Review: Justin Vivian Bond and Anthony Roth Costanzo Are Only an Octave Apart
This concert by two very different vocalists welcomes audiences back to St. Ann's Warehouse.
It might seem like an odd pairing: Anthony Roth Costanzo is a star countertenor in an opera world where that highest male voice is increasingly in demand. His bewitching performance in the Metropolitan Opera production of Akhnaten still lingers in my memory. Justin Vivian Bond is the queen of downtown cabaret, regularly holding court at Joe's Pub and earning our fealty with heartfelt renditions of unexpected songs. And yet their double act at St. Ann's Warehouse, Only an Octave Apart, feels like it was always meant to be. I'm confident there isn't a more delightfully eclectic evening of music to be had in New York City.
The name of the concert is taken from a duet sung by Carol Burnett and Beverly Sills during their 1976 television special at the Metropolitan Opera. Naturally, Bond takes the Burnett part and Constanzo does Sills when they sing the number at the top of the show. Bond is a gifted comedian, with the ability to make any line crackle with subtext. "The great thing about opera is that when you wake up, you're at the opera," Bond cracks.
"You're making me laugh, which creates phlegm," Costanzo charges. They sustain this sassy broad/opera diva banter throughout 90 minutes that are as hilarious as they are musically impressive.
A subdued, slightly sinister version of "Me and My Shadow" leads to a very queer segment in which Costanzo sings a number from Henry Purcell's The Fairy-Queen that he's fairly sure is about a one-night stand. Bond immediately follows with the late Victorian parlor song "There Are Fairies at the Bottom of Our Garden," performed with an outsize British accent while throwing daisies at the lip of the stage. Somewhere, Quentin Crisp is smiling.
They both sit at the edge of the stage like Judy for a simple yet riveting rendition of Antônio Carlos Jobim's "Waters of March." It's a song they have a disagreement about: Bond thinks it's about fishing, Costanzo thinks it's about murder. While I'm usually lulled by the song's breezy melody (I almost always hear it in Portuguese), this English version had me hanging on every lyric.
There are other memorable duets: Our chairs vibrate to the beat of the Sylvester disco number "Stars." They perform a surprisingly cohesive medley of Purcell's "Dido's Lament" and the 2003 pop torch song "White Flag" (by Dido), which they immediately chase with an even better mashup of the Bangles' "Walk Like an Egyptian" and one of Costanzo's numbers from Akhnaten.
Costanzo goes full Hasselhoff when he sings a male-female duet with himself, wowing us with his lower register — that is to say, his lovely tenor. His high notes are crystalline, but his range as a performer is even broader than I might have imagined.
Bond has long possessed one of the most expressive voices in cabaret, with an effortless ability to convey both sardonic wit and devastating sadness. Bond's iconic purr sounds better than ever in this concert, especially with the accompaniment of a nine-person orchestra, including flute, harp, and two violins (excellent music direction by Thomas Bartlett).
Director Zack Winokur organizes the evening to showcase the individual talents of both performers while giving them enough time to change into several of Jonathan Anderson's whimsical costumes. Set designer Carlos Soto accents each number with little surprises, and John Torres enhances the mood with his stealth lighting. David Schnirman's finely tuned sound design ensures that every note and lyric can be heard.
While Costanzo's exploits at the Met made me eager to see this show, I only recently realized that I first heard his voice two decades ago in the Merchant Ivory film A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries. As a young gay man, the experience of seeing another man sing a woman's aria was transformative for me. Bond has similarly inspired me with their artistic fearlessness and unapologetic individuality. It shouldn't surprise us that these two artists are defying genres to create a show that is entertaining, sophisticated, and completely original. There should be more collaborations like this.