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The Lion King – Kennedy Center

Jordan Wright
June 23, 2014
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

Brown Lindiwe Mkhize as ³Rafiki² in the opening number ³The Circle of Life² from THE LION KING National Tour. Copyright Disney.  Photo Credit  Joan Marcus

Brown Lindiwe Mkhize as ³Rafiki² in the opening number ³The Circle of Life² from THE LION KING National Tour. Copyright Disney. Photo Credit Joan Marcus

Disney’s The Lion King roars onto the stage with a procession of African wildlife in its opening number “Circle of Life”. Director Julie Taymor, who also serves as Costume Designer and Mask & Puppet Co-Designer with Michael Ward, sends her exquisitely conceived creatures – giraffes borne on stilts, a massive elephant and whirling birds held aloft on bamboo poles – streaming down the aisles of the Kennedy Center’s three-tiered Opera House in a fantastical African menagerie. Taymor, who studied Bunraku, the Japanese style of puppetry in which manipulators appear openly, and wayan kulit,the art of shadow puppetry, has magnificently incorporated these concepts into this spectacular production.

It is expected that by now (the animated film version premiered in 1994 and in 1998 the stage version garnered six Tony Awards) that you are familiar with the story of Simba the young lion, King Mufasa his kindly father, Scar the evil uncle, Rafiki the baboon shaman, and Zazu the Red-billed Hornbill. They all inhabit Simba’s life, along with the strong-willed Nala, Simba’s childhood friend, Pumbaa the gassy warthog and Timon the wise-cracking meerkat. These are not the only characters we are treated to. There are hordes of wildebeests that stampede onto the stage, a pride of lions that dance around and lurking laughing hyenas who are lampooned by Pumbaa and Timon in the famous song “Hakuna Matata” meaning “no worries” in Swahili.

Lyricist Tim Rice and Composer Elton John’s score is beyond fabulous. “Can You Seen the Love Tonight” is one of John’s biggest hits. But it was Hans Zimmer who won an Oscar, two Grammys and a Golden Globe for the original film score and Soweto émigré, Lebo M, known as the “voice and spirit of The Lion King”, who contributed the gloriously rich African rhythms and melodies.

Jordan A. Hall as ³Simba² and the ensemble in ³He Lives in You² from THE LION KING National Tour. Copyright Disney.  Photo Credit  Joan Marcus

Jordan A. Hall as ³Simba² and the ensemble in ³He Lives in You² from THE LION KING National Tour. Copyright Disney. Photo Credit Joan Marcus

Most memorable are Simba, played by the adorable Jordan A. Hall who stalks and pounces his way into your heart. “I hate public pools,” he jokes after a dangerous dunk in the river; L. Steven Taylor as Mufasa, whose superlative voice cradles the emotions in “They Live in You” when he explains to Simba about his ancestors who reside in the stars; and Tshidi Manye as the wise Rafiki, whose evocative South African voice burns brightly in “Circle of Life” and “He Lives in You”.

Taymor’s costumes, using the vivid colors of tribal kente cloth, juxtaposes Set Designer Richard Hudson’s backdrops of grassy savannas and cerulean skies, while in desert scenes she employs the earthy shades of patterned Malian mud cloth to accentuate Hudson’s parched earth colored sets.

The Lion King is a lavish feast for the eyes and a paradise of music for the ears. I’d gladly swing from a baobab tree limb to claim it as one of my favorite musicals of all time.

Through August 17th at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St., NW, Washington, DC. For tickets and information call 202 467-4600 or visit www.Kennedy-Center.org.

Side Show – Kennedy Center

Jordan Wright
June 20, 2014
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

 (l-r) Ryan Silverman as Terry Connor, Emily Padgett as Daisy, Erin Davie as Violet, Matthew Hydzik as Buddy Foster. Photo by Joan Marcus.

(l-r) Ryan Silverman as Terry Connor, Emily Padgett as Daisy, Erin Davie as Violet, Matthew Hydzik as Buddy Foster. Photo by Joan Marcus.

In the late 19th and up to the mid-20th century, before The Age of Political Correctness, the public’s fascination with human oddities was an acceptable form of entertainment. Traveling freak shows, pop-up circuses and dime museums were part of our culture and there was hardly a man, woman or child who had not been enthralled by a pinheaded man, a giant or a person with extra appendages. Midgets Chang and Eng, Andre the Giant, and Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy were headliners, as were the “Siamese” twins known as the Hilton Sisters. Side Show brings to life that bizarre era in American show business with the true and tragic story of the talented twins and the exploitation they endured.

Beautifully directed by Bill Condon (Oscar-winning screenwriter of Gods and Monsters) with gorgeous music by Grammy-Award winning composer Henry Krieger of Dreamgirls fame, and a touching story by veteran Broadway lyricist Bill Russell, this musical drama is a tumble down the rabbit hole into an “odditorium” where a tattooed lady with a propensity for dining on live chickens shares stage space with a three-legged man, a cannibal king, the lizard man, and a dozen other exotic creatures.

The story opens in Texas during the Depression, where the twins lead a dismal life performing in a San Antonio tent show with other “freaks”. Handsome talent scout Terry Connor (Ryan Silverman) discovers the girls, offering his credentials along with his partner Buddy Foster (Matthew Hydzik) in the jaunty and pun-laden tune, “Very Well Connected”. In all there are 24 smashing songs by Krieger.

The company of the Kennedy Center production of Side Show. Photo by Joan Marcus

The company of the Kennedy Center production of Side Show. Photo by Joan Marcus

The entire cast is a marvel. Many of the members play up to eight separate roles, led by the joined-at-the-hip Hiltons, performed spectacularly by Erin Davie as Violet and Emily Padgett as Daisy. Matching stride for stride, they dance, duet and, in one hilarious scene, pantomime a mock tennis match. The only thing they don’t do together is fall in love. In “A Private Conversation”, the show’s Phantom of The Opera moment, Silverman captivates in a duet with Padgett.

Robert Joy soars in the role of the archetypal slime ball, Sir, the sideshow’s manager, as does David St. Louis who plays his compassionate assistant Jake. St. Louis’s commanding bass-baritone in “You Should Be Loved”, moves earth and sky.

The show’s creative team gives us three-time Helen Hayes Award-winner Paul Tazewell, whose imaginative costumes span half a century from the twins’ Dickensian upbringing to Chicago’s Orpheum Theatre and on to the glitz and glamour of Hollywood where they become the toast of the town. Paul Kieve, whose stage and film illusions are legendary, dramatizes one of the most memorable scenes of the production when Javier Ignacio, performing a breathtaking illusion as Harry Houdini, sings “All in the Mind” in his haunting three-octave voice. I wished his were more than a cameo role.

Famed Special Effects/Prosthetics Designers, Dave Elsey and Lou Elsey who devised creatures for both Star Wars and Where the Wild Things Are, provide the rivetingly recognizable freaks.

Highly recommended.

Through July 13th at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St., NW, Washington, DC. For tickets and information call 202 467-4600 or visit www.Kennedy-Center.org.

The Washington Ballet Presents British Invasion: The Beatles & the Rolling Stones

Jordan Wright
March 10, 2014
Special to The Alexandria Times

British Invasion. Andile Ndlovu, Corey Landolt, Chong Sun, Jared Nelson. Photo Steve Vaccariello

British Invasion. Andile Ndlovu, Corey Landolt, Chong Sun, Jared Nelson. Photo Steve Vaccariello

Can ballet and British rock music coexist?  The answer, surprisingly, is yes!  And it took an American based ballet company to pull it off.  In an exciting night filled with the music of arguably the two greatest rock bands that ever crossed the pond The Washington Ballet presented their highly original concept at the Kennedy Center.  In the first of a three-part program Choreographer Christopher Bruce took twelve iconic Rolling Stones’ songs and brought them to life.

In “Little Red Rooster”, an old Willie Dixon blues song, the men wore jewel-toned velvet blazers and straight-legged pants strutting about like Mick Jagger and thrusting their chins in and out to lure the women, led by Francesa Dugarte who were having none of it.  When they got to the lyric “dogs begin to bark and hounds begin to howl” they mimicked wild dogs in a piece that was as cohesive as it was splashy.

The dancing, often performed en pointe or incorporating intricately executed duets, included interpretations of different dances of the period from the Jitterbug to the Watusi.  There was even a brief brush with twerking in “Paint It Black”.

Jade Payette, Jonathan Jordan and Nayon Iovino in Rooster by Theo Kossenas

Jade Payette, Jonathan Jordan and Nayon Iovino in Rooster by Theo Kossenas

The sylphlike Morgann Rose was sensational in “Ruby Tuesday”.  With her blazing red hair flowing freely she was captivatingly powerful in one of many such strong female roles throughout the evening’s program.

In “Lady Jane”, starring Brooklyn Mack in the 18th century-styled song, dancers performed a courtly minuet and couples paired off as at a dansant.  In “As Tears Go By” a ring-around-the-rosy dance gave an evocative meaning to the lyrics “I sit and watch the children play”.   Lyrics weren’t always strictly interpreted.  Often the dance referenced the mood or the moment in a dreamlike way.

In the second portion of the program the music of Kurt Weil and Bertholt Brecht, of “Mack the Knife” fame, and the lilting lieder of Frederic Chopin was played on solo piano by Glenn Sales and delivered by soprano CarrieAnne Winter and mezzo soprano Shelley Waite who traded off half a dozen pieces in operatic splendor.  A particularly interesting song selection was the jazzy and tragic ballad ”Surabaya-Johnny”, one of Weill’s songs made famous by Marianne Faithfull, one of Mick Jagger’s early loves, danced by Corey Landolt.  Another melancholy song, also recorded by Faithfull, was “Je ne t’aime Pas”.  Sung in French and danced in a duet, it was an especially harmonious blending of music and motion as the dancers, choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon expressed the haunting music.

Rooster (C.: Brooklyn Mack, Jade Payette) by Theo Kossenas

Rooster (C.: Brooklyn Mack, Jade Payette) by Theo Kossenas

Twelve Beatles’ tunes followed interpreted by famed Choreographer Trey McIntyre whose tender rendition of “Mother Nature’s Son” again showed Brooklyn Mack executing massive leaps with a soft and joyful expression.   “Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da”, performed by the entire ensemble using angular Gumby doll movements, was perhaps the most comic of the numbers.  In “Strawberry Fields” heightened energy matched the psychedelic era of the Beatles, while “Julia”, the “ocean child”, was danced magnificently by Maki Onuki whose surreal marionette-like motions appeared to make her float above an aqueous stage.

So you might ask, “Does rock music go with ballet?”  Well, if the hootin’, hollerin’ and thunderous applause accompanying the standing ovation was any measure, than that would be a resounding “Yes!”

Cirque Dreams A Holiday Spectacle for All Ages At the Kennedy Center

Jordan Wright
December 7, 2010

Cirque Dreams

Cirque Dreams

The litmus test for success of a glittery, shimmery holiday extravaganza is if kids will like it. So to that end I brought my own kid barometer. Twelve years old and well acquainted with large stage productions he brings his built–in cool meter and preteen insider radar.

As the houselights dimmed and the curtain rose to reveal a stage full of Christmas lights and a thirty-foot crystal Christmas tree I watched out of the corner of my eye as my cool dude gasped, cheered, whooped, applauded wildly, “Let’s clap to the beat!” he begged, and sat on the edge of his seat breathless with anticipation and flat-out astonishment. With every new jaw-dropping act he asked, “Did you see that?” or “How did they do that?” “Yes! Wow! I don’t know!” I replied catching my breath too.

Put aside your old-fashioned notions of retro Christmas shows, here’s what you can expect to come at you in warp-speed. Performers of every stripe from five continents, spectacular juggling, tumbling and stupefying acrobatics from Chinese synchronized cyclists. Countless dazzling costume changes on sets replete with giant presents, gingerbread houses, tin soldiers and a silvery moon will leave checking your own reality. Everything is bigger than life and way, way over-the-top.

Together we marveled at a pigtailed pixie gymnast and a miniature gingerbread boy with an elastic spine who spins faster than a gyroscope on a sugar high. There are gravity-defying icemen performing one-handed human lifts, a gaggle of jump-ropers who contrive the most intricate ins and outs never seen before, a tightrope walker on a unicycle who juggles giant thimbles and a mime with a knack for conducting who has folks in the audience ringing cowbells to his silent frenzied gesticulations. And that’s not even the half of it.

Throughout there is a heart-pounding score and soaring vocals from a Ziegfeld-style ice queen, a blue angel and a razzmatazz version of Dickens replete with feisty elves. It is flat out crazy fun and full of the holiday spirit.

Producer Neil Goldberg, whose imaginative company Cirque Productions has created fantasies for major theatres, casinos and tours including the Superbowl, Disney, Busch Gardens, MGM, Caesar’s, Bally and NBC, CBS, ABC, comes off his recent success on Broadway for Cirque Dreams Jungle Fantasy. This show is the start of their National Tour and runs till December 12th.

For tickets phone 202 467-4600 or visit www.kennedy-center.org.