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Review: ONLY AN OCTAVE APART at St. Ann's Warehouse

Justin Vivian Bond and Anthony Roth Costanzo shatter genre and gender constraints. Now through October 3rd

Review: ONLY AN OCTAVE APART at St. Ann's Warehouse

Mx. Justin Vivian Bond refers to themselves as a "trans-genre" artist. Bond's outstanding ability to shatter categorical constraints and create something devastatingly contemporary while respecting the masters reaches a crescendo in Only An Octave Apart, co-starring Anthony Roth Costanzo and playing through October 3 at St. Ann's Warehouse.

One doesn't usually associate Bond, who's been called "the greatest cabaret artist of their generation" by The New Yorker, with opera. But the last time I saw them live on stage was at the Vienna State Opera in Austria for the debut of Olga Neuwirth's adaptation of Virginia Woolf's Orlando (see BWW review here). The show was ambitious and took itself a bit too seriously, but Bond's presence added a welcomed dose of fun, spontaneity, and even a dash of danger.

Similarly, Anthony Roth Costanzo is not your average stuffy opera star. The contratenor, who's been called "dramatically fearless" by The New York Times, is short in stature but proves himself to be a formidable match for Bond.

The two met about a decade ago when Costanzo saw one of Bond's shows at Joe's Pub. A sudden cancelation of the next night's guest artist allowed Costanzo to serve as a pinch hitter. They've been close ever since.

It's hard to think of a better match. Both knockouts cover the gamut of entertainment styles between them in a speedy 90-minute extravaganza that leaves their audiences feeling soul-satisfied and clamoring for more.

In Only An Octave Apart, Bond's devilish, smoky purr is juxtaposed with countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo's angelic voice. Pop tunes blend elegantly with operatic arias, jokes and stage stories are swapped. It's polished but not over-rehearsed, with plenty of room to play. "Hybrid" is a trending word, and Only An Octave Apart is an example of how you can have the best of all worlds, provided you have the talent and team to pull it off.

Review: ONLY AN OCTAVE APART at St. Ann's Warehouse
Justin Vivian Bond and Anthony Roth Costanzo in Only An Octave Apart. Photo by Nina Westervelt.

One of Bond's greatest assets as a multi-genre artist is to choose exemplary collaborators to achieve a vision that's equal parts glamour and grit, bawdy entertainment with sophistication and intelligence. Anything they do feels both timeless and entirely in tune with the pulse of the zeitgeist at once.

The collective behind the duo, acting like The Wizard pulling strings and making magic behind the curtain, extends to the director and co-conceived Zack Winokur, set designer Carlos Soto, and lighting designer John Torres.

Nico Muhly provides sumptuous arrangements that are whimsical and surprising. Music director Thomas Bartlett and sound designer David Schnirman keep what could be cacophonous chaos rich and heavenly. Of course, the performers are not alone; they have the support of an orchestra capable of musical acrobatics.

Designer Jonathan Anderson has a long history with Bond. He outfits the pair in glorious, glamorous ensembles that range from fabulously feathered ("I'm a swan and you're a crow!" Bond chirps) to velvet gowns with angular architecture and glittering sequins reflecting more light than a disco ball.

Review: ONLY AN OCTAVE APART at St. Ann's Warehouse
Justin Vivian Bond and Anthony Roth Costanzo in Only An Octave Apart. Photo by Nina Westervelt.

Like the performers in Only An Octave Apart, Soto's set, Anderson's costumes, and Torres' lighting blend the best of Old Hollywood, the Golden Age of Broadway, Vaudeville, cabaret, and opera. The production values are high, but the fussiness is kept to a minimum, putting the ethereal spotlight right where it belongs, on the artists. Sometimes they're cast in striking silhouettes or transported to an Ibiza nightclub for their hysterical version of Sylvester's "Stars."

The combined talents of Bond and Costanzo compliment and increase the level of artistry and ability in each other. There's a perfect balance and harmony between them. Both performers can comfortably transition from hysterical comedy to heartfelt emotions, make you laugh one moment and cry the next, but never lingering in one place too long.

A particularly charming number is the duo's take on throwing their respective high and low voices behind the curtain. At the same time, the other lipsynchs like a ventriloquist dummy, a la a famous scene from Singin' in the Rain. Costanzo vocalizes "Habanera" from Bizet's Carmen for Bond, and Bond drops their vocal timbre to a deep baritone to offer Costanzo a "butch" song more suited for a cowboy. Costanzo also performed vocal and facial expressions backflips switching back and forth between male and female roles, dashing around the curtain to denote the separate parts.

But the most joyful moments were watching their banter, along with Bond's silent movie star-style facial ballet. Costanzo and the audience could barely contain themselves.

Review: ONLY AN OCTAVE APART at St. Ann's Warehouse
Justin Vivian Bond and Anthony Roth Costanzo in Only An Octave Apart. Photo by Teddy Wolff.

Bond boasts their motto, "Keep it shallow, keep it pretty, keep it moving," and responds to Costanzo's sweet proclamation, "I feel most myself on stage with you," (which received an audible "Awww" from the audience) with, "I'm not great at sincerity."

These kinds of statements are part of Bond's quick-witted charm and character, but they gloss over the truth that Bond and Costanzo are two of the most generous and flexible artists of our time. Their ability to jump from comedic antics to heartbreaking sorrow shows profound vulnerability and depth.

Some of the most arresting moments were when one or both of them dropped the schticks and laid bare their souls, hauntingly reflecting the traumas suffered over the past nineteen months.

Bond's elegant renditions of "Chasing Rainbows" and "Me and My Shadow" demonstrate their exceptional ability to pluck the heartstring as much as they can make you laugh. Costanzo's profoundly personal interpretation of "Autumn Leaves" and Lizst's "Uber allen Gipfeln Ist Ruh," based on Goethe's final words written in stone as he died alone, speak to inescapable loneliness and longing. A feeling all too familiar these days.

But the most strikingly relevant to the times was their duet of Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush's "Don't Give Up" that segued into a rousing version of Queen and David Bowie's "Under Pressure." Those two songs, masterfully delivered by Bond and Costanzo, felt like the summation of the pandemic-era emotional rollercoaster, filled with sadness and frustration but also hope and compassion.

Review: ONLY AN OCTAVE APART at St. Ann's Warehouse
Justin Vivian Bond and Anthony Roth Costanzo in Only An Octave Apart. Photo by Nina Westervelt.

Only at such a hybrid mash-up of genres could an encore number feel fitting. The pair saved the biggest showstopper for last, smashing together The Bangles' "Walk Like an Egyptian" and Philip Glass's Egyptian-themed opera Akhnaten, which returns to the Met this fall starring Costanzo. It was clever advertising. If that sneak preview doesn't sell out every seat at the Met, I don't know what will!

The post-pandemic comeback crowd at St. Ann's Warehouse reflected the multitude of interests covered, and the sold-out house demonstrates the hunger for this kind of engagement. White-haired opera lovers sat alongside LGBTQIA youth, fits of laughter alternating with twinkling tears in their eyes. Both demographics were equally welcome.

Only An Octave Apart proves the singular value of live performance and a shared experience. Don't miss this extraordinary evening of soul retrieval entertainment. And if, like me, you left walking on air but longing for more, the duo has an album for pre-order to relive the magic. Lightning captured in a bottle, a memento of masters at work and play.

The world premiere of Only An Octave Apart plays live through October 3 at St. Ann's Warehouse. An at-home broadcast is available Sunday, October 3 at 5 PM. For tickets and more information, visit www.stannswarehouse.org.




From This Author - Cindy Sibilsky

Cindy Sibilsky is a Broadway, Off Broadway, U.S. and international Producer, Tour Producer, Marketing/PR Director and theatre, film, arts & culture and travel writer/reviewer specializing in global... (read more about this author)


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