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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.

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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

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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.

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Tender Napalm – Signature Theatre

Jordan Wright
March 23, 2014
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

Laura C. Harris and Elan Zafir - photo credit Teresa Wood.

Laura C. Harris and Elan Zafir – photo credit Teresa Wood.

Two characters known as “Man” and “Woman” are the sole performers in this complex and powerful drama by British playwright Philip Ridley.  It is both a love story of two young Londoners who have experienced an extraordinary loss, and a hypothetical time warp deep into the heart of a relationship fraught with all the perils and passions of youth.

The East Enders meet at a lavish party in the grandiose gardens of a spectacular mansion where their courtship unfolds in a relatively straightforward fashion.  But as Director Matthew Gardiner foreshadows in his introduction to the play, “To be in love with another person is to feel a wide range of emotions: enchantment, ecstasy, animosity, fear and doubt.”  Ridley uses intense physicality and a made-up fantasy language to convey all of these conflicting emotions in Tender Napalm.

Elan Zafir, who has a huge almost superhero physicality, plays Man to Laura Harris’s sylph-like Woman – – a deliberate choice that depicts the lovers as not only emotionally opposite but physically opposite as well.  But it’s not a competition of brawn over beauty, our heroine is just as intense and savvy an opponent as her lover.

Credit: Photo of Laura C. Harris and Elan Zafir by Teresa Wood.

Laura C. Harris and Elan Zafir – photo credit Teresa Wood.

The play is presented in snippets and flashbacks of their relationship.  In one bumbling effort to express his desires Man tells Woman, “I could squeeze a bullet between those lips,” a crass sentiment later co-opted by Woman, who suggests a hand grenade to achieve the same effect.  Calling her ”my muse” and expressing his love he tells her, “I’d like to be a tree full of doves pushing my branches around you.” She responds by referring to him as “my snare” and blowing him off.  Push and pull.  Back and forth.

In their drive to establish their separate identities and assert their dominance over the other, Woman invents a desert island where she is Queen of the Monkeys.  She threatens Man telling him the monkeys will do her bidding to establish her power.  Not to be challenged, Man counters with the same desire to be in charge and they fight over who rules their fantasy island – – each looking to gain the upper hand.

The play is seeded with symbols – – a cave where Woman can control Man, unicorns as escapism, UFOs as the unknown, and a man-eating sea serpent to represent the concept of death and rebirth.  Ridley portrays Man as the conqueror, an unrelenting warrior, protector of Woman and slayer of the serpent. While Woman uses her powers as controller, consoler and arbiter in the battle of the sexes.  In one scene Man tells her of imaginary aliens who abduct him, claiming it is not in their DNA to kill.  They give him a spaceship filled with atom bombs and he regales Woman with his courageousness.  “Bombs away!  I’m killing everything I see,” he brags to her rat-a-tat-tatting his way around the stage.

Credit: Photo of Laura C. Harris and Elan Zafir by Teresa Wood.

Laura C. Harris and Elan Zafir – photo credit Teresa Wood.

Yet the play has deeply affecting moments of tenderness and surrender when the lovers step away from their egos and submit to one another.  Sounds of explosions, earthquake rumblings and the screech of a futuristic rewind help to reset the action as the lovers’ emotions swing wildly from love and lust to hate and envy.  But ultimately it is the force of Ridley’s extraordinary play performed by two brilliant performers’ on a simple stage with no props and no scenery that captivates.

Raw, erotic and riveting.  It is a must see.

Through May 11th 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.

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Beaches – Signature Theatre

Jordan Wright
March 4, 2014
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

Photo of Presley Ryan as Little Cee Cee by Margot I. Schulman.

Photo of Presley Ryan as Little Cee Cee by Margot I. Schulman.

Signature Theatre’s world premiere of Beaches opens with a bang.  Presley Ryan, fresh off her appearance on NBC’s The Sound of Music with Carrie Underwood plays Little Cee Cee, the precocious child who would become a big star.  Ryan gets the show off to a rollicking start with “What A Star” performing an electrifying song-and-dance routine worthy of Shirley Temple in her heyday.  Ryan’s got mega-watt energy and sass galore and the show hits the heights whenever she’s on stage.

Beaches is based on the original novel by Iris Rainer Dart who also has written the lyrics to the two-and-a-half hour-long musical – – collaborating with Composer David Austin and scriptwriter Thom Thomas to bring her book to the stage.  As you may recall the film version starring Bette Midler and Barbara Hershey was a huge hit and its anthem “The Wind Beneath My Wings” written by Jeff Silbar and Larry Henley (and the only song taken from the movie) took Midler’s career into the stratosphere.

That this interpretation is overly long, poorly written with awkwardly contrived rhymes and disjointed character segues, is only partially the fault of the writers, but ultimately there is just too much crammed into one show.  It is most assuredly not the fault of the performers whose singing and acting is flawless, nor Scenic Designer Derek McLane’s set – – a spectacular composition of period furniture rising to the rafters, nor is it Costume Designer Frank Labovitz’s brilliant costumes from the 50’s to the hippie era through Cee Cee’s show biz career and disco outfits, to Bertie’s tailored wrap-dresses.  Neither is it the fault of the story, a tender tale of true friendship between two women who couldn’t be more dissimilar yet who stick together through thick and thin.

Alysha Umphress as Cee Cee and Matthew Scott as John Perry -Photo credit Margot I. Schulman

Alysha Umphress as Cee Cee and Matthew Scott as John Perry -Photo credit Margot I. Schulman

Cee Cee and Bertie become best friends when young Bertie (played by Brooklyn Shuck) is lost on the beach at Atlantic City.  The foul-mouthed Cee Cee “If ya call me Cecelia I’ll punch you in the mouth!” convinces Bertie, against her mother’s strict orders, to dip her toes into the sea.  And thus their bond is forged only to have it tested when Cee Cee brings the sheltered Bertie into the fast and furious world of show business.

Six different actresses reflect the three stages from childhood to teenage to womanhood.  And although Beaches is set in locations from New Jersey’s Atlantic City and Beach Haven to Florida’s Sarasota and Miami to California’s Carmel, oddly the production uses neither sand nor water, though there is one early scene in which mottled lighting at the edge of the stage is meant to signify water.

Photo of Mara Davi as Bertie (left), Alysha Umphress as Cee Cee (right) and Beaches ensemble by Margot I. Schulman.

Photo of Mara Davi as Bertie (left), Alysha Umphress as Cee Cee (right) and Beaches ensemble by Margot I. Schulman.

Things begin to get complicated when boyfriends appear on the scene and jealousies and betrayals threaten to destroy the women’s friendship.  But worse still are the show’s lackluster lyrics – – “Let’s be us again”, “Children they’ll make us new” and “a new life for me and my man” – – that are even more destructive.  Some of the show’s twenty-four songs are as unquotable as they are strained as in the song “Normal People” when the women describe each other as “a Jew and a goy, a princess and a goddess” and each wishes the other had a “_ _ _ _”, a slang term that rhymes with stick.  I thought I was watching a bad episode of the cancelled TV show Smash.  And not to be a spoiler, but in this story Bertie comes back to life in an eye-roller of a duet, “God Gave You Me”, a ballad that stretches all credulity.

Still there is some fine acting and singing most especially from Alysha Umphress as the grown-up Cee Cee whose exceptionally beautiful voice and arresting presence are memorable.  Notwithstanding the terrific cast, Beaches will have a lot to work out before it sees the footlights of Broadway.

Through March 30th 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.

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