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.
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
“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
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
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 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.
At MetroStage through November 3rd – 1201 North Royal Street, Alexandria, 22314. For tickets and information visit www.metrostage.org.
April 29, 2013
Special to The Alexandria Times
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
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.
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
January 28, 2013
Special to The Alexandria Times
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
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.
At MetroStage through March 17th – 1201 North Royal Street, Alexandria, 22314. For tickets and information visit www.metrostage.org.
November 26, 2012
Special to The Alexandria Times
What merriment is in store for us this holiday season? Well some are naughty (R-Rated) and some are nice (G-Rated) but check my quirky ratings for special notations. Here’s all the holiday drama you’ll need in a host of scintillating Christmas shows nearby.
Broadway Christmas Carol – Michael Sharp,Tracey Stephens and Jacob Kidder. Photo courtesy of MetroStage.
It’s getting to be a habit at MetroStage with the third annual mad hilarious A Broadway Christmas Carol. The tidy three-person cast of Michael Sharp, Jacob Kidder and Tracey Stephens trills harmonious whilst decking the halls with lots of show tunes and dizzying costume changes in this delicious dose of Christmas spoof. Under the musical direction of Howard Breitbart, this screamingly funny pastiche is rated SGIFB for “Sophisticated Grownups with Intact Funny Bone”.
From November 15th through December 23rd; Thursdays and Fridays at 8pm; Saturdays at 3pm and 8pm; Sundays at 3 and 7pm. For tickets and information call 800 494-8497 or visit www.metrostage.org. 1201 North Royal Street, Alexandria, VA
A Christmas Carol – Photo courtesy of LTA
The Little Theatre of Alexandria revives their time-tested production of A Christmas Carol. Directed and adapted by Rachael Hubbard, this Charles Dickens’ classic will warm the cockles of everyone’s heart. Replete with elegant Victorian costumes, the accursed curmudgeon Ebenezer Scrooge, and the adorable Tiny Tim, you can almost smell the chestnuts roasting as ghostly guides transport you through Christmas past, present and future. Settle in beside a crackling fireplace along with wassailing couples to relive this Currier & Ives picture postcard depicting the true meaning of Christmas. Rated RCV for “Required Christmas Viewing”.
From November 30th through December 16th, Thursdays and Fridays at 8pm; Saturdays and Sundays at 3pm and 5pm. For tickets and information call 703 683-0496 or visit www.TheLittleTheatre.com. 600 Wolfe Street, Alexandria, VA 22314
After a day of shopping and dining Signature Theatre, located in the heart of Shirlington Village, will be the perfect spot to jolly up with glass of wine and a Christmas-inspired cabaret.
“Holiday Guys” – Marc Kudisch (left) and Jeffry Denman. Photo courtesy of Signature Theatre
Three-time Tony Award nominee, Mark Kudisch and Astaire Award nominee, Jeffry Denman pair up in Holiday Guys – a limited run holiday show complete with song, dance, and silliness. Special performance schedule: December 11th at 7:30pm; December 12th at 7:30pm; December 13th at 8:00pm; December 14th at 8:00pm; December 15th at 2:00pm and 8:00pm; December 16th at 2:00pm and 7:00pm.
Also at Signature and back again, by popular demand, is the festive series Holiday Follies. Featuring a wonderful wintry line-up of special guest performers, along with a host of Signature’s closest friends and artists, there’s never been a better way to keep company on a cold night. Special performance schedule: December 18th at 7:30pm; December 19th at 7:30pm; December 20th at 8:00pm; December 21st at 8:00pm; December 22nd at 2:00pm and 8:00pm; December 23rd at 2:00pm and 7:00pm.
Both shows are rated HXS for “Hip Xmas Special”. Tickets for Holiday Guys and Holiday Follies are on sale online at www.signature-theatre.orgor through the Signature Box Office at 703 573-SEAT. 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, VA 22206
Best Christmas Pageant – Photo from Synetic
This holiday season Synetic Theater will present The Best Christmas Pageant Ever starring the Synetic Teen Ensemble. In this irreverent comedy about an annual Christmas pageant the usually festive celebration by the Sunday school children has gone awry. The Herdman family, a bunch of rotten, misbehaving, swearing, bullying kids take part in the Christmas Pageant and all chaos breaks loose. Can the church learn to love even its most wayward children? It could be a total disaster, or it just might be The Best Christmas Pageant Ever!
The show is rated GKCI for “Gives Kids Cool Ideas”. Special performance schedule: December 15th at 2pm; December 16th at 11am; December 21st at 10am and December 22nd through the 27th at 11am. Family friendly indeed! For tickets and information call 800 494-8497 or visit www.synetictheater.org. 1800 South Bell Street, Arlington, VA 22202