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Five Guys Named Moe Bring Razzle Dazzle to Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
November 24, 2014
Special to The Alexandria Times 

(L to R) Sheldon Henry as Big Moe, Jobari Parker-Namdar as No Moe, Clinton Roane as Little Moe, Travis Porchia as Four-Eyed Moe and Paris Nix as Eat Moe in Five Guys Named Moe. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

(L to R) Sheldon Henry as Big Moe, Jobari Parker-Namdar as No Moe, Clinton Roane as Little Moe, Travis Porchia as Four-Eyed Moe and Paris Nix as Eat Moe in Five Guys Named Moe. Photo by C. Stanley

When asked to produce a musical for the first time in his career, award winning Director and playwright, Robert O’Hara, decided on a fresh approach to the musical revue.  Showcasing songwriter and saxophonist Louis Jordan’s “new” Jazz sound; music written expressly for the show; and other notably sassy songs from the era, O’Hara chose to update it by channeling the success of the “boy band”.  Now Five Guys Named Moe presents a new dynamic to the ever-popular show with crack dance routines, a crop of snappy singers and a razzle-dazzle pace that gets the audience dancing in their seats – and onstage too.

The revue is backgrounded by the story of Nomax, a young man whose gal has left him high and dry.  For comfort Nomax turns to his old Zenith radio and a bottle of hooch.  In his lonely stupor the broadcasts come to life and he finds himself in the company of five jammin’ and jivin’ entertainers dressed in sharkskin suits and brocade jackets ready to take him to the “Saturday Night Fish Fry”.

Paris Nix as Eat Moe and the cast of Five Guys Named Moe - Photo by C. Stanley

Paris Nix as Eat Moe and the cast of Five Guys Named Moe – Photo by C. Stanley

Lit by neon-colored twin staircases that rise above the stage-level live orchestra, the “Moes” try to cheer up the hapless fellow with song and dance routines strung together from the hit tunes of the 1940’s era.  They take him to the Funky Butt Club where there’s a whole lot of shimmyin’, shakin’ and tappin’ goin’ on.  Where the guys trade licks in a whirlwind of dance styles from Maurice Hines to In Sync to Gene Kelly, with a few Magic Mike moves thrown in for good measure.

The cast of Five Guys Named Moe - Photo by C. Stanley

The cast of Five Guys Named Moe – Photo by C. Stanley

The super talented cast consists of Jobari Parker-Namdar as No Moe, Sheldon Henry as Big Moe, Clinton Roane as Little Moe, Travis Porchia as Four-Eyed Moe, Kevin McAllister as Nomax and Paris Nix as Eat Moe.  And there is no way to single anyone performer out for praise.  Believe me, I tried.  In harmony their rich voices blend together seamlessly, yet in solos, each one has its own distinctive style throughout the 25 numbers.  Henry shows off a boogie-woogie rhythm in “Caldonia”; Parker-Namdar and Porchia backed by the group tear the place down with their funky chicken in “Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Chickens”; Parker-Namdar on “Reet, Petite and Gone”; Clinton Roane tells Nomax “I’m a chubby chaser!” in “I Like ‘Em Fat Like That”; and Nix shows off a soulful blues vibe in “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying”. And they all shine bright backed by the smokin’ hot 6-piece orchestra led by Darryl G. Ivey.

Climb aboard the “Choo Choo Ch’Boogie” with this “sepia symphonette”.  Through December 28th at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information call 202 488-3300 or visit www.ArenaStage.org.

Fiddler on the Roof Returns to Washington, DC – Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
November 18, 2014
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

Jonathan Hadary as Tevye and the company of Fiddler on the Roof. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Jonathan Hadary as Tevye and the company of Fiddler on the Roof. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Fiddler on the Roof  is a tender and uplifting tale inspired by the Yiddish stories of Sholem Aleichem who wrote them at the turn of the 20th century.  Set in the fictional Russian Jewish shtetl of Anatevka, the story centers on the lives of Tevye (Jonathan Hadary), a milkman, and his wife, Golde (Ann Arvia) and their five eligible daughters.  You’ll recognize his character instantly by the beloved tune “If I Were a Rich Man”.

Jonathan Hadary as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof.  Photo by Margot Schulman.

Jonathan Hadary as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Tevye is eternally conflicted by the changing times, the frightening political climate and the corruption of the strict religious precepts laid down by the rabbi.  Fiercely traditional in a paternalistic society, he tries to rationalize his daughters’ unorthodox marital choices.  “On the other hand, look at my daughter’s eyes,” he muses trying to justify the adoration he sees in them for the men they love.  Unfortunately these men have not been pre-selected by Yente (Valerie Leonard), who is the Matchmaker for all of the women in the village.  The confused Tevye vacillates between keeping tradition and pleasing the daughters he clearly adores.  “Without tradition our lives would be as shaky as the fiddler on the roof,” he maintains.

This embraceable story is buoyed by Jerome Robbins’ original choreography drawn from authentic folkloric dances and complemented by Paul Tazewell’s evocative period costumes.  In “The Dream” scene Tazewell takes inspiration from artist Marc Chagall’s fantasy creatures to create an eerily phantasmagorical imagining of Tevye’s nightmare – the one in which he will be forced to give his daughter Tzeitel (Dorea Schmidt) to the crusty old butcher Lazar Wolf (Erick Devine) chosen by the matchmaker to increase the family’s status in the community.  “I realize we are the chosen people, but sometimes couldn’t you choose someone else,” he laments.

L to R) Maria Rizzo as Chava, ­­­­­Tracy Lynn Olivera as Rivka, Joshua Morgan as Motel and Shayna Blass as Shprintze in Fiddler on the Roof. Photo by Suzanne Blue Star Boy.

L to R) Maria Rizzo as Chava, ­­­­­Tracy Lynn Olivera as Rivka, Joshua Morgan as Motel and Shayna Blass as Shprintze in Fiddler on the Roof. Photo by Suzanne Blue Star Boy.

Lightning Designer Colin K. Bills provides full-throttle spotlights for the song and dance numbers and a comforting cocoon for the intimate scenes.  One of the most moving moments is the candlelit chorus slowly descending onto the stage from the topmost tier and reverently chanting the “Sabbath Prayer”.

Set Designer Todd Rosenthal keeps things simple with a series of weathered wood platforms, an eye-catching spiral perch for the fiddler, and a center stage trap door that provides a mind-bending entrance for Fruma-Sarah (Tracy Lynn Olivera).

L to R) Ann Arvia as Golde and Valerie Leonard as Yente in Fiddler on the Roof. Photo by Margot Schulman.

L to R) Ann Arvia as Golde and Valerie Leonard as Yente in Fiddler on the Roof. Photo by Margot Schulman.

After the show Arena’s Artistic Director Molly Smith, in recognition of Fiddler’s Washington, DC roots, its 50th Anniversary and citing deep appreciation for one of its legendary creators, presented celebrated 90-year old lyricist Sheldon Harnick with the theatre’s prestigious American Artist Award.  I asked Harnick about the night his show opened in DC.  “I was 40-years old when I wrote it,” he recalled with a mind as sharp as a blade.  “We were very worried because Zero [Mostel, who had originated the role of Tevye] was ill.  We weren’t even sure we would open.”  But open they did going on to Broadway and garnering nine Tony Awards for the longest-running musical of its time.  Harnick also heartily endorsed this staging saying, “They did a great job tonight!”

Through January 4, 2015 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.
For tickets and information call 202 488-3300 or visit www.ArenaStage.org.

Our War – Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
October 28, 2014
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

(L to R) John Lescault and Tuyet Pham in Our War - Photo by Teresa Wood.

(L to R) John Lescault and Tuyet Pham in Our War – Photo by Teresa Wood.

Arena Stage’s Artistic Director, Molly Smith, describes the evolution of Our War as “a synthesis of art, scholarship and community”, further defining it as “the extraordinary collaboration between universities, theaters and regions that were differently affected by the Civil War.”  As part of the current National Civil War Project this coming together with other prestigious arts groups, both local and national, affords the audience illuminating vignettes told by the imagined voices of those whose lives were affected during and after the war.

Kelly Renee Armstrong in Our War - Photo by Teresa Wood.

Kelly Renee Armstrong in Our War – Photo by Teresa Wood.

Smith has selected monologues from twenty-five leading American playwrights commissioned for the project, dividing their works into “Stars” and “Stripes” nights.  On press night we were treated to a reading by Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg whose star turn was in the voice of a slave whose son is called to go to war in “That Boy” written by Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist David Lindsay-Abaire.   There are six members in the ensemble – – Kelly Renee Armstrong, Ricardo Frederick Evans, John Lescault, Tuyet Thi Pham, Lynette Rathnam and Sara Waisanen who portray the other characters for a total of eighteen readings each night.

Ricardo Frederick Evans, with Tuyet Pham, in Our War -Photo by Teresa Wood.

Ricardo Frederick Evans, with Tuyet Pham, in Our War -Photo by Teresa Wood.

In addition Arena has cast over 30 notable leaders from the DC region to perform a reading throughout the run of the show.  Among them are DC Mayor Vincent Gray, Virginia Congressman Jim Moran, Chris Matthews of MSNBC’s Hardball, WAMU radio host Diane Rehm, NBC reporter Tom Sherwood and Rev. Dr. Howard-John Wesley, Senior Pastor of Alexandria’s Alfred Street Baptist Church.

Sara Waisanen and the company of Our War -  Photo by Teresa Wood.

Sara Waisanen and the company of Our War – Photo by Teresa Wood.

The first monologue performed by Waisanen and written by John Strand, is called “The Truth, Revealed”.  It is in the voice of ten year-old Ruby, a student of Bull Run Elementary who is reading from her class assignment.  Little Ruby has been indoctrinated at a tender age to espouse the Southern side of the story, blaming Abraham Lincoln for the killing of 618,222 soldiers.  Ruby likes numbers.  She reminds us that there were 4,000,000 slaves when the war started and its cost was $5.2 billion.  To support her theory she calls John Wilkes Booth a hero, asserts slavery was important to a successful economy, and quotes Rand Paul to back her up, stating “You can’t pass a law to make people change what’s in their hearts.”

Lynette Rathnam in Our War - Photo by Teresa Wood.

Lynette Rathnam in Our War – Photo by Teresa Wood.

In another, “Moo”, written by Iditi Kapil, Rathnam channels an Hispanic female soldier who enlists in the U. S. Army to gain a foothold on citizenship while dreaming of becoming an American pop singer.  “It’s never been free.  It’s always been on someone’s back,” the soldier acknowledges of war’s costs and immigrants’ participation in our wars.  It’s a sassy, street-smart, low-rider delivery that Rathnam nails to a tee.

John Lescault in Our War - Photo by Teresa Wood.

John Lescault in Our War – Photo by Teresa Wood.

Each powerfully expressed and richly textured piece relates a story from the shared experience of the American Civil War – – some are set in modern day, others come from the battlefield.  There are a myriad of perspectives from African-American, Irish and Asian to American Indian and early White American settlers, including an ironic tale from a homesteader’s descendent (written by Samuel D. Hunter and delivered masterfully by Lescault) who is asked to dedicate a shopping mall on the former property of his great-great grandfather.

Ricardo Frederick Evans in Our War - Photo by Teresa Wood.

Ricardo Frederick Evans in Our War – Photo by Teresa Wood.

Evans gives a moving performance as a soldier from Guatemala in “Fourteen Freight Trains” written by Maria Agui Carter.  The first soldier to die in Iraq, he crossed the borders to come to America as an orphan.  It is an earth-moving tale of a young boy who reminds us of the immigrants, illegal or not, who fought our wars and bought the line, “liberty and justice for all”.

In another, The Grey Rooster” by Lynn Nottage, Evans takes on the character of a Kentucky plantation owner’s slave, a man who made bourbon and owned a champion, fighting gamecock trained by Evans’ character.  In it he reminds us that masters often required their slaves to go to war in their place.

Highly recommended.

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

The Shoplifters – Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
September 21, 2014
Special to The Alexandria Times 

(L to R) Jane Houdyshell as Alma and Delaney Williams as Otto -Photo by Teresa Wood.

(L to R) Jane Houdyshell as Alma and Delaney Williams as Otto -Photo by Teresa Wood.

Alma is a career shoplifter.  In the stock room of a supermarket Dom, an overly zealous security guard trainee, is attempting to interview the crafty old woman.  The evidence: Two enormous steaks wrapped in white butcher paper upon a long wooden table.  And though Dom claims they tumbled out from under her dress,  Alma refuses to admit her part in it, going to great lengths to demean him as an amateur interrogator.  “Theft is not a motive.  It’s a consequence,” she instructs.

Jayne Houdyshell as Alma - Photo by Teresa Wood.

Jayne Houdyshell as Alma – Photo by Teresa Wood.

The eager gumshoe is no match for the veteran thief and she outmaneuvers him at every turn, twisting his words with theoretical gamesmanship and a knack for intellectualizing crime as a product of societal decay.  “Are you familiar with the myth of Prometheus?” she challenges, suggesting that her theft might be interpreted as a universal benefit to society.

L to R) Adi Stein as Dom and Delaney Williams as Otto -  Photo by Teresa Wood.

L to R) Adi Stein as Dom and Delaney Williams as Otto – Photo by Teresa Wood.

Two more characters enter the scene – Otto, Dom’s superior, a socially conscious  rent-a-cop who plans on retiring after training Dom, and Phyllis, Alma’s partner in crime, a spiritually inclined neurotic who prefers her job as a coat check girl to abetting Alma’s sociologically motivated schemes.

Canadian playwright and director, Morris Panych, has scripted a magnificently layered comedy, turbo-charged with hilarious one-liners, that on closer inspection is not a simple dissection of an interrogation and hoped for confession, but instead an absurdist exercise that would make Kafka proud.  Panych’s use of Otto as the questioner with a lenient view of criminal behavior is as intriguing as his portrait of Dom the bible-thumping do-gooder.  “We are not barbarians!” Otto admonishes Dom, in hopes that he’ll agree to release the women.  But Dom has other ideas and as soon as Otto and Alma leave the room he evangelizes Phyllis.  “Bad things happen for a good reason,” he cheerfully offers.

(L to R) Delaney Williams as Otto, Adi Stein as Dom, Jayne Houdyshell as Alma and Jenna Sokolowski as Phyllis - Photo by Teresa Wood.

(L to R) Delaney Williams as Otto, Adi Stein as Dom, Jayne Houdyshell as Alma and Jenna Sokolowski as Phyllis – Photo by Teresa Wood.

The cast is wonderful, especially given the complex duality of the characters.  Jayne Houdyshell in the role of Alma segues seamlessly from haughty sophist to stink-eyed cynic; Delaney Williams as Otto gives a textured performance as both her accuser and savior; Adi Stein as Dom, the foil, gives a keen portrayal of the overeager cop with psychological issues; while Jenna Sokolowski as Phyllis keeps the energy level high as the neurotic with a conscience.

Ken MacDonald’s brilliant set design consisting of 800 cardboard boxes frames the action.  Soaring to the height of the stage the toast-hued cartons sport the recognizable logos of familiar supermarket brands, further juxtaposing the familiar with the ridiculous.  Tucked between the boxes, randomly placed backlit niches highlight a small collection of everyday jewel-toned grocery items, giving them the illusion of precious objects.

Highly recommended.

Through October 19th at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.                     For tickets and information call 202 488-3300 or visit www.ArenaStage.org.

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.