March 4, 2014
Special to The Alexandria Times
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
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.
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.
December 27, 2013
Special to The Alexandria Times
Louise (Maria Rizzo) becomes Gypsy Rose Lee in the musical “Gypsy.” – Photo by Teresa Wood.
When lyricist Stephen Sondheim and composer Jule Styne’s original production of Gypsy hit Broadway in 1959 I witnessed Ethel Merman play Rose, a role that many said was tailor made for her and her alone. But though the show has been through many incarnations and Rose has been performed by some of the finest performers who have ever graced the Great White Way, today is another day, and we are lucky to have Sherri L. Edelen, a local actress who also seems to have been born to play the role of the stage mother.
Wikipedia defines a stage mother as an “individual prone to obnoxiously demanding special treatment for her child, or suggesting that the individual has placed inappropriate pressure on her child to succeed. Some believe that a ‘stage mom’ is vicariously living out her own dreams through her child.” That the tradition lives on (ponder the current TLC’s Toddler’s and Tiaras) is indisputable. That after all these years it is still being played out in families around the world is undeniable. I should know. As a child descended from three generations of show business, we are quite familiar with the role.
In Signature Theatre’s current production of Gypsy Director Joe Calarco has breathed new life into author Arthur Laurent’s classic backstage saga. His interpretation has been infused with so much talent, heart and energy, it’s happily bursting at the seams.
Let’s start with the cast. And what a stupendous cast it is, chock-a-block with powerhouse voices and dazzling dancers. There’s Sherri L. Edelen as Rose, Mitchell Hebert as Herbie, Maria Rizzo as Gypsy, Erin Cearlock as Baby June, Nicole Mangi as grown up June, Sandy Bainum as Tessie Tura the stripper with a heart of gold, Tracy Lynn Olivera as Electra, Carolyn Cole as Renee aka Agnes, Donna Migliaccio as Mazeppa, plus twelve other actor/dancer/singers that make up this delicious cast. If you know musical theatre in our area you probably know most of these performers and their reputations as some of the best in the biz.
Momma Rose (Sherri L. Edelen, left) places her bets on daughter Louise (Maria Rizzo) – Photo by Teresa Wood.
The story of Gypsy is inspired by the famous burlesque dancer Gypsy Rose Lee’s memoirs and features some of the most memorable music in Broadway’s history – - songs like “Some People”, “Small World”, “If Momma Was Married”, “Let Me Entertain You”, “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” and “You Gotta Get a Gimmick” for starters. It’s a tale of two cute little girls and their tenaciously ambitious mother, a woman whose reason for living is to see her children become stars, even if they have to live out of a suitcase. As Rose puts it to her own father before leaving him, “Anyone who stays home is dead!”
Herbie (Mitchell Hébert, right) makes a point clear to Pastey (Steven Cupo) backstage in the musical “Gypsy,” – Photo by Teresa Wood.
It’s the peak of Vaudeville’s heyday when Rose meets Herbie, a onetime talent agent, now traveling salesman. Together they become a formidable duo devising a child act with June, Louise and a couple of stray boys they find along the way. June is the star of the kiddie act, a precocious child with blonde ringlets and a megawatt smile who begins to tire of being forced to play the perpetual child by her desperate mother. “As long as I have this act, no one is over 12!” Rose admonishes.
Lighting designer Chris Lee manages the aging process with the clever use of strobe lighting to “magically” switch out the children to older actors during a frenetic dance routine. Unfortunately I can’t say the same for the dozens of set changes in which stage-height fabric panels printed with Vaudeville era advertisements are moved from front to back and side to side throughout the show. It is distracting and awkward even though the quite visible “stagehands” are dressed in period clothing. After awhile you come to expect it, though it doesn’t seem like the smoothest way to transition scenes.
In Act Two the action really heats up when Louise takes a job at Minsky’s, a notable New York burlesque house where she becomes Gypsy Rose Lee, who was in reality the highest paid stripper in history.
Louise (Maria Rizzo) sings “Let Me Entertain You” in the musical “Gypsy.” – Photo by Teresa Wood.
Through January 26th 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.
December 2, 2013
Special to The Alexandria Times
In between sending out cards, trimming the tree, wrapping gifts and drinking a dram or two of Christmas cheer, be sure to plan on seeing one or more of these fabulous holiday shows.
Family holiday shows are everywhere. But where can you find one that’s tailor made for teens…and non-denominational too? This year the Synetic Theatre Teen Ensemble is tackling the company’s Silent Shakespeare version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and it promises to be scintillating. In this beautifully reimagined production local teens star as Feuding Fairies, Lost Lovers and Merry Mechanicals in a production directed by Alex Mills.
There are two special events during the run of the show. Synetic will host a special “Party Night” for teens after the December 8th evening performance, where young adults will be able to hang out with the cast and dance to a DJ onstage. Also on the 8th at 2pm there will be a “Family Day and Holiday Party”. Expect a visit from Santa to include snacks and games in the company’s new theatre space.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream runs from December 5th through the 14th.
For tickets and information call 800 494-8497 or visit www.synetictheater.org. 1800 South Bell Street, Arlington, VA 22202
Peter Boyer, Tracey Stephens, Russell Sunday with puppets Want and Ignorance -
Photo credit: Chris Banks
Over at MetroStage it’s a rollicking sendup of the classic tale with A Broadway Christmas Carol. This is not your mama’s cup of eggnog. The endearingly outrageous three-person cast of Russell Sunday, Peter Boyer and Tracey Stephens will delightfully dissect your funny bone through parodies of thirty-one totally recognizable show tunes from the likes of Andrew Lloyd Weber, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Stephen Sondheim and many more. Boyer is this year’s newcomer to the cast and he is absolutely phenomenal as Scrooge in this madcap holiday whirlwind of costume changes and characters sung by some of the best pipes in the biz. Look for Pianist Howard Breitbart to get into the act in “The Phantom of Christmases Yet to Come”. It’s all a hoot and a howl for adults only.
From November 21st through December 22rd; Thursdays and Fridays at 8pm; Saturdays at 3pm and 8pm; Sundays at 3 and 7pm. For tickets and information call 800 494-8497 or visit www.metrostage.org. 1201 North Royal Street, Alexandria, VA
Gary Cramer (Bob Cratchit) – Erik Payton (Turkey Boy) – Valerie Chamness (Ghost of Christmas Past) – Photos by Eddy Roger Parker
At The Little Theatre of Alexandria it’s time once again for A Christmas Carol. Directed and adapted by Becky Patton, this family-friendly Dickens’ classic will warm the cockles of everyone’s heart. Replete with elegant Victorian costumes, the accursed curmudgeon Ebenezer Scrooge, and the adorable Tiny Tim, you can almost smell the chestnuts roasting as ghostly guides transport you through Christmas past, present and future. Relive this Currier & Ives picture postcard of a show that reveals the true meaning of Christmas.
From December 5th through December 22nd, Thursdays and Fridays at 8 pm, and Saturdays and Sundays at 3 pm and 5 pm. For tickets and information call 703 683-0496 or visit www.TheLittleTheatre.com. 600 Wolfe Street, Alexandria, VA 22314
Signature Theatre’s line-up for the holiday season has something for everyone. Holiday Follies is back with a wonderful wintry line-up of Signature’s closest friends and artists. There’s never been a better way to keep company on a cold winter’s night. The special holiday performance schedule for Holiday Follies in the ARK Theatre is December 17th at 7:30pm, December 18th at 7pm, December 19th at 8pm, December 20th at 8pm, December 21st at 2pm and 8pm, December 22nd at 2pm and 7pm and December 23rd at 7pm.
In addition Matt Conner will star in his very own show, A Matt Conner Christmas. Promising to be a cozy evening of Conner on piano sharing his favorite Christmas memories, the composer of Crossing, The Hollow and Nevermore says, “I’ll be blending them with some of my favorite Christmas songs, along with a few surprise guests. The show will range from bluegrass to classical with a lot in-between – - all full of holiday cheer.” At Signature’s ARK Theatre with performances on December 11th at 7:30pm, December 12th at 8pm, December 13th at 8pm, December 14th at 2pm and 8pm, and December 15th at 2pm and 7 pm.
Be sure to check out the special New Year’s Eve party and midnight toast for ticketholders of the theater’s latest extravaganza, Gypsy, one of the greatest American musicals ever written starring Sherri Edelen as Mama Rose.
For tickets and information visit www.signature-theatre.org or go through the Signature Box Office at 703 573-SEAT. 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, VA 22206
November 5, 2013
Special to The Alexandria Times
A quiet train station becomes a place of little miracles in Crossing – Photo by Teresa Wood.
In the world premiere of Matt Conner’s play Crossing eight people wait at a weathered wood train station. The strangers come from different decades of the past century to share their stories of hope, disillusionment and missed opportunities. The characters are not given names but are loosely defined as Backpacker – 2013, Wealthy Man – 1929, Mother – 1917, Soldier – 1917, Woman with Flowers – 1977, Unknown Woman, Civil Rights Marcher – 1963, Woman in Pink – 1954, Child – 1954. If you’re counting, that’s nine of course. The Unknown Woman, who appears a bit later, seems to be an avatar for hope and change, as in each one hopes the train’s arrival will somehow change their lives. “The easiest journey starts with a small step,” we are reminded.
The Civil Rights Marcher (Ines Nassara) waits on her train in Crossing – Photo by Teresa Wood.
“Here I Am” is the opening number, a sort of anthem to self-actualization that aims to inspire the traveler, “to seek, to strive, to find, to seek a newer world.” High hopes. There is an undercurrent of American patriotism interwoven throughout the lyrics as well as the immediacy of each individual’s situation. Should the Civil Rights Marcher go to Selma? Should the Wealthy Man break free? “Without my money, who am I?” he queries. Should the Woman with Flowers take back her daughter who’s run off with the Jim Jones’ People’s Temple? Will the Woman in Pink ever get on a train to anywhere? Each has a step to take – - a life lesson to resolve as they wait for the train to pull in to the station.
The Woman with Flowers (Florence Lacey) anticipates the return of her estranged daughter in Crossing
- Photo by Teresa Wood.
In the number, “Someone, Something, Somewhere” the ensemble seems to agree, “I’m not looking behind. I’m taking what’s mine.”
There is a lot of wishing and hoping and planning and scheming in this set piece. “If you’re tired or hungry or scared, keep going!” the Unknown Woman urges the Civil Rights Marcher, who struggles to believe she alone can make a difference. Unfortunately many lyrics are repetitive, patriotism is a handy conceit, and dreams are ultimately unfulfilled. “Life is just a distraction from Death,” the Wealthy Man decrees. The only hopeful traveler is the Backpacker (Christopher Mueller) who is not hampered by existentialist questions, but is eager to explore the world and seize love where he finds it.
A reappearing butterfly suggested by a spot of orange light on the stage floor becomes a metaphor for freedom and change. But no one appears to be changing or getting liberated. Hoped for love connections are dashed and sage advice is not taken. “If only I were braver – - younger,” the ensemble sings. Ultimately the only happy camper is the Backpacker.
The Woman in Pink (Tracy Lynn Olivera, left) meets the Soldier (Austin Colby) in Crossing – Photo by Teresa Wood.
The cast is the bravest element in a show that needs cheering up. Thankfully Christopher Mueller displays the passion and energy to keep the play’s grim reaper in check, while Tracy Lynn Olivera as the Woman in Pink affords us a tender portrayal of a woman who cannot bring herself to commit to a happy future. Nova Y. Payton plays the Unknown Woman, a beacon of light for all the weary travelers in the world. Her spectacular delivery in the reverential solo number “After the Rain”, in which she urges the strangers to find their life’s path, and then a cappella gospel song “Follow the Drinking Gourd”, make you wish you had sat in her train car the entire trip.
The Unknown Woman (Nova Y. Payton) endows the train station with a touch of magic in Crossing – Photo by Teresa Wood.
Through November 24th 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.
October 27, 2013
Special to The Alexandria Times
I’m still trying to puzzle out what the play’s title is supposed to mean. It has nothing to do with autumn or waterfalls and even less to do with the decline of a city called Autrey Mill. And the word “pride” doesn’t begin to sum up the complex neuroses of this dysfunctional family. So with little clue as to what to expect from playwright Paul Downs Colaizzo’s latest comic drama, I entered the theatre as curious as a cat.
Suburban housewife Carly (Christine Lahti, left) makes a discovery about her son Chad (Anthony Bowden) in Pride in the Falls of Autrey Mill – Photo: Margot Schulman.
The play opens onto a set furnished by Better Homes & Gardens or at least one that appears that way. Carly is having a sit-down with her college-age son Chad who has revealed to her that he is gay and has a steady boyfriend. She is surprised and disdainful, though far more interested in exploring the dynamics of his relationship. “Who pays the check?” she demands to know in an attempt to determine which role he plays. “If you pay the check, that makes you the man!” she chides him. “You coulda been president!” she insists in yet another attempt to belittle him. That’s how perfectionist Carly deals with news she doesn’t want to hear. Sweep it under the rug and then put a more palatable spin on it. The approval of their country club cronies is far more important to her than her own family’s feelings.
For a woman who has spent her entire adult life as a stay-at-home mom with an absentee traveling salesman husband, Carly has her own convoluted set of values. A control freak who idealizes her family as she denies them their individualism, she compiles lists of appropriate girls for her sons to date. When asked, “What’s for dinner?” she describes her seven-course meal listing all the gourmet ingredients.
Suburban housewife Carly (Christine Lahti, right) touches base with her husband Louie (Wayne Duvall) in Pride in the Falls of Autrey Mill – Photo: Margot Schulman.
No, this is not a rewrite of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” though it has overtones of it and Sam Mendes movie “American Beauty” too. It is a wry, tongue-in-cheek satire on the decline of the American family in all of its modern suburbanite splendor. A popular topic if ever there was. Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina nailed it when she said, “All happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
Bulimia, homosexuality, incest, overeating, cheating, emotional detachment, parental disapproval, alcohol and drugs. Just your typical middle class family, Colaizzo seems to say. “We’re just letting our dreams die, Mom,” Chad sagely observes.
“Pride in the Falls of Autrey Mill” is without nuance. It’s a straightforward, emotionally charged play loaded with piercing insults and laugh-out-loud satire. But ultimately it’s the humor that Colaizzo puts into this play that makes it palatable - – the nail-in-the-coffin retorts, the relatable characters we can tsk-tsk from a distance. And ultimately we are drawn to the train wreck and the exquisitely satisfying schadenfreude of watching other people’s vulnerabilities tweaked and prodded.
Brothers Chad (Anthony Bowden, left) and Tommy (Christopher McFarland) sneak a moment’s peace in the bathroom of their childhood home in Pride in the Falls of Autrey Mill – Photo: Margot Schulman.
Christine Lahti plays Carly like a tail-swishing cat, ready to pounce. She is riveting in her depiction of the uptight, social doyenne and a perfect contrast to Wayne Duvall’s laid back Southern breadwinner, Louie, who balances out that tension with a restrained yet effective portrayal of her husband who harbors other ideas for his happiness. Terrific performances by both Anthony Bowden as Chad, and Christopher McFarland as Tommy who bears the brunt of couple’s disappointment.
Through December 8th 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.