The King and I – A Royal Hit ~ The Kennedy Center

Jordan Wright
July 22, 2017 

The Cast of Rodgers & Hammerstein's The King and I. Photo credit Matthew Murphy

The Cast of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s The King and I. Photo credit Matthew Murphy

Under the expert direction of Barlett Sher we allow ourselves to be transported to the magic and majesty of the Kingdom of Siam.  It’s 1862 and the King (as played by Jose Llana) is fearful of France taking over his kingdom as learns they have done in Cambodia.  To prove his British-ruled country is worldly wise, he employs Anna Leonowens (Laura Michelle Kelly) a charming British schoolteacher to educate his extended family.  Recently widowed and accompanied by her young son, Louis (Graham Montgomery), the story begins with Anna and Louis arriving into Bangkok harbor.  It’s a breathtaking opening scene featuring an enormous wooden ship against the background of a fiery sunset and a scene of Siamese villagers going about their daily tasks in silhouette – figures toting baskets hung on poles and sporting coolie hats.  The menacing King’s guards arrive to terrify the locals into submission.  Cue the kowtowing – an issue we will see addressed by Anna and Prince Chulalonghorn (Kavin Panmeechao) later in the story.

Laura Michelle Kelly as Anna and the Royal Children. Photo credit Matthew Murphy

Laura Michelle Kelly as Anna and the Royal Children. Photo credit Matthew Murphy

Anna is soon greeted by Kralahome (Brian Rivera) the king’s aide, an intimidating figure who tells her the King’s instructions demand they live in the palace rather than a separate house.  “The King doesn’t always remember what he promises,” the King smugly pronounces upon their meeting.  This is the plot device that sets Anna and the King at sixes and nines as Anna strives to get her footing in a household filled with the King’s many children and favorite wives, most especially Lady Thiang (Joan Almedilla) and the beautiful, star-crossed Tuptim (Manna Nichols).  But it’s Anna’s sense of propriety, anti-slavery stance and insistence on female equality that especially trips her up with the King.  “I believe women are just as important as men,” she asserts.  The most hilarious moments derive from their contretemps.

Meanwhile the King in his “puzzlement”, as he refers to his indecision, compares his predicaments with that of Western world leaders.  “What would Lincoln do? What would Queen Victoria do?” he asks Anna whose advice he begrudgingly seeks as their love for each other grows deeper.

Manna Nichols and Kavin Parmeechao. Photo credit Matthew Murphy

Manna Nichols and Kavin Parmeechao. Photo credit Matthew Murphy

This outstanding musical provides a rich tapestry of emotional connection and unrequited love framed by sumptuous costumes ranging from Anna’s Victorian hoop-skirted silk dresses to lavishly encrusted golden chada hats and jewel-toned silks by designer Catherine Zuber.  Choreography that includes Thai dancing and intricate ballet, as well as Anna and the King’s waltz is by Christopher Gatelli and Greg Zane and faithfully based on Jerome Robbins’ original dance sequences.  The sets by Michael Yeargan, plus a mega-sized golden Buddha, are designed to blow your socks off.  And they do.  One of the most spectacular scenes is Tuptim’s play set to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s historic story “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, here called “The Small House of Uncle Thomas”.  It is a rich tale performed in traditional Thai ballet and elaborate costume and written by the lovelorn maiden to bring awareness to the country’s treatment of women as slaves.

Laura Michelle Kelly and Jose Llana. Photo credit Matthew Murphy

Laura Michelle Kelly and Jose Llana. Photo credit Matthew Murphy

There are so many powerful voices and goose-bump solos it’s hard to know who to single out.  Naturally Kelly as Anna, Almedilla as Lady Thiang, Nichols as Tuptim, and Llana as the King of Siam, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera as the King is fond of saying.  Of course, you’ll revel in the sweeping score with classic songs like “I Whistle a Happy Tune”, “Hello Young Lovers”, “Getting to Know You”, “Something Wonderful” and “Shall We Dance” as the most memorable.  And the royal children are so endearing, we awaited their entrances at every turn.

Brought here by the wildly successful national touring company, Ambassador Theatre Group, this production is top drawer.  My plus one and I reveled in memories of the first Rodgers and Hammerstein Broadway blockbuster starring Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr and weren’t disappointed by this faithful reprise for a New York minute.

Highly recommended for the whole family.

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

Cabaret ~ Kennedy Center

Jordan Wright
July 17, 2017

Jon Peterson as the Emcee and the 2017 National Touring cast of Roundabout Theatre Company’s CABARET. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Jon Peterson as the Emcee. Photo by Joan Marcus.

New York’s Roundabout Theatre Company, now celebrating its fiftieth year, has brought a sensational version of Cabaret to Kennedy Center in a production that gives Kander and Ebb’s original Broadway show a run for its money.  In this eye-popping staging, directed by award-winning Director BT McNicholl, a chorus line of dancers that double as musicians give us legs, legs, legs thanks to the top-notch choreography based on the original by Rob Marshall and recreated by Cynthia Onrubia.  High kicks, undulating spines, towering lifts and pseudo copulations performed by bare-chested men and ladies in lingerie is the order of the day.  How we love slumming it at the Kit Kat Club.  Beats the news from Capitol Hill.

(l-r) Joey Khoury as Bobby, Jon Peterson as the Emcee and Chelsey Clark as Lulu. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Co-directed by Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall, Jon Peterson, of Broadway Cabaret fame, reprises the role of Emcee.  As the enigmatic, gender-bending character, Peterson pulls it off with aplomb and a black leather trench coat, managing to affect a character of sadistic amorality and razor-sharp charm in an atmosphere so sexually charged a single match could set the whole theatre ablaze.  He even pulls a few audience members onstage.  Dancing with a male audience member, he tells him he looks a little Spanish.  When the man balks, he asks him, “How would you like a little German in you?”  Bada-boom!

Leigh Ann Larkin as Sally Bowles. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Leigh Ann Larkin as Sally Bowles. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Sally Bowles is played by Leigh Ann Larkin, a mere slip of a girl, blonde (wasn’t expecting that), blue-eyed and as bubbly as a bottle of French champagne.  Her Sally is frothier, all pink and feathered, than others we’ve seen in the role.  She definitely has her own interpretation of the hard-on-her-luck dancer.  And she’s feistier, more independent.  Madly in love with Cliff Bradshaw, a Midwestern English teacher who has chosen a rather inopportune place and time, during the rise of the Nazi regime, to write a novel.  Benjamin Eakeley, who reprises his role from the Studio 54 revival of Cabaret when he played opposite Michelle Williams, is masterful (and swoon-worthy) as Cliff – – managing to be both subtle and forceful in his interpretation of the lovesick innocent abroad.

Scott Robertson as Herr Schultz and Mary Gordon Murray as Fraulein Schneider. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Scott Robertson as Herr Schultz and Mary Gordon Murray as Fraulein Schneider. Photo by Joan Marcus.

But it’s grim times for the couple and their friends, landlady Fraulein Schneider (the fabulous Mary Gordon Murray), Ernst the smuggler and Nazi sympathizer (Patrick Vaill), Fraulein Kost (Alison Ewing) and Herr Schultz (Scott Robertson) the fruit seller and gentleman who seeks the affections of Fraulein Schneider.  Much to their dismay jackboots and turncoats keep encroaching on their merry life.  For Sally, it’s her last chance for a world outside the cruel reality of a seedy nightclub in a rapidly changing political climate.  “One must keep mobile,” she gaily tells Cliff before launching into a goosebump-worthy version of the ballad “Maybe This Time”.

Sarah Bishop as Helga, Leigh Ann Larkin as Sally Bowles and Alison Ewing as Fritzie. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Sarah Bishop as Helga, Leigh Ann Larkin as Sally Bowles and Alison Ewing as Fritzie. Photo by Joan Marcus.

So impressive is the lighting design by Peggy Eisenhauer and Mike Baldassari, you’ll think you’re in Vegas, if Vegas were transported to Germany in the 30’s.  Cue the descending pineapple lights for the duet “It Couldn’t Please Me More”.

Look for all your favorite numbers – “The Money Song”, “Perfectly Marvelous”, “Cabaret” and “Willkommen” to thrill as expected, with orchestrations by Michael Gibson.  Costumes by six-time Tony Award award-winning designer, William Ivey Long run the gamut from sexy lingerie, beaded flapper dresses and 1930’s hausfrau frocks, to the sinister red armbands of the Third Reich.

Fierce, fabulous and highly recommended.  This is the gold standard for Cabaret!

Through August 6th at The Kennedy Center, 2700 F St., NW, Washington, DC.  For tickets and information call 202 467-4600 or visit www.Kennedy-Center.org.

Ed Gero Returns in His Triumphant Role in The Originalist ~ Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
July 13, 2017 

Edward Gero as Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia in The Originalist, which runs July 7-July 30, 2017 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Edward Gero as Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Welcome back Supreme Court Justice Antonin “Nino” Scalia!  A lot has happened since Ed Gero inhabited your body.  Donald Trump became our president (I think you would have been delighted) and the whole Roe v. Wade thing continues to be a hot button issue which might tickle you as a strict constitutionalist.

As you may recall Gero brilliantly portrayed you in a tour de force performance in The Originalist in 2015 shortly before you left this earth in 2016.  Was that the nail in the coffin?  On a lighter note you’ll be pleased to know your legacy has carried on much as you had hoped, with your alma mater Harvard University establishing a professorship in your name.  Unfortunately, George Mason University, who got a cool $30 million to rename its law school after you, chose the initialization ASSol for Antonin Scalia School of Law, which became the “butt” of many jokes.  As of this writing your place in history is secure, and you can stop spinning in your grave in that it has been more appealingly amended to read ASLS.  –  – Yours truly, J. Wright

Having reviewed Arena’s initial production in the Spring of 2015, I can say that this one is snappier, more irreverent, if that’s possible, and just as timely as my first viewing when Playwright John Strand was Arena’s Resident Playwright.  Its unprecedented success inspired Director Molly Smith’s “Power Plays” initiative in which the theatre commissions 25 new plays or musicals focusing on American political history.  These will reflect Presidential Voices, Women’s Voices, African-American Voices, Musical Theatre Voices and Insider Voices.

 (L to R) Edward Gero as Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and Jade Wheeler as Cat in The Originalist, which runs July 7-July 30, 2017 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Photo by Gary W. Sweetman, Asolo Repertory Theatre.

(L to R) Edward Gero as Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and Jade Wheeler as Cat. Photo by Gary W. Sweetman, Asolo Repertory Theatre.

In this refresh the role of Cat (Jade Wheeler), Scalia’s liberal law clerk intern, has been purposely expanded.  She is given a lot more lines – and latitude.  And Wheeler takes it on with brio, charm, feistiness and terrific comic timing.  The broadening of her role goes towards leveling the playing field between Cat the progressive liberal vs. Scalia the combative, law-and-order conservative and adds measurably to the sharp-as-knives verbal sparring.  “Law is carved in stone,” and “Emotion is whatever you had for breakfast,” warns Scalia.  References to Facebook, Politico and recent past Presidents keep it updated.

Accompanied by interstices of grandiose operatic arias (the Sicilian-born Scalia was a known opera buff as well as gun rights advocate), he delivers arguments and pronouncements like bullets on a battlefield, but so does, Cat, an equally cerebral Harvard Law grad determined to change his mind.   “I dissent!” is his most oft repeated line from the man who once had acting aspirations.  He later confesses, “The court is my theatre.  I am not an ideologue.  I am an originalist!”

(L to R) Jade Wheeler as Cat and Brett Mack as Brad in The Originalist, which runs July 7-July 30, 2017 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Photo by Gary W. Sweetman, Asolo Repertory Theatre.

(L to R) Jade Wheeler as Cat and Brett Mack as Brad. Photo by Gary W. Sweetman, Asolo Repertory Theatre.

In explaining his reason for hiring her he reveals, “Every now and then I like to have a liberal around.  It reminds of how right I am.”  Cat, who views the court as a “fantasy palace”, is determined to upend his intransigence.  She seeks his heart, while he wants her soul.  “You’re stuck alone in your bunker.  Your constitution is just a shield you hide behind,” she mocks, defining his brand of government a “monsterocracy”.

Strand uses the Supreme Court’s decision on the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) as the centerpiece for the characters’ arguments pitting Scalia’s strict interpretation of the law as it was written centuries ago against Cat’s humanistic philosophy.  Yet notwithstanding their legal and psychological parrying, there develops a firm respect, moreover an admiration, for one another’s unflinching will and unwavering opinions.  It’s irresistible to anyone interested in the workings of the law, SCOTUS or the evolution of the Court’s decisions.

Setting the tone and highlighting the majesty and gravity of the Court and its private chambers, Lighting Designer Colin K. Bills gives us two massive crystal chandeliers in order to appropriately frame the pronouncements from Scalia’s Kingly Court of Conservatism.  Set Designer Mischa Kachman adds floor-to-ceiling red velvet drapes trimmed with golden tassels: lest you forget the import of where you are.

Highly recommended.

Through August 6th at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information call 202 488-3300 or visit www.ArenaStage.org.

 

 

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.

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.

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.

Melody Betts as 'The Mother Abbess' and Charlotte Maltby as 'Maria Rainer' - Photo: Matthew Murphy

Melody Betts as ‘The Mother Abbess’ and Charlotte Maltby as ‘Maria Rainer’ – Photo: Matthew Murphy

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.

Paige Silvester as 'Lies!' and Austin Colby as 'Rolf Gruber' - Photo: Matthew Murphy

Paige Silvester as ‘Lies!’ and Austin Colby as ‘Rolf Gruber’ – Photo: Matthew Murphy

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.