One quality essential to the art of the great Agnes Moorehead, for whom these annual Aggie Awards for the 10 best live performances are named, was the deepest kind of empathy, enabling her to be convincing as everything from Booth Tarkington’s frustrated fin-de-siecle Midwestern spinster in “The Magnificent Ambersons” to the killer- acerbic, supernaturally gifted mother-in-law of a poor slob who married the most famous witch of all time.
This kind of empathy also exudes from what I consider the most beautiful pair of eyes in the city, those of cabaret eminence Sidney Myer. For decades now, the talent coordinator of the venerable Don’t Tell Mama, he extended to me as a newbie in town, just starting to cover a strange new world, immediate warmth and kindness. It’s a kindness he has extended to hundreds of singers — some great, some now really famous, some good, and others decidedly less so — who’ve all been given a shot under his aegis.
So there is no one better to ring in a hopefully brighter, maybe even Trump-less 2020 with than Maestro Myer, who will be doing his inimitable bon vivant thing at Pangea (pangeanyc.com) for two shows on New Year’s Eve. He will sing heartfelt essentials like “It’s So Nice to Have a Man Around the House,” and his piquant patter alone should have put him on at least part-time display at the Met Museum’s “Camp” exhibition.
This intimate showroom holds a special place in his heart, for not only has he really come into his own as a performer there, selling out every show, but it was, indeed, he who first encouraged its owners Stephen Shanaghan and Arnoldo Caballero to make their dream of turning their private party space into the magical reality it is.
Music was always a heaven-sent escape for Myer, from his early childhood, and he was blessed with understanding parents — like a Dad who drove his diva-mad son to a Peggy Lee gig in a tent somewhere in the Jersey wilds and patiently waited it out in the parking lot! But Papa Myer took a far more active role in the greatest diva moment of his son’s life.
“Yes, it was a tent situation again, but it was Judy Garland, who, as clichéd as it sounds from yet another gay man, I had worshiped forever, although I was still a kid,” Myer recalled. “The orchestra began her famous overture and — I will never forget this — before she even entered, the entire audience rose as one, mad with anticipation. And then she did enter and had to come down this aisle onto the stage. My father was sitting on the aisle and, as she passed at one point, somehow she fell into his lap. Judy Garland and my father together mere feet away from me! And then he did the most amazing thing: he beckoned me over to meet her. It was a totally unreal moment to see my idol so close up, and, in a daze, I approached her. She looked at me with the saddest eyes I have ever seen and all I could manage to say was just, “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.”
And that’s exactly what I want to say to this year’s Aggie winners, for the beacons of exquisite artistry, intelligence, blessed humor, and humanity their unforgettable work provided, so urgently needed in a year in which very little made any sense at all.
1. There simply was no more exhilarating, deep and deeply moving, spectacularly performed, or timely play than one written 45 years ago. Ntozake Shange’s “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf” remains as fresh as a kiss, and I actually found this profoundly lovable revival superior to the mythic original production, thanks to Leah C. Gardiner’s sinuously fluid and alive direction and Camille A Brown’s choreography, which in the parlance of the Children of Paradise Garage, went beyond “fierce” into “OVER” (aka OVAH). If only Shange, who died last year at 70, could have seen this rapturous reminder to the world of her life-changing genius. Her truest epitaph came from a sibling, Ifa Bayeza, who said, “I don’t think there’s a day on the planet when there’s not a young woman who discovers herself through the words of my sister.”
2. The path which the pioneering Shange paved, investigating, at long last, the important but disenfranchised lives of Black folks is, happily, being trod upon again and quite gloriously, by Donja R. Love, who sheds his light on the reality of Black men living with HIV, like himself, in his searing “One in Two,” the best new play of 2019. A New Group production, it is now playing at the Pershing Square Signature Theatre through January 12, and it deserves the Pulitzer, which will probably go to “Slave Play” or “The Inheritance,” two critics’ darlings I found singularly hollow and false. Like Shange, every word Love writes is true — including the title, referring to the shockingly high incidence of infection among gay Black men. When you’ve seen as much bad and bogus theater as I have, your built-in bullshit detector breathes a rare sigh of relief that you can give it a rest, laugh your ass off at Love’s trenchant and often satirically observed coverage of an enormous range of Black New Yorkers, and be educated, as well, not only about Love’s desperately important theme, but also about genius stagecraft. His script’s dauntingly audacious structure pays off magnificently in climactic, honestly earned, and electrifyingly eloquent moral excoriation. True collaborators here are his fearless director, Stevie Walker Webb, as well as his phenomenal cast (Jamyl Dobson, Leland Fowler, Edward Mawere), who are not only utterly fearless and bewilderingly versatile, playing every kind of urban archetype, including you, but utterly naked — in the very best sense —as well. (thenewgroup.org/production/one-in-two/)
3. A tie: The spirited revivals of “Kiss Me Kate” and “Oklahoma” proved that you can do the classics in two ways. One option is to scrupulously honor their grand showmanship tradition, as “Kiss Me Kate” did, with sterling lead performances by the perfectly cast Kelli O’Hara as Kate/ Lilli Vanessi, both silvery (her soprano and glam look) and savage (as in savagely funny), especially in the verite, probably painful nightly battles she engaged in with an absolutely sizzling Will Chase (ridiculously neglected for a Tony nomination). I never thought the sublime Brian Stokes Mitchell-Marin Mazzie 1999 revival could be matched, let alone topped, but boy, did this “Kate” give that one a run for its moola, with its “Too Darn Hot” number definitely superior, as ecstatically choreographed by Warren Carlyle.
Daniel Fish, the director of “Oklahoma,” chose a different approach — not only reinterpreting but seriously subverting Rodgers & Hammerstein’s seminal musical pioneer. There were missteps, to be sure, such as Jud Fry’s scenes all performed in total darkness and an extraneous modern dance substitution for Agnes de Mille’s dream sequence: Wha?! Still, its bracing energy and in-your-face freshness forced my attention. Key to its success was the sexy, brash, horn dog charisma of Damon Daunno and, especially, James Davis, as Curly and Will, respectively. And then there was Ali Stroker, who made theater history by appearing as a Broadway lead in a wheelchair, proving that, physical challenge aside, it was her radiantly enormous talent and humanity that made her the definitive Ado Annie for all time. Unlike Celeste Holm and Gloria Grahame who acted the role before her, Stroker truly was that character.
5. I frankly had no idea what to expect seeing Wynonna Judd doing the loosey-goosiest, most disarmingly informal cabaret set ever, which welcomed obstreperous audience participation at the Café Carlyle. But I totally fell in love with her hard-core realness, Sahara-dry wit, phenomenal pipes, and singularly regal, intriguingly Mae West-like bearing — for all her self-professed down-hominess. She remains a living embodiment of Sondheim’s great female survivalist showbiz anthem, “I’m Still Here,” but country — she’d say “hillbilly” —all the way.
6. Melissa Errico also up-ended cabaret tradition with her enduring affection for composer Michel Legrand at Feinstein’s/ 54 Below, by talking about him as much as she sang. Which is no problem when you honor a genius so fascinating, whose work has informed the romantic lives of so many of us. Seeing and hearing her literally throwing every fiber of her clarion-voiced, lovely being into “The Summer Knows,” “His Eyes, Her Eyes,” “Watch What Happens” and, of course, “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life,” made me fall in love with the guy I was sitting with, all over again, after 27 freakin’ years. What more can I say?
7. Representing the newbies on the scene was the utterly gorgeous — in every way — Nicole Vanessa Ortiz in her 54 Below appearance, where she played homage to her myriad inspirations, like Tina Turner, Cher, Whitney Houston, and Pat Benatar. Ortiz is such a ferociously gifted, uncannily natural stage animal that I’d wager that if any of those divas were ever to witness her Hedy Lamarr-level beauty, gauge her masterful aplomb before an enthralled audience, and hear a voice that is actually superior to their own (except maybe Whitney’s) they’d be paying homage to her.
8. The fabulous variety that informs cabaret was further illustrated by “Twohander,” another 54 Below show, in which Sherie Rene Scott and Norbert Leo Butz possibly created an entirely new genre within this genre: the Confessional. Of course, Scott, has always been both talented and way, way out there, possessing a rare, ruling quality old queens used to bestow on their most extreme favored divas — Judy, Bette, Callas, LuPone — “demented.” Larger than life, Scott also loves revealing her life, as she did in her celebrated stage memoir “Everyday Rapture,” while the also divinely demented Butz can get pretty up close and personal himself, when cabareting as himself. “Twohander” was all about their lifelong almost-love affair, the reasons for their being drawn to each other, and why it never went as far as it might have. It was a complex, extended, and very delicate dance, there was some serious estrangement, but the two are obviously best buds again. They served up a uniquely mesmerizing program of high hilarity, surprising poignancy, unsurprisingly spectacular vocalizing, and juicy, juicy gossip (especially about the breakup of Scott’s marriage).
9. I’m ecstatic that the Atlantic Theater Company’s “The Secret Life of Bees” is transferring to Broadway so everyone will have a chance to be deeply stirred by this luminous ode to the power and beauty of Black women, not of today — like Shange’s imperishable work, which is somehow always set in the right now, whether 1975 or 2019 — but of the Jim Crow South. These women employ phenomenal, inspiriting wile and guile to deal with the hatred and ignorance forever facing them. It had, quite possibly, the strongest singing cast to appear together in any show, ever, with each estimable cast member repeatedly outdoing the others in momentous song, written by the on-target team of Duncan Sheik and Susan Birkenhead.
10. If “Bees” was the best sung show of the year, running a super-tight second was a concert I caught just this week, on December 12, so good that it knocked one of my original 10 choices out of the running. Any program celebrating Gay Harlem and the extraordinary music icons of its heyday is a rare and beautiful thing, and so was the New York Festival of Song’s “T’aint Nobody’s Business If I Do,” lovingly curated by artistic director Steven Blier and historian Elliott Hurwitt, at Lincoln Center. Among those honored were Ethel Waters, genius Billy Strayhorn, Bessie Smith, tough as nails Ma Rainey, Hall Johnson, Porter Grainger, the great Alberta Hunter whose engagement at the old Cookery in the Village was one my life’s great music experiences, Gladys Bentley, who performed in male attire and is currently enjoying a major rediscovery, and Tony Jackson who wrote the standard “Pretty Baby” — it turns out — for his male lover. These artists were hailed not just for their great talent, but also for being boldly queer in a very unwelcoming time.
Doing them complete justice was the most charmingly lovable quartet of absolutely magnificent, classically trained young singers: Bryonha Marie, Lucia Bradford, Joshua Blue, and Justin Austin. All of them possessed impressive operatic range, serious jazz/ blues/ funky chops, and instinctively fluent song-selling know-how. The audience was absolutely transported — though it’s a shame only a disconcerting handful of non-white people were in the house. I suggest an appropriate and necessary transfer of this show — a defiantly gay “Ain’t Misbehavin’” — to the Apollo, even if Harlem has become mighty white these days, as well.