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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.

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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.

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Gee’s Bend at MetroStage

Jordan Wright
September 17, 2013
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

Roz White as Sadie and Margo Moorer as Nella in Gee’s Bend - Photo credit Chris Banks

Roz White as Sadie and Margo Moorer as Nella in Gee’s Bend – Photo credit Chris Banks

“I had a vision.  Like the story passed down by my grandfather,” says Sadie Pettway, though she wasn’t a Pettway yet, at least not till she met the smooth-talking Macon, a man with dreams as big as hers and a determination to make her his wife.  “He’s got big plans for land and babies,” she boasts to her sister Nella.  As in most of the scenes Sadie, Nella, their mother Alice, and husband Macon sing their stories – - stories of survival and stories of hope told in authentic gospel music and reflected in their hand-sewn quilts.  You’ll hear “How I Got Over”, “Banks of Jordan”, “He’s All I Need” and many more as the music reflects the both the period and the emotion.

Anthony Manough as Macon and Roz White as Sadie - Photo credit Chris Banks

Anthony Manough as Macon and Roz White as Sadie – Photo credit Chris Banks

MetroStage’s longtime Music Directors, William Hubbard and William Knowles have added eight traditional gospel songs to the four from the original production of Gee’s Bend to create a powerful, soul-stirring, come-to-Jesus experience that reaches deep into your spirit and claws its way beyond the heavens.  But that doesn’t mean there’s no sass.  The sisters snipe at each other about men, morals and momma and as Nella tells Sadie, “It don’t matter what a quilt looks like.  It’s what you do under it!”

The play slash musical (Artistic Director Carolyn Griffin is still puzzling out how to categorize it) is set in Gee’s Bend, Alabama, a real place separated from the mainland by a rickety unpredictable ferry and a surrounding river.  Named for former slave owner, Joseph Gee, it’s situated smack dab in the cradle of Dr. King’s movement – a bus ride from Selma and the historic march that Sadie longs to be a part of.  The play spans the years from 1939 to 2002 focusing on the Pettway family, generations of former slaves whose land holdings and civil rights were dearly bought and fought for.

Margo Moorer (Nella), Roz White (Sadie) and Duyen Washington (Alice) - Photo credit Chris Banks

Margo Moorer (Nella), Roz White (Sadie) and Duyen Washington (Alice) – Photo credit Chris Banks

Duyen Washington plays Alice (and later niece, Asia) a wise matriarch who tries to train her daughters to be good housewives and even better quilters.  (The play’s many-colored quilts are as authentic as it gets and are from the original production at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival.)  Washington crafts a beautiful portrait of a woman with little but her heart to give her girls.  Roz White, whose legendary voice has been heard in countless MetroStage productions from Three Sistahs, Cool Papa’s Party, Pearl Bailey…by request to her most recent role as Billie Holiday in Ladies Swing the Blues, gives us the stalwart Sadie, a perfect foil to her devil-may-care sister Nella played by Margo Moorer whose stage credits rival her film credits in such movies as Forrest Gump, Tyler Perry’s House of Payne.  The movie The Watsons Go to Birmingham, in which she plays Mrs. Davidson, has its red carpet debut this week in Washington, DC.

Anthony Manough (Macon), Duyen Washington (Alice), Margo Moorer (Nella), Roz White (Sadie) - Photo credit Chris Banks

Anthony Manough (Macon), Duyen Washington (Alice), Margo Moorer (Nella), Roz White (Sadie) – Photo credit Chris Banks

Anthony Manough crafts a likeable but hard-hearted Macon, an ambitious man, who forgets the grim lessons of his youth as he tries to keep Sadie from her mission to register to vote.  Manough, too, has appeared in numerous MetroStage productions (as well as on Broadway in The Lion King and Jesus Christ Superstar), lending his virtuoso voice and musical talents as Charlie Parker in Ladies Swing the Blues. 

Percussionist Greg Holloway handily backs up the amazing a capella singers with African-inspired gospel rhythms and cleverly imagined sound effects.  Thomas W. Jones II, the writer, director and actor who has received a combined 42 Helen Hayes Award nominations, directs the stellar cast to achieve a richly textured evening of song and soul marked by redemption and transformation.

Highly recommended.

At MetroStage through November 3rd – 1201 North Royal Street, Alexandria, 22314.  For tickets and information visit www.metrostage.org.

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Ghost-Writer at MetroStage

Jordan Wright
April 29, 2013
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

Susan Lynskey and Paul Morella - Photo credit Christopher Banks

Susan Lynskey and Paul Morella – Photo credit Christopher Banks

As MetroStage celebrates receiving three Helen Hayes Awards for Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, we are treated to another brilliant show by Producing Artistic Director, Carolyn Griffin, who has spent the last seven years searching for the perfect vehicle for actress, Susan Lynsky.  At last she appears to have found it in Ghost-Writer.  She chose well.  As the last production for the current season and a Washington, DC premiere of the play, it’s a spellbinding piece for the three-actor cast – most especially for its leading lady.

Franklin Woolsey (Paul Morella) is a renown novelist married to a proper Victorian lady (Helen Hedman).  Moving in the rarified circles of aristocratic Old New York, he draws from its foibles like a hawk preying on a field mouse.  Playwright, Michael Hollinger was inspired by Henry James’ relationship to his real-life secretary, Theodora Bosanquet, and used it as a vehicle to inform the background for a play that examines the art and act of writing.

Helen Hedman -Photo credit : Christopher Banks

Helen Hedman -Photo credit : Christopher Banks

Woolsey’s newly schooled, but oh-so-clever typist, Myra Babbage, is a hunter of sorts too – one who dallies with her target while keeping him enthralled.  The play is set in 1919, the age of women’s advancement in the workplace and the beginning of their post-war freedoms.  The 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote was then reaching the House floor for approval and women were experiencing a newly achieved independence.  It is no coincidence that Hollinger sets the play in this power-shifting moment.

Miss Myra Babbage is a woman with ideas about writing and editing and she isn’t afraid of appearing presumptuous in order to express herself.  She jousts with the author and his obsession with commas and dashes, periods and semicolons until he begins to trust her judgment and with it her way of turning a phrase when she sometimes finishes his sentences.  (A curious clue in the punctuation of the play’s title is revealed at the outset and explains his typist’s successful insinuation into his writerly sphere.)

We meet the duo in Woolsey’s study.  The décor is the austere Mission style befitting a serious writer of the late Victorian period.  A Royal typewriter is front and center with the primly dressed Miss Babbage at its helm.  She has been recently hired as Woolsey’s amanuensis, a taker of dictation, her fingers poised to record his every word.  He soon grows addicted to her presence and the staccato sound of her typing and cannot think clearly when she pauses awaiting his next dictation.  She devises a phrase she types over and over again until he is able to retrace his thoughts.  “Don’t tell me what it is,” he insists.  And her secret becomes her power.

“The waiting is part of the work,” she explains, “We waited together.”  Thus begins their long and very close collaboration as Myra, addressing the audience as if we were her inquisitors, explains how, after Woolsey’s death mid-novel, she is able to complete his work by divining his words.  “No one else has an intimate relationship with his style,” she insists, emboldened by their relationship and not wanting to abandon the book to Vivian nor his publishers’ inquiries.

From time to time, Myra and Franklin are visited in his study by his jealous wife, Vivian.  Can you blame her?  When the socialite tries to replace Myra by learning to type, a hilarious scene ensues and Hedman is at her best as the dithering pupil of the Myra the Taskmistress.

The piece is wonderfully tongue-in-cheek comical and its trio of actors superbly in synch.  But it is Susan Lynskey as the stalwart heroine who captivates.  Lynskey is magnetic, giving an enthralling portrait of a young woman gaining her footing in that brave new era, confident and well educated, polite yet outspoken, secure in her expertise, and unafraid to stand up to anyone.  She is utterly captivating in the role and worth Ms. Griffin’s wait.

Highly recommended.

At MetroStage through June 2nd – 1201 North Royal Street, Alexandria, 22314.  For tickets and information visit www.metrostage.org.

Susan Lynskey, Helen Hedman and Paul Morella -  Photo credit Christopher Banks

Susan Lynskey, Helen Hedman and Paul Morella – Photo credit Christopher Banks

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Ladies Swing the Blues – A Jazz Fable

Jordan Wright
January 28, 2013
Special to The Alexandria Times

Lori Williams, Anthony Manough, Yvette Spears, Sandy Bainum, Roz White   Photo credit: Christopher Banks

Lori Williams, Anthony Manough, Yvette Spears, Sandy Bainum, Roz White Photo credit: Christopher Banks

The pioneering influence that Charlie “Yardbird” Parker made on the world of jazz, blues and bebop in the mid-twentieth century is the most inextricable part of his legacy.  Blowing new sounds from his alto saxophone, he crafted a sound so original and so addictive that fans would do anything to “chase the music…just to hear what Bird heard”.  Every hall of fame jazzman and jazz singer of the era brought their craft to Birdland, the eponymously named club in the heart of Manhattan, where they could marvel at Parker’s signature technique of playing the higher intervals of a chord for the melody, then backing it up with double- and triple-time extensions.

Jazz legends Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Earl “Fatha” Hines, Stan Getz and Billy Eckstine played the club with Bird in those golden days along with the divine divas, “The First Lady of Jazz” Ella Fitzgerald, Billie “Lady Day” Holiday, Sarah “Sassy” Vaughan and Peggy Lee, each bringing the music to new heights with their unique vocal interpretations.  Within the span of a decade Parker brought forth a sound so captivating, so under your skin and bones, that it galvanized American music and helped break down racial barriers as white celebrities from Frank Sinatra to Marilyn Monroe and Beat Generation author, Jack Kerouac, became regular denizens of the iconic club.

In the world premiere musical “Ladies Swing the Blues – A Jazz Fable” at MetroStage, Author, Director and Lyricist Thomas W. Jones ll in partnership with Composer, Arranger, Pianist and Musical Director William Knowles, who co-wrote five of the show’s original numbers have, through their divine collaboration, crystallized the essence of that era by portraying both the on-stage and behind-the-scenes lives of Birdland’s leading musicians from those heady days.

Sandy Bainum, Yvette Spears, Roz White and Lori Williams  - Photo Credit Christopher Banks

Sandy Bainum, Yvette Spears, Roz White and Lori Williams – Photo Credit Christopher Banks

Set in New York City the story features four female singers – Roz White as Lady, Lori Williams as Ella, Yvette Spears as Sassy, Sandy Bainum as Peggy, and Anthony Manough as Parker, better known by the nickname “Bird”, who are backed up by a sizzling hot five-piece band.

The story begins with Parker’s untimely but not unpredicted death at the age of thirty at the Stanhope Hotel apartment of his friend the Baroness “Nica”, scion of the Rothschild family.  Parker had been living on the edge battling addictions throughout much of his career.  He’s got the “junkie monkey” the ladies declare, trying to pinpoint what killed him.  “All jazzmen die a mystery,” insists Ella.

As his ghost visits the women, they sing his memory through stories and song.  If you like classics like Fever, Thelonius Monk’s Round Midnight, George Shearing’s Lullaby of Birdland plus twenty-three more evocative jazz numbers performed up close and personal, this show is for you.  If there is mo betta’ singing in one show, I have yet to hear it.  The vocals are mad crazy and the band with its ripping solos could uncurl an Afro.

To single out any of the performers as less than brilliant would be criminal.  But it would be unconscionable not to spotlight Lori Williams, whose scattin’ Ella blew the roof off the theatre, and Anthony Manough’s Bird, whose octave-bending vocal range knows no boundaries.  And who used his velvet voice to carve out a piece of the world, which, for all I know, he still owns.

Highly recommended. 

At MetroStage through March 17th – 1201 North Royal Street, Alexandria, 22314.  For tickets and information visit www.metrostage.org.

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