nytheatre.com review by Julie Congress
August 18, 2011
Donna/Madonna is an utterly charming autobiographical one-man show written and performed by John Paul Karliak. John’s Mom is a Catholic woman in Scranton, Pennsylvania. She’s always offering him baked goods. She’s perpetually telling him “I know what you’re thinking even before you know.” John’s always known that he was adopted, but it doesn’t matter…Mom raised him and he loves her.
At the age of twelve, John put on a show for his parents in drag as Carol Channing. John realized he was gay but also saw the “torn up wedding pictures in his mother’s eyes.” So he stopped talking to Mom about this and kept that part of his life away from her. He went to college, graduated, and got a desk as he pursued his career as an actor in LA. He also decides to meet his birth mother after long imagining what she might be like. She turns out to be a hip fashion writer with a British pop-star husband.
Donna/Madonna is a lovely homage to two very different women who, in different ways, made John Paul Karliak the man he is today. The show is refreshingly devoid of any self-pity - this is very much a performance, not a therapy session. Brief musical numbers (from Cabaret to Company to Madonna) are peppered throughout, and Karliak fabulously basks under the stage lights in these utterly entertaining moments. Karliak’s impressions, particularly of his Mom, are very funny and, perhaps even better, filled with such love.
Tiger Reel and Matt Craig’s direction keeps the show moving at a quick, comedic pace. This feels like a very professional production, movements are clean and precise, everything is well timed and Karliak is intensely charismatic.
The best part of Donna/Madonna is its heart. It isn’t mean-spirited, it isn’t a “poor me” autobiography, it’s just honest and loving…and there seems to be something rather rare, and very much needed, in that.