Archives

TRANSLATE WEBSITE

Smokey Joe’s Café – Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
May 12, 2014
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

 Kara-Tameika Watkins in Smokey Joe’s Café—The Songs of Leiber and Stoller - Photo by Teresa Wood

Kara-Tameika Watkins in Smokey Joe’s Café—The Songs of Leiber and Stoller – Photo by Teresa Wood

Smokey Joe’s Café The Songs of Leiber and Stoller gets off to a slow easy roll.  Forty-two of the most beloved songs from the pantheon of R&B and rock and roll will be sung in only two hours and that’s going to necessitate a “build” as they say.

The nine-member cast kicks things off with few less familiar tunes soon revved up by finger-snappin’ classics like “Ruby Baby”and “Keep on Rollin’”which is oddly accompanied by a vintage film of train tracks projected onto rarely used and largely ineffective screens hung along the ceiling – – a needless distraction.  But at this point you’re just settling in and familiarizing yourself with the voices which are not aiming for any crescendos.  Yet.

In the third number, “Falling”, Ashley Blair Fitzgerald, as the blonde ingénue, comes off pitchy and things aren’t looking too promising.  For a show featuring some of the greatest hits of the R&B legends’ songbook, every voice is expected to be spot on.  These songs were covered by mega-artists from Presley to Piaf and singers as varied as the Drifters, Ben E. King, the Doobie Brothers, Big Mama Thornton, Peggy Lee, who released an entire album of their hits, and the Coasters, for which Lyricist Jerry Leiber and Composer Mike Stoller wrote twenty-four chart-topping hits.  It’s easy to see why the composers reign supreme in the pantheon of great songwriters in American popular music.

Levi Kreis in Smokey Joe’s Café—The Songs of Leiber and Stoller  - Photo by Teresa Wood.

Levi Kreis in Smokey Joe’s Café—The Songs of Leiber and Stoller – Photo by Teresa Wood.

In Director Randy Johnson’s production of the longest-running musical revue in Broadway’s history, a rockin’ 7-piece orchestra sits smack in the center of the stage-in-the-round, framed by a wide platform.  Singers enter between the aisles, shakin’, shimmyin’ and sashayin’ all the way onto the stage, and occasionally straight into the orchestra pit, as for “Jailhouse Rock” where Levi Kreis delivers a sexy, hip-grinding version on a vintage mic shoving aside the pianist to boogie-woogie the keyboard.  But that’s getting ahead of ourselves.

Nova Y. Payton in Smokey Joe’s Café—The Songs of Leiber and Stoller - Photo by Teresa Wood.

Nova Y. Payton in Smokey Joe’s Café—The Songs of Leiber and Stoller – Photo by Teresa Wood.

After a few numbers, the solos begin and the cast is on fire.  Nova Peyton’s powerful voice coupled with Stephawn P. Stephens’ formidable silken bass (think Teddy Pendergrass) on “Love Me/Don’t”guarantees goose bumps, and E. Faye Butler comes out in the first of her solos with a sultry, Ella-scatting arrangement of “Fools Fall in Love”.  Kreiss, whose portrayal of Jerry Lee Lewis in Broadway’s Million Dollar Quartet earned him a Tony Award, totally kills it again with “I Keep Forgettin’”and we’re off and running.  That’s followed by a razamatazz version of “On Broadway”,where Costume Designer Ilona Somogyi’s hip threads with skinny black ties, black-and-white spats and plaid jackets firmly encapsulate the early 50’s.  The throwback bongo drums are just the icing on the cake.

E. Faye Butler in Smokey Joe’s Café—The Songs of Leiber and Stoller - Photo by Teresa Wood.

E. Faye Butler in Smokey Joe’s Café—The Songs of Leiber and Stoller – Photo by Teresa Wood.

Choreographer Parker Esse channels the be-bop/jitterbug era employing some fierce hand dancing.  Spins, throws, flips and even breakdancing (the “Worm Dance” makes an appearance) is thrown in for good measure.

After eighteen numbers Act I ends in a come-to-Jesus moment as the orchestra pit rises up to the stage level of E. Faye, Nova, Levi and the entire company for a tambourine-fueled, gospel rendition of “Saved”Intermission comes hard after feeling so pumped.

(L to R) Jay Adriel, Stephawn P. Stephens, Michael J. Mainwaring and Austin Colby in Smokey Joe’s Café—The Songs of Leiber and Stoller - Photo by Teresa Wood.

(L to R) Jay Adriel, Stephawn P. Stephens, Michael J. Mainwaring and Austin Colby in Smokey Joe’s Café—The Songs of Leiber and Stoller – Photo by Teresa Wood.

Act II packs in 23 more classic numbers.  Look for Jay Adriel’s beautiful rendition of “Loving You” which brings to mind the voice of Johnny Mathis, and Nova on Hound Dog, a number she delivers with heart-stopping passion.  Remember “Yakety Yak”, “Hound Dog”, “Love Potion #9”, “Spanish Harlem”,and“I (Who Have Nothing)”, the iconic song once covered by Tom Jones?  Here E. Faye, Nova, Michael J. Mainwaring (a beautiful voice in his first ballad of the evening), and Levi blend together to provide an especially poignant moment to an evening of hand-clapping, foot-tapping, chair-dancing thrills.

You gotta go!  It’s like crazy cool, Daddy-O.

Through June 8th at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information on performance times and dates call 202 488-3300 or visit www.ArenaStage.org.

The cast of Smokey Joe’s Café—The Songs of Leiber and Stoller  at the Mead Center for American Theater - Photo by Teresa Wood.

The cast of Smokey Joe’s Café—The Songs of Leiber and Stoller at the Mead Center for American Theater – Photo by Teresa Wood.

Post to Twitter

Camp David – Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
April 4, 2014
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

(L to R) Ron Rifkin as Menachem Begin, Richard Thomas as Jimmy Carter and Khaled Nabawy as Anwar Sadat - Photo by Teresa Wood.

(L to R) Ron Rifkin as Menachem Begin, Richard Thomas as Jimmy Carter and Khaled Nabawy as Anwar Sadat – Photo by Teresa Wood.

Theater history was made Thursday night at Arena Stage’s premiere of Camp David when former U. S. President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn Carter, were in attendance. Little known is the fact that it has taken thirty years for TV Producer and former White House Communications Director in the Carter administration, Gerald Rafshoon, to convince Carter to give his permission to do this play.

Mideast History 101 – In September of 1978 Menachem Begin, Prime Minister of Israel, Anwar Sadat, President of Egypt, and Jimmy Carter met at Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland’s scenic Catoctin Mountains.  For thirteen harrowing and contentious days and nights as the world waited with bated breath, the three men attempted to iron out a treaty to bring peace to the Middle East.  It is important to note that the Camp David Accords have stood the test of time.

Camp David is playwright Lawrence Wright’s fictionalization of this historic meeting – an intellectual struggle for power wrapped in a clash of egos.  A fourth character is present among the men, that of Rosalynn Carter (Hallie Foote) – – an important figure in the construct who brings Southern charm and levity to the play’s riveting tension.

(L to R) Hallie Foote as Rosalynn Carter and Ron Rifkin as Menachem Begin - Photo by Teresa Wood.

(L to R) Hallie Foote as Rosalynn Carter and Ron Rifkin as Menachem Begin – Photo by Teresa Wood.

The production opens with a graphic video reminder of the four wars that raged between Egypt and Israel within a 30-year time frame.  Using a combination of news footage and photos to depict the horrors of those wars and their subsequent effect on our oil prices as a result of Mid-East conflicts, serves to remind us of our investment in peace and stability in this tumultuous region.

Richard Thomas plays Carter.  Thomas may perhaps, be best known for his long-running role as John-Boy in The Waltons.  Since those days he has performed in dozens of film and television roles as a dramatic actor and can currently be seen on the much-acclaimed FX series The Americans.  Thomas’ Carter is a spot on depiction of the folksy, homespun Southern politician with the instincts of a Coonhound treeing a possum.  (Carter has since revealed that before the talks he had studied a weighty briefing on both Begin’s and Sadat’s personalities.)  He was savvy enough to know when to press them and when to back off.

Richard Thomas as Jimmy Carter - Photo by Teresa Wood.

Richard Thomas as Jimmy Carter – Photo by Teresa Wood.

Director Molly Smith shows a stroke of brilliance by casting one of Egypt’s leading actors, Khaled Nabawy, as Sadat.  Nabawy plays him with a high-minded and sophisticated air.  “Whatever you decide I will sign,” Sadat says agreeably.  “I am flexible on everything except land and sovereignty.”  Sadat has brought along a copy of the United Nations Security Council Resolution 242 that had been agreed to and signed in 1967.  It called for Israel to retreat from occupied lands, compensate for lost properties, return natural resources, grant access to holy places, terminate Arab boycotts and sign a treaty on non-proliferation.  Begin tears it in half.  Carter insists he stick to it as the basis for their talks.

Begin (Ron Rifkin) proves to be as intransigent as a mule, quibbling over formalities and procedural points like a schoolboy.  He doesn’t trust Carter or Sadat.  “You have a way of turning words upside down,” Carter accuses him.  But Begin is a tough negotiator, there to represent his people’s interests.  “One third of all the Jews in the world were annihilated in my generation,” he says.  And as each man calls out to his own God, Muslim, Jewish and Christian, for advice and succor, Carter reminds them,  “The future doesn’t have to be like the past.”

Hallie Foote as Rosalynn Carter, Richard Thomas as Jimmy Carter and Khaled Nabawy as Anwar Sadat with Will Beckstrom and Will Hayes -  Photo by Teresa Wood.

Hallie Foote as Rosalynn Carter, Richard Thomas as Jimmy Carter and Khaled Nabawy as Anwar Sadat with Will Beckstrom and Will Hayes – Photo by Teresa Wood.

Set Designer Walt Spangler uses old-growth trees in a mountain setting with a rustic cottage off to one side.  A drop section in the stage floor changes the scene, alternating between patio chairs and log-hewn garden benches, keeping the focus on the actors and the constantly shifting dynamics, while Lighting Designer Pat Collins uses sunrises and sunsets helps us to count the days.

Highly recommended.

Through May 4th at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information on performance times and dates call 202 488-3300 or visit www.ArenaStage.org.

Post to Twitter

Loveland at Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
March 23, 2014
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

Ann Randolph in Loveland at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Photo by Teresa Wood.

Ann Randolph in Loveland at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Photo by Teresa Wood.

Welcome to the wonderfully wacky world of Frannie Potts.  You’ll meet her in Loveland at Arena Stage as part of the Kogod Cradle Series for American Voices.

Frannie is a “thought bubble” come to life, a woman who actually verbalizes the socially unacceptable things we think but are conditioned by society not to say out loud.  Her ADHD is cringe-worthy.  She’s the crazy lady with no filter – – the one shouting out her philosophy of the world to strangers – – the one we dismiss.  In writer/performer Ann Randolph’s Loveland we enter the world of Frannie Potts in her hilarious one-woman show.

On a stage set with a single chair and a shopping bag containing a few props, we find Frannie seated on a plane on her way from LA to the Midwest for her mother’s funeral.  In Frannie’s world “dead” is dead – not “passed away” or “gone”.  She brooks no euphemisms and no platitudes, and we love her all the more for it.

In a series of flashback portrayals, Randolph takes on the identities of a number of characters, not least of all her irreverent chain-smoking mother, a wisecracking pistol of a woman who delights in egging her daughter on.

Randolph also channels the pilot, whom she fantasizes about; a stereotypically snooty flight attendant; her seatmates, who are none to pleased to listen to her ramblings; a condescending funeral home saleswoman; a smarmy nursing home administrator; and a sanctimonious yoga instructor named Shanti.  None are spared Frannie’s sharp-tongued, sharp-eyed, invariably outraged, retorts.  If you’ve ever enjoyed the screwball humor of Erma Bombeck, Ruth Buzzi or Lily Tomlin, the satirical black humor of British comedies like The Wrong Box or The Loved One, or the wry wit of Fran Lebowitz, Loveland is certain to rattle all your funny bones.

In one of the skits Frannie tries frantically to reach her mother at the Crane Lake Country Manor, a nursing home with, you guessed it, no cranes and no lakes.  The irony of it all is compounded when she is subjected to the “on hold” strains of Mozart’s Requiem Mass for the Dead.

Randolph has created Frannie, a hugely sympathetic character, with depth and dimension, and she does it with floor-dropping humor.

Highly recommended.

Through April 2nd at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information on performance times and dates call 202 488-3300 or visit www.ArenaStage.org.

Ann Randolph in Loveland at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Photo by Teresa Wood.

Ann Randolph in Loveland at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Photo by Teresa Wood.

Post to Twitter

Kathleen Turner Triumphs in Mother Courage and Her Children – Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
February 11, 2014
Special to The Alexandria Times

Kathleen Turner as Mother Courage in Mother Courage and Her Children - Photo by Teresa Wood

Kathleen Turner as Mother Courage in Mother Courage and Her Children – Photo by Teresa Wood

I had a terrible sense of dread about Arena Stage’s production of Mother Courage and Her Children… and in Act One it was coming true.  But we’ll get to that later.

There was a palpable hush that came over the audience when Kathleen Turner appeared on the stage as Mother Courage in a shiny new version of Bertolt Brecht’s drama, performed in Fichandler’s theater-in-the-oblong space.  Turner is an actress of such import that she brings instant gravitas to whatever role she plays and the audience was already pumped up to see her return to Arena Stage since last August’s one-woman show, Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins. 

If the charismatic Turner personified “feisty” in that show, she gives new meaning to the word as a mother who survives the war by her wit and grit.  Set in the 1600’s, the play, now a musical, uses the similarities of the Polish-Swedish War and the Thirty Years’ War to crystallize the futility of all wars, while at the same time expressing a tender story of a mother’s uncompromising duty to her children doled out with regular infusions of tough love.  But Mother Courage who hauls her vendor’s cart to war zones selling stolen wares to the soldiers on both sides “Wherever there’s corruption, there’s hope,” she avers, cannot protect her children forever.  “You thought you could live off the war and keep your family out of it,” the Sergeant admonishes her while recruiting one of her sons.

Director Molly Smith eschews the orchestra pit recruiting actors, for all but the major roles, who are also musicians.   To that end the soldiers carry their instruments, accordion, tuba, trumpet or band saw, on stage for all the musical numbers, which gives the play an engagingly surreal dynamic… quirky, surprising and totally Brechtian.

(L to R) Kathleen Turner as Mother Courage and Jack Willis as the Cook in Mother Courage and Her Children - Photo by Teresa Wood

(L to R) Kathleen Turner as Mother Courage and Jack Willis as the Cook in Mother Courage and Her Children – Photo by Teresa Wood

Turner, who makes her singing debut, is clearly the big draw when she is on stage, which is nearly the entire two hours and forty-five minutes of this 1939 satirical tale.  Jack Willis is wonderful as The Cook, a pragmatic philosopher who woos Mother Courage even as he is trying to save his own neck  – – ditto for Rick Foucheux as The Chaplain, a sanguine dolt who in a twist of fate becomes The Cook’s rival.  “A war always has friends,” he quips spouting the gallows humor that weaves in and out of this intricate script.

Like Tolstoy’s War and Peace… a slog to get into until you get past the first hundred pages when it becomes impossible to put down… the play unfolds slowly, thus bringing on my fear that it would be a long night indeed.  Yet as soon as Composer James Sugg’s glorious music kicked in, the show revealed songs with the power and haunting quality of Broadway’s Les Miserables.  Sigh.  If only there were more than eleven numbers.

(L to R) Erin Weaver as Kattrin, Rick Foucheux as the Chaplain, Meg Gillentine as Yvette and Kathleen Turner as Mother Courage - Photo by Stan Barouh

(L to R) Erin Weaver as Kattrin, Rick Foucheux as the Chaplain, Meg Gillentine as Yvette and Kathleen Turner as Mother Courage – Photo by Stan Barouh

Local actor Erin Weaver does a wonderful job as Kattrin, Mother Courage’s mute daughter, in a performance reminiscent of Patty Duke’s groundbreaking role as Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker.  But the real scene stealing is left to Meg Gillentine as Yvette who electrifies with a slithery tango in the show’s third number, “Each Night in May”.

Through March 9th at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information call 202 488-3300 or visit www.ArenaStage.org.

Kathleen Turner (center) as Mother Courage and the cast of Mother Courage and Her Children - Photo by Teresa Wood

Kathleen Turner (center) as Mother Courage and the cast of Mother Courage and Her Children – Photo by Teresa Wood

Post to Twitter

The Tallest Tree in the Forest At Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
January 21, 2014
Special to The Alexandria Times

The Tallest Tree in the Forest. Illustration by Ricardo Martinez.

The Tallest Tree in the Forest. Illustration by Ricardo Martinez.

Paul Robeson is a name that many may not recognize in modern day America.  If you’re among those wracking your brain to recall his legacy, you can thank J. Edgar Hoover who did everything in his considerable power to erase the memory of this brilliant performer in the American conscious.   In Arena Stage’s latest production, The Tallest Tree in the Forest, the reason becomes very clear as to why one of our once most lauded African-American icons is remembered by so few.

For Actor/Playwright Daniel Beaty, the history and legacy of Robeson has become a mission – – for Director Moises Kaufman, who originally commissioned this one-man show as its Artistic Director, its page-to-stage reality is a dream come true.

As the show opens Beaty enters from the top of what appears to be a backstage fire escape leading down to a simply dressed stage.  He is singing “Ol’ Man River”, the great Negro ballad penned by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein for Showboat, the iconic production that was Robeson’s Broadway debut.  Beaty’s voice is a rich bass-baritone, deeply etched with emotion and suffering, a true reflection of the artist.  There will be twelve more songs, plucked from the pantheon of Negro spirituals and Harlem heyday Jazz tunes, to echo the highlights of Robeson’s life and career.

Robeson was a big man in every way.  The famous educator and Civil Rights leader, Mary McLeod Bethune, once referred to him as “the tallest tree in the forest”, and it stuck.  Well respected as a stage and screen performer, he was also known as a scholar, an athlete and political activist, and to his enemies, a “firebrand”.

Early New York friends with connections to the theatre led him to a life on the stage.  And there he might have stayed, if not for his commitment to use his celebrity to fight for human rights and against racism.  His experiences put him in solidarity with the oppressed who found a sympathetic voice in Robeson, who had been Valedictorian of his class at Rutgers University where he was their first African-American graduate – – the outspoken student later receiving his law degree from Columbia University.  Later, through his worldwide concert tours, he used his influence to rally for social change wherever he went.

In Lenin’s idyllic Bolshevik Russia of the 1920’s, where he witnessed Blacks, Jews and Chinese working together for under Communism, he claimed to have experienced real freedom.  “For the first time in my life I was treated as a man.  Not just as a Negro,” he would say, though he found things quite different during Stalin’s reign.

The music in this production played by Pianist/Conductor Kenny J. Seymour and backed by two musicians on multiple instruments is rich with meaning and the history of Black America’s struggle.  “Go Down Moses”, “Battle of Jericho” and other powerful spirituals echo the pre-Civil Rights era and serve to highlight Robeson’s life and times.

When he brought his experiences and idealism back to America in the early 1950’s he came up hard against Hoover and McCarthyism and the “Red Scare”, a repressive movement that was just beginning to gain steam in tandem with Robeson’s powerful ascent as an activist and performer.  Outspoken and fearless, he was branded a traitor.  Ultimately it was his unapologetic stance at the House Un-American Activities Committee’s trials that blacklisted him destroying his reputation and costing him his career.  “The artist must take sides.  He must elect to fight for Freedom or for Slavery,” he had declared.

Beaty plays 40 different roles in this riveting production, segueing effortlessly from male to female, black to white, young to old, and American to foreigner, imitating his family, friends and considerable enemies.  Told through sketches and vignettes, the course of Robeson’s life and career are highlighted by projections from actual newsreels of the day.   You’ll revel in Beaty’s Robeson, as complicated and vibrant and larger-than-life as the man himself.

Highly recommended.

Through February 16th at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information call 202 488-3300 or visit www.ArenaStage.org

Daniel Beaty as Paul Robeson in Tectonic Theater Project’s The Tallest Tree in the Forest. Photo by Don Ipock

Daniel Beaty as Paul Robeson in Tectonic Theater Project’s The Tallest Tree in the Forest. Photo by Don Ipock.

 

Post to Twitter