November 24th, 2013
Special to The Alexandria Times
(L-R) Max Heimowitz, John Manzari, Maurice Hines, Leo Manzari and Sam Heimowitz, with members of the DIVA Jazz Orchestra, Photo by Teresa Wood.
On a stage flanked by Mondrian-like color block panels reminiscent of 1960’s television shows, a 9-piece all-female orchestra is cranking out the sounds of “Did You Do That”. It’s an old tune by composer Stanley “Kay” Kaufman, an early creator, manager and conductor for the tap dancing brothers, Maurice and Gregory Hines. Back in the day Kaufman founded the original Diva Jazz Orchestra and now a new crop backs up the Broadway legend in “Maurice Hines is Tappin’ Thru Life”. The “Divas” as they are known in jazz circles from Lincoln Center to Birdland to the Apollo Theater, are smokin’ hot and Hines urges them on giving solo turns to noted sax player, Camille Thurman, trumpet player Liesl Whitaker and drummer, Dr. Sherrie Maricle, whom he likens quite accurately to Buddy Rich. Right from the start the joint is jumpin’ and the show has just begun.
The projection panels begin to come alive with intimate family photos, memories of segregation and show biz moments frozen in time. Interspersed between nineteen musical numbers, Hines shares deeply personal stories and his encounters with megastars like Lena Horne, Nat King Cole, Duke Ellington, Judy Garland, Sammy Davis, Jr. and Ol’ Blue Eyes – - the backstory to sixty-five years spent on stage and screen.
Maurice Hines in Maurice Hines is Tappin’ Thru Life – Photo by Teresa Wood.
Hines is captivating and stylish. His movements are silken – - his delivery both hipster and sophisticate. He does a modified “moonwalk”. “I love this step. It’s so sexy,” he croons. And it is. But I am waiting for him to tap. Isn’t everyone? He speaks sotto voce about a recent injury. Later he says, “You know I don’t tap much anymore.” But still, he’s suave in a black and white Armani jacket. And we’re totally enraptured by his shtick. Who doesn’t dig a song stylist with crazy, exquisite phrasing? The kind of phrasing that “owns” a song like Frank and Ella and Dino did. Hines learned it and honed it from the greatest of the greats and it shows as he segues seamlessly from Fats Waller honky-tonk to sophisticated ditties by Cole Porter to ballads like “All the Way”. In jazzed-up classic show tunes from Lerner and Lowe, “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face”, and “Get Me to the Church on Time”, in which Hines gives a thumbs up to DOMA, he lures the audience back to the 1950’s and nights at the Moulin Rouge, the first integrated nightclub in Vegas. Some of the songs even use the familiar Nelson Riddle arrangements. In “Luck Be a Lady” we are transported to Vegas sitting tableside with the Rat Pack at the Flamingo Hotel.
Finally in the eighteenth number Hines does a long spin, some rapid-fire tap moves, and a bit of soft shoe. Not a lot, but perfectly executed. And then the Manzari Brothers come on stage and dazzle, really stun with their electricity. They are formidable as expected. Sam and Max Heimowitz, young twins Hines recently discovered in DC, do a short turn with the virtuosos. Now everyone is tapping and all of a sudden the evening feels like a moment in musical stage history. Oh yes, Maurice. You are too “mahvelous” for mere words.
(L-R) John and Leo Manzari in Maurice Hines is Tappin’ Thru Life – Photo by Teresa Wood.
Through December 29th at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SW, Washington, DC 20024.
For tickets and information call 202 484-0247 or visit www.ArenaStage.org.
October 25, 2013
Special to The Alexandria Times
What sort of vacuum will be created when U.S. troops withdraw from Afghanistan and leave behind the Afghan men and women who aided the soldiers’ mission? Arena Stage playwright-in-residence, Charles Randolph-Wright, poses that question in “Love in Afghanistan”, a romantic drama with sanguinity. Randolph-Wright, who had never visited the country, got some help from former Secretary of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano, who vetted the script for authenticity.
(L to R) Khris Davis as Duke and Melis Aker as Roya in Love in Afghanistan – Photo by Teresa Wood.
Set in the war torn city of Kabul, African-American hip-hop superstar Duke and his Afghan translator Roya discover their similarities and interpret their struggles in very different ways. Duke is at the height of his music career and Roya, a women’s rights advocate, has risen through the ranks becoming one of the most sought after translators in the city. When she is assigned to Duke during his concert tour at Bagram Air Force Base, they become enmeshed in each others lives.
The four-character play includes Roya’s father, Sayeed, a translator; and Duke’s mother, Desiree, a senior vice-president with the World Bank assigned to the Arab kingdom. All four become caught in a dangerous and complex trap that has both political and emotional consequences. Lies of convenience and lies of survival weave the multi-layered plot together.
Melis Aker provides us with an intensely riveting performance as Roya, an assertive, modern-day Arab woman, raised as a boy. (Under a little known but widespread practice known as “bacha pash” meaning “dressed as a boy”, it’s how a girl child is raised as a boy when a family has no sons.) Joseph Kamal plays Sayeed in a subtle and moving performance of a protective father who nevertheless admonishes his daughter by reminding her, “A woman must not shame a man.”
As the American mission winds down complications arise for Roya and her father. They need visas or they will be persecuted for aiding the Americans. This is where the play’s present-day setting syncs up with real-world politics. Dramaturg Linda Lombardi provides this salient factoid in the program: The U.S. promised to give visas to those Afghans who, risking their own safety and security, assisted their efforts during the war. A special immigrant visa program was created to provide visas to Afghan locals working with the U.S. military. As a direct result of their work, their lives and their families are now in danger. To date the State Department has granted only 22% of the visas allocated.
Will Roya and Duke escape the suicide bombers and conquer the Taliban’s suppression of women’s rights and education? “We live our lives with fear. Not in fear,” Roya tells him. “In fear means that you have given up.” But while translating for a suspected jihadist, Roya herself becomes a scapegoat for a terrorist incident.
Khris Davis convincingly clones Duke, a middle-class rap artist who talks in jive and has moves to match. Davis lights up the stage in whatever scene he is in. Dawn Ursula, as his mother Desiree, is marvelous as the high-powered career woman who discovers the meaning of romance.
Dawn Ursula as Desiree in Love in Afghanistan – Photo by Teresa Wood.
Adding further authenticity and irony to the production, the stage floor features an enormous scarlet-hued Persian rug once belonging to King Mohammad Zahir Shah, the last king of Afghanistan, who created a new constitution with a parliament, free elections, women’s rights and freedom of speech. It’s hard to believe that was less than 40 years ago.
Through November 17th at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SW, Washington, DC 20024. For tickets and information call 202 484-0247 or visit www.ArenaStage.org.
(L to R) Joseph Kamal as Sayeed, Melis Aker as Roya, Dawn Ursula as Desiree and Khris Davis as Duke in Love in Afghanistan – Photo by Teresa Wood.
September 22, 2013
Special to Alexandria Times
Given its title one might imagine Arena Stage’s Artistic Director Molly Smith deliberately timed this piece to reflect the beginning of the fall season. But The Velocity of Autumn, a play Smith also directs, is not about the calendar. It is a poignant metaphor on the human condition.
Estelle Parsons as Alexandra and Stephen Spinella as Chris in The Velocity of Autumn – Photo by Teresa Wood
Estelle Parsons plays Alexandra, a crusty old gal living out her days in the Brooklyn brownstone where she raised her three children. She has jerry-rigged her home’s interior with barricades and Molotov cocktails strung together like party lights in order to keep the police, summoned by two of her children, from carting her off to a nursing home. In short she’s preparing to blow herself up and take her Park Slope neighborhood with her.
Once a successful artist Alexandra wants to spend the rest of her life among her books and records in her own home. Her children have other ideas as to where she should live. The two-person play (with phone updates from the panicked siblings), an often-prickly conversation between Christopher and his mother, is weighted with gallows humor. “I will set myself on fire,” she threatens, toying with an old Zippo lighter while grasping a homemade explosive. “Then I’ll bring the marshmallows,” Christopher quips, modeling his mother’s dark sense of humor. I won’t reveal the dramatic early entry of the long absent Christopher, tasked by his overly meddlesome siblings, Michael and Jennifer, to talk their mother down from her end-of-the-world scenario. But I will say it clarifies the autumnal reference.
The story is a tender exercise in patience and reconciliation as Alexandra and her estranged son create new bonds while revealing their darkest fears and reflecting on their lives. Snappy one-liners abound, keeping the dialogue from mawkish sentimentality, “Getting you out of diapers was like the Bataan Death March!” While philosophies on aging keep it real, “Old age is just one big surprise. You never know who you are until you get up!”
Estelle Parsons as Alexandra in The Velocity of Autumn – Photo by Teresa Wood
Parsons, best known for her Academy Award-winning performance in Bonnie and Clyde and as Mother Bev on TV’s sitcom Rosanne, has kept her theatre presence active, not only by directing, but also by taking roles scripted by the American theatre’s most revered playwrights such as Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Samuel Beckett and Edward Albee. Her portrayal of Alexandra, a woman of fierce determination, complexity and above all a wry sense of humor, proves that she is one of America’s most brilliant, and funniest, actors.
Stephen Spinella comes to the role of Christopher with a shelf’s worth of Tony and Drama Desk Awards. His sensitive performance as the wayward son returning to the fold to mitigate disaster and reconnect with his mother, is genuine and deeply affecting.
Playwright Eric Coble’s The Velocity of Autumn, part of a trilogy of “Alexandra” plays, gives us a memorable night of pure, unadulterated theatre that will resonate mightily – - not only with caregivers and the elderly, but for all those seeking grace and meaning in a fast-moving world.
The Velocity of Autumn at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Illustration by André Carrilho
Through October 20th at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SW, Washington, DC 20024. For tickets and information call 202 484-0247 or visit www.ArenaStage.org.
June 24, 2013
Special to Alexandria Times, DC Metro Theater Arts
It’s 2013 at Arena Stage or is it? The house is exploding and a tripped out light show has begun. Eight slim-hipped long-haired musicians – a three-man horn section, a crack drummer, bluesy keyboardist and three flaming hot guitarists – are cranking out the wailing sounds of blues and heart-stopping, mind-altering rock n’ roll. The audience, lit up by white-hot strobes and pulsing psychedelia, is in their seats – but barely. They are nodding in sync to the earth-shaking beat in their button-down shirts and summer dresses, remembering their lives before kids and jobs, paychecks and mortgages. It’s the ‘60’s all over again. A time of peace signs, free love and magic mushrooms. A time when you might have been lucky enough to catch Janis Joplin performing in 1968 at the city’s former roller rink known as the Alexandria Arena.
And then it happens. Janis Joplin, the tiny Texas ball of fire, streaks down the catwalk and onto the stage. It’s her! It’s just like her! No, it’s Mary Bridget Davies, and she’s totally channeling Janis. The scratchy voice, the stuttering syllables, the “yeah, man” and “far out” and hoarse cackle she punctuated her lyrics with. Davies has Janis down pat – down to her round rose-colored shades and salty language, down to her bending forward in search of a single note and delivering a primal sound, a cry, and twisting it in a new way, rearing backwards to let it out with a howl. So like Janis with arms outstretched in supplication, then punching the air fighting for her place in a straight world – drawing us in while telling us we’ve failed her. We know the desolation of her soul, her lost loves, her emotional release. And Davies does too.
Mary Bridget Davies as Janis Joplin Photo by Jim Cox.
It was all about the blues for Janis, “It’s the want of something that gives you the blues,” she once said. She latched onto it as a kid in middle-class Port Arthur singing folk songs at Threadgill’s, a local honky-tonk near Austin, where she met a two-bit manager and ran off to San Francisco to front for the acid-rock band Big Brother and the Holding Company just before the “Summer of Love”.
But it was her love affair with the music of Bessie Smith, “She showed me the air and she taught me how to fill it,” that lingered. Later it was Odetta, who inspired Janis’ rendition of “Down on Me” and Nina Simone whose haunting version of “Summertime” was covered by Janis. Even Aretha Franklin and Motown’s The Chantels were her muses paving the way for her to invent her own sound.
Sabrina Elayne Carten sings these early blues and gospel influences with an astonishing vocal range that is heart-stoppingly soulful with a spectacular and nuanced portrayal of Bessie, Aretha and Odetta. Carten’s voice on “Spirit in the Dark” an early Aretha-written song, Nina’s “Summertime”, and Bessie’s “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” is as expressive as it is powerful, harkening back to the singers’ early renditions.
In One Night With Janis playwright and director Randy Johnson lets Janis share her musical story from art school dropout to the feathered spangled rock star we came to know as ‘Pearl’. And ultimately it’s Davies ripping up the stage with Janis’ greatest hits, putting another little piece of her heart out there in “Me and Bobby McGee”, “Try (Just a Little Bit Harder)”, “Cry Baby” and “Down On Me”, that grabs you by the throat – those and twenty other jammin’ Janis numbers performed by a killer rock band and three-girl backup that translate into the grooviest night of music and memories from the “Queen of Rock and Roll”. It’s like so far out, man.
Through August 11th at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SW, Washington, DC 20024. For tickets and information call 202 484-0247 or visit www.ArenaStage.org.
for the Alexandria Times
April 8, 2013
The Mountaintop runs March 29-May 12, 2013 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Illustration by Tim O’Brien.
When playwright and actor Katori Hall’s play The Mountaintop was staged on Broadway in 2011 it starred Angela Bassett and Samuel L. Jackson, two of the finest American actors we know. But with Arena Stage’s latest production, irresistibly directed by Robert O’Hara, it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the roles except the current stars of this production – Bowman Wright as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Joaquina Kalukango as Camae.
From the moment the lights go up on Clint Ramos’s set design of the iconic Lorraine Motel, all the images of that tragic day come flooding back. The dark-suited men on the second floor balcony pointing to the direction where the bullets had been fired, the foreboding sky, and the subsequent revelations of how we lost one of the country’s most powerful civil rights leaders on the night after he gave his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” sermon at the Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee.
Joaquina Kalukango as Camae and Bowman Wright as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Photo by Scott Suchman.
Hall’s play imagines that rainy night and King’s conversations with Camae, a hotel maid, who brings a cup of coffee to his room and stays with him until that fateful hour. Camae is a sassy, sexy, amusingly profane foil for the serious preacher. “I need a needle and thread to sew up my mouth,” she confesses after one too many f-bombs. With her Pall Malls tucked in her bra, “My daddy said Kools’ll kill ya”, and her flask cached in her stocking top, she appeals to King’s well-known weaknesses and they spend the evening flirting and talking of race relations and the War on Poverty. He is working on a speech in Room 306, more familiarly known as the King-Abernathy Suite, and it is clear he is easily distracted by her not inconsiderable charms.
As the night progresses and the rain turns to light snow, King’s visions and suspicions of her uncanny knowledge of his childhood name bring out his paranoia. “Fear has become my companion,” he admits. “I know the touch of fear even more than I know the touch of my own wife.” To recount the subsequent plot twists would be to act the spoiler, so I’ll put it a pin in it from that point on.
Crafting an engrossing script for an audience who knows the outcome of these historical events can be challenging, but Hall delivers with electrifying dialogue and inspiring originality and both Wright and Kalukango are seamlessly convincing.
Well worth noting are Lighting Designer Japhy Weideman and Projection Designer Jeff Sugg whose evocative special effects conjure the mood of the night and in a surprising ending use flashback projections to depict one of the most radically tumultuous eras in American history.
Through May 12th at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SW, Washington, DC 20024. For tickets and information call 202 484-0247 or visit www.ArenaStage.org.