The Sound of Music Hits All the Right Notes ~ The Kennedy Center

Jordan Wright
June 19, 2017 

Charlotte Maltby as Maria Rainer, and the von Trapp children in The Sound of Music. Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

Charlotte Maltby as Maria Rainer, and the von Trapp children in The Sound of Music. Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

Watching Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s classic, The Sound of Music, is like reuniting with a dear friend from your childhood. Though many of the songs are familiar and beloved, “The Sound of Music”, “Do-Re-Mi”, “Climb Every Mountain”, “My Favorite Things” and “Edelweiss” (the latter two reprised during Christmas season), there are others just as meaningful that we don’t hear as often – like “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” and “No Way to Stop It” – that seem to have fallen into obscurity yet deserve to be reheard.

In this national touring company Maria, played puckishly by the very youthful Charlotte Maltby is more Scarlet Johanssen than Julie Andrews. And that’s a good thing because the current generation of children that fall in love with this musical will need a modern-day heroine who is energetic and adorable with a side of feisty and flippant.  A woman who can stand toe to toe with Captain von Trapp, played by the Helen Hayes awarded actor, Nicholas Rodriguez whom you may remember in the role of Billy Bigelow in Arena Stage’s last year’s production of Carousel at Arena Stage.  Smooth as silk and pitch-perfect is Teri Hansen as Elsa Shraeder, the would-be fiancée to the widowed Captain, who brings a shot of Old World elegance to the part and Merwin Foard as Max Detweiler, Elsa’s political ally, whose luscious baritone and comic timing bring a dose of levity to the role of turncoat. All seven children are adorable including little Birgitta played by Dakota Riley Quakenbush and Gretl played by cute-as-a-button Anika Lore Hatch. But the ne plus ultra is Melody Betts as The Mother Abbess with a mellifluous voice and a dignified gravitas.

Nicholas Rodriguez and Charlotte Maltby in The Sound of Music. Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

Nicholas Rodriguez and Charlotte Maltby in The Sound of Music. Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

Director Jack O’Brien breathes fresh air, passion and energy into the characters making the entire production more modern and clearly wowing the audience who literally leapt to their feet at curtain call in full appreciation.

Sound designer Ken Travis delivers a terrifying thunder storm to counter Lighting Designer Natasha Katz’s stunning depiction of the abbey with its glowing rosette window and late day shafts of sunlight onto the tender wedding scene. And Douglas W. Schmidt’s sets that include a massive statue of an angel and massive Romanesque arches bordered by panels of Austrian lace, offer an evocative sense of place and time.

Despite the period in which it’s set, 1932, and perhaps because it speaks to the bravery of Maria and the entire von Trapp family in their struggles against the Nazis and Hitler’s takeover of their homeland of Austria, it is entirely relevant in today’s worldwide political climate.  It serves as a cautionary tale to those afraid to speak truth to power and an inspiration to families who find strength in their combined ability to overcome obstacles.

Highly recommended for all ages.

Through July 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.

The School for Lies ~ Shakespeare Theatre Company

Jordan Wright
June 8, 2017 

Cody Nickell as Philinte in The School for Lies by Scott Suchman

Cody Nickell as Philinte in The School for Lies by Scott Suchman

Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of David Ives’ genius adaption of The School for Lies opens with an announcement by Philinte (Cody Nickell), a secret transvestite with a fondness for blue satin gowns. It advises us to prepare for a comedy that parallels events currently swirling around our nation’s capital. The invitation to revel in schadenfreude reminds us that the world of gossip, slander and innuendo is as vigorous, and as double-dealing, as it was in the 17th century when Moliére first penned quite different lines to his classic The Misanthrope. Knowing titters and outright guffaws were appreciably audible from an audience chockful of Beltway insiders.

Victoria Frings as Celimene and Gregory Wooddell as Frank in The School for Lies by Scott Suchman

Victoria Frings as Celimene and Gregory Wooddell as Frank in The School for Lies by Scott Suchman

Ives, who won a Drama Desk Award this week, creates his misanthrope in Frank (Gregory Woodell), a sharp-witted realist who mocks social proprieties with great aplomb. “Society is nothing but a school for lies,” he rails – until he falls head over heels for the feisty and scurrilous widow, Celimene (Victoria Frings) who herself is up for charges of slander.

Gregory Wooddell as Frank, Dorea Schmidt as Eliante and Veanne Cox as Arsinoé in The School for Lies by Scott Suchman

Gregory Wooddell as Frank, Dorea Schmidt as Eliante and Veanne Cox as Arsinoé in The School for Lies by Scott Suchman

But the lovely-in-lavender Celimene has a bevy of suitors, Acaste (Liam Craig), a vain, moneyed marquis with the brains of a hamster, Clitander (Cameron Folmar) an influential courtier and Oronte (Tom Story) a boulevardier and master rhymster of prosodic gaffes (i.e. “fetus” with “coitus”). Look for scene-stealer Michael Glenn in dual roles, both Dubois and Basque, to add a dash of slapstick to the snidely sophisticated repartee. Canapés will fly!

Gregory Wooddell as Frank, Cameron Folmar as Clitander, Liam Craig as Acaste and Tom Story as Oronte in The School for Lies by Scott Suchman.

Gregory Wooddell as Frank, Cameron Folmar as Clitander, Liam Craig as Acaste and Tom Story as Oronte in The School for Lies by Scott Suchman.

Frings lean-forward, hilarious performance, delivering rhymes with accents ranging from Valley Girl to black gym-rat hipster, is delicious.

Written entirely in rhyme and laced throughout with bawdy colloquialisms and ruthless insults, Ives gives us a contemporary comedy – reworked from his 2011 original to reflect present day events. Be prepared for a hornet’s nest of confusion around who said what and who’s lusting for whom, notable by the misdirected amours of the pretty-in-pink Eliante (Dorea Schmidt), who is what we’d refer to in modern jargon as a dizzy broad, and the misunderstood emotions of Frank and Celemine.

cast of The School for Lies by Scott Suchman

cast of The School for Lies by Scott Suchman

Leave it to the jealous-in-green silks, delightfully snarky Arsinoé (Veanna Cox), the pillar of morality (we might call her an uptight prude) to hatch a destructive plot of her own to snag Frank away from Celimene.

Coupled with Murell Horton’s lavishly elegant period costumes, Alexander Dodge’s quirky chic set, Director Michael Kahn (who collaborated with Ives on the brilliantly devised The Metromaniacs) has yet another megahit on his hands to round out his thirty years with Shakespeare Theatre Company.

This is great theatre!  Highly recommended.

Though July 9th at the Lansburgh Theatre, 450 7th Street NW, Washington, DC 20003. For tickets and information contact the Box Office at 202 547-1122 or visit www.shakespearetheatre.org.

Red, White & Tuna Channels Hee Haw ~ The Little Theatre of Alexandria

Jordan Wright
June 7, 2017
Special to The Alexandria Times

(l to r) Stephen McDonnell as Amber Windchime and David Wright as Star Birdfeather - Photos by : Matt Liptak

(l to r) Stephen McDonnell as Amber Windchime and David Wright as Star Birdfeather – Photos by : Matt Liptak

In a series of pastiches that harken to Hee Haw days, actors David Wright and Stephen McDonnell take on ten roles apiece beginning as two aging female flower children returning for their high school reunion.  From there it’s a dizzying escapade filled with twenty crazy characters who enter and exit with lightning speed.  Along the way you’ll meet Didi Snavely of Didi’s Used Weapons Shop, “If you can’t get yourself killed in a small town in Texas, yer not really tryin’,” a pair of radio announcers, Thurston and Arles, who invite townsfolk to upcoming events like the Pest Fest and the Rattlesnake Roundup, Stanley a former juvenile delinquent now artiste, and Helen and Inita owners of Hot to Trot Catering whose country cooking nearly poisons the whole town.

Stephen McDonnell as Arles Struvie ~ Photos by : Matt Liptak

Stephen McDonnell as Arles Struvie ~ Photos by : Matt Liptak

And that’s just a smattering. There are enough characters in this Ed Howard, Joe Sears, Jaston Williams comedy to fill a jailhouse, or perhaps a Baptist meetinghouse.  Racism comes easy in this tiny hick town where people’s opinions are driven by “Christian values” and the shadow of the KKK is ever-present.

 David Wright as Star Birdfeather ~ Photos by : Matt Liptak

David Wright as Star Birdfeather ~ Photos by : Matt Liptak

Director Michael J. Baker, Jr. revives this 1998 classic like a fine tuned ’55 Chevy truck with tons of belly-laugh lines aimed squarely, and satirically, at the provincial denizens of the Texas town of Tuna – from whence the title.

Among others, McDonnell plays the cat-eye glasses wearing Vera Carp, the high priestess of Tuna society who is a dead ringer for Dana Carvey’s morally superior character the “Church Lady”.  McDonnell’s version of Vera, the fearless leader of the ever-vigilant Smut Snatchers Society who are always on the lookout for racy songs and lewd activity, is hilarious.

David Wright as R.R. Snavely ~ Photos by : Matt Liptak

David Wright as R.R. Snavely ~ Photos by : Matt Liptak

One of Wright’s characters is Aunt Pearl Burras, an aging chicken farmer who brings to mind a cross between Jonathan Winters’ Maude Frickert, Vicki Lawrence’s Thelma Harper (Mama) on The Carol Burnett Show and Tyler Perry’s Madea.  “I was not born in a Blue State,” she declares unapologetically.  It’s a brilliant mash-up – classic vaudevillian schtick with one-liners and country colloquialisms that flow like moonshine whisky on a hot, Southern night.

There are critters in spaceships, of course, a side-splitting scene in the Starlight Motel with a sex manual and a lot of misunderstandings, and Vera’s line to the fresh-from-prison Baptist preacher, Reverend Sturgis Spikes, calling him “a born again has-been”.

 David Wright as Leonard Childers ~ Photos by : Matt Liptak

David Wright as Leonard Childers ~ Photos by : Matt Liptak

Costume Designers Ceci Albert and Lisa Brownsword deserve praise along with their six wardrobe assistants for getting the actors in and out of their umpteen costume changes.  And kudos to Wig and Makeup Designer Howard Kurtz for the instant transformations.

Get ready to praise the Lord and pass the ammunition!

Through June 24th 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

Jesus Christ Superstar ~ Signature Theatre

Jordan Wright
May 21, 2017
Special to The Alexandria Times 

Nicholas Edwards (Jesus) with the cast of Jesus Christ Superstar. Photo by Margot Schulman

Nicholas Edwards (Jesus) with the cast of Jesus Christ Superstar. Photo by Margot Schulman

Signature Theatre’s Artistic Director, Eric Schaeffer, has been upping the ante with big, bold Broadway shows.  His latest mega production is Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s hyper hit Jesus Christ Superstar.  Casting some madly impressive voices in this blockbuster rock musical signals Schaeffer’s emphasis on the compelling music and lyrics, and drawing the theatre-goer’s attention to the story’s similarities to current culture.

Ari McKay Wilford (Judas) with Sam Ludwig (Annas), Thomas Adrian Simpson (Caiaphas) and Kara-Tameika Watkins (Priest) in Jesus Christ Superstar. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Ari McKay Wilford (Judas) with Sam Ludwig (Annas), Thomas Adrian Simpson (Caiaphas) and Kara-Tameika Watkins (Priest) in Jesus Christ Superstar. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

And that’s a good thing, because Director Joe Calarco strips away all semblance of a period piece.  Early versions, you may recall, stage it in biblical times.  But you’ll see none of that sentimentality here with Luciana Stecconi’s stripped-bare set of nine movable white platforms reconfigured throughout to represent the table at The Last Supper, or put to use as a soapbox for Jesus or Pontius Pilate to utter proclamations to their indecisive followers.  Again attention is focused on the music directed by Conductor William Yanesh, and not predominantly on costumes by Frank Labovitz who gives us monochromatic teen streetwear for Jesus’ apostles, sharkskin suits for Pontius Pilate, and sequined satin gospel dresses for the Soul Sisters.  No flowing robes here.  And an odd choice of using bibles as props, neglects the tiny detail that they hadn’t been written yet.  I’ll take it as a reference to “bible-toting” fanatics and give it a pass.

Look instead to Nicholas Edwards (as Jesus of Nazareth) who reprises the role made famous by actor Ted Neely.  Edwards is spellbinding, delivering a viscerally transformative performance that is a game changer for this role.  With his remarkable voice and ripped body, he exudes both passion and raw sexuality.  Another powerhouse performance comes from the very versatile Bobby Smith who plays Jesus’ evil nemesis Pontius Pilate as effortlessly as I’ve seen him play comedy.  Lean into his delivery of “Trial Before Pilate” to witness his nuanced performance.

Nicholas Edwards (Jesus) and Natascia Diaz (Mary) in Jesus Christ Superstar. Photo by C. Stanley Photography

Nicholas Edwards (Jesus) and Natascia Diaz (Mary) in Jesus Christ Superstar. Photo by C. Stanley Photography

Natascia Diaz as Mary Magdalene also offers a different interpretation of her role – one very different from the fiery female roles we’re accustomed to seeing her play.  Her strong voice seems tamer and often aimless with a surfeit of trills and superfluous flourishes in the ballads.  Though her believability in her affection for and defense of Jesus is where she shines.

Nicholas Edwards (Jesus) and Ari McKay Wilford (Judas) with the cast of Jesus Christ Superstar. Photo by C. Stanley Photography

Nicholas Edwards (Jesus) and Ari McKay Wilford (Judas) with the cast of Jesus Christ Superstar. Photo by C. Stanley Photography

Karma Camp’s choreography, seamlessly weaving 18 performers through complicated dance and fight scenes, is impressive and Zachary G. Borovay’s video projections of Hitler and the Nazis, 9-11, Syria and an assortment of social extremists to background the number “The Crucifixion”, reveal an eerie resemblance to racial violence and religious terrorism in modern society.

As a side note, I couldn’t help but wonder if my seat which was close to the stage was the reason the singers seemed to frequently be drowned out by the seven-piece orchestra.  I hope it was merely the sound levels which may be straightened out by now.  In any case I’d choose the upper level for this show since watching the actors at waist level is not the best perspective.

Through July 2nd at Signature Theatre (Shirlington Village), 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, VA 22206.  For tickets and information call 703 820-9771 or visit www.sigtheatre.org.

Timon of Athens ~ Folger Theatre

Jordan Wright
May 10, 2017 

Dinner at the home of Timon. Pictured left to right: Michael Dix Thomas, Sean Fri, Kathryn Tkel, Ian Merrill Peakes (center, as Timon), Andhy Mendez, Louis Butelli, and Maboud Ebrahimzadeh (with Eric Hissom top left). - Photo by Teresa Wood

Dinner at the home of Timon. Pictured left to right: Michael Dix Thomas, Sean Fri, Kathryn Tkel, Ian Merrill Peakes (center, as Timon), Andhy Mendez, Louis Butelli, and Maboud Ebrahimzadeh (with Eric Hissom top left). – Photo by Teresa Wood

In the high-tech world of fingerprint readers and cell phones, venture capitalists and politicians, Timon collects friends of all stripes.  From artists and philosophers to shop owners and Senators, he entertains them lavishly with Lucullan banquets and gifts of gold and jewels.  “More welcome are you to my fortunes, than they to me,” he says, oozing beneficence from every pore.  Is he seeking favor, or merely attempting to keep his friends close and his enemies closer?

Timon of Athens is a tragedy so seldom performed that audiences may be unfamiliar with it.  It is often snubbed by scholars, which is a pity, for I found some of Shakespeare’s richest prose in this play.  Director Robert Richmond imagines Timon (Ian Merrill Peakes) as a sharkskin suit-sporting businessman enjoying unfettered loyalty from his peers and associates and reveling in their idolatry.  But when friendship comes through financial generosity, is it true?

Cupid (John Floyd) and dancers Phrynia (Aliyah Caldwell, left) and Timandra (Amanda Forstrom) entertain Timon and his party guests - Photo by Teresa Wood

Cupid (John Floyd) and dancers Phrynia (Aliyah Caldwell, left) and Timandra (Amanda Forstrom) entertain Timon and his party guests – Photo by Teresa Wood

We soon discern that only two members of Timon’s coterie are his true friends – Apemantus (Eric Hissom), who delights in bursting Timon’s utopian bubble regarding his fair weather friends, and Flavius (Antoinette Robinson) his faithful servant, whose warnings of his imminent financial ruin fall on deaf ears.

Timon’s downfall doesn’t come without a challenge to the friends who deserted him. He invites them to a banquet where they arrive believing that he has regained his fortunes.  They believe they will again be the recipients of his fortune and are off the hook for abandoning him.  But Timon, who has seen the light and wants payback, serves up a tureen of excrement to his unsuspecting guests.  “I’m sick of this false world,” he confesses.

Banished Alcibiades (Maboud Ebrahimzadeh, left) confronts his old companion Timon (Ian Merrill Peakes) - Photo by Teresa Wood

Banished Alcibiades (Maboud Ebrahimzadeh, left) confronts his old companion Timon (Ian Merrill Peakes) – Photo by Teresa Wood

Throughout his emotional turmoil, Athens’ war is raging and Matt Otto’s soundtrack of the rat-a-tat-tat of machine gunfire reminds us of Timon’s precarious state and Greece’s uncertain future.

Francesca Talenti’s clever use of a slim band of video projections to introduce the characters is a novel and much appreciated approach to remembering who’s who.  Seeing their names along with their professions projected above their heads as they enter the scene is useful when seeing an unfamiliar play.  It’s later used by Timon as a video selfie when he is reflecting on his life during his darkest hour.

“Undone by goodness.” Ian Merrill Peakes as Timon of Athens - Photo by Teresa Wood

“Undone by goodness.” Ian Merrill Peakes as Timon of Athens – Photo by Teresa Wood

Scenic Designer Tony Cisek turns the theater’s English Tudor style into a sleek modernistic set with multiple entries and a two-level balconied catwalk, perfect for spouting edicts or watching your own destruction.

I can’t say enough about Peakes’ boundless energy, his superb ability veer from joy to pathos, as Timon goes from wealth and generosity to the madness of poverty, loneliness and utter despair.  The entire cast is wonderful.  I could see this play again and again.

I don’t give out stars, so I’ll just lend them.  All five to this stellar production.  See it!

Through June 11th at the Folger Theatre at the Folger Shakespeare Library, 201 East Capitol Street, SE, Washington, DC 20003.   For tickets and information call 202 544-7077 or visit www.Folger.edu/theatre.