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Sunday in the Park with George – Signature Theatre

Jordan Wright
August 18, 2014
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

The cast of Sunday in the Park with George. Photo by Christopher Mueller.

The cast of Sunday in the Park with George. Photo by Christopher Mueller.

It’s been 16 years since Signature Theatre under the direction of Eric Schaeffer, mounted Sunday in the Park with GeorgeStephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Pulitzer and Tony Award-winning musical.  Back then it starred my niece Liz Larsen as Dot (Family plug: She is currently on Broadway in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical), and her husband Sal Viviano as George.  Though they were both nominated for Helen Hayes Awards, it was Liz that came away with the honors for “Outstanding Lead Actress in a Musical” and we all celebrated at a glittering evening at the Kennedy Center.

Fast forward to the latest production under the superb direction of Matthew Gardiner who has cast heavyweight Broadway stars Brynn O’Malley in the role of Dot, and Claybourne Elder as George, to bring to the stage this living, breathing, kaleidoscopic vision of Artist and Pointillist George Seurat’s life.

Based on an imaginative interpretation of the characters in this iconic painting, “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte”, the show opens onto the Paris artist’s atelier where a simple chiaroscuro backdrop echoes the 28 sketches Seurat made before completing his enormous masterpiece.  Seurat was exploring the new science of color dynamics and attempting to create a new art form, at a time when his peers were deeply immersed in Impressionism.  Set in the latter part of the 19th century when women wore corsets and bustles and men never went out without a proper topper, the painting emerges as the vehicle and backdrop for a tableau vivant of fifteen subjects who step out of the painting and come to life, revealing their very human characteristics.  Frank Labovitz’s period costumes of soft colors and subdued prints blend seamlessly with the muted colors of the painting.

Brynn O’Malley (Dot) and Claybourne Elder (George) in Sunday in the Park with George. Photo by Christopher Mueller.

Brynn O’Malley (Dot) and Claybourne Elder (George) in Sunday in the Park with George. Photo by Christopher Mueller.

As George taps dots onto the canvas, model and paramour, Dot, poses with her parasol held aloft, echoing her prominent role in the painting.  She is frustrated by the heat, her constricting attire and his lack of interest. “If I were a Follies girl,” she wistfully sighs.  In the song, “Color and Light” we become aware that his obsession, trumps all romance.  And in “We Do Not Belong Together” they early on become resigned to abandon their love.  “You are complete, I am unfinished,” Dot intuits.  He proves she is right in “Finishing the Hat”, in which he sacrifices their time together for his art.  Elder must give a tightly wound, highly controlled portrayal of the emotionally disconnected artist, and he does that quite convincingly, while O’Malley counterbalances it with a lithely lyrical Dot.

Daniel Conway’s set design reflects the artist’s struggle to achieve “order, design, composition, tone, form, symmetry and balance”.  He enforces that passion by eliminating and adding back silk-screened trees, dogs and a lone monkey according to George’s indecisiveness.

The Boatman, played marvelously by Paul Scanlan, comes to life as a smarmy low life who likes to terrify frolicking children when he is not insulting George.  Mitchell Hebert is Jules, a fellow artist and staunch critic of George’s new art.  Together with his wife, Yvonne (Valerie Leonard), Mr. (Dan Manning) and Mrs. (Maria Egler) they provide brisk and hilarious diversion.

By Act Two we have left the Victorian era and are transplanted into the present day.  George’s great grandson is unveiling a light machine called a “Chromolume”, at a swank Paris gallery, and in “Putting It Together”- “link by link, drink by drink, mink by mink” – he schmoozes well-heeled patrons hoping they’ll underwrite his invention.  This is where Lighting Designer Jennifer Schriever really displays her wizardry in a spectacular array of whirling pointillist beams of light and framed pixels of swirling primary colors.  Accompanying her grandson is George’s wheelchair-bound mother, also played by O’Malley, who sings the poignant tune, “Children and Art”, a tenderly wrought and exquisitely sung number that will rip your heart out.

A wonderful, wonderful cast.

Highly recommended.

Through September 21st 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.

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Spamalot – The Little Theatre of Alexandria

Jordan Wright
August 5, 2014
Special to The Alexandria Times

Audience Alert: It became clear to me, when I was the only person howling with laughter, that the musical intro to Spamalot, The Little Theatre of Alexandria’s first show of the 2014-2015 season, that the audience failed to pick up on the musical cues that consist of every cockamamie intro passage in the known world played at the opening of an event.  The collection of tally-ho horns, magisterial foofaraws and sweeping orchestrations from famous film scores – had gone entirely unnoticed by the audience.  It goes on for a full five minutes.  Now that you’re in on it, you too can roar with delight.

Python-heads know this musical backwards and forwards.  It features King Arthur, King of the Britons and his Knights of the Round Table, Sir Robin, Sir Galahad and Sir Lancelot – all your adorable medieval heroes on a quest to find the Holy Grail. Remember the Lady of the Lake who armed Arthur with the Excalibur sword?  She’s there too – in full throttle.

So what’s not to like about Monty Python and his merry band of men?

Filled with quirky dance routines, twenty-five musical numbers, political spoofs, feather-brained high jinks and boundless double entendres, LTA’S production is high-powered hilarity on steroids.  

Part of the quest for Arthur and his men, as ordered by the “Knights Who Say Ni” aka “The Keepers of the Secret Word”, is to require them to put on a Broadway Show.  Alas, they are “Jew-less”, as in the number, “You Won’t Succeed on Broadway”, which merrily claims, “If it’s not kosher, there’s no show, sir.”  Nonplussed they rally the troops with “Hava Nagila”, and a righteously rendered Cossack dance.

Director Wade Corder has assembled a terrific cast starting with James Hotsko Jr. as Arthur, Patrick McMahon as Sir Lancelot, Dimitri Gann as Sir Robin, Matt Liptak as Arthur’s goofy sidekick Patsy, and Ashlie-Amber Harris as the Lady of the Lake, with cast members handling a number of parts.  But it’s Harris I want to scream about.  As magical as the dynamics are between the players and as rib-tickling as their antics, it is Harris that is volcanic.  Her supernaturally brilliant comic timing, boffo voice and knockout figure are the stuff superstars are made of.  

Scatting and soulful in Cher-like gold Lurex, she is electrifying.  “The Diva’s Lament (Whatever Happened to My Part)” in which she bemoans being off-stage for too long while our hapless knights gadabout seeking shrubbery (don’t ask) and bolluxing up the handy ruse of a Trojan rabbit (ask if you like), will have you in tears.  Harris actually got a huge ovation for this riotous number.  It’s no small wonder that after the run of this show the former American Idol contestant is headed straight to Broadway with agents already lined up.   See her now before you read about her in Variety.  Don’t make me say, “I told you so!”

So whether you drool over sexy chorus girls in red leotards and sequined shrugs, cheerleaders that bare their navels and French Cancan dancers or dancing knights in white satin, male Conga dancers in neon-colored ruffles or peasants in sackcloth, YOU WILL BE DAZZLED.

Grant Kevin Lane designed the costumes – all 200 of them, Grace Machanic did the amazing choreography, Rebecca Sheehy and Helen Bard-Sobola designed the 400+ props, one of DC’s finest Accent Coaches, Carol Strachan, taught the 20–person cast Scottish, English and French accents and the superb 14-piece orchestra is conducted by Paul Nasto.

Highly recommended.

Through August 23rd at The Little Theatre of Alexandria, 600 Wolfe Street. For tickets and information call the box office at 703 683-0496 or visit www.thelittletheatre.com

Photos by Keith Waters for Kx Photography

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Cirque de Soleil’s Amaluna Comes to National Harbor

Jordan Wright
July 7, 2014
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

In a few weeks National Harbor will host Cirque de Soleil’s Amaluna, a production loosely based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest.  Amaluna is a fusion of the words ama, which refers to “mother” in many languages, and luna, which signifies “moon” – a symbol of femininity evoking both the mother-daughter relationship and the idea of goddess and protector of the planet.  Amaluna is also the name of the mysterious island where the story unfolds.

Water Bowel CWP

Water Bowel CWP

In this groundbreaking show that celebrates the work and voice of women, the audience is transported to a mysterious island governed by Goddesses, Amazon warriors and Valkyries and guided by the cycles of the moon.  Performed by a cast of 70% female artists, the story recreates an exotic female mythology of half-human, half-animal characters expressed through original compositions, dance and extreme acrobatics.

Goddess

Goddess

Rachel Lancaster, who previously worked on Corteo, brings her savvy to the show as a trained dancer with a theatre background.  She is excited that Amaluna is her first show as Artistic Director.  “All of our shows are so different.  In Amaluna we have used newer technology for the aerial events, something we didn’t have before.  The whole big top comes alive.  The most exciting aspect of this show is the physical and emotional power of the woman.  It’s really unique and features an all-female nine-piece band. It even has the only uneven bar act in the world.  It is incredibly beautiful with a different esoteric sense from other Cirque shows.”

Teeterboard

Teeterboard

Set in an island forest it tells the story of Miranda’s coming of age, using symbols and themes from Greek mythology.  Hera, the Greek Goddess of women, is expressed by a peacock feather decoration that refers to the legend of the bird’s protective eyes in its tail. The eyes are said to watch over women in all stages of their lives.

Tony Award-winning Director, Diane Paulus (Pippin – 2013) directs the amazing cast.  Her impressive theatre background reflects her position as Artistic Director at A.R.T. at Harvard University.  This year Paulus was recognized on TIME Magazine’s annual list of the 100 most influential people in the world and Variety named her among its “2014 Trailblazing Women in Entertainment”.  “I didn’t want to build a ‘women’s agenda’ show,” she has said.  “I wanted to create a show with women at the center of it – something that had a hidden story that featured women as the heroines.”

Ama Prospera Miranda

Ama Prospera Miranda

I met with cast member Iuliia Mykhailova, a petite contortionist with muscles of steel, who plays Miranda – a leading role that requires her to be on stage throughout the show.  Discovered at a circus college in her hometown of Kiev, the twenty-nine-year old Ukrainian has performed in three other Cirque productions including Ovo, Kooza and Varekai.  In a recent interview she talked about her focus in performing her intricate and daring feats.  “We do ten shows per week so I really have to concentrate.  It’s easy to get distracted and slip…and I have.”  Dressed in one of her four costumes, a fitted cropped jacket with miniscule bloomers to match, the pony-tailed brunette described how the garments are constructed to accommodate the artists.  “If a sleeve constricts the arm movements, they make openings in the shoulders to allow more freedom of motion.”

Manipulation

Manipulation

I was fascinated to learn that Mykhailova travels with her young daughter, as do many of the artists.  While on the road, children are educated in on-site classrooms where programs are multi-level and multi-cultural to accommodate the myriad of nationalities, and languages, represented.  “There are around 30 children that travel with us.  We have teachers and school programs for them,” she remarked.

Images courtesy of Cirque de Soleil

Amaluna opens under National Harbor’s blue and yellow big top on July 31st.  For tickets and information visit www.CirquedeSoleil.com/Amaluna.

 

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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.

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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.

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