March 3, 2014
Special to The Alexandria Times
Adam is played by Richard Isaacs, Luke by Fred Dechow – Photo credit Michael deBlois.
When Luke (Frederick Dechow) and Adam (Richard Isaacs) meet at a rooftop party in New York City they click, despite their disparities. Luke is a young aspiring actor and “cater waiter”, and Adam once an aspiring writer wallows in a mid-life crisis at a dead end job at his friend Holly’s candle shop. Though they have opposing views, Luke prays after sex and Adam is a dyed-in-the-wool atheist, they move in together. And though Adam feels as though all the end-of-the-world stuff and the who’s-going-to-heaven and who’s-going-to-hell routine is “a bit Vegas”, when Luke has a life-threatening accident Adam must take into account Luke’s religious philosophy.
Geoffrey Nauffts’ comic drama Next Fall, first brought to Broadway in 2010 by Producers Elton John and David Furnish, examines the opposing forces of conflict and sacrifice within a relationship in a script filled with wry wit, a steady stream of funny lines and deadpan sarcasm.
Brandon by Andy De, Arlene by Gayle N. Grimes and Holly by Suzanne Martin – Photo credit to Michael deBlois.
The play opens in a waiting room at New York’s Beth Israel Medical Center where Brandon (Andy De), Holly (Suzanne Martin), Arlene (Gayle Nichols-Grimes), Butch (Cal Whitehurst) and Adam await news of Luke’s condition. Adam has to figure out how to deal with Arlene and Butch, Luke’s homophobic parents who don’t know their son is gay. For the rest of the play the action shifts back and forth from the men’s Bleeker Street apartment, where the men’s relationship begins to strengthen despite their differences, to the hospital where Adam must hide their love from Luke’s parents.
In a clever technique Director Rob Batarla transitions the thirteen scene changes from hospital to apartment and back with music of the period and projections of grainy black and white photographs of the men throughout their five-year relationship.
Adam is played by Richard Isaacs, Luke by Fred Dechow, Butch by Cal Whitehurst – Photo credit to Michael deBlois
There are awkward exchanges between Arlene and Adam as when she surprises him by confessing her fears and a not very pristine past while Adam struggles to comprehend Brandon, Luke’s former boyfriend, who practices gay sex yet doesn’t believe in a gay relationship. Notwithstanding the proclivity of the three gay characters, the play addresses familiar themes of faith, commitment and love.
The cast in this provocative production is in synch throughout. Dechow plays Luke with subtlety and restraint, Isaacs gives Adam an endearingly derisive quality using a vast repertoire of facial expressions, and Martin imbues Holly with charm and verve. Whitehurst and Nichols-Grimes, both well known in the local theatre community, craft characters that reveal depth as well as empathy.
At Port City Playhouse at The Lab at Convergence, 1819 North Quaker Lane, Alexandria, VA 22302. Remaining performances are on the following dates – February 28, March 1, 7, 8, 11, 14, & 15 at 8pm. Matinees on March 8 & 15 at 2pm. For tickets and information visit www.portcityplayhouse.org.
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.
February 11, 2014
Special to The Alexandria Times
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
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
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
February 4, 2014
Special to The Alexandria Times
Freda Payne as Ella Fitzgerald – photo credit Chris Banks
Maurice Hines wants to entertain you, in the same way he’s entertained audiences through seven decades from Broadway to Vegas, and most recently at DC’s Arena Stage where his show Maurice Hines is Tappin’ thru Life opened recently to rave reviews. This time Hines is back in town directing Ella, First Lady of Song a show he conceived and choreographed.
The musical-on-steroids spans Ella Fitzgerald’s hard life and good times. Beginning in 1934 during The Great Depression through her halcyon days on France’s Cote D’Azur and her famed Philharmonic concerts, the story traces her childhood days singing on the streets of Harlem and her success at an amateur night contest at the Apollo Theatre, the historic venue that launched many an African-American performer’s career. As you might expect, to properly express the eight-decade career of this greatest of American Jazz singers, there’s a lot of material, both musical and personal, to draw from and a lot to gloss over. Hines spends less time on Ella’s struggles and insecurities, than on the music. In fact the show could be more accurately described as a concert, rather than a biography. And that would be most appropriate, since it’s been said Ella didn’t dwelled on her disappointments.
Roz White as Georgiana and Wynonna Smith playing Young Ella – Photo credit Chris Banks
Hines has cast iconic pop singer Freda Payne to play the diva’s counterpart. The successful recording artist, who herself has eighteen albums and a pair of gold records under her belt, proves an irresistible choice to channel Ella’s voice and gestures, trading eights and fours with the band like a hot knife through butter.
Tom Wiggin plays Ella’s agent, Norman Granz, a white man who fought for her career through the years of prejudice towards a black performer playing on white stages. “I’m in the long shot business,” Granz explains pushing to book Ella into “Whites Only” venues. Wynonna Smith does double duty as young Ella and Ella’s sister Frances. Rounding out the four-member cast is Helen Hayes Award-winning actress Roz White who plays Ella’s cousin and long-time personal assistant, Georgiana. Together their first-rate voices and moving portrayals make up this strong supporting cast.
Tom Wiggin as Norman Granz, Ella’s manager – photo credit Chris Banks
William Knowles conducts the sizzlin’ hot five-piece band on piano, sax, trumpet, bass and drums as Payne hits the heights with a vocal range that sends chills up your spine. Covering twenty-seven songs, from Duke Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean a Thing if it Ain’t Got That Swing” to George and Ira Gershwin’s “Oh, Lady Be Good”, and from Harold Arlen’s “Come Rain or Come Shine” to Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s “Mack the Knife”, the music span forty years of the best in Swing, Bebop, Scat and Jazz.
To get your groove on swing on down to MetroStage. Through March 16th at 1201 North Royal Street, Alexandria, 22314. For tickets and information visit www.metrostage.org.