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The Fix – Let the Games Begin – Signature Theatre

Jordan Wright
August 25, 2015
Special to The Alexandria Times

Christine Sherrill (Violet Chandler), and Mark Evans (Cal Chandler). Photo by Christopher Mueller

Christine Sherrill (Violet Chandler), and Mark Evans (Cal Chandler). Photo by Christopher Mueller

Cal Chandler, son of successful politician, Senator Reed Chandler, is not exactly a model of statesmanship.  He’s your typical privileged Yale grad and pot-smoking, ex-Vietnam vet raised in a political family.  Sound familiar?  It’s just the first of many of the plot’s parallels to our real American political landscape.  When Cal’s father dies in flagrante delicto before re-election, his mother and uncle, the family’s political advisor, Grahame Chandler (Lawrence Redmond), plot a course to groom young Cal to take his place.  And do they ever plot!  Move over Shakespeare.  There’s a new Lady Macbeth in town and her name is Violet Chandler.  To give you some idea, the show’s intro is “Let the Games Begin” which trumpets, “These are the games, the tools and the tricks.”

As Violet and Grahame ply their considerable savvy to transform the reluctant scion into a model of respectability, we have a front row seat to the backroom wheeling and dealing of a political campaign including a nefarious mobster, Anthony Gliardi, played by Dan Manning with distinction.  The ever-watchful Grahame, making sure Cal won’t be caught up by reporters’ probing queries, warns the budding pol, “You must limit yourself to three topics – the economy, crime and taxes.”

The Fix is a scrumptious concoction of jealousy, scandal and infidelity (Will Gartshore, as Violet’s doomed lover, Bobby “Cracker” Barrel is terrific) served up with a side of moral depravity, deceit and the delightful pleasure of déjà vu and schadenfreude all in the same soup.  Oh, yes, we know what’s going to happen, and no, we still can’t turn away.

Mark Evans (Cal Chandler). Photo by Christopher Mueller.

Mark Evans (Cal Chandler). Photo by Christopher Mueller.

Mark Evans, as Cal, is spectacular – a super sexy, blindingly handsome, ripped-bodied (he strips to his skivvies in the first act), breathtaking dancer and jaw-dropping singer who earned his street cred in The Book of Mormon.  As the lead, Evans commands much of the attention in this pivotal role and he does not disappoint, nor does veteran performer Bobby Smith as Cal’s late father who returns from the grave to offer advice to his wayward son.  Act Two brings Smith and Redmond together as Harvard alums sporting satin-striped suits and doing a mean soft shoe in a hilarious vaudeville-style skit that incorporates crutches as props.  After all, isn’t politics just show business with money and a message?

Christine Sherrill lends an alluring villainy to Violet, a woman who thrives on perks and power.  In “Spin” a drunken self-examination solo at a symbolically chosen vanity table, she belts out a heart-stopping message that defines her years stumping with her husband on campaign trails, “It’s a rough ride on the back roads.  You give it spin.”

Bobby Smith (Senator Reed Chandler), Christine Sherrill (Violet Chandler), and Lawrence Redmond (Grahame Chandler). Photo by Christopher Mueller.

Bobby Smith (Senator Reed Chandler), Christine Sherrill (Violet Chandler), and Lawrence Redmond (Grahame Chandler). Photo by Christopher Mueller.

The Fix gives us all the elements of a smash hit with book & lyrics by John Dempsey, music by Dana P. Rowe and direction by Eric SchaefferMatthew Gardiner crafts the choreography and it is impressive, as is the eight-piece orchestra (sounds like eighteen) under Jon Kalbfleisch.  Setting the stage are the combined efforts of Misha Kachman’s scenic design and Hannah Marsh’s clever projection design of incorporating TV screens with news anchors that report on Cal’s soaring career from councilman to governor.

Highly recommended.

Through September 20th in the MAX at Signature Theatre (Shirlington Village), 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, VA 22206.  For tickets and information call 703 820-9771 or visit www.sigtheatre.org

Dear Evan Hansen Taps Into Teen Angst – Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
August 4, 2015
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

(L to R) Laura Dreyfuss as Zoe and Ben Platt as Evan in the world-premiere musical Dear Evan Hansen at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater July 10-August 23, 2015. Photo by Margot Schulman.

(L to R) Laura Dreyfuss as Zoe and Ben Platt as Evan in the world-premiere musical Dear Evan Hansen at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater July 10-August 23, 2015. Photo by Margot Schulman.

A good indicator that this is a production in flux is the playbill’s last minute insert – – the list of the 16 musical numbers in the show and the characters that sing them – – decisions undoubtedly made after the printing.  But if you watched the much-beloved, now-cancelled Smash, you’d know that was a key aspect of the TV show’s story line.  Benj Pasek and Justin Paul are the show’s musical team and lyricists who are both alumni of the romantic drama that focused on the angst of creating a hit Broadway show.

In this coming-of-age musical written by Steven Levenson and directed by Michael Greif, Evan Hansen (Ben Platt, best known as the endearing star of the Pitch Perfect films) is an socially tormented teen, raised by a single mother (Rachel Bay Jones) in the age of social media.  An outcast at school, his psychologist prescribes anti-anxiety meds and the self-examining exercise of writing letters to himself.  But that alone won’t curb the bullying and cure his aimless life until the day Connor Murphy (Mike Faist), a fellow outcast, takes his own life and a series of seemingly unconnected events converge to give Evan a purpose and an imaginative explanation for his broken arm.  “You play who you have to play,” Jared tells Evan.

(L to R) Michael Park as Larry, Jennifer Laura Thompson as Cynthia, Ben Platt as Evan and Laura Dreyfuss as Zoe in the world-premiere musical Dear Evan Hansen at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater July 10-August 23, 2015. Photo by Margot Schulman.

(L to R) Michael Park as Larry, Jennifer Laura Thompson as Cynthia, Ben Platt as Evan and Laura Dreyfuss as Zoe in the world-premiere musical Dear Evan Hansen. Photo by Margot Schulman.

The show has all the elements necessary to captivate – an absorbing story, tremendous cast, catchy, emotionally affecting tunes (backed by a 16-member choir, each described as “Additional Voice” in the program), the brilliant Music Director Ben Cohn with orchestrations by Alex Lacamoire, and a hot topic.  The problem is it’s overly long causing it to drift into a number of obfuscating side stories.  Even though Jennifer Laura Thompson and Michael Park are terrific as Connor’s bereaved parents and Laura Dreyfuss is engaging as Zoe Murphy, Evan’s love interest, and notwithstanding that Will Roland and Alexis Molnar hit all the right emotional and comedic notes as Evan’s pals.  But the show loses momentum as the characters’ roles are overly fleshed out and side stories stretch into distractions.  Another bump is the annoying repetition of lyrics and all too frequent use of falsetto called for in the songs.  And although an intriguing device, Connor’s ghost, who haunts Evan and becomes his raison d’être, is more reminiscent of Ebenezer Scrooge than a reality check for Evan, as it eats up a great deal of the plot.

(L to R) Ben Platt as Evan, Michael Park as Larry, Jennifer Laura Thompson as Cynthia and Laura Dreyfuss as Zoe in the world-premiere musical Dear Evan Hansen at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater July 10-August 23, 2015. Photo by Margot Schulman.

(L to R) Ben Platt as Evan, Michael Park as Larry, Jennifer Laura Thompson as Cynthia and Laura Dreyfuss as Zoe in the world-premiere musical Dear Evan Hansen at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater July 10-August 23, 2015. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Instead, enjoy Set Designer David Korins’s furnishings drifting onstage via half-moon tracks and Projection Designer Peter Nigrini’s fantastic backdrop of text messages and emails projected onto a series of two-story sliding scrims and spilling out onto the stage floor.  The messages serve to remind us of the influence of Facebook and Twitter on teens and the impact of the typed word to enhance or endanger their lives in a single keystroke.  Can you say “going viral”?  The story has more sociological and psychological messages than Dr. Phil and Days of Our Lives combined.

Still despite the thought of tweaks and cuts, you can rest assured its message will captivate Millennials and Generation Z’ers raised in a world of student warehousing, cyber-bullying, secret email accounts and electronic devices.  There is an important story to be told here.  It just needs work.

Through August 23rd at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information call 202 488-3300 or visit www.ArenaStage.org.

In the Heights – The Little Theatre of Alexandria

Jordan Wright
July 28, 2015
Special to The Alexandria Times

“Carnival Del Barrio” (Cast) - Photos by Keith Waters / Kx Photography

“Carnival Del Barrio” (Cast) – Photos by Keith Waters / Kx Photography

Do you speak Spanish?  No problemo.  I’ll bet you can translate most of the words and phrases that have found their way into our everyday lexicon.  Gracias, te amo, buenos dias, piragua (a shaved ice treat.  Okay, that one was new to me.) and dozens more that you didn’t know you knew.  Be prepared to test your skills at In the Heights, now at The Little Theatre of Alexandria.  It’s Latino immersion served up in high energy by a fantastic cast.  Quiara Alegria Hudes, who wrote the book for Conceptualist/Composer/Lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda, allows us a heart-warming glimpse into the lives of Latino immigrants and their assimilation into American culture – New York style.  It’s a tale familiar to every immigrant who has faced the frustrations and hardships that beckoned them to American shores and a show that achieved four Tony Awards and one Grammy for Best Musical Show Album.

Set in the barrio of Washington Heights on the northern tip of Manhattan, a community settled over the past half century by immigrants from the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Cuba and assorted Hispanic Caribbean islands, the musical is written in hip-hop, rap and rhyme – en Español, pero con Inglés, tambien.  Spanning the three-day Fourth of July weekend, it tells the story of a determined, close-knit culture and the love stories of Benny (Carl Williams) and Nina (Christy Fischer) and Usnavi (Andres Alejandro Ponce) and Vanessa (Chelsea Crane).  Think West Side Story without the gangs.

Left to Right: Carl Williams (Benny), Andres Alejandro Ponce (Usnavi De Le Vega), Chelsea Crane (Vanessa), Joey Ledonio (Sonny), Patricia Targete (Female Community), Jacqueline Salvador (Carla) - Photos by Keith Waters / Kx Photography

Left to Right: Carl Williams (Benny), Andres Alejandro Ponce (Usnavi De Le Vega), Chelsea Crane (Vanessa), Joey Ledonio (Sonny), Patricia Targete (Female Community), Jacqueline Salvador (Carla) – Photos by Keith Waters / Kx Photography

Living under the shadow of the George Washington Bridge, Usnavi, the owner of a small bodega that serves the neighborhood, works alongside his cousin, Sonny (Joey Ledonio).  Together they dream of a better life for themselves and their adored Abuela Claudia (Mary Ayala-Bush), matriarch of their family.  Down the street Daniela (Tahara Robinson), Carla (Jacqueline Salvador) and Vanessa ply their hairstyling skills in the Unisex Salon while Vanessa dreams of escaping to the West Village.  Across the way husband and wife, Camila (Janice Rivera) and Kevin (Sean Garcia), run the struggling Rosario’s Car and Limousine service.  Benny, who eloquently raps road conditions to the drivers on the two-way, falls hard for their daughter, Nina, a scholarship student at Stamford and the hope of the neighborhood.  It’s a “beans and rice” life for most of them.

Twenty-five musical numbers underpin this high-energy production, punctuating the action with breakdancing, rhumba and catchy Latin rhythms.  LTA has done a tremendous job casting all 22 super-talented dancers and singers, more than a few of whom raised the roof – – most especially the riveting and hugely talented, Ponce; the powerhouse voice of the diminutive Crane, Usnavi’s love interest; the sass and comedic timing of Robinson who kills it in “Carnival del Barrio”; the cool hipster vibe and beautiful voice of Williams, who duets with Fischer’s dulcet tones in “Sunrise”; and Garcia, who lends operatic pathos to “Alabanza”.

Left to Right: Joey Ledonio (Sonny), Andres Alejandro Ponce (Usnavi De La Vega) - Photos by Keith Waters / Kx Photography

Left to Right: Joey Ledonio (Sonny), Andres Alejandro Ponce (Usnavi De La Vega) – Photos by Keith Waters / Kx Photography

Raves for Choreographer Stefan Sittig, a veteran of over 60 productions and multiple WATCH Award nominee, who drives the cast to nearly pop the floorboards in “The Club” an all-out dance-a-thon brilliantly lit by Ken and Patti Crowley to echo a Diego Rivera painting; and Director, Frank D. Shutts, who bravely takes on a musical that stretches LTA’s typical audience to embrace the edge.

Highly recommended.

Through August 15th at The Little Theatre of Alexandria, 600 Wolfe Street. For tickets and information call the box office at 703 683-0496 or visit www.thelittletheatre.com

Jacksonland: Riveting Narrative Details Chief John Ross’s Attempts to Save the Cherokee Nation

Jordan Wright
July 15, 2015
Special to Indian Country Today Media Network

Morning Edition co-host Steve Inskeep's book Jacksonland: President Andrew Jackson, Cherokee Chief John Ross, and a Great American Land Grab tells the almost-lost-to-history story of Cherokee Chief John Ross and his attempts to save the Cherokee Nation from President Andrew Jackson. Photo credit: Penguin Press

Morning Edition co-host Steve Inskeep’s book Jacksonland: President Andrew Jackson, Cherokee Chief John Ross, and a Great American Land Grab tells the almost-lost-to-history story of Cherokee Chief John Ross and his attempts to save the Cherokee Nation from President Andrew Jackson. Photo credit: Penguin Press

You don’t need to be a history buff to dive headlong into Jacksonland: President Andrew Jackson, Cherokee Chief John Ross, and a Great American Land Grab (Penguin Press, 2015), Steve Inskeep’s riveting masterpiece of two influential men who held radically opposing visions for our country. The well-respected author and co-host of National Public Radio’s Morning Edition recounts in vivid detail the ultimate story of power, ego and greed that was played out in the Deep South (which Inskeep dubs Jacksonland) and which ultimately defined the future settlement of our nascent nation. Coming from relatively humble roots, both men once fought on the same side and later crossed verbal swords in defense of their principles—Jackson, whose desire for personal gain for both himself and his well-heeled cronies translated into immense power and control of the Union, and John Ross, a well-educated and savvy Cherokee Indian chief committed to protecting Indian territories and sovereign rights.

Inskeep toggles between chapters about Jackson and Ross as he methodically lays out their personal journeys, meticulously detailing their early lives, crossed paths, and the events and battles that lead to the ultimate betrayal—the Trail of Tears. But the events do not progress in a straight line. And that’s precisely what makes this a page-turner.

At stake in 1812 were the territories of the Five Civilized Tribes—Cherokee, Seminole, Chickasaw, Choctaw and Creek—whose collective territory extended from the southernmost tip of Florida, around the panhandle to Louisiana and the Gulf of Mexico to the south, westward along the muddy banks of the Mississippi River to the Missouri Territory, and north in a winding border that extended from the Atlantic Coast south of what is known today as Georgia and along the northern reaches of the Tennessee River. This was the so-called Indian Map. On the contrary, the “White Man’s Map” of the same period laid claim to everything east of the Ohio River and the Mississippi, with the exception of Florida, which was still in Spanish hands.

Known to his people by his Cherokee name, Kooweskoowe, Ross was able to access the “whiteside,” as he called it, using his mixed Scottish and Indian ancestry to straddle both Indian and white political and social spheres. Trained as a lawyer, he sported the sartorial style of white politicians, cutting an imposing figure as he strode through the halls of Congress, negotiating with lawmakers to strike deals favorable to his people. There was no more dedicated and effective representative for the Cherokee, and they trusted and relied on his savvy statesmanship.

But the dark side to this era of Indian relationships with the U. S. government is the backstory of Jackson’s unimaginable greed, ruthless double-dealing and consolidation of power. How he granted favors to and colluded with his associates to obtain land for their personal enrichment, while breaking promises to the Indian nations.

Through personal letters written by Ross and Jackson, and a wealth of documents of the period, Inskeep has achieved an exhilarating read. Outlining the real history of Jackson’s rise to the U.S. presidency, and Ross’s hard-fought efforts for the Cherokee, the author makes it clear that given a few different conditions, the removal of the tribes might never have happened. For example it is stunning to learn that the 1835 Treaty of New Echota, in which the Indians ceded territory and agreed to move west, prevailed by a single vote, even though it had never been signed by Chief Ross or the Cherokee National Council. And that Jackson’s biggest battle may have been his health, which was so poor that frequently he was perilously close to death.

As a seasoned reporter, Inskeep has said he was driven by “the disgraceful politics of the past few years” to write this book. That passion has driven him to give us a clear-eyed and fascinating story of two influential men, one whose democratic values followed the principle of majority rule, and another who represented minority rights. But he has also delivered a cautionary tale of the machinations of the rich and powerful that especially resonates today.

Read more at http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2015/07/15/jacksonland-riveting-narrative-details-chief-john-rosss-attempts-save-cherokee-nation

Author Steve Inskeep Talks John Ross, Andrew Jackson and the Trail of Tears

JORDAN WRIGHT
July 15, 2015
Special to Indian Country Today Media Network

Author Steve Inskeep, co-host of NPR's Morning Edition, discusses 'Jacksonland: President Andrew Jackson, Cherokee Chief John Ross, and a Great American Land Grab,' published by Penguin Press.  Photo credit: Linda Fittante

Author Steve Inskeep, co-host of NPR’s Morning Edition, discusses ‘Jacksonland: President Andrew Jackson, Cherokee Chief John Ross, and a Great American Land Grab,’ published by Penguin Press. Photo credit: Linda Fittante

Noted author and journalist Steve Inskeep, co-host of Morning Edition on National Public Radio, sat down with Indian Country Today Media Network to dissect his new book, Jacksonland: President Andrew Jackson, Cherokee Chief John Ross, and a Great American Land Grab, published this summer by Penguin Press. The book, a riveting masterpiece about two influential men who held radically opposing visions for Turtle Island, brings to light lesser-known facts about this time period that the publisher calls a “crossroads of American history.”

What prompted you to write this story?

I just wanted to tell the whole story, and it was interesting to me to realize how little of the story I knew. John Ross was almost an entirely undiscovered character, an interesting character, and I wanted to find out what made him tick.

What was your reaction when you began to discover a clear picture of interwoven greed and power?

It wasn’t a complete surprise. How it worked, and why, was new to me. It’s understood that there were national security motives and patriotic motives to clear Indians out of the Southeast. But I don’t think it’s as well understood that there were also economic motives and a desire for land and a desire to expand slavery that was behind it and that really drove it. And that Andrew Jackson himself was personally involved in developing the land that he obtained as general. I came across a lot of detail that had never been put together in quite this way.

There were so many moments when things could have gone in an entirely different direction, as when the Indian Removal Act won passage in Congress by only one vote. It seems the press was hugely influential then, creating stories out of whole cloth while spreading fear and innuendo about the Indians. Do you think newspapers were more influential then than they are today?

Newspapers then were more influential because they were the principal form of media. There would have been around three dozen newspapers during late colonial times. By the early 1800s they were in the low hundreds, then very quickly it goes up to around 800 by 1828. Everybody read each other’s papers, and people would send them around by mail.

Do you think Sequoyah’s creating of the Cherokee syllabary in 1821, and its usage in Ross’s newspaper, helped spread the word?

Yes and no. The Cherokee Phoenix newspaper had articles in both Cherokee and English. And so, although it was a cultural triumph to have their own written language in a newspaper, it also had propaganda value. But the real political punch was that editors of other papers would read the Cherokee perspective of events that were different from the White perspective of the same events.

RELATED: Book Strips Away the Myth Surrounding the Cherokee Syllabary

How important do you think Ross’s ability to walk on the “whiteside,” as it was called then, contributed to his success as a diplomatic envoy?

I think it was very important that he was able to speak English and present himself in a way that white men could understand and relate to, and that sometimes he could also pass as a white man. I’m not saying that was good or bad. It was just the political reality of the time. That could also be used to undermine him, though. And it was also used to challenge him. Cherokees didn’t challenge his status as an Indian, but whites would undermine his racial credentials and say he wasn’t Indian enough. So sometimes it was a double-edged sword.

The most important thing was that he was literate in English, could write his own letters and make his own demands, and was not dependent on an interpreter to get across all the nuances of what was intended in agreements. Others who signed treaties may not have known what they were signing. Ross understood the terms and the wider political context of what the Indians were being offered.

What do you think was Ross’s greatest success?

I think it was when he blocked Jackson from grabbing two million acres of land, even though later Jackson went around him. At the end I don’t think it’s widely understood that before the Trail of Tears, Ross improved the terms under which the Trail was to be undertaken. He managed to keep the Cherokees together and get more than $6 million for the land. Though that was not what it was worth, it was substantially more than what the government was offering. At the same time Ross managed to keep the Cherokee government together. All along he was innovative in the use of democratic tools in a way that adds to our democratic tradition and foreshadows a lot of things that civil rights leaders did a century or more later.

In the end, if the tribes had held together and not sold their lands, do you think there would have been a larger war?

We have an answer to that. More or less, yes! We saw it happen in Florida. There was a war that lasted for years. Thousands died, U.S. soldiers, civilians and Seminoles. We’re talking about a really awful conflict for its time, and that, I suppose, would have been the alternative. In Alabama there were Creeks who did not want to go away, and there was an insurgency there in the 1830s. You could have had more devastating wars. There can’t be any doubt about what the result probably would have been, because even if they were all united, they were so outnumbered by then. Had they united in some effective way, you could have had a different course of history. But they didn’t, and when there was an attempt to unite them under Tecumseh, it didn’t turn out very well for the Indian side in the end.

During your extensive research, what surprised you most?

I had no idea that the Cherokees had done so much in their own defense. I think that has been overlooked, even by accounts that were sympathetic to the Indian side. I think Indian removal has often been portrayed as an argument among white people, though there were people who were for it and people who were against it. I’m not sure that the Cherokee participation in the emerging democratic life in the United States has been recognized in the way that it should be.

What would you say are the parallels to today’s struggle for civil rights?

I think some of the same techniques John Ross used were those used by civil rights leaders in the 20th century. Cherokees decided they needed their own newspapers, as did African Americans. They also both realized they needed white allies, and both groups reached out to the religious communities to get some of those allies.

Both groups fought in Congress, and both fought and won before the Supreme Court. In the end though, the Cherokee efforts and victories did not do them a lot of good. While by no means perfect, by the 20th century, racial attitudes were changing and improving, and it was becoming less and less acceptable to argue that there were entire racial groups of people not entitled to become full citizens of the United States.

In the recent campaign to put a female icon’s image on American paper currency, would you prefer to see Jackson removed, rather than Hamilton?

I wrote an article for The New York Times recently in which I proposed that John Ross should be on the twenty-dollar bill and Andrew Jackson should be on the flip side. I think there should be two characters on every bill. Each pairing should be people who relate, so that they tell a story about our democracy and about imperfect people fighting it out about our democracy. Abraham Lincoln could be paired with Frederick Douglas. Ulysses S. Grant on the $50 bill paired with Harriet Beecher Stowe. It would give a greater sense of this grand democratic story that we are all a part of, and the way that different kinds of people participate in that story and have influenced it over time. Jackson and Ross were not perfect people. They were people who fought within the democratic system.

Read more at http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2015/07/15/author-steve-inskeep-talks-john-ross-andrew-jackson-and-trail-tears-161079