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Bessie’s Blues – MetroStage

Jordan Wright
January 29, 2015
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

TC Carson, Lori Williams, Stephawn Stephens, Roz White, Djob Lyons, Nia Harris, LC Harden Jr., Bernardine Mitchell - Photo credit Chris Banks

TC Carson, Lori Williams, Stephawn Stephens, Roz White, Djob Lyons, Nia Harris, LC Harden Jr., Bernardine Mitchell – Photo credit Chris Banks

“I heard it said the Blues was the Truth.” And Bessie Smith had an intravenous line along the Truth Trail and straight to the heart of the Blues.  Bessie’s Blues is a powerful homage to Smith.  Produced by Artistic Director Carolyn Griffin this is neither a tribute concert, nor a paean to the late great blues singer, but a full throttle musical interpretation of her life and times, both good and bad.  Bernadine Mitchell, Lori Williams and Roz White are among the cast of eight powerhouse singers.

Bernardine Mitchell, Lori Williams, Djob Lyons, Roz White - Photo credit Chris  Banks

Bernardine Mitchell, Lori Williams, Djob Lyons, Roz White – Photo credit Chris Banks

Thirty-three numbers, many co-written by the show’s writer, director and choreographer, Thomas W. Jones II, are belted, scatted, swung, jived, barbershopped and tenderly delivered by this exceptional ensemble rounded out by TC Carson, Stephawn P. Stephens, Djob Lyons, LC Harden, Jr. and Nia HarrisWilliam Knowles leads the five-piece band that throws out some serious joint-jumpin’ chops.

The storyline that strings it together with soulful sounds is the rise to fame and fortune of the woman known as the “Empress of the Blues”.  Smith’s life afforded plenty of raw material for Jones to work with – – her problems with men and managers, the Great Depression, racial discrimination, and her alcoholism.  As Bessie says, “Pain ain’t got no geography.”

Mitchell, who has played iconic singers before at MetroStageMahalia comes to mind – owns this role and she proves it without a shadow of a doubt by reaching deep within to reveal the glory of her rare and matchless voice.  Mitchell could rip the skin off a crocodile with her heart-wrenching vocals that display her breathtaking vocal range and high-wattage with the ability to scale back to lullaby level when it’s called for.

Costume Designer Frank Labovitz has adorned the women in Charleston era style with boas, feathers, fringe, red hot silk gowns and sexy lurex minis, while the men sport the plaid sharkskin suits of the Minstrel shows and the sequined vests of Vaudeville hoofers.  In an uptown party scene where Smith is disastrously presented to high society, they sashay around in black tie with bowlers and canes.

Roz White, Djob Lyons, LC Harden Jr., TC Carson, Nia Harris, Stephawn Stephens -   Photo credit: Chris Banks

Roz White, Djob Lyons, LC Harden Jr., TC Carson, Nia Harris, Stephawn Stephens -
Photo credit: Chris Banks

Roz White plays “Rhythm” a tougher side of Smith that reveals her motivation to be successful.  “I could shake my bottom or pick cotton,” she declares which she does when she joins the Moses Stokes’ Traveling Show with Ma Rainey at St. Louis’s famed Ivory Theatre where the music speaks of “sweet steppin’ papas and hip shakin’ mamas”.

As “Passion” Lori Williams’s sweet voice adds a sexy, sultry element to the show.  On “Wet Match” (“You can’t light a fire with a wet match.”) she shows her way of sensuously carving out notes that is both alluring and assertive at the same time.

TC Carson, Nia Harris, Djob Lyons, LC Harden Jr., Roz White, Stephawn Stephens - Photo credit Chris Banks

TC Carson, Nia Harris, Djob Lyons, LC Harden Jr., Roz White, Stephawn Stephens – Photo credit Chris Banks

Nia Harris is “The Dancer” – – a sort of alter ego to Bessie.  Wearing flapper dresses or flowing streams of chiffon, the sprite-like Harris weaves in and out of Smith’s journey, interpreting her travails through movement.  Harris, who has trained at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts and the Alvin Ailey School, is sheer magic as she silently executes her sinuous movements in an exquisitely choreographed interplay.

Highly recommended.

At MetroStage through March 15th – 1201 North Royal Street, Alexandria, 22314.  For tickets and information visit www.metrostage.org.

Three Sistahs – At MetroStage

Jordan Wright
September 23, 2014
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

Three Sistahs-Bernardine Mitchell, Roz White, Ashley Ware Jenkins - Photo credit: Chris Banks

Three Sistahs-Bernardine Mitchell, Roz White, Ashley Ware Jenkins – Photo credit: Chris Banks

I’m not sure why I’m writing a review of Three Sistahs, Thomas W. Jones II’s multi-award winning musical comedy-drama that opens MetroStage’s 30th season. Thrice presented by Producing Artistic Director, Carolyn Griffin, it has become one of their most beloved productions. (I’m telling you this up front so you’ll call the box office for your tickets before it’s standing room only.)

Rarely do we see so magical a collaboration as this one between Writer/Director Thomas Jones, Composer William Hubbard and Music Director William Knowles with original story by Janet Pryce. Based on 19th C Russian playwright Anton Chekhov’s “Three Sisters” it tells a tale of the Bradshaws – Olive, Marsha and Irene, three sisters in the post-Vietnam War era of Washington, DC who gather in the family’s home for the burial of their soldier brother, Anton.

Three Sistahs-Ashley Ware Jenkins, Bernardine Mitchell, Roz White - photo credit :Chris Banks

Three Sistahs-Ashley Ware Jenkins, Bernardine Mitchell, Roz White – photo credit : Chris Banks

Twenty-one musical numbers form a hypnotic web of stories as the women describe their childhoods, their growing up years and their dreams for the future. So closely does the dialogue weave itself into the music that the transitions between the two are nearly imperceptible.

The incomparable actresses Bernadine Mitchell (Olive) and Roz White (Marsha) reprise their roles from the original production. New to MetroStage is Ashley Ware Jenkins in the role of the feisty Black Power radical, Irene. Jenkins could be Angela Davis’ doppelganger, if you added a major adorableness factor.

Set to a score of Rhythm & Blues and Gospel, with a dollop of Motown, the trio begin to describe their alternate perceptions of life with an autocratic West Pointer for a father whose dream it was to see his only son follow in his military footsteps. The plot is simple but the emotions are not. Each woman brings to the table a different view of the man they feared and loved and we begin to see how their lives were formed. “Daddy believed in that uniform. [He was] a hard man born in a hard time, “ Olive explains to Irene whose anti-war stance is anathema to her sister.

Marsha who calls herself “the middle underprivileged” married early and wonders if there couldn’t be more to life than a husband and six children. Olive, who stayed behind to care for their ailing father and become a university professor, longs for a husband, and Irene who dropped out of college to pursue her political leanings, “Our anger is righteous!” she insists, is finding her footing in a city torn apart by riots and looting. To quash her sisters’ protests, she references Martin, Medger and Malcolm to make her point.

Bernardine Mitchell, Roz White, Ashley Ware Jenkins - Photo credit: Chris Banks

Bernardine Mitchell, Roz White, Ashley Ware Jenkins – Photo credit: Chris Banks

The show evokes both laughter and tears. One audience member sobbed uncontrollably listening to the heart-wrenching song “Hold Me” in which Olive and Marsha comfort Irene. And there were many moments when I had to focus on taking notes to hold back the tears so powerfully evocative were the emotions of the performers (and audience members) and the memories of the Civil Rights struggles.

But just as quickly as the tears come so does the laughter. In a “Basement Kind of Love” Olive reminisces about her first boyfriend, Cadillac Johnson. After much simulated bumping and grinding, she admits to losing her virginity many times and still looking for it. Mitchell closes Act One to the old gospel tune, “There’s A Leak In This Old Building”, which shows off her gorgeously mellifluous voice to its finest advantage, pairing it to the electrifyingly precise harmonies of White and Jenkins.

Be prepared for a whopper of a show filled with heart and soul and some of the most intoxicatingly glorious voices you have ever heard.

Highly recommended.

Through November 2nd at MetroStage 1201 North Royal Street, Alexandria, 22314. For tickets and information call 703 548-9044 or visit www.metrostage.org.

Under the Lintel – MetroStage

Jordan Wright
April 22, 2014
Special to The Alexandria Times 

Paul Morella as The Librarian in Underneath the Lintel - Photo credit: Chris Banks

Paul Morella as The Librarian in Underneath the Lintel – Photo credit: Chris Banks

What is the impetus that drives us forward each day?  Is it hope?  How do we decide what holds meaning for us?  Is it faith, or just curiosity?  For a Dutch librarian, trapped in a humdrum job checking in books from the overnight repository and sending overdue notices to scofflaws, it is to confront the man who checked out a Baedeker Travel Guide some 113 years ago.  Outraged by the audacity of the borrower who waited so long to return the book, he determines to track him down. Apart from the borrower’s baffling initial, “A.”, and his confounding address, a small village in China, he has but one clue to go on.  Tucked between the yellowed pages is a receipt for a pair of trousers from a laundry in London.  This small clue becomes the catalyst to unlock the mysteries of life and to release him from a colorless life devoid of purpose.

Paul Morella as The Librarian in Underneath the Lintel - Photo credit: Chris Banks

Paul Morella as The Librarian in Underneath the Lintel – Photo credit: Chris Banks

James Kronzer’s set is a masterpiece of evocative scenic design that evokes the university quarters of Indiana Jones from Raiders of the Lost Ark, a jumble of objects gathered by a man prospecting for answers.  Worn briefcases and suitcases and papers are strewn about.  Easel blackboards, an old globe and a long wooden table displaying a skull, surround him.  His quest will take him around the world on an emotional and metaphysical journey to find “A.” – – or is it his own enlightenment he seeks.

Dressed in a three-piece tweed suit the pedantic librarian is delivering a lecture on his travels.  His handmade sign reads, ‘Impressive Presentation of Lovely Evidences’.  “I have only one night for this, due to the extortionary rates of this auditorium,” he declares using historical slides from a carousel projector to aid in the telling.

Paul Morella - Photo credit: Chris Banks

Paul Morella – Photo credit: Chris Banks

Paul Morella stars in this one-man play that uses the parable of The Wandering Jew, a man cursed to wander the earth until the Second Coming.  Playwright Glen Berger has co-opted the myth to explore the plight of the Jews in Nazi Germany.  When the librarian finds a second clue leading him to Bonn and the discovery of an incident report of a “dirty Jew” thrown off a train, he sets out on a seemingly endless trail of conundrums, discovering an unrequited romance and a series of iconic moments in history.  Obscure arcana hidden in the clues reveal the librarian’s encyclopedic knowledge and inform his feverish expedition.  Parables from Aesculus, modern day graffiti and Hobson’s ultimatum theory all hint at the subject.  “The act of believing and the act of accepting are two very different things,” he posits to us.

Morella gives a riveting and commanding performance seamlessly reflecting the intensity of the character against the theme’s comedic irony.  Director John Vreeke succeeds mightily in orchestrating this fascinating and complex production.

Through May 25th at MetroStage 1201 North Royal Street, Alexandria, 22314.  For tickets and information call 703 548-9044 or visit www.metrostage.org.

The Thousandth Night – MetroStage

Jordan Wright
April 6, 2014
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

Marcus

Marcus

How would you like to be a French gendarme? In Carol Wolf’s whirligig of a play The Thousandth Night, the audience is addressed as such by Guy de Bonheur, a hapless Frenchman separated from a roving troupe of performers and caught up in the web of World War II and the Nazi occupation of France. The production is the first of a duet of In Rep one-man shows at MetroStage and a celebration of its 30th anniversary.

It is 1943 at a railway station, 50 miles outside of Paris, and Guy is alone having lost his fellow performers to the clutches of the German officers.  He is fighting for his life, trying to convince the local constabulary to let him board a train to spirit him away from the Nazis and the ultimate penalty – – a trip to a death camp.  He carries a single suitcase filled with the troupe’s props.

The premise of this play is promising.  Guy must convince the police he is a harmless actor, a man whose life’s work is only to entertain.  But the Third Reich’s enforcers believe his work to be “subversive”, and that he is a saboteur.  To convince them otherwise and gain his freedom he reenacts the troupe’s performances to the French police in hopes they will not turn him over to the authorities.  To this end Guy performs 38 separate characters in a series of plays from the classic stories of “The Arabian Nights: Tales From a Thousand and One Nights”.

As Guy (Marcus Kyd) segues from donkey, to sultan to wife and baker, to hunchback, dead body and soldier in the first tale, he dons different hats and scarves in order to depict the separate characters.  Unfortunately the pathos of the play is lost in schtick and campy banalities – talking hats as puppets and women speaking with a swishy effeminacy – the only drama a series of trains arriving at the station with ever more SS officers hunting down the “saboteurs”.  The stories are stale and the characters trivialized, filled with goofy genies, doomed lovers and feisty sultans.  Kyd tries his damnedest to pull it off, but it just doesn’t work.

Not even James Kronzer’s spectacular set design of a full-stage train station replete with dusty windows and period architecture, Alexander Keen’s clever lighting using searchlights and silhouettes of moving trains, or Robert Garner’s electrifying sound design, can bail this one out.

Through May 18th at 1201 North Royal Street, Alexandria, 22314.  For tickets and information visit www.metrostage.org.

Ella, First Lady of Song At MetroStage

Jordan Wright
February 4, 2014
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

Freda Payne as Ella Fitzgerald  - photo credit Chris Banks

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

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

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.

Highly recommended.

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.