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Elmer Gantry – Signature Theatre

Jordan Wright
October 22, 2014
Special to The Alexandria Times

Mary Kate Morrissey (Sharon Falconer), Nova Y. Payton (Mary Washington) and Charlie Pollock (Elmer Gantry) -  Photo by Margot Schulman.

Mary Kate Morrissey (Sharon Falconer), Nova Y. Payton (Mary Washington) and Charlie Pollock (Elmer Gantry) – Photo by Margot Schulman.

Artistic Director Eric Schaeffer has gone back to the well to remount Elmer Gantry, a show he co-produced in DC with writer John Bishop, composer Mel Marvin and lyricist Bob Satuloff sixteen years ago. Reimagined by the original team, this massive musical based on Sinclair Lewis’ quintessential novel now boasts several new numbers and a re-worked script.

Backed by a ten-piece orchestra, there is a great deal of heart and soul in this redemptive tale of a down-on-his-luck preacher and a young, ambitious evangelist, Sister Sharon Falconer. When Gantry (Charlie Pollock), a traveling farm equipment salesman on his last dime, watches the second-rate religious troupe at a revival meeting, he seizes the opportunity to join them, wooing the beautiful Sharon and transforming their hokey act into a big time, holy roller spectacle filled with gospel singing, Sunday go-to-meeting psalms and mournful folk songs. “People want to feel that heat in their lives. They want to laugh. They want to cry!” he tells her. And by the time they get to Topeka, Gantry has created a full-blown, berobed, hallelujah choir, and the pair’s sermonizing has reached a feverish pitch.

Ashley Buster (Epatha Washington), Nova Y. Payton (Mary Washington), Daphne Epps (Grace Washington) - Photo by Margot Schulman.

Ashley Buster (Epatha Washington), Nova Y. Payton (Mary Washington), Daphne Epps (Grace Washington) – Photo by Margot Schulman.

It’s at this point, midway through Act I with the addition of three gospel-singing sisters led by Nova Y. Payton, where the show truly catches fire. The Washington Sisters played by Payton, Ashley Buster and Daphne Epps bring a huge, near dwarfing presence to the rest of the chorus. In “Carry that Ball”, a football-themed spiritual that substitutes the word “touchdown” for “hallelujah”, Payton takes her singing to the rafters, electrifying the audience and juicing up the show.

Mary Kate Morrissey (Sharon Falconer) and company - Photo by Margot Schulman.

Mary Kate Morrissey (Sharon Falconer) and company – Photo by Margot Schulman.

Mary Kate Morrissey does a fine job as the ambitious and charismatic Sister Sharon whose past is as suspect as Gantry’s. In the tender tune, “You Don’t Know Who I Am”, she lets him know she has had to reinvent herself in order to evolve.

Unfortunately believable and powerfully passionate performances by Morrissey et alia are not matched by Pollock, whose uneven performance especially in Act II (he runs out of steam in their big duet “With You” and his solo turn in “My American Dream”), unreliable voice, and buzz cut hairstyle with trendy facial stubble, all contribute to his seeming out of date and out of sync with the other actors.

Charlie Pollock (Elmer Gantry) and Bobby Smith (Frank Shallard) - Photo by Margot Schulman.

Charlie Pollock (Elmer Gantry) and Bobby Smith (Frank Shallard) – Photo by Margot Schulman.

Watch for Bobby Smith, outstanding as Frank Shallard, Gantry’s slick-as-a-snake associate; and Harry A. Winter as Bob Faucher, the unscrupulous banker, to keep this revival afloat.

Through November 9th 2014 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.

Sex with Strangers – Signature Theatre

Jordan Wright
October 20, 2014
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

SEX WITH STRANGERS at Signature Theatre

SEX WITH STRANGERS

On the off chance you might not read this review all the way through and that perhaps you’ll skim through to get to the meat of the matter – – the rating! – – I’ll give it to you in the first paragraph.  Sex with Strangers may be one of the best comedy/dramas I’ve seen this year – an engaging, challenging, hilarious, deliciously sexy, stylishly clever, utterly modern relationship conundrum performed by a pair of actors utterly in tune with each other.  Playwright Laura Eason’s snappy, sexually charged repartee will be familiar to those who have seen Netflix’s House of Cards where she was part of the writing team of season two and three.

If you’ve read this far, here’s the set up.  Ethan, a successful young writer, arrives at a secluded writer’s retreat in the midst of a blizzard where he encounters Olivia, a 40-ish writer working on a new novel after her first book went nowhere fast.  He has already scoped out Olivia’s work through a mutual friend who told him she was staying there.  Is he there to work on his novel, or is it just a ruse to publish hers?  Along with Olivia we are in a constant state of bemusement, and any attempts to decoct the plot will prove fruitless.

Holly Twyford (Olivia) and Luigi Sottile (Ethan) -  Photo by Theresa Wood.

Holly Twyford (Olivia) and Luigi Sottile (Ethan) – Photo by Theresa Wood.

Four-time Helen Hayes Award winner Holly Twyford plays the tech-challenged Olivia, and Luigi Sottile plays Ethan, a New York Times bestselling author of sensationalist books that owe their success more to internet marketing techniques than whatever talent he might have.  “Critics say they’re lower than fortune cookies,” he confesses, explaining how the books evolved from his blogs about weekly hook ups with strangers.  Still she’s intrigued by him, his knowledge of the wonders of self-publishing and his familiarity with the instantaneous allure of technology.  Instead of rejecting this Lothario she’s eager to learn about his development of an app to publish books online.  Though his history of debauchery comes up, it is a mere bump along the road to their romance and only seems to fuel her excitement about his plan to re-issue her novel as an e-book  – – under an assumed name.

Tantalized by the prospects of finally giving her book its proper due, he meets her at her Chicago apartment with an IPad pre-loaded with some of her favorite books. “It smells like the future!” she exclaims.  Later, snubbing his e-book suggestion when an opportunity to sign with prestigious New York publishers comes up, she grouses,  “I want a real book!”

Three-time Helen Hayes Award-winning Director Aaron Posner keeps the action, and comedic timing, swirling as fast and furiously as the snow outside the set’s window panes which, thanks to Andrew Cissna’s clever lighting design, reflect the increasing wildness of the storm outside – – and inside too.  Enhancing the ambiance, Set Designer JD Madsen captures the writer’s world with the room’s sidewalls created from the textblocks of hundreds of books, and designing a parquet floor suggestive of different book shapes.

Highly recommended.

Through December 7th 2014 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.

Sunday in the Park with George – Signature Theatre

Jordan Wright
August 18, 2014
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

The cast of Sunday in the Park with George. Photo by Christopher Mueller.

The cast of Sunday in the Park with George. Photo by Christopher Mueller.

It’s been 16 years since Signature Theatre under the direction of Eric Schaeffer, mounted Sunday in the Park with GeorgeStephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Pulitzer and Tony Award-winning musical.  Back then it starred my niece Liz Larsen as Dot (Family plug: She is currently on Broadway in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical), and her husband Sal Viviano as George.  Though they were both nominated for Helen Hayes Awards, it was Liz that came away with the honors for “Outstanding Lead Actress in a Musical” and we all celebrated at a glittering evening at the Kennedy Center.

Fast forward to the latest production under the superb direction of Matthew Gardiner who has cast heavyweight Broadway stars Brynn O’Malley in the role of Dot, and Claybourne Elder as George, to bring to the stage this living, breathing, kaleidoscopic vision of Artist and Pointillist George Seurat’s life.

Based on an imaginative interpretation of the characters in this iconic painting, “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte”, the show opens onto the Paris artist’s atelier where a simple chiaroscuro backdrop echoes the 28 sketches Seurat made before completing his enormous masterpiece.  Seurat was exploring the new science of color dynamics and attempting to create a new art form, at a time when his peers were deeply immersed in Impressionism.  Set in the latter part of the 19th century when women wore corsets and bustles and men never went out without a proper topper, the painting emerges as the vehicle and backdrop for a tableau vivant of fifteen subjects who step out of the painting and come to life, revealing their very human characteristics.  Frank Labovitz’s period costumes of soft colors and subdued prints blend seamlessly with the muted colors of the painting.

Brynn O’Malley (Dot) and Claybourne Elder (George) in Sunday in the Park with George. Photo by Christopher Mueller.

Brynn O’Malley (Dot) and Claybourne Elder (George) in Sunday in the Park with George. Photo by Christopher Mueller.

As George taps dots onto the canvas, model and paramour, Dot, poses with her parasol held aloft, echoing her prominent role in the painting.  She is frustrated by the heat, her constricting attire and his lack of interest. “If I were a Follies girl,” she wistfully sighs.  In the song, “Color and Light” we become aware that his obsession, trumps all romance.  And in “We Do Not Belong Together” they early on become resigned to abandon their love.  “You are complete, I am unfinished,” Dot intuits.  He proves she is right in “Finishing the Hat”, in which he sacrifices their time together for his art.  Elder must give a tightly wound, highly controlled portrayal of the emotionally disconnected artist, and he does that quite convincingly, while O’Malley counterbalances it with a lithely lyrical Dot.

Daniel Conway’s set design reflects the artist’s struggle to achieve “order, design, composition, tone, form, symmetry and balance”.  He enforces that passion by eliminating and adding back silk-screened trees, dogs and a lone monkey according to George’s indecisiveness.

The Boatman, played marvelously by Paul Scanlan, comes to life as a smarmy low life who likes to terrify frolicking children when he is not insulting George.  Mitchell Hebert is Jules, a fellow artist and staunch critic of George’s new art.  Together with his wife, Yvonne (Valerie Leonard), Mr. (Dan Manning) and Mrs. (Maria Egler) they provide brisk and hilarious diversion.

By Act Two we have left the Victorian era and are transplanted into the present day.  George’s great grandson is unveiling a light machine called a “Chromolume”, at a swank Paris gallery, and in “Putting It Together”- “link by link, drink by drink, mink by mink” – he schmoozes well-heeled patrons hoping they’ll underwrite his invention.  This is where Lighting Designer Jennifer Schriever really displays her wizardry in a spectacular array of whirling pointillist beams of light and framed pixels of swirling primary colors.  Accompanying her grandson is George’s wheelchair-bound mother, also played by O’Malley, who sings the poignant tune, “Children and Art”, a tenderly wrought and exquisitely sung number that will rip your heart out.

A wonderful, wonderful cast.

Highly recommended.

Through September 21st 2014 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.

Cloak and Dagger Or the Case of the Golden Venus – Signature Theatre

Jordan Wright
June 16, 2014
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

Fat Tony (Ed Dixon), Nick Cutter (Doug Carpenter) and Gino (Christopher Bloch) sing “Who Put the Mob In” in “Cloak and Dagger,”Photo by Margot Schulman.

Fat Tony (Ed Dixon), Nick Cutter (Doug Carpenter) and Gino (Christopher Bloch) sing “Who Put the Mob In” in “Cloak and Dagger,”Photo by Margot Schulman.

If you want to be cast in a major part, or nail half a dozen roles in the same production…and if you want the music to be heavy on the romance, comedy and pathos…maybe you should just write your own damn material which is exactly what Helen Hayes Award Winner Ed Dixon did.  He set out to create the perfect platform for his talents, penning the book, music and lyrics to Cloak and Dagger or The Case of the Golden Venus, now having its world premiere at Signature Theatre.  In his madcap homage to 1950’s film noir, Dixon wrote himself into over a dozen separate roles, giving Director Eric Schaeffer one hot hit.  The energetic four-person cast is listed as Man One, Man Two, Nick and Helena, but there are countless reincarnations by Man One played by Dixon, and Man Two, played by Helen Hayes Award Winner, Christopher Bloch.

The story:  Nick Cutter is a private dick on the downswing.  Holed up in a shabby one-desk office in Manhattan, his world is tanking when in walks sexy, sharp-tongued firecracker, Helena Troy.  (All puns intended by the playwright throughout.)  Helena is being chased by gangsters-with-gats led by her goombah fiancé, Fattoni, a deese-dems-and-dose lowlife in pursuit of a purloined solid gold Venus statue.  Can the adoring Nick save her from The Mob and solve the mystery of the statue?  Not before combing every nook and cranny of New York, from Chinatown and Little Italy to Canal Street and 42nd Street, and every hellhole in between.  “Follow the stench – cheap cologne and despair,” the frowzy landlady advises Nick as she tries to woo him in the tune “A Real Woman”.

Nick Cutter (Doug Carpenter, center) and Pinsky’s Chorus Girls sing “Shake Your Maracas” - Photo by Margot Schulman.

Nick Cutter (Doug Carpenter, center) and Pinsky’s Chorus Girls sing “Shake Your Maracas” – Photo by Margot Schulman.

“You may be onto to something,” Nick acknowledges.  “I’d like to be!” she retorts with a wink.  When he worries Helena might already be a corpse, she suggests, “I’m sure she’s alright unless she fell in holy water in direct sunlight.”  The gags come fast and furious and in a wealth of different accents.  You gotta keep up.

Doug Carpenter, an appealing and handsome lead actor with a matchless voice to boot, is Nick Cutter.  Some of the most moving numbers in the show are his – “The Worst of Times” and “The Best of Times”, the two opening numbers, and “Love Is” which comes after he’s fallen head over heels for Helena.  Another terrific song is “Opium” sung with Man One, Man Two, Nick and Helena.  It could easily spring Cole Porter from his grave dripping with envy.  Erin Driscoll is Helena.  Though her petite frame is somewhat overshadowed by the big galoots, she makes up for it as a belter who can sell a tune to a flock of nightingales…and does.

Helena Troy (Erin Driscoll) strikes a seductive pose in “Cloak and Dagger,”  -  Photo by Margot Schulman.

Helena Troy (Erin Driscoll) strikes a seductive pose in “Cloak and Dagger,” – Photo by Margot Schulman.

Behind a simple set of three doors, Bloch and Dixon weave in and out donning umpteen crazy costumes and emerging totally transformed in record breaking time.  It’s a bonanza of double entendres, men in drag (Dixon does a potty-mouth Mae West), and some vaudeville-style hoofing (in “An Agent”, Bloch conjures Jimmy Durante and dances to “Hava Nagila”).

As important as the jokes are, the music is even more critical.  And one way to gauge the value of a musical is not just by the score, but also by the lyrics.  Would a singer choose any of these songs for a nightclub or cabaret act?  Well, yes!  Dixon has given songsters catchy tunes, creative lyrics and romantic ballads to choose from.  There are nineteen numbers played by four musicians that trick us into thinking they’re an orchestra.  Twenty-two year old Jordon Ross Weinhold, one year out of grad school, did the orchestrations and he is a veritable whiz kid.

It’s a clever detective story done in burlesque. What’s not to like?

Through July 6th 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.

Video Credit on Preview Video is James Gardiner and Justin Chiet

The Threepenny Opera – Signature Theatre

Jordan wright
April 29, 2014
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

Photo of Mitchell Jarvis by Christopher Mueller.

Photo of Mitchell Jarvis by Christopher Mueller.

Is capitalism and corruption as pervasive today as when Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill wrote The Threepenny Opera in 1920’s Germany?  They certainly thought so then basing their theme on John Gay’s 1728 The Beggar’s Opera.   In Signature Theatre’s use of Playwright Robert David MacDonald’s and Lyricist Jeremy Sams’ 1994 modernization of the original musical, they certainly believe it still to be true.  Citing a Pew Research Center report that income inequality is at its highest level since 1928, Signature’s Artistic Director Eric Schaeffer shows the theme is timeless.  Does the slogan “We are the 99%” sound familiar?

Set in a dystopian future the current Prince William is about to be crowned King William V (Theatregoers are treated to a flower-strewn memorial to the current Queen surrounded by the lurid headlines of her death on tabloid front pages.).

Director Matthew Gardiner has created and choreographed a cacophony of street-world chaos – – a place where Misha Kachman’s evocative set design features a neon sign for “Instant Cash” and graffiti covering the walls of dirty alleyways, and Sound Designer Lane Elms evokes the blaring noise of the city.  It’s a gritty world where hookers, strippers, conmen, and beggars are positioned at stage level while slick-suited financiers stroll an elevated catwalk, looking down on the hoi polloi beneath an electronic ticker-scroll with the stock prices of the day.  The dichotomy between the haves and have-nots is as clear as the bell announcing the start of business on the floor of the London Stock Exchange.

Macheath (Mitchell Jarvis, left) holds court on his wedding day (from left clockwise: Erin Driscoll, Sean Fri, Thomas Adrian Simpson, Paul Scanlan, John Leslie Wolfe, Ryan Sellers, and Rick Hammerly). -  Photo by Margot Schulman.

Macheath (Mitchell Jarvis, left) holds court on his wedding day (from left clockwise: Erin Driscoll, Sean Fri, Thomas Adrian Simpson, Paul Scanlan, John Leslie Wolfe, Ryan Sellers, and Rick Hammerly). – Photo by Margot Schulman.

Natascia Diaz plays the prostitute Jenny, with an ennui that chills to the bone.  Opening with the solo “The Flick Knife” a mournful song that describes Mack as the low-down murderer she loves, she offers up an eerie and halting rendition of the grisly ballad.

Jenny (Natascia Diaz) sings “The Flick Knife Song” -  Photo by Margot Schulman.

Jenny (Natascia Diaz) sings “The Flick Knife Song” – Photo by Margot Schulman.

As shakedown artist Mr. Peachum (Bobby Smith) describes “the five basic varieties of human wretchedness” in “Morning Chorale”, “the beggar, the banker, the cop – – they’re all of ‘em out on the take”, he hands out crutches, fake limbs and tattered clothing to his beggar candidates.  Mrs. Peachum (Donna Migliaccio) his cohort in crime aids in dostressing the garments with a scissors while their daughter sweet Polly (Erin Driscoll) takes it all in.  But is anyone more evil than the Machiavellian Macheath (Mitchell Jarvis) who, as quick as he slits a throat with his shiny shiv, marries the headstrong Polly alongside his band of thieves?

Costume Designer Frank Labovitz has created an arresting display of colors, patterns and styles to depict the criminal lifestyle.  Using what is known as the “chav” style of clothing adopted by a British anti-social youth subculture, Mack’s gang of thieves sport a mashup of designer clothing wearing pimp bling, Burberry caps and the latest in cell phones.  The hookers led by Jenny rock 6-inch stilettos, 12-inch high hairdos and fabulously racy lingerie, while Polly is a vision in a yellow Scottish plaid suit and beribboned hose.

Polly Peachum (Erin Driscoll) and Macheath (Mitchell Jarvis) sing “Love Duet”-  Photo by Margot Schulman.

Polly Peachum (Erin Driscoll) and Macheath (Mitchell Jarvis) sing “Love Duet”- Photo by Margot Schulman.

The production uses a variety of technology to suggest the insidiousness of our technology overload.  Lighting Designer Colin K. Bills and Video Designer Rocco DiSanti effect quick mood changes by infusing scenes with Brechtian philosophy by flashing platitudes across an electronic board above the fray.  Phrases like, “Depart from evil and do good,” and “Seek peace, and pursue it,” Brecht’s exhortation to his characters to beware of dehumanization through immorality.  DiSanti’s atmospheric lighting succeeds in heightening the tension and the chilling ferocity of the scenes.

There are too many eye-popping scenes and phenomenal singing to describe here but watch for Rick Hammerly as Lucy Brown who shows up to challenge Polly for Mack’s affections and nearly brings the house down with his drag performance as the pregnant Brown, “He’s Mars and I’m Venus,” she (he) explains; Jarvis’s descent into madness in “The Ballad in Which Macheath Begs All Men’s Forgiveness”; and Diaz and Jarvis’s steamy, macabre duet in “A Pimp’s Tango”.

Jenny (Natascia Diaz) and Macheath (Mitchell Jarvis) dance in “A Pimp’s Tango.” - Photo by Margot Schulman.

Jenny (Natascia Diaz) and Macheath (Mitchell Jarvis) dance in “A Pimp’s Tango.” – Photo by Margot Schulman.

Jarvis gives us a psychopathic yet charismatic Macheath – – the personification of evil and raw sexuality in a character as powerful, riveting and cringe-worthy as the Devil himself.  For Jarvis who effortlessly alternates between charm and depravity, it is a soul-searing triumph.  Impeccable casting and masterful direction by Gardiner inform this brilliant production.

Highly recommended.

Through June 1st 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.