other than Sondheim should give the performers who show up better odds of getting to the end of their numbers with all of the lyrics intact.