Jelly’s Last Jam ~ At Signature Theatre

Jordan Wright
August 13, 2016
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

(l-r) Cleavant Derricks (Chimney Man) with Kara-Tameika Watkins, Eben K. Logan and Nova Y. Paton inJelly’s. Photo by Christopher Mueller.

(l-r) Cleavant Derricks (Chimney Man) with Kara-Tameika Watkins, Eben K. Logan and Nova Y. Patons. Photo by Christopher Mueller.

Right off the bat, Mark G. Meadows, who plays Jelly Roll Morton in this musical, is sensational.  I’ll admit I’d had my doubts when word went out how he turned down Director Matthew Gardiner’s initial offer to play the iconic and controversial jazzman.  Meadows, who is an internationally known pianist and performer in his own right, had never before acted.  Gardiner persisted until Meadows agreed.  But would he add “Actor” to his resume?  Thanks to Gardiner’s superb coaching and stroke of brilliance casting, Meadows gifts us with his personality and extraordinary talent – a natural-born actor/singer/musician/dancer whose portrayal of Jelly is vulnerable, multi-dimensional and eminently appealing.  Did I mention his voice has a certain John Legend-like quality?

Mark G Meadows (Jelly Roll Morton) with the cast of Jelly’s Last Jam. Photo by Christopher Mueller.

Mark G Meadows (Jelly Roll Morton) with the cast of Jelly’s Last Jam. Photo by Christopher Mueller.

Jelly’s Last Jam is a knockout of a show.  Thanks to Daniel Conway’s swank design, we are transported to the golden palm trees of the Jungle Inn, a nightclub straight out of the 1920’s era where the visible seven-piece orchestra plays behind a gilded railing high above the stage and Art Deco movie-house chandeliers light the ceiling.  Cafe tables positioned mere feet from the stage, umbilically connect the performers to the audience, lending the performances instantaneous intimacy.  Every shuffle, every two-step, every tap of shoe-to-floor is palpable.  The stage fairly pulsates with electricity.

Christopher Broughton, DeWitt Fleming Jr, DeMoya Watson Brown, Joseph Monroe Webb, Olivia Russell. Photo by Christopher Mueller

Christopher Broughton, DeWitt Fleming Jr, DeMoya Watson Brown, Joseph Monroe Webb, Olivia Russell. Photo by Christopher Mueller

Choreographer Jared Grimes has taken some of the best dancers and singers from here to Broadway, corralled them onto a set of circles and squares, steps and ramps, and turned it into a mind-blowing tapping, singing, syncopated rhythm of early jazz music.  Credit hoofers DeMoya Brown, Joseph Monroe Webb, DeWitt Fleming, Jr., Christopher Broughton and Olivia Russell for the tap bonanza.  It’s the stuff dreams are made of.  The stuff Morton invented before there was jazz as we know it.

Morton’s backstory is a familiar one.  Huge star, freakishly talented and egotistical goes to the top of the showbiz world only to undermine his success by blowing off his friends and supporters.  Cleavant Derricks plays the Chimney Man from Cadaver Avenue.  You wouldn’t want to run into him on a dark night.  He’s the reckoner – the one who keeps track of how you messed up your life.  Derricks, who garnered a Tony Award for his role on Broadway in Dreamgirls, has got the evil eye down pat.  He swaggers and threatens, coaxes and demeans, as smooth as the silk topper he wears.

Kara-Tameika Watkins, Nova Y. Payton, Eben K. Logan. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Kara-Tameika Watkins, Nova Y. Payton, Eben K. Logan. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Outstanding too, are the vocally gifted Felicia Boswell who plays Jelly’s sometime lover Anita; the riveting Guy Lockard, as his faithful friend and partner; and the promising talent of Elijah Mayo as young Jelly.

Guy Lockard (Jack the Bear) and Mark G Meadows (Jelly Roll Morton) in Jelly’s Last Jam. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Guy Lockard (Jack the Bear) and Mark G Meadows (Jelly Roll Morton) in Jelly’s Last Jam. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Born to a high-born Louisiana Creole family from N’awlins, “not a grit or a collard green”, Morton’s French roots afforded him certain privileges as a Black man in the South.  Thanks to his haughty Gran Mimi (Iyona Blake), the matriarch of the Morton family, it also worked against him.

Felicia Boswell (Anita) and Mark G Meadows (Jelly Roll Morton) in Jelly’s Last Jam. Photo by Margot Schulman

Felicia Boswell (Anita) and Mark G Meadows (Jelly Roll Morton) in Jelly’s Last Jam. Photo by Margot Schulman

Written by George C. Wolfe, Susan Birkhead and Luther Henderson, with Jelly Roll Morton’s original music, the show takes us from the juke joints of New Orleans to the dance halls of Chicago and the stages of New York laying out the highs and lows of Morton’s life and times.  Dede M. Ayite gives us the dazzling costumes along with the outstanding mood-capturing lighting design of the period by Grant Wilcoxen.

Highly recommended for the best that theater has to offer.

Through September 11th at Signature Theatre (Shirlington Village), 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, VA 22206.  For tickets and information call 703 820-9771 or visit www.sigtheatre.org.

http://Jelly’s B-Roll Trailer – FINAL.htm

The Phantom of the Opera ~ Kennedy Center

Jordan Wright
July 24, 2016
Special to The Alexandria Times

The news was worrisome and unexpected. A sudden trip to the hospital sent Phantom lead Chris Mann in for an emergency appendectomy, thus delaying media review night for an extra week. For the many who ask why we haven’t reviewed a show you’ve already seen, the reason is simple. An embargo exists for critics until the official press night. So even if we were to see a show on opening night, we couldn’t post our reviews until the day after press is brought in. So we waited and fretted for another week.

The Company performs “Masquerade.” Photo by Matthew Murphy.

The Company performs “Masquerade.” Photo by Matthew Murphy.

But we needn’t have worried if Mann would be up for the task. He was. In spades. And on steroids. His powerful voice and physical prowess were not one bit compromised. The surprise came in the program on a tiny slip of paper announcing that the lead role of Christine Daaé would be filled by Julia Udine’s understudy Kaitlyn Davis. Again worries were quickly brushed aside in the first number, “Think of Me”, when Davis wowed the audience in a splendid display of her acting abilities and gorgeous, multi-octaved voice.

The promise of an exciting new production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s long-running, multiple Tony Awarded opera slash musical, was kept by Producer Cameron Macintosh and the unusually named Really Useful Group, along with Director Laurence Connor. It is lavish and lush and as eerie as you’d expect. Thankfully there are no phantoms to jinx it.

Katie Travis (Christine))and Chris Mann (The Phantom). Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Katie Travis (Christine))and Chris Mann (The Phantom). Photo by Matthew Murphy.

The beauty of this show about a haunted Parisian opera house is that it is still thrilling. Webber’s music and Charles Hart’s lyrics grab you from the get-go and its sense of imminent danger keep the audience enthralled. As for its premise, I won’t attempt to examine the irony of a young ballerina thrust into a lead role as an understudy. (Truth was stranger than fiction on this night!) Or a young girl’s need for a muse to guide her to stardom as Webber did with Sarah Brightman, the cast’s original Christine. That would be too facile.

Just let yourself be taken away by the sweeping music of the night conducted by James Lowe and Dale Rieling, the eye-popping sets by Paul Brown, the pyrotechnics and illusions by Paul Kieve, and the dreamy 19th century costumes by the late Maria Björnson. The New Year’s Eve danse macabre in the song, “Masquerade” is absolutely mesmerizing.

Anne Kanengeiser (Madame Giry). Photo by Matthew Murphy

Anne Kanengeiser (Madame Giry). Photo by Matthew Murphy

Look for clues like the 666 lot number on the chandelier at the opera house’s auction, the singerie period music box and the flurry of anonymous notes to the producers insisting they cast Christine in the lead or else murder and mayhem will ensue. It does and it’s as enthralling and haunting as Paule Constable’s eerie lighting design.

Highly recommended.

Through August 20th at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St., NW, Washington, DC. For tickets and information call 202 467-4600 or visit www.Kennedy-Center.org.

Born for This: The BeBe Winans Story ~ Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
July 10, 2016
Special to The Alexandria Times

 (L to R) Juan Winans as BeBe, Deborah Joy Winans as CeCe and Kirsten Wyatt as Tammy Faye Bakker in Born for This: The BeBe Winans Story, which runs July 1-August 28, 2016 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Photo by Greg Mooney, courtesy Alliance Theatre.

(L to R) Juan Winans as BeBe, Deborah Joy Winans as CeCe and Kirsten Wyatt as Tammy Faye Bakker in Born for This: The BeBe Winans Story, which runs July 1-August 28, 2016 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Photo by Greg Mooney, courtesy Alliance Theatre.

Checking out the program before curtain up, I counted 27 original numbers with two reprises. How would we get through all these tunes, I pondered?  But BeBe Winans, who wrote the music and lyrics, uses snippets of songs to underpin his story and what a surprising saga it is.

Working alongside of Director and Co-Scriptwriter, Charles Randolph-Wright (Motown the Musical), the collaborators regale us with the four elder Winans brothers’ rise to fame which came before BeBe (played by real life nephew, Juan Winans) and sister CeCe’s (played by real life niece, Deborah Joy Winans) road to glory on the The PTL Club.

(L to R) Chaz Pofahl as Jim Bakker and Kirsten Wyatt as Tammy Faye Bakker in Born for This: The BeBe Winans Story, which runs July 1-August 28, 2016 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Photo by Greg Mooney, courtesy Alliance Theatre.

(L to R) Chaz Pofahl as Jim Bakker and Kirsten Wyatt as Tammy Faye Bakker in Born for This: The BeBe Winans Story, which runs July 1-August 28, 2016 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Photo by Greg Mooney, courtesy Alliance Theatre.

Back in the 80’s the PTL (Praise the Lord) Television Network show was the number one global evangelical Christian station then hosted by the illustrious Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker.  For those of us who thought of the Bakkers as “whitebread” as they come, the story stunningly reveals that it was Tammy Faye and Jim (Chaz Pofahl as Tammy’s straying husband) who sheltered the gospel singing teens from the racist threats of the station’s Southern listeners who preferred cutesy, saccharine singing groups like Up With People.

Clearly BeBe and CeCe’s early success is inexorably linked to the Bakkers who raised the kids as their own and are as intrinsic to the story as that of the Winans’ own family.   It also provides us with some of the funniest lines.  As Winan’s mother Cynthia puts it when she discovers they’ve been signed to the show, “Ooh!  Those are some crazy Caucasians!”

 (L to R) Juan Winans as BeBe, Kiandra Richardson as Whitney Houston and Deborah Joy Winans as CeCe in Born for This: The BeBe Winans Story, which runs July 1-August 28, 2016 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Photo by Greg Mooney, courtesy Alliance Theatre.

(L to R) Juan Winans as BeBe, Kiandra Richardson as Whitney Houston and Deborah Joy Winans as CeCe in Born for This: The BeBe Winans Story, which runs July 1-August 28, 2016 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Photo by Greg Mooney, courtesy Alliance Theatre.

Much of the action takes place on Set Designer, Neil Patel’s rendering of PTL’s live stage where teleprompters urge listeners to donate and Tammy Faye (Kirsten Wyatt) skitters around shrieking “Thank you, Jesus!!!” in capital letters affectionately referring to the Winan kids as her ‘chocolate drops’ or ‘chocolate babies’.  Her ignorance notably preceding her affection for the teens.  Wyatt is phenomenal as Tammy Faye and plays it to the hilt, just as Tammy did in real life and the show overflows with highlights both lyrical and emotional.  Artistic Director Molly Smith calls it a “story of faith and redemption”, and the arrival of Whitney Houston (Kiandra Richardson), a close friend and advisor to the Winans, seconds that claim.

Outstanding are Nita Whitaker, as Mom Winans, whose spellbinding crystal clear voice shows itself on “Seventh Son”, Milton Craig Nealy as Pop Winans, the no-nonsense dad who triumphs in “I Got a Home”, Brad Raymond with the Teddy Pendergrass voice as brother Ronald, and BeBe and Penny (Alison Whitehurst) BeBe’s White girlfriend, dueting on “Forbidden Love”, a ballad destined to become a classic.

(L to R) Nita Whitaker as Mom Winans and Milton Craig Nealy as Pop Winans in Born for This: The BeBe Winans Story, which runs July 1-August 28, 2016 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Photo by Greg Mooney, courtesy Alliance Theatre.

(L to R) Nita Whitaker as Mom Winans and Milton Craig Nealy as Pop Winans in Born for This: The BeBe Winans Story, which runs July 1-August 28, 2016 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Photo by Greg Mooney, courtesy Alliance Theatre.

Costumes by famed Broadway designer William Ivey Long (Hairspray, Cinderella, Crazy for You) are totally spot on, especially for Tammy Faye if you remember those shoulder pads that launched into outer space, and the cutesy matching outfits of the PTL singers.  Long and Wig Designer Lashawn Melton follow the styles of BeBe and CeCe as their wardrobe and hairstyles become ever more sophisticated with Houston’s assistance.

As it stands now, the musical is overly long – 2 ½ hours – even with the short songs.  But how to cut the rich, lush tones of these voluptuous voices and the come-to-Jesus gospel sounds of the Winans?  And who would want to?

Highly recommended.

Through August 28th at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information call 202 488-3300 or visit www.ArenaStage.org.

The Bridges of Madison County ~ Kennedy Center

Jordan Wright
July 3, 2016
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

Katie Klaus (State Fair Singer) and the company of the national tour of THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY. (Photo by Matthew Murphy)

Katie Klaus (State Fair Singer) and the company of the national tour of THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY. (Photo by Matthew Murphy)

A huge applause erupted from the audience at the Kennedy Center when it was announced that the show’s composer, orchestrator and lyricist, Jason Robert Brown, would conduct the evening’s performance.  The three-time Tony Award-winning Brown, who also tours as a singer and pianist, brought both energy and depth to this lush, sweeping score and the 9-piece orchestra’s response was as palpable as the performances.

The Bridges of Madison County, the 2014 Broadway smash hit musical, evolved from Robert James Waller’s 1992 best seller of a married Italian immigrant who meets a handsome photographer documenting the covered bridges of Iowa for National Geographic.  It is a tender love story of mutual passion, appreciably devoid of the syrupy schmaltz that often passes as romance in this genre.  Leading man, Andrew Samonsky as Robert, who has movie star good looks and spectacular tenor’s pipes, is just part of the appeal.  Another is the steely charm, wry delivery and soaring operatic voice of Elizabeth Stanley as the conflicted housewife and mother, Francesca.

Over a period of four days, while husband Bud (Cullen R. Titmas) takes the children Michael (Bryan Welnicki) and Carolyn (Caitlin Houlahan) off to the Indiana State Fair to show Carolyn’s prize steer, the strangers connect.  And oh, how they connect.

Elizabeth Stanley (Francesca) and Andrew Samonsky (Robert) in the national tour of THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY. (Photo by Matthew Murphy)

Elizabeth Stanley (Francesca) and Andrew Samonsky (Robert) in the national tour of THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY. (Photo by Matthew Murphy)

In their exploration of one another’s motives, Robert sings, “Temporarily Lost”, admitting he has been looking to restore the light in his life.  By the ninth number, “The World Inside a Frame”, Samonsky’s heart-stopping solo, he has learned to trust again and Francesca regains her lust for life.  She is Italian after all.  (In a particularly seductive scene, Francesca removes Robert’s crisp white shirt from his tight blue jeans and a woman’s excited gasp could be heard throughout the theater to the audience’s delight.)

That Robert’s truck hasn’t left the farm in four days is well-noted under the watchful eyes of Marge (Mary Callanan), Francesca’s true friend, and Marge’s husband Charlie (David Hess), family friends who live within binocular range.  Callanan is wondrously comic as the neighbor who revels in Francesca’s forbidden tryst, while trying to get a rise out of her spouse in a what-would-he-do-if-it-was-her scenario.

Andrew Samonsky (Robert) and Elizabeth Stanley (Francesca) in the national tour of THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY. (Photo by Matthew Murphy)

Andrew Samonsky (Robert) and Elizabeth Stanley (Francesca) in the national tour of THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY. (Photo by Matthew Murphy)

Bartlett Sher’s tight direction and Donald Holder’s superb lighting are crucial to the effect as many of the scenes play out on alternate sides of the stage sequentially as steamy love scenes unfold around a kitchen table or a large wrought iron bed.  Michael Yeargan’s pastorally-evocative sets animate the rural setting.

Through it all we root for the lovers to hightail it arm-in-arm into the gathering twilight in this fairy-tale fantasy.  We can dream.  Can’t we?

Highly recommended for its sensuality, brilliant singing and indelible score.

Through July 17th at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St., NW, Washington, DC.  For tickets and information call 202 467-4600 or visit www.Kennedy-Center.org.

Kurios – Cabinet of Curiosities ~ Cirque du Soleil

Jordan Wright
July 1, 2016
Special to The Alexandria Times

Photo: Martin Girard / shootstudio.ca Costumes: Philippe Guillotel  © 2014 Cirque du Soleil

Photo: Martin Girard / shootstudio.ca Costumes: Philippe Guillotel © 2014 Cirque du Soleil

Steam Punk – as in Victoriana science fiction meets techno wizardry – is the quirky new style of Cirque de Soleil’s show, Kurios – Cabinet of Curiosities arriving in Tysons Corner on July 21th.   The story, set in an alternate yet familiar past, features a voyage Jules Verne would have envied.  Think leather goggles, steam train gadgets and a spectacular array of tricked out props.

Photo: Martin Girard / shootstudio.ca Costumes: Philippe Guillotel  © 2014 Cirque du Soleil

Photo: Martin Girard / shootstudio.ca Costumes: Philippe Guillotel © 2014 Cirque du Soleil

The tale of Kurios takes us on a journey into a deeper realm neatly hidden inside the larger-than-life curio cabinet of the “Seeker”.  Within this Dr. Caligari-like cabinet he finds a hidden, invisible world where he encounters bizarre curiosities that begin to animate.

Photo: Martin Girard / shootstudio.ca Costumes: Philippe Guillotel  © 2014 Cirque du Soleil

Photo: Martin Girard / shootstudio.ca Costumes: Philippe Guillotel © 2014 Cirque du Soleil

Unlocking this Pandora’s box unleashes a collection of otherworldly characters who step into his makeshift mechanical world.  The outlandish, yet quite benevolent, creatures turn his world upside down with a touch of poetry and and a ton of humor in an attempt to ignite the Seeker’s imagination and discover a parallel universe.  Heart-stopping and brilliantly imagined, it’s a magical journey worth taking.

Photo: Martin Girard / shootstudio.ca Costumes: Philippe Guillotel  © 2014 Cirque du Soleil

Photo: Martin Girard / shootstudio.ca Costumes: Philippe Guillotel © 2014 Cirque du Soleil

Written and directed by Michel Laprise, Kurios leads us into the birth of technology during the late 19th century and on a journey into the fantastical minds of the inventors of the great Industrial Age.  Laprise, a former actor, director and artistic director, who started his own theatre company in Montreal and trained at the National Theatre School of Canada, has been with Cirque for the past 16 years.  He also worked with Madonna on her Super Bowl XLVI halftime appearance and later directed her MDNA tour.  He recently sat down with this writer for a brief interview.

You were a Special Events Designer on Cirque’s specialty shows.  How did you transition into becoming a director of a large scale production?

I had ten years of theatre myself and pitching to raise money.  The department grew and they offered me the job.

How would you describe the story of Kurios?

It’s about a scientist, The Seeker, who looks through the portal at a time when electricity was bringing the world together.

There are 46 artists in Kurios.  How are the artists chosen?

In the beginning they were pre-selected through 3-minute demos, and later improvisation auditions.  Later I discovered that by directing them, the artists performed better, allowing us to really see their skills.  It became a workshop where I honed my director’s abilities.

How long does it take to put together these complex productions?

It took two years of choreography and theatricality and being in the training studio each day to get ready for Kurios.  In addition, on site we have a director, two coaches and a captain who continue training the artists every afternoon.

What’s different about this show?

When we started to create it we had heard from our audiences that we were becoming predictable.  So I eliminated everything that was habit and predictable.  We took out traps and turntables, and the artists are now closer to the stage and the audience can connect to the characters.  We also do a tribute to Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein.  It all came out of an 80-page scenario.

Talk about the cool steampunk props?

The props speak to the art of recycling.  I wanted it to look low-tech to make it very genuine.  This show uses 426 props – the most props of any Cirque show ever.

What’s new about the music?

We have the A Team!  The composer, Raphael Beau, comes from Paris and every note is a vulnerability.

What are you working on now?

Last October I started working on my next show for Cirque in Buenos Aires where I spent three months putting together Soda Stereo.  It’s based on the legendary Latin rock band and debuts in 2017.

Through For tickets and information to Kurios visit www.CirqueduSoleil.com