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Elmer Gantry – Signature Theatre

Jordan Wright
October 22, 2014
Special to The Alexandria Times

Mary Kate Morrissey (Sharon Falconer), Nova Y. Payton (Mary Washington) and Charlie Pollock (Elmer Gantry) -  Photo by Margot Schulman.

Mary Kate Morrissey (Sharon Falconer), Nova Y. Payton (Mary Washington) and Charlie Pollock (Elmer Gantry) – Photo by Margot Schulman.

Artistic Director Eric Schaeffer has gone back to the well to remount Elmer Gantry, a show he co-produced in DC with writer John Bishop, composer Mel Marvin and lyricist Bob Satuloff sixteen years ago. Reimagined by the original team, this massive musical based on Sinclair Lewis’ quintessential novel now boasts several new numbers and a re-worked script.

Backed by a ten-piece orchestra, there is a great deal of heart and soul in this redemptive tale of a down-on-his-luck preacher and a young, ambitious evangelist, Sister Sharon Falconer. When Gantry (Charlie Pollock), a traveling farm equipment salesman on his last dime, watches the second-rate religious troupe at a revival meeting, he seizes the opportunity to join them, wooing the beautiful Sharon and transforming their hokey act into a big time, holy roller spectacle filled with gospel singing, Sunday go-to-meeting psalms and mournful folk songs. “People want to feel that heat in their lives. They want to laugh. They want to cry!” he tells her. And by the time they get to Topeka, Gantry has created a full-blown, berobed, hallelujah choir, and the pair’s sermonizing has reached a feverish pitch.

Ashley Buster (Epatha Washington), Nova Y. Payton (Mary Washington), Daphne Epps (Grace Washington) - Photo by Margot Schulman.

Ashley Buster (Epatha Washington), Nova Y. Payton (Mary Washington), Daphne Epps (Grace Washington) – Photo by Margot Schulman.

It’s at this point, midway through Act I with the addition of three gospel-singing sisters led by Nova Y. Payton, where the show truly catches fire. The Washington Sisters played by Payton, Ashley Buster and Daphne Epps bring a huge, near dwarfing presence to the rest of the chorus. In “Carry that Ball”, a football-themed spiritual that substitutes the word “touchdown” for “hallelujah”, Payton takes her singing to the rafters, electrifying the audience and juicing up the show.

Mary Kate Morrissey (Sharon Falconer) and company - Photo by Margot Schulman.

Mary Kate Morrissey (Sharon Falconer) and company – Photo by Margot Schulman.

Mary Kate Morrissey does a fine job as the ambitious and charismatic Sister Sharon whose past is as suspect as Gantry’s. In the tender tune, “You Don’t Know Who I Am”, she lets him know she has had to reinvent herself in order to evolve.

Unfortunately believable and powerfully passionate performances by Morrissey et alia are not matched by Pollock, whose uneven performance especially in Act II (he runs out of steam in their big duet “With You” and his solo turn in “My American Dream”), unreliable voice, and buzz cut hairstyle with trendy facial stubble, all contribute to his seeming out of date and out of sync with the other actors.

Charlie Pollock (Elmer Gantry) and Bobby Smith (Frank Shallard) - Photo by Margot Schulman.

Charlie Pollock (Elmer Gantry) and Bobby Smith (Frank Shallard) – Photo by Margot Schulman.

Watch for Bobby Smith, outstanding as Frank Shallard, Gantry’s slick-as-a-snake associate; and Harry A. Winter as Bob Faucher, the unscrupulous banker, to keep this revival afloat.

Through November 9th 2014 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.

Sex with Strangers – Signature Theatre

Jordan Wright
October 20, 2014
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

SEX WITH STRANGERS at Signature Theatre

SEX WITH STRANGERS

On the off chance you might not read this review all the way through and that perhaps you’ll skim through to get to the meat of the matter – – the rating! – – I’ll give it to you in the first paragraph.  Sex with Strangers may be one of the best comedy/dramas I’ve seen this year – an engaging, challenging, hilarious, deliciously sexy, stylishly clever, utterly modern relationship conundrum performed by a pair of actors utterly in tune with each other.  Playwright Laura Eason’s snappy, sexually charged repartee will be familiar to those who have seen Netflix’s House of Cards where she was part of the writing team of season two and three.

If you’ve read this far, here’s the set up.  Ethan, a successful young writer, arrives at a secluded writer’s retreat in the midst of a blizzard where he encounters Olivia, a 40-ish writer working on a new novel after her first book went nowhere fast.  He has already scoped out Olivia’s work through a mutual friend who told him she was staying there.  Is he there to work on his novel, or is it just a ruse to publish hers?  Along with Olivia we are in a constant state of bemusement, and any attempts to decoct the plot will prove fruitless.

Holly Twyford (Olivia) and Luigi Sottile (Ethan) -  Photo by Theresa Wood.

Holly Twyford (Olivia) and Luigi Sottile (Ethan) – Photo by Theresa Wood.

Four-time Helen Hayes Award winner Holly Twyford plays the tech-challenged Olivia, and Luigi Sottile plays Ethan, a New York Times bestselling author of sensationalist books that owe their success more to internet marketing techniques than whatever talent he might have.  “Critics say they’re lower than fortune cookies,” he confesses, explaining how the books evolved from his blogs about weekly hook ups with strangers.  Still she’s intrigued by him, his knowledge of the wonders of self-publishing and his familiarity with the instantaneous allure of technology.  Instead of rejecting this Lothario she’s eager to learn about his development of an app to publish books online.  Though his history of debauchery comes up, it is a mere bump along the road to their romance and only seems to fuel her excitement about his plan to re-issue her novel as an e-book  – – under an assumed name.

Tantalized by the prospects of finally giving her book its proper due, he meets her at her Chicago apartment with an IPad pre-loaded with some of her favorite books. “It smells like the future!” she exclaims.  Later, snubbing his e-book suggestion when an opportunity to sign with prestigious New York publishers comes up, she grouses,  “I want a real book!”

Three-time Helen Hayes Award-winning Director Aaron Posner keeps the action, and comedic timing, swirling as fast and furiously as the snow outside the set’s window panes which, thanks to Andrew Cissna’s clever lighting design, reflect the increasing wildness of the storm outside – – and inside too.  Enhancing the ambiance, Set Designer JD Madsen captures the writer’s world with the room’s sidewalls created from the textblocks of hundreds of books, and designing a parquet floor suggestive of different book shapes.

Highly recommended.

Through December 7th 2014 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.

The Island of Dr. Moreau at Synetic Theater

Jordan Wright
October 7, 2014
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

Synetic Theater has taken H. G. Well’s science fiction classic The Island of Dr. Moreau and morphed it into a frighteningly realistic maelstrom of horrors, just in time for Halloween.  For those who like being terrified by a mad scientist whose muse is a vengeful half human half feline fiend, sit back and settle in for a wild ride and a landscape filled with vivisected beasts – the good doctor’s engineered experiments.

Alex Mills as Parker and Paata Tsikurishvili as Dr. Moreau - Photo by Johnny Shryock.

Alex Mills as Parker and Paata Tsikurishvili as Dr. Moreau – Photo by Johnny Shryock.

Alex Mills plays Parker the hapless shipwreck victim, washed upon the shores of a Pacific atoll thousands of miles from civilization and light years from reality.  When he recalls that the doctor was blackballed from the scientific community for his gruesome experiments on humans, he begins to fear for his life amid the zombies – – as well he should.  To understand what machinations are transpiring within the laboratory he forms a friendship of convenience with Moreau’s dedicated assistant Montgomery (Dallas Tolentino) who between nips from a silver flask, assures him that the doctor will save the world by designing a better, more efficient human being.  “All he creates is suffering and the deification of himself,” Parker declares.

Paata Tsikurishvili plays Dr. Moreau with evil swagger and a studied nonchalance. “The law is not to eat flesh and not to go on all fours,” he warns the six beasts, insisting they parrot his edicts on command.  When he delivers the lines, “The crafting of living flesh has been around for a long time,” and “Real progress can only be achieved by someone as remorseless as myself,” we begin to see what a hideous monster he really is.

The beasts. The Island of Dr. Moreau -  Photo by Johnny Shryock

The beasts. The Island of Dr. Moreau – Photo by Johnny Shryock

Irina Tsikurishvili creates the spectacular choreography that interweaves the plot with the characters’ action and Set Designer Phil Charlwood’s massive metal sculpture in the shape of a butterfly wing (Parker is a lepidopterist) that the beasts use to clamber on, keeps them in sight but removed from the scene.  Kendra Rai’s breathtakingly phantasmagoric costumes reflecting the tormented creatures’ many excisions, alterations and freakish attachments, serve to magnify the ongoing suffering and torture of the bizarre beasts.

This is heightened by Brittany Diliberto and Riki K.’s multi-media, electronic light show accentuated by lasers, glowing chemicals and theatre-filling galaxies to accompany the original, unearthly synthesizer score by Irakli Kavsadze.

Paata Tsikurishvili as Dr. Moreau and Pasquale Guiducci as Sayer in The Island of Dr. Moreau -  Photo by Johnny Shryock.

Paata Tsikurishvili as Dr. Moreau and Pasquale Guiducci as Sayer in The Island of Dr. Moreau – Photo by Johnny Shryock.

It’s all a harmonic exercise in sci-fi weirdness, calibrated to raise goosebumps on even the most hardened futurists.

Through November 1st at Synetic Theater, 1800 South Bell Street, Arlington in Crystal City.  For tickets and information call 1 800 494-8497 or visit www.synetictheater.org.

Evita – Kennedy Center

Jordan Wright
October 6, 2014
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

Sean MacLaughlin as Juan Peron and Caroline Bowman as Eva - Photo credit Richard Termine

Sean MacLaughlin as Juan Peron and Caroline Bowman as Eva – Photo credit Richard Termine

When we mention the names Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber we are floating around in the pantheonic stratosphere of most beloved collaborators ever to hit the stage, and their blockbuster Evita is certainly one of the finest and most memorable shows they have ever written.  Drawing on the talents of Tony and Olivier Award-winning Director Michael Grandage, and Tony Award-winning Choreographer Rob Ashford to present the seven-time Tony Award-winning musical, the Kennedy Center brings this reinterpretation of the original Broadway production to a new dimension – and it is simply smashing.  There is so much to remark upon and so many to give credit to, but I must start with Lighting Designer Neil Austin and Projection Designer Zachary Borovay who create a mood that reflects the period.

It is 1952 at the funeral of Eva Peron.  Considered the spiritual leader of the people of Argentina, she was a highly controversial figure.  The curtain opens to reveal old newsreels projected across the backdrop of the stage. The First Lady who had risen from a life of poverty by her wits and beauty, and a series of ever-more influential lovers, had achieved her greatest success by marrying Juan Peron.

A haunting black-hooded, candle-lit chorus is chanting a requiem for her through a smoky blue haze.  It is a very dramatic opening, both ghostly and reverential.  The scene then shifts to a lowly tango hall in the provinces where Eva, at 16, became a nightclub singer with dreams of a life in Buenos Aires.  The shabby spot is lit with strings of bare light bulbs and bathed in sepia – the atmosphere appearing as though lifted from a vintage photograph.  In a later scene Austin uses amber-lit chandeliers to evoke the period.  Scenic & Costume Designer Christopher Oram continues the theme with muted-colored retro dresses for the women further expressing the drab shades worn during the Depression era.

Caroline Bowman as Eva - Photo credit Richard Termine

Caroline Bowman as Eva – Photo credit Richard Termine

From the moment Caroline Bowman (Eva) enters the stage her presence is  riveting.  Captivating and lithe, almost balletic in her movements, with a voice that is strong, fluid, totally capable of the huge range expected by the part.  But why do her low notes disappear, the high notes sound screechy?  When the dialogue begins everyone sounds garbled.  If you didn’t know the lyrics or the story, you would struggle to make out what they are singing or, for that matter, saying.  I can’t explain it, but others around me in the orchestra section were having the same reaction to the poor audio.  One can only hope it will be corrected by the time you read this review.

Yet there’s no denying the magic on stage.  The fireworks between Eva and Juan (Sean MacLaughlin) begin with the song, “I’d Be Surprisingly Good for You” and by the time the next number “Another Suitcase in Another Hall” is sung, Eva and Juan have formed their alliance, for better or for worse.

“One has to admire the stage management,” Che sarcastically remarks before Eva arrives onto the balcony of Casa Rosada, the presidential palace.  In one of the show’s most heartrending songs, “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” we witness her narcissistic manipulation as she cannily humbles herself to the adoring crowds.

Max Quinlan is brilliant as Che, Eva’s protector and reality check.  In his memorable duet with her, “High Flying, Adored” reflecting the time when she is at the height of her popularity, he warns, “Don’t look down.  It’s a long way.”  But Eva ignores his sage advice and her megalomania gets the best of her.  I’d quote her reaction if only I could have heard it.

Yet the orchestra is boffo, the set designs are killer, and the music is heaven on earth.  See it, love it, adore it…and try not to sing out loud.

Through October 19th at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St., NW, Washington, DC.  For tickets and information call 202 467-4600 or visit www.Kennedy-Center.org.

TRAILER – Evita at The Kennedy Center – Washington, DC

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.