Smart People ~ Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
April 23, 2017 

Clockwise (from top left): Jaysen Wright as Jackson Moore, Sue Jin Song as Ginny Yang, Lorene Chesley as Valerie Johnston and Gregory Perri as Brian White. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Clockwise (from top left): Jaysen Wright as Jackson Moore, Sue Jin Song as Ginny Yang, Lorene Chesley as Valerie Johnston and Gregory Perri as Brian White. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

When the lives of four Harvard brainiacs intersect while working out their personal challenges, what do you get? Smart People – a cerebral journey into self-analysis jam-packed with laughs and droll repartee.  Ensconced in the intellectual bubble of Cambridge, Massachusetts are four recent grads – Valerie (Lorene Chesley), an aspiring black actress and part time housekeeper; Brian White (Gregory Perri), a cognitive neuroscientist and researcher on race relations; Ginny Yang (Sue Jin Song), a clinical psychologist and shopaholic; and Jackson Moore (Jaysen Wright), a bright, black doctor who wonders if he’s being held to a different standard.

(L to R) Lorene Chesley as Valerie Johnston and Jaysen Wright as Jackson Moore. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

(L to R) Lorene Chesley as Valerie Johnston and Jaysen Wright as Jackson Moore. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Director Seema Sueko, Arena’s Deputy Artistic Director, creates tension in Lydia R. Diamond’s nifty play by pitting the characters’ self-absorbed egos, one against the other, in a feverish merry-go-round of insecurity and anxiety with each one desperate not to be misunderstood in a world where motives are misjudged and innocent intentions are fraught with suspicion.

The interaction is broken down into small solo vignettes until the couples begin to pair off, Valerie with Jackson and Ginny with Brian.  Set Designer Misha Kachman along with Lighting Designer Xavier Pierce and Projection Designer Jared Mezzocchi lend focus to the characters by setting them into boxes on a two-level set until they begin to connect emotionally from the catwalk and onto the lower level.

(L to R) Gregory Perri as Brian White and Sue Jin Song as Ginny Yang. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

(L to R) Gregory Perri as Brian White and Sue Jin Song as Ginny Yang. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

White professor Brian, whose impending tenure is shaky, is convinced the world is dominated by whites with a predisposition to racism, discrimination and prejudice, though he has a blind spot in his treatment of Ginny who believes he is treating her as the stereotypical Asian woman. And Valerie believes Jackson demeans her because she cleans houses while waiting for her big break.  The miscommunications and assumptions keep us in stitches and Chesley’s depiction of an actress called to audition the stereotypical angry, ghetto girl is uproarious (she’s been told the casting is “brave” because it’s diverse) as is Song’s representation of an Asian hooker and Wright’s mischaracterization of Ginny’s attempts to study Asians in his health clinic, as racist.

Clockwise (from top left): Lorene Chesley as Valerie Johnston, Sue Jin Song as Ginny Yang, Gregory Perri as Brian White and Jaysen Wright as Jackson Moore. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Clockwise (from top left): Lorene Chesley as Valerie Johnston, Sue Jin Song as Ginny Yang, Gregory Perri as Brian White and Jaysen Wright as Jackson Moore. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

It all comes to a head when they converge at Ginny and Brian’s for a dinner party and Valerie sees that Brian, whom she has been trying to avoid since he told her she was not “black enough”, is one of the guests.

“It’s complicated,” Valerie tells Brian.  And indeed, it is – in the most hilarious way.

Highly recommended.

Through May 21st at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information visit www.ArenaStage.org or call 202 488-3300.

The Fabulous Lipitones ~ The Little Theatre of Alexandria

Jordan Wright
April 24, 2017
Special to The Alexandria Times

(L-R) kneeling in front is Gurpreet Sarin, back row, Jerry Hoffman, Peter Halverson, John Brown (walker). Photos by Howard Soroos

(L-R) kneeling in front is Gurpreet Sarin, back row, Jerry Hoffman, Peter Halverson, John Brown (walker). Photos by Howard Soroos

Chuck Leonard’s LTA directorial debut has gotten off to a rousing start thanks to a last minute casting choice of Gurpreet Sarin in the role of Baba “Bob” Mati Singh.  Sarin, a graduate and semi-finalist on American Idol, apparently turned up at the same moment final casting decisions were being made and became the clear choice to play the role of a Sikh who auditions for a barbershop quartet.  Does life imitate art, or what?

Playwright John Markus (accidentally omitted in the playbill) is an accomplished veteran of TV comedy shows, selling jokes to Bob Hope before going on to write for Gimme a Break!, Facts of Life and The Cosby Show where he was part of the comedy writing staff for six years.  With Hollywood street cred like that, you know it’s gonna be a zany show.

(L - R) Jerry Hoffman, John Brown, Peter Halverson, Gurpreet Sarin. Photos by Howard Soroos

(L – R) Jerry Hoffman, John Brown, Peter Halverson, Gurpreet Sarin. Photos by Howard Soroos

The story centers around four aging high school buddies who have been performing together in a barbershop quartet called The Fabulous Lipitones – aptly named after the cholesterol-lowering drug Lipitor.  When their lead tenor drops dead with a major competition looming, the remaining baritone, lead and bass have to decide whether to find a replacement or disband.  During a speakerphone conversation with a garage mechanic pal, they hear an unknown in the background and decide to audition him.  When “Bob”, a turbaned, sword-carrying (the kirpan is an article of faith) Sikh shows up to Howard’s basement these small town, a capella amateurs must face their prejudices as well as their cultural ignorance.  “Everybody is new until there’s someone newer,” Bob gently reminds Phil Rizzardi (Peter Halverson) who insists Bob’s a terrorist.  Ever the peaceful philosopher, Bob counsels the group to understand that, “Music is the opposite of anger.”

(L-R) Jerry Brown, Peter Halverson. Photos by Howard Soroos

(L-R) Jerry Brown, Peter Halverson. Photos by Howard Soroos

Auditioning before the three men, Howard (Jerry Hoffman), Wally (John Brown) and Phil, Bob, in a hilarious bit, is forced to alter his classic Indian style of vibrato singing to dovetail seamlessly into the sound of “Wait ‘Till the Sun Shines Nellie” and they’re off and running.  Eventually Bob’s influence has the gang dancing to Bollywood tapes, “You look like holy rollers getting tasered,” he teases, as they prepare for the finals competition in Reno against such groups as The Sons of Pitches and The High Colonics.

(L-R) Gurpreet Sarin, John Brown, Peter Halverson, and Jerry Hoffman. Photos by Howard Soroos

(L-R) Gurpreet Sarin, John Brown, Peter Halverson, and Jerry Hoffman. Photos by Howard Soroos

Between fourteen classic numbers sung in abridged form in the tradition of American barbershop harmony and with standards as varied as a “Yankee Doodle Dandy” medley, “A Bird in a Gilded Cage” and “Delilah” that caters to Phil’s obsession with Tom Jones, the motley quartet gets off plenty of clever one-liners.

Lots of surprises keep this sweet story humming.  See it if you’re looking for a fast-paced laughfest done to the tune of barbershop classics.

Through May 13th 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

Chicago Brings Brandy Norwood to the Kennedy Center

Jordan Wright
April 9, 2017

First you see it.  The hands.  The jazz hands.  Fingers spread wide and pivoting quickly from left to right.  A bit of moonwalk (a famous Fosse move before Michael Jackson came along) and the swaying of the arms behind the back with fingers again outstretched – another of famed choreographer Bob Fosse’s signature moves.  Bodies slither across the floor.  Face down.  Belly up.  Long before “The Worm” came along.  Gangsters. Conmen. Jailbirds.  It’s Chicago.  It debuted on Broadway in 1975 and has toured the world since then.

Then you hear it.  The sound of the Roaring ‘20’s.   Opening with the number “All That Jazz” and a ton of dancers, the razzamatazz never stops.  Not even in the murder scenes, the women’s prison and the love songs.  It’s just flat out visceral.

In this latest revival of composer and lyricist Kander and Ebb’s smash hit supersonic popstar and Grammy Award-winning singer, Brandy Norwood, stars in the role of Roxie, the cheating wife and boyfriend murderer, and, amazingly, she can dance – right along with all the other seasoned hoofers.  She can sing of course, albeit softer than you’d have expected, putting her own soul music spin on the end of each line.  The audience is digging it.  They’ve come for her and she doesn’t disappoint.

The plot isn’t much to write about in Chicago it’s just the vehicle for the music and dance.  And there’s a ton of dancing by long legged, hard body dancers in sexy, black lingerie.  There’s only one set – the prison (later doubling as a courtroom) where Velma Kelly (I saw it with the terrific Lauren Gemelli who subbed for Terra C. MacLeod, another Broadway company veteran) and Roxie play out their rivalry as two vaudevillian murderesses whose slick-as-a-brick lawyer, the movie star handsome, Billy (Brent Barrett), flimflams the jury with a sob story to spare them the death penalty.  Barrett is terrific in the soft shoe number “Razzle Dazzle”.

With the orchestra on stage throughout, Roz Ryan plays Matron “Mama” Morton with a voice as deep and strong as blues legend Big Mama Thornton’s.  In this jail Mama takes care of her girls and her girls take care of her, handing over cash for prison favors.  In her show-stopping solo “When You’re Good to Mama”, and later in the duet “Class” with Velma, she really shines.

Roxie’s cuckolded spouse, Amos Hart, is played admirably by Paul Vogt, who played the role on Broadway.  His rendition of the iconic tune “Cellophane Man” about a man so ignored he is transparent to everyone, is a classic – and so is the show.

Through April 16th at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St., NW, Washington, DC.  For tickets and information call 202 467-4600 or visit www.Kennedy-Center.org.

A Raisin in the Sun ~ Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
April 10, 2017 

Lizan Mitchell as Lena Younger. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Lizan Mitchell as Lena Younger. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Smack dab in the middle of the civil rights era, African-American playwright Lorraine Hansberry’s classic play “A Raisin in the Sun” premiered on Broadway and it’s just as relevant today as it was in 1959.  This sensitive, often humorous, and searing drama based on African-American life in Chicago’s Southside ghetto still resonates, though today’s real world challenges may read differently.  As Lena (Lizan Mitchell), the matriarch of the family, tells her son Walter, “It used to be about freedom.”

(L to R) Dawn Ursula as Ruth Younger and Will Cobbs as Walter Lee Younger. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

(L to R) Dawn Ursula as Ruth Younger and Will Cobbs as Walter Lee Younger. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Walter (Will Cobb) is a 35-year old man trying to find his place in a white man’s world that offers little hope of his success.  His sister Beneatha (Joy Jones) is a radical feminist and pre-med student whose idea of defining her culture is to deny her American heritage and embrace her African roots guided by her adoring suitor, Joseph Asagai (Bueka Uwemedimo) a Nigerian transplant.  His wife Ruth (Dawn Ursula) is a loving wife and supportive mother to their boy, Travis (Jeremiah Hasty), and together with Lena they live in a modest apartment carving out a respectable existence on their meager salaries while toiling in service to wealthy whites.

(L to R) Bueka Uwemedimo as Joseph Asagai and Joy Jones as Beneatha Younger. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

(L to R) Bueka Uwemedimo as Joseph Asagai and Joy Jones as Beneatha Younger. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Hansberry was ahead of her time, looping in issues of feminism with Ruth’s dilemma of whether to have an abortion to avoid the expense of another child, Walter’s disapproval of Beneatha’s desire to be in a man’s job, Beneatha’s desire to be a free spirit in a strict religious household, and Lena’s position as moral leader of the family.

(L to R) Will Cobbs as Walter Lee Younger, Joy Jones as Beneatha Younger and Dawn Ursula as Ruth Younger. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

(L to R) Will Cobbs as Walter Lee Younger, Joy Jones as Beneatha Younger and Dawn Ursula as Ruth Younger. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Taken from the poem “Harlem” by Langston Hughes, the title is a metaphor for the family’s dashed dreams – the slow withering of hope.  As Walter says, after he has squandered the insurance money Lena’s late husband left them to pursue a better life, “I didn’t make this world.  It was given to me.”

(L to R) Will Cobbs as Walter Lee Younger and Dawn Ursula as Ruth Younger. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

(L to R) Will Cobbs as Walter Lee Younger and Dawn Ursula as Ruth Younger. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Director Tazewell Thompson guides a brilliantly interlocked cast to powerful performances – most especially from Mitchell who is the centerpiece of the play.  Her gestures and facial expressions are both economical and meaningful and her delivery is pure magic reflecting a time when Southern gentility could dominate with an iron hand in a velvet glove.

Donald Eastman’s 1940’s one room kitchen/dining/living room set in the round frame the humor, tough love and inspiration that take the family on a journey from poverty to the promised land.

Highly recommended.

Through May 7th at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information visit www.ArenaStage.org or call 202 488-3300.

Midwestern Gothic ~ Signature Theatre

Jordan Wright
April 2, 2017 

Morgan Keene (Stina) with Jp Sisneros, Evan Casey, Chris Sizemore and Stephen Gregory Smith (Hired Boys). Photo by Margot Schulman

Morgan Keene (Stina) with Jp Sisneros, Evan Casey, Chris Sizemore and Stephen Gregory Smith (Hired Boys). Photo by Margot Schulman

Midwestern Gothic is an unexpected palate cleanser – a sharp-as-knives psychological thriller reminiscent of Fargo – the Coen Brothers brilliant cinematic drama of crime and revenge in America’s heartland.

In this twisted tale of jealousy, seduction and sexual domination, our focus falls on Stina (Morgan Keene), a honey blonde nymphette whose movie star dreams of James Dean and Natalie Wood lay far beyond the farmhouse she shares with her lascivious stepfather, Red (Timothy J. Alex) and four hired hands who form a harmonious Greek chorus of unfulfilled desire.  But this creamy-thighed siren has set her sights on Anderson (Sam Ludwig), a love-struck greenhorn who does her bidding – some of which involves neighborhood thieving, putting him squarely at odds with Sheriff Dwayne (Bobby Smith) who urges him to walk the “Straight and Narrow”.

Timothy J Alex (Red) and Rachel Zampelli (LuAnn) . Photo by Margot Schulman.

Timothy J Alex (Red) and Rachel Zampelli (LuAnn) . Photo by Margot Schulman.

Meanwhile Stina’s mother, Deb (Sherri L. Edelen), runs a shot-and-beer bar where she finds the attention she has been missing from Red.  In the number “Whiskey Courage” she works her boozy magic on Rodney (Evan Casey) spiking Red’s anger.  To get revenge he runs off with the town tramp, LuAnn (Rachel Zampelli), to put a hurtin’, as they say, on Deb.  But his revenge is not so sweet after all when Stina catches them back at the house in flagrante delicto.

Writer and Co-Lyricist Royce Vavrek and Composer Josh Schmidt set a complex balance in this World Premiere production adding quaint references to curling, cows, rednecks and Jesus while splicing in Stina’s dizzyingly cruel imagination and her powers of emasculation.

Sherri L Edelen (Deb) and Timothy J Alex (Red). Photo by Margot Schulman.

Sherri L Edelen (Deb) and Timothy J Alex (Red). Photo by Margot Schulman.

Keene, using a haunting flat-accented vibrato voice, is wonderfully cast as the beautiful and voracious sex kitten who lures, then punishes, every man within her small sphere.  A supporting cast, cleverly directed and choreographed under Matthew Gardiner, fairly flies through seventeen musical numbers encompassing a range of emotions, from Stina’s love song to a spring flower in “Tell Me a Story, Crocus” to “Saint Sebastian” with Stina, Anderson and the burly hired hands (Evan Casey as Rodney, Jp Sisneros as Evodio, Chris Sizemore as DJ and Stephen Gregory Smith as Brett), in a song that backgrounds a bizarre scene of crucifixion.

Timothy J Alex (Red), Sam Ludwig (Anderson) and Bobby Smith (Dwayne). Photo by Margot Schulman.

Timothy J Alex (Red), Sam Ludwig (Anderson) and Bobby Smith (Dwayne). Photo by Margot Schulman.

As the latest installment in Signature’s American Musical Voices Project, the musical is spellbindingly dark, think Truman Capote’s classic “In Cold Blood” and Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita”, and yet utterly riveting.  An audience member likened it to TV’s Criminal Minds.

Highly recommended for adults only.

Through April 30th at Signature Theatre (Shirlington Village), 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, VA 22206.  For tickets and information call 703 820-9771 or visit www.sigtheatre.org