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Dear Jack, Dear Louise ~ Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
December 6, 2019 

Ken Ludwig, the prolific Olivier Award-winning and Tony Award-winning playwright, gifts us with an exquisite pentimento-inspired play drawing on his parents’ long-distance romance during the height of World War II.  This charming, world premiere two-hander is constructed in such a way that the actors act out their correspondence.  It’s a clever device that allows their letters to come to life.  Credit Director Jackie Maxwell for sorting through the mechanics of bringing it to the stage.  Separated on either side of the stage and speaking directly to the audience, is Jack, a soldier writing from his military posts and Louise, an aspiring actress residing in the Curtain Call Boarding House in New York City.

(L to R) Jake Epstein (Jack Ludwig) and Amelia Pedlow (Louise Rabiner) in Ken Ludwig’s Dear Jack, Dear Louise running November 21 through December 29, 2019 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

The two young letter-writers couldn’t be more dissimilar.  Small town-bred Jack, a doctor, is shy, studious and committed to the care of his fellow soldiers, while Brooklyn-born Louise is high-strung, sardonic and witty.  They make the perfect case for opposites attracting.

While Jack awaits leave, the ultimate goal is for the two to meet in person, their letters become a lifeline to each others’ emotional well-being.  Louise gaily writes about her nerve-wracking auditions and later, about his parents’ efforts to meet her.  (They’re behind the whole thing.)  One of the funniest scenes is when she regales him with the story of how 45 members of his extended family meet her at the train station and later, how she fell out a window (or was pushed) by one of his undermining aunts.  All this after he has begged her not to meet his crazy family and sent letters to his battalion of aunts threatening to out their family secrets if they’re not on their best behavior.

Jake Epstein (Jack Ludwig) in Ken Ludwig’s Dear Jack, Dear Louise. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Their correspondence focuses on the period from 1942 through 1945 including Jack’s time on the most dangerous battlefields in Europe and as Louise agonizes that she will never meet her heart’s desire.  It’s a sweet romance full of the poignancy, promise, fears, and gallows’ humor universally expressed in letters during wartime and these two actors synch up so symbiotically you can’t help but believe their transformative tale.  Ludwig said of his play, “I hope it’s a story about how this country rises to the occasion.” And, indeed it is.

Amelia Pedlow (Louise Rabiner) in Ken Ludwig’s Dear Jack, Dear Louise. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Costumes by Linda Cho and hairstyles by Ellyn Miller are period-perfect, though Beowolf Boritt’s backdrop is more reminiscent of amoebas suspended in a test tube than a setting for a wartime dramedy.

If you like “A Wonderful Life”, and who doesn’t, this one’s for you.

(L to R) Amelia Pedlow (Louise Rabiner), Ken Ludwig (Playwright) and Jake Epstein (Jack Ludwig) in Ken Ludwig’s Dear Jack, Dear Louise. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Starring Jake Epstein (originator of the role of Gerry Goffin in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical and Peter Parker/Spiderman in Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark) and Amelia Pedlow (lately featured in Doubt, Love’s Labour’s Lost at the Folger, and The Metromaniacs and A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Shakespeare Theatre Company).

Through December 29th at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information call 202 488-3300 or visit www.ArenaStage.org.

 

Disney’s Newsies the Musical ~ Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
November 16, 2019 

The high energy Tony Award-winning, Newsies, a lollapalooza of a musical, tapped, spun, swung, belted and leapt its way onto the Fichandler Stage to tremendous applause.  A sweetheart of a story about the scrappy young newsboys who went up against the powerful New York City-based newspaper barons, William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, it checks all the boxes for fabulous, family-friendly, action-packed entertainment.

The cast of Disney’s Newsies running November 1 through December 29, 2019 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Photo by Margot Schulman.

This David meets Goliath story pits orphan newsboys against greedy publishers setting the stage for a tender love story between the strike’s brash young leader, Jack Kelly, and the publisher’s daughter, budding theatre critic, Katherine Plumber.   This is where I mention Daniel J. Maldonado who plays Jack.  Remember that name.  He’s not only ferociously talented and fiercely captivating, but a total heartthrob.  Okay, we got that out of the way.

(L to R) Edward Gero (Joseph Pulitzer) and Jamie Smithson (Nunzio/Guard/Policeman/Teddy Roosevelt) in Disney’s Newsies running November 1 through December 29, 2019 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Here’s the set up.  To raise his profits, Pulitzer jacks up the price the kids must pay to the middlemen, leaving them little to subsist on.  Led by Kelly and fellow newsie, David, the boys decide to form a union and strike for better wages and decent working conditions.  The period musical is set in 1899 when other citywide unions, from the trolley workers to child labor unions, had tried and failed to gain traction for their demands.  When it looked as though workers were winning support, the bosses sent thugs to rough them up portrayed here as the Lower East Side Delancey Brothers.

Nova Payton (Nun/Medda) in Disney’s Newsies running November 1 through December 29, 2019 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Jack forms a bond with David, a bright kid whose father lost his job and is forced to work to so the family can eat.  David, along with his little brother, Les, are both the force and inspiration for the orphans’ dreams.  Another shining star is local talent Josiah Smothers as Les.  Not only can he dance and sing with the best of them, but he is utterly endearing.

(L to R) Daniel J. Maldonado (Jack Kelly) and Erin Weaver (Katherine) in Disney’s Newsies running November 1 through December 29, 2019 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Performed in the round, the actors utilize all the aisles and all four entry points to create an all-encompassing experience.  Ken MacDonald’s set design from Pulitzer’s swank office and Medda’s swanky nightclub to the fire escapes of the Lower East Side, provides the perfect climate for the ultimate showdown.

Rounding out the core cast, is Edward Gero, spot on as the crochety Pulitzer, the gorgeous Erin Weaver as Katherine with a voice like an angel, and the irrepressible Nova Y. Payton, who plays Medda Larkin, a hotsy-totsy cabaret singer whose soulful powerhouse voice shakes the rafters.  The rest of the ensemble showcases some of the best hoofers and singers anywhere.  Remember.  If you see Disney in front of a show’s title, it will be spectacular! 

Highly recommended.

Through December 29th at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information call 202 488-3300 or visit www.ArenaStage.org. 

Directed by Molly Smith with book by Harvey Fierstein and 18 wonderful numbers written by Jack Feldman, composed by Alan Menken, based on the Disney film written by Bob Tzudiker and Noni White.  Dazzling choreography by Parker Esse with Dance Arrangements by Danny Troob; Costume Design by Alejo Vietti and Sound Design by Daniel Erdberg.

Additional cast members  in alphabetical order – Rory Boyd as Oscar Delancey/Bill/Ensemble; Matthew Davies as Specs/Ensemble; Javier del Pilar as Bunsen/Stage Manager/Ensemble; Wyn Delano as Snyder/Ensemble; Christian Douglas as Seitz/Ensemble; Hazel Hay or Josiah Smothers as Les; Michael Hewitt as Morris Delancey/Darcy/Ensemble; Michael John Hughes as Romeo/Spot Conlon; Carole Denise Jones as Nun/Hannah/Ensemble; Tomás Matos as Finch/Ensemble; Joe Montoya as Crutchie; Emre Ocak as Mush/Ensemble; Shiloh Orr as Albert/Scab/Ensemble; Tanner Pflueger as Henry/Buttons/ Ensemble; Bridget Riley as Splasher/Nun/Ensemble; Tro Shaw as Tommy Boy/Scab/Fight Captain; Thomas Adrian Simpson as Tommy Boy/Scab/Ensemble/Fight Captain; Jamie Smithson as Nunzio/Teddy Roosevelt/Ensemble/ Luke Spring as Elmer/Scab/Ensemble; Ethan Van Slyke as Davey Jacobs; Chaz Wolcott as Race/Ensemble; and Kelli Youngman as Jo Jo/Ensemble.

Amadeus ~ Folger Theatre

Jordan Wright
November 13, 2019 

The Viennese court awaits to hear what the Emperor thinks of Mozart’s latest opera ~ Photography by C. Stanley Photography

Tony Cisek’s brilliant set design featuring the golden curvature of a stringed instrument’s f-hole with its strings running the height of the stage.  Festooned with crystal chandeliers, it serves as a dramatic frame for the pious Antonio Salieri’s opening lines, “Music is God’s Art.”  We sense we are within this giant instrument itself, bearing witness to the music world’s greatest scandal.  Set in Vienna during the Age of Enlightenment, the play focuses on the fierce rivalry between the tormented court composer Salieri and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the child prodigy.  Now confined to a wheelchair and clinging to life, Salieri confesses to murdering his colleague and rival, the eccentric musical genius Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.   But did he, as he claims he did, poison him?  Or did he drive Mozart into the depths of madness through the deprivation and degradation he foisted upon him?

Composer Salieri (Ian Merrill Peakes) plays a welcoming march for Mozart (Samuel Adams, center) upon his arrival at the Viennese court (Deidra LaWan Starnes, left, James Joseph O’Neil, and John Taylor Phillips, right) ~ Photography by C. Stanley Photography

When they first meet, Salieri and the upstart Mozart trade barbs.  The young composer attempts to curry the emperor’s favor while the older Salieri, wildly jealous of Mozart’s extraordinary talents, seeks to undermine him.  Though court composer to three Viennese emperors, Salieri’s talent was marginal compared to Mozart’s.  To keep Mozart at bay he saw to it he and his adoring wife were both financially and emotionally poverty-stricken.

Eventually his jealousy of Mozart’s talents destroys him and, along with that his belief God was the ruler of his fate.  In his soliloquies to God – some prideful, others with fist raised toward the heavens – he provides us with some of the most powerful moments of play.

The eccentric musical genius Mozart (Samuel Adams) shows off his opera for the Viennese court ~ Photography by C. Stanley Photography

Writer Sir Peter Shaffer (Equus, Lettuce and Lovage, The Royal Hunt of the Sun) imagines this modern ‘revenge comedy’ as a dramatic interpretation of the relationship between the two composers adding two venticelli, gossipmongers who tell everyone exactly what they want to hear, an assortment of colorful, back-stabbing court figures, a sexy soprano who curries favor with Mozart, and Mozart’s devoted child bride, Constanze, played pitch perfect by Lilli Hokama.

Sections of several of Mozart’s finest compositions, The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni and his Requiem in D Minor, are woven into the plot and serve as a heavenly musical backdrop.

Mozart (Samuel Adams) lovingly teases his fiancé Constanze (Lilli Hokama) ~ Photography by C. Stanley Photography

Exquisitely directed by Richard Clifford with sumptuous 18th century costumes by Mariah Anzaldo Hale, the play is filled with passion, revenge, and malevolent conspiracy, with a hefty dose of slapstick and lust.  The performances alone will take your breath away.  Ian Merrill Peakes as Salieri gives one of the finest performances I’ve ever seen on any American stage and Samuel Adams as Mozart proves to be a dazzlingly equal counterbalance.

Powerful, witty and unforgettable.  Five stars!!!  Don’t miss it!

Additional performers: Justin Adams as Baron van Swieten; Amanda Bailey as Venticello; Louis Butelli as Venticello; Junior Gomez as Salieri’s Valet; James Joseph O’Neil as Count Orsini-Rosenberg; Yvonne Paretzky as Teresa Salieri; John Taylor Phillips as Emperor Joseph II; Ned Read as Kapellmeister Bonno; Deidra LaWan Starnes as Madame von Strack; and Kathryn Zoerb as Katherina Cavalieri.

With Lighting Design by Max Doolittle and Sound Design by Sharath Patel.

Through December 22nd at the Folger Theatre at the Folger Shakespeare Library, 201 East Capitol Street, SE, Washington, DC 20003.   For tickets and information call 202 544-7077.

A Chorus Line ~ Signature Theatre

Jordan Wright
November 11, 2019 

Director Matthew Gardiner’s reinterpretation of A Chorus Line features brand new choreography from Denis Jones and departs from the original branded choreography by Michael Bennett.  Though I can’t recall the original enough to make a comparison of the two, I don’t think it’s necessary to enjoy the musical we’ve all come to love.

The cast of A Chorus Line at Signature Theatre ~ Photo by Christopher Muelle

A typical dance studio is the only set.  Framed by wide strips of Mylar ‘mirror’ and the traditional ballet barre, the focus is on the personalities and emotional stories of the 24 chorus line hopefuls.  Fairly quickly, seven are unceremoniously cut from consideration and we are left with seventeen dancers vying for a limited number of spots in an unnamed production.

Zach is the psychotic director.  From his command post, a desk, positioned in the center of the audience, he insults, cajoles, challenges and intimidates the dancers. “I just wanna hear you talk and be yourselves,” he says, insisting they reveal their innermost thoughts and childhood traumas, asking why they are there and why they chose to be dancers.  Larry, his emotionless assistant and choreographer, imposes Zach’s whimsical demands and works to corral the wannabes into a cohesive line.

Emily Tyra (Cassie) and Matthew Risch (Zach) in A Chorus Line at Signature Theatre ~ Photo by Christopher Mueller.

The story depicts a cross section of the dancers’ insecurities and neediness, and the fierce desperation of hoping for a break, as they are forced to relive the traumas of their childhood.  It’s intensely relatable and curiously human.  In a way, it’s pure schadenfreude.  We feel their pain and recognize their struggles, but we can’t, and shouldn’t, look away.

There are so many indelible, and identifiable, characters here – Cassie, the aging beauty once in a relationship with Zach and now begging him for a spot in the line; Sheila, a tough broad with attitude, desperate to forget a harsh childhood; Mark, an awkwardly naïve manchild who hilariously misdiagnosed gonorrhea from his addiction to medical textbooks; Val, a former cheerleader with Broadway aspirations and newly purchased plastic surgery; Paul, whose dance experience as a stripper in a drag club brings him shame; Maggie, a warm-hearted dreamer with a difficult past; Richie, a flashy dancer and former school teacher; and all the others, too numerous to describe here.  Among them they speak of their struggles to overcome the pain of suicide, incest, depression, poverty, homosexuality.  Among the dancers there is love, caring and understanding.

Joshua Buscher (Larry), Daxx Jayroe Wieser (Mark), Bryan Charles Moore (Don) and the cast of A Chorus Line at Signature Theatre ~ Photo by Christopher Mueller

You will easily recognize many of the musical numbers composed by Marvin Hamlisch with lyrics by Edward Kleban (Tony Awards for ‘Best Original Score’, ‘Best Musical’ and ‘Best Book of a Musical’).  Zach asks, “If today were the day you had to stop dancing, what would you do?” The answer is the torch song, “What I Did for Love.”  Beautifully expressed, the words and music reflect the highs and lows of showbiz life, yet with a universality recognizable to everyone.

A wonderful, shiny, madly talented cast.  Highly recommended.

With Maria Rizzo as Sheila; Emily Tyra as Cassie; Matthew Risch as Zach; Joshua Buscher as Larry; Michelle E. Carter as Tricia; Zeke Edmonds as Roy; Adena Ershow as Val; Samantha Marisol Gershman as Diana; Jeff Gorti as Paul; Ben Gunderson as Bobby; Lawrence Hailes as Butch; Vincent Kempski as Al; Julia Klavans as Vicki; Elise Kowalick as Kristine; Lina Lee as Connie; Bryan Charles Moore as Don; Corinne Munsch as Judy; Zachary Norton as Greg; Kayla Pecchioni as Maggie; Daniel Powers as Frank; MK Sagastume as Lois; Trevor Michael Schmidt as Mike; Jillian Wessel as Bebe; Daxx Jayroe Wieser as Mark; Phil Young as Richie; and Joshua Buscher as Dance Captain.

Book by James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante; Lighting by Adam Honoré; Sound Design Ryan Hickey; Orchestra led by Jon Kalbfleisch.

Through January 5th at Signature Theatre, (Shirlington Village), 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, VA 22206.  For tickets and information call 703 820-9771 or visit www.signature-theatre.org.

Mark Morris Dance Group ~ Pepperland ~ The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

Jordan Wright
November 16, 2019 

Mark Morris Dance Group_Pepperland – Noah Vinson (forwground) and Dallas McMurray (background) ~ Photo by Mat Hayward

“It was 50 years ago today.  Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play.  They’ve been going in and out of style, but they’re guaranteed to make you smile.” – – lyrics by Paul McCartney.  And smile we did with this joyfully exuberant reinterpretation by the Mark Morris Dance Group.  With no formulaic restrictions on movement and a choreography as light and unfettered as a butterfly on the wing, the dances flow as freely as the original music cleverly deconstructed by Composer Ethan Iverson.  It’s bouncy, angular and humor-inducing, shouldered by the gravitas of George Harrison’s lyrics in the Indian-inspired raga, “Within You and Without You”, that is mesmerizing, timely and deeply mystical.

Mark Morris Dance Group – Pepperland~ Photo by Mat Hayward

The performance begins with an intro of the initial characters – Billy Shears (whom we expected), then Marilyn Monroe, Marlene Dietrich, Shirley Temple, Sonny Liston!, Oscar Wilde, Albert Einstein, and other intriguing celebrities who later morph into miming, interpretive dancers that echo flight and fantasy interpreting the myriad of styles reflected in the album – from Jazz and Vaudeville to the strains of Music Hall, the avant-garde, and top of the pops.

Crayon-colored costumes by Elizabeth Kurtzman recall the aesthetics of artist Peter Max and author Tom Wolfe’s psychedelic-inspired, counter-culture celebration novel, “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” as well as the fashions of André Courrèges and London’s Carnaby Street of the same 60’s dynamic.

Mark Morris Dance Group – Pepperland ~ Photo by Mat Hayward

Accompanied by vocalist Clinton Curtis and a five-piece band that includes a soprano sax, trombone, keyboard and percussionist, the sound is further heightened by Ethan Iverson on the piano and the lilting strains of the avant-garde electronic instrument called a theremin played by Rob Schwimmer.  This fantasy-like reinterpretation of the original Beatles music (Yes, the songs are still recognizable) draws from both the minimalist stylings of composer Phillip Glass and 60’s dances.  Frug, anyone?

Seven Beatles compositions from the album are augmented by ‘Magna Carta’, ‘Adagio’, ‘Allegro’ and ‘Scherzo’.  One of the dances is a riff on Ringo’s song, “When I’m 64”.  It places the dancers shoulder-to-shoulder, chorus line style, all doing a different dance. So original!

Highly recommended.

Additional musicians – Sam Newsome on soprano saxophone; Jacob Garchik on trombone; Colin Fowler on keyboard; and Vinnie Sperrazza on percussion.

Mark Morris Dance Group – Pepperland ~ Photo by Mat Hayward

Dancers – Mica Bernas, Karlie Budge, Brandon Cournay, John Eirich, Domingo Estrada, Jr., Lesley Garrison, Lauren Grant, Sarah Haarmann, Deepa Liegel, Aaron Loux, Laurel Lynch, Matthew McLaughlin, Dallas McMurray, Minga Prather, Brandon Randolph, Nicole Sabella, Christina Sahaida, Billy Smith, Noah Vinson, and Jammie Walker.

At the Kennedy Center through November 16th .

Mark Morris will be in conversation with Wesley Stace, co-author of his new book, “Out Loud: A Memoir” on Sunday, November 17th between 5-6pm at Politics and Prose Bookstore – 5015 Connecticut Ave., NW, Washington, DC 20008