Anything Goes ~ The Little Theatre of Alexandria

Jordan Wright
January 17, 2017
Special to The Alexandria Times

Marshall Cesena (Billy Crocker) and Mara Stewart (Reno Sweeney) = Photos by Keith Waters for Kx Photography

Marshall Cesena (Billy Crocker) and Mara Stewart (Reno Sweeney) = Photos by Keith Waters for Kx Photography

Director Stefan Sittig is no stranger to big song-and-dance productions, and awards committees are no strangers to his considerable talent.  He’s directed and/or choreographed all the major blockbusters from Chicago to Evita, Showboat to Jesus Christ Superstar, A Chorus Line to West Side Story, and many more of our favorite Broadway shows, winning countless awards for his efforts.  But a show is only as good as its performers and thrillingly LTA’s Anything Goes has got a super cast of singers and hoofers – the most indelible being Mara Stewart as Reno Sweeney.  The young Stewart, a recent arrival to our area from Chicago’s stages, is a spectacular singer (think Liza Minelli, Ethel Merman and Barbra Streisand rolled into one) and comedian (conjure up Lucille Ball’s antics, and delving into the archives of vaudeville, Fanny Brice).  She is utterly captivating and surely destined for a stellar career.  Catch her here and you can say, I knew her when.

Marshall Cesena (Billy Crocker) and Tori Garcia (Hope Harcourt) - Photos by Keith Waters for Kx Photography

Marshall Cesena (Billy Crocker) and Tori Garcia (Hope Harcourt) – Photos by Keith Waters for Kx Photography

Set in 1934, a disparate bunch of passengers and gangsters is sailing aboard a luxury liner to England.  Wall Street nabob Elisha J. Whitney (played deliciously by Dick Reed) is just one of the dupes being conned by Moonface Martin (Ken Kemp, a wickedly funny scene stealer) and his cohort, Bonnie (Jaqueline Salvador).  Billy Crocker (Marshall Cesena) is Whitney’s assistant, a starry-eyed boy wonder hopelessly in love with Hope Harcourt (the beautifully voiced Tori Garcia), a girl about to give her hand in marriage to the witless British lord, Sir Evelyn Oakleigh (James Maxted).  If that doesn’t keep it lively enough, there’s the splashy celebrity diva and former evangelist, Reno Sweeney (the aforementioned Mara Stewart) and her four “Angels” – Chastity (Ashley Kaplan), Purity (Katie Mallory), Virtue (Elizabeth Spilsbury) and Charity (Caitlyn Goerner) her backup chorines.

Elizabeth Spilsbury (Virtue), Jon Simmons (Sailor), Ashley Kaplan (Chastity), Kurtis Carter (Sailor), Marshall Cesena (Billy Crocker), Tori Garcia (Hope Harcourt), Katie Mallory (Purity), Drew Sese (Sailor), Michael Gale (Sailor) - Photos by Keith Waters for Kx Photography

Elizabeth Spilsbury (Virtue), Jon Simmons (Sailor), Ashley Kaplan (Chastity), Kurtis Carter (Sailor), Marshall Cesena (Billy Crocker), Tori Garcia (Hope Harcourt), Katie Mallory (Purity), Drew Sese (Sailor), Michael Gale (Sailor) – Photos by Keith Waters for Kx Photography

Coward drew inspiration from the rarefied circles he traveled in, peppering his tales with the gangsters and crooks who plied their cons on the fringes of high society.  With his incomparable talent for witty repartee, Anything Goes is filled with bon mots and zingers on the SS American, where crooks are hapless and gold diggers are adorable.

Caitlyn Goerner (Charity), Katie Mallory (Purity), Jackie Salvador (Bonnie), Elizabeth Spilsbury (Virtue), Ashley Kaplan (Chastity) - Photos by Keith Waters for Kx Photography

Caitlyn Goerner (Charity), Katie Mallory (Purity), Jackie Salvador (Bonnie), Elizabeth Spilsbury (Virtue), Ashley Kaplan (Chastity) – Photos by Keith Waters for Kx Photography

In typical Coward fashion, there’s mistaken identity and hilarious disguises, especially when Billy, in hot pursuit of Hope and against her mother’s wishes, becomes a chef, then a sailor and ultimately a nobleman, “Are you French or Spanish?”, Hope’s mother (Allie Cesena) wonders after he changes into a count with a phony beard cut from a swatch of her fur jacket.  “Neither,” he quips.  “I’m Chinchillian!”.

The best of British humorists, P. G. Wodehouse and Guy Bolton wrote the book and it’s popping with Brit wit.  Kit Sibley and Jean Schlichting bring massive glamour to the costumes – from spangles, sequins and feather boas to sassy chorus girl sailor suits and gowns slit up to there with plenty of leg.  Sibley also does double duty on the terrific period hair and wigs.

Conductor and keyboardist Francine Krasowska leads a nine-piece, onstage orchestra who play a total of fourteen instruments in a glorious bonanza of 17 of Porter’s greatest hits – among them some of his most memorable – “You’re the Top”, “Let’s Misbehave”, “It’s De-Lovely” and “I Get a Kick Out of You”.

Highly recommended.

Through February 4th 2017 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

The Cast of "Anything Goes" performing "Anything Goes - Photos by Keith Waters for Kx Photography

The Cast of “Anything Goes” performing “Anything Goes – Photos by Keith Waters for Kx Photography

Titanic ~ Signature Theatre

Jordan Wright
December 22, 2016
Special to The Alexandria Times

Florence Lacey (Ida Straus) and John Leslie Wolfe (Isidor Straus) in Titanic at Signature Theatre through January 29. Photo by Christopher Mueller

Florence Lacey (Ida Straus) and John Leslie Wolfe (Isidor Straus) in Titanic at Signature Theatre through January 29. Photo by Christopher Mueller

Titanic is a story of man’s inability to predict the ramifications, and limitations, of state-of-the-art technology.  It is a tale of an ocean liner made of 46,000 tons of steel, measuring eleven stories high and one thousand feet long, that went down in the North Atlantic Ocean in 1912 carrying some of the wealthiest families in America who were aboard her maiden voyage.  That there were young men and women of Irish and English descent seeking their fortunes in the New World, and others who believed they and the ship were invincible, is an equal part of this historic maritime tragedy.

Referred to as “a ship of dreams” and a “human metropolis” the Titanic is nowhere to be seen in Director Eric Shaeffer’s version of the musical by Writer Peter Stone and Composer/Lyricist Maury Yeston.  But that doesn’t keep us from sensing its vast power and scale and immersing ourselves in the drama that played out on the high seas.

Christopher Bloch (Captain E.J. Smith), Nick Lehan (Harold Bride), Lawrence Redmond (J. Bruce Ismay), and Bobby Smith (Thomas Andrews) in Titanic at Signature Theatre through January 29. Photo by Christopher Mueller

Christopher Bloch (Captain E.J. Smith), Nick Lehan (Harold Bride), Lawrence Redmond (J. Bruce Ismay), and Bobby Smith (Thomas Andrews) in Titanic at Signature Theatre through January 29. Photo by Christopher Mueller

Re-imagining the Tony Award-winning musical, Schaeffer and Set Designer, Paul Tate dePoo III, give us a theatre-in-the-round that utilizes five steel gangways that reflect the massive scale of the multi-level luxury liner.  This creates a more intimate experience for the audience.  It also allows many of the 38 performers to remain in clear sight and in equal hearing range producing a magnificent harmonic convergence of vocal heft.  We have Choreographer Matthew Gardiner to thank for that too, as the players climb the ramps and position themselves at different heights to sing their numbers.  It is the most effective use of a theatre-in-the-round stage I’ve ever seen.

Particularly haunting is the 17-piece band perched on a separate elevated catwalk in full view of the audience.  Led brilliantly by Conductor James Moore, their constant presence is reminiscent of how they sacrificed their lives to play for the remaining passengers as the behemoth was devoured by the sea.

Sam Ludwig (Frederick Barrett) and Stephen Gregory Smith (Stoker) in Titanic at Signature Theatre through January 29. Photo by Christopher Mueller.

Sam Ludwig (Frederick Barrett) and Stephen Gregory Smith (Stoker) in Titanic at Signature Theatre through January 29. Photo by Christopher Mueller.

The story delves into not just one love story but many – the John Jacob Astors played by Matt Connor and Jamie Eaker and a touching story of romance below decks played by the exceptional Katie McManus (as Kate McGowan) and Hassani Allen (as Jim Farrell).  Other couples are revealed to have secrets – Lady Caroline Neville’s (Iyona Blake) illicit love affair with Charles Clarke (Chris Sizemore) and Alice Beane’s (Tracy Lynn Olivera) disappointment in her husband’s inferior social standing.

Ryan Hickey’s sound design keeps us in mind of traveling on a ship through the atmospheric use of fog horns, bells, and the slamming of the coal stokers’ fiery oven doors.  Another effective touch is Frank Labowitz’s turn of the century navy blue gowns, feathered picture hats and simple frocks, and Amanda Zieve’s suspended Edison lightbulbs and understage blue lights, keeping us in mind of a ship sailing over the sea.

Stephen Gregory Smith, Katie McManus and the cast in Titanic at Signature Theatre through January 29. Photo by Colin Hovde

Stephen Gregory Smith, Katie McManus and the cast in Titanic at Signature Theatre through January 29. Photo by Colin Hovde

But what keeps us in a state of high anxiety is the blame game and what-ifs between the Captain (Christopher Bloch), the ship’s owner J. Bruce Ismay (Lawrence Redmond), the ship’s master William Murdoch (Kevin McAllister) and the ship’s architect Thomas Andrews played spectacularly by Bobby Smith, as they wonder what they could have done differently and who’s at fault.

Ultimately as the ship goes down, and we knew it would, the drama is no less palpable, and we are drawn hook, line and sinker into the tragedy of despair and dashed dreams of the hundreds of lives lost.  It’s a visceral experience and Yeston’s heart-stopping score rises up to meet it. 

Highly recommended.  A triumph!

Through January 29th at Signature Theatre (Shirlington Village), 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, VA 22206.  For tickets and information call 703 820-9771 or visit www.signature-theatre.org.

The cast of Titanic at Signature Theatre through January 29. Photo by Paul Tate DePoo III

The cast of Titanic at Signature Theatre through January 29. Photo by Paul Tate DePoo III

Wicked ~ The Untold Story of the Witches of Oz ~ Kennedy Center

Jordan Wright
December 19, 2016
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

Amanda Jane Cooper as Glinda - photo by Joan Marcus

Amanda Jane Cooper as Glinda – photo by Joan Marcus

The Stephen Schwartz (Composer)/Winnie Holzman (Book) collaboration on Wicked presents us with a fresh interpretation of the classic L. Frank Baum book “The Wizard of Oz”.  In this version Glinda the Good Witch is arch-frenemies with Elphaba the wicked witch.

We learn how they met as young girls at sorcerer’s school and how Elphaba became a vengeful witch.  “Are people born wicked?  Or do they just have it thrust on them?”  Simply stated, it delves into life lessons that the book never addressed.

I saw this production several years ago at Kennedy Center and it left me flat – so I was less than enthusiastic about a return viewing.  Thankfully, my fears were unfounded.  That afternoon I became as rabid a fan as many in the audience who have reveled in its music and redemptive story line many times over.  Straight up, this is a fantastic production of Wicked.  What’s different? Let’s check those boxes, shall we?

Amanda Jane Cooper as Glinda – A cross between Reese Witherspoon (think Elle in “Legally Blonde”) and Kristin Chenoweth who originated the role on Broadway.  Bubbly appeal and killer comedic talent matched only by her soaring soprano voice.  A smashingly good witch with excellent sorcery credentials.

Jessica Vosk as Elphaba – A fearless, verdigris witch-with-a-heart who manages to make sisterhood with your fiercest enemy look appealing.  Her powerful, spot on vocal range will give you goose bumps.  After all, she’s reprising Idina Menzel’s role in the original.  She has to be THAT GOOD!

Isabel Keating as Madame Morrible – There’s nothing horrible about Madame Morrible, except her ability to cower children and perhaps her skill at malaprops.  Keating brings posh poise to the role of headmistress and sorcery cohort of the Wizard.

Jeremy Woodard as Fiyero & Jessica Vosk as Elphaba. Photo by Joan Marcus

Jeremy Woodard as Fiyero & Jessica Vosk as Elphaba. Photo by Joan Marcus

Jeremy Woodard as Fiyero (the Prince) – For his good looks, swagger and savoir faire.  Another killer voice that brings it home in spades.

Fred Applegate as The Wonderful Wizard of Oz – A spit-and-polish old school wizard whose endearing charm balances out all the evil he conjures up.  “I told them the lies they wanted to hear.”  Sound familiar?

Kristen Martin as Nessarose – For her ability to transition seamlessly from loving sister to vindictive enemy.

Chad Jennings as Doctor Dillamond - photo by Joan Marcus

Chad Jennings as Doctor Dillamond – photo by Joan Marcus

Chad Jennings as Doctor Dillamond – The caprine professor with empathy.  He’ll pave a path into your heart while teaching about the dangers of discrimination.

Since this is such a huge production with so many atmospheric elements – flying monkeys, inclement weather (cyclone and thunder!), giant pendulums, and silver dragons with glowing eyes notwithstanding – it’s crucial the gears mesh seamlessly.  And they do.

Kenneth Posner on Lighting – Gives us hairy and scary in equal doses.

Susan Hilferty on Costumes – The best and most sparkly ever.

Tom Watson on Wigs – For towering pompadours and saucy curls.

Eugene Lee on Sets – Brighter, greener, more technically sophisticated and lavish than ever.

Highly recommended.

Through January 8th at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St., NW, Washington, DC.  For tickets and information call 202 467-4600 or visit www.Kennedy-Center.org.

Sleeping Beauty ~ Synetic Theater

Jordan Wright
December 15, 2016
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

Irina Tsikurishvili, the Witch - Photo Credit: Johnny Shryock

Irina Tsikurishvili, the Witch – Photo Credit: Johnny Shryock

A rather streamlined presentation of what we’ve come to expect from Synetic Theater’s no-dialogue series, is Sleeping Beauty.  We half-mad aficionados of this famed Georgian troupe have been spoiled by a cast of thousands (well at least more than the ten cast members we have here), extraordinary water features, terrifying physical battles and surprisingly innovative visuals.  But for this incarnation of the classic fairy tale written by Charles Perrault, later reinterpreted by the Brothers Grimm, we will have to be satisfied with a more balletic approach by a Prince played by veritable heartthrob and company member, Zana Gankhuyag, and his inamorata, Briar Rose, played by the delicate-as-a-feather Eliza Smith.  Notwithstanding our immodest expectations, there is a sort of magic in the simplicity of Director Paata Tsikurishvili’s version and its brand of story-driven fantasy.

Eliza Smith, Briar Rose (Sleeping Beauty) and Zana Gankhuyag, the Prince Photo Credit: Johnny Shryock

Eliza Smith, Briar Rose (Sleeping Beauty) and Zana Gankhuyag, the Prince Photo Credit: Johnny Shryock

Paata envisions the Witch, played wonderfully by real-life wife, Irina Tsikurishvili, as a sympathetic creature haunted by the destruction of the forest and its animal denizens by the king’s huntsmen.  Leaning heavily on moral relativism to re-interpret her motives, Paata views her as a fierce protector of nature, a sort of anarchical environmentalist, if you will, who wreaks vengeful havoc on both the Prince (who in this version is the Witch’s son) and his intended, Briar Rose.  The fairies (Kathy Gordon, Francesca Blume, Emily Whitworth) are imagined as a trio of ditzy butterflies who hover over the Prince and Briar Rose as protectorates against his mother’s fury.

Eliza Smith, Briar Rose (Sleeping Beauty), Zana Gankhuyag, the Prince and Irina Tsikurishvili as the Witch - Photo Credit: Johnny Shryock

Eliza Smith, Briar Rose (Sleeping Beauty), Zana Gankhuyag, the Prince and Irina Tsikurishvili as the Witch – Photo Credit: Johnny Shryock

As usual in these wordless renditions, the most popular of which have been the much lauded series of wordless Shakespeare productions, we must exercise our imaginations around the basic story as we are enveloped and transported by the classical sounds of Tchaikovsky’s ballet mixed with Phillip Glass-inspired electronica, the original musical compositions of Konstantine Lortkipanidze and Thomas Sowers’ oftimes frighteningly real sound effects.

Francesca Blume, Kathy Gordon and Emily Whitworth as the Fairies with Eliza Smith as Briar Rose (Sleeping Beauty) Photo Credit: Johnny Shryock

Francesca Blume, Kathy Gordon and Emily Whitworth as the Fairies with Eliza Smith as Briar Rose (Sleeping Beauty) Photo Credit: Johnny Shryock

Dallas Tolentino, who also plays the King, designed the fight scenes to play up Gankhuyag’s strengths, which are indeed impressive.  Taking vicious battle blows from both his mother and demons with thorn-covered swords, he weightlessly tosses his lithe body in a gravity-defying series of leaps, tumbles and somersaults.  It is gorgeous to see.  Credit too, goes to Irina who, doubling as choreographer, has lent elements of charm to the reindeer that frolic in the wood.  Scenic designer, Phil Charlwood, informs the fast-moving action through the use of silken panels, creating separation, inclusion and high-flying dramatic elements.  Special multimedia effects by Riki Kim heighten the nefarious activities of the dark spirits who act as sentinels and familiars to the witch.

Though this isn’t my favorite Synetic production, I took a friend who had never witnessed the company’s highly imaginative work and she was gobsmacked.  I’d made a convert.  So perhaps, you’ll do the same.  Invite a friend.  Start small and build to a crescendo – that’s how it’s done in the theater.

Through January 8th at Synetic Theater, 1800 South Bell Street, Arlington in Crystal City.  For tickets and information call 1-866-811-4111 or visit www.synetictheater.org.

into the Woods ~ Kennedy Center

Jordan Wright
December 13, 2016
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

Laurie Veldheer as Cinderella and Bonne Kramer as Cinderella's Stepmother -Phone credit Joan Marcus

Laurie Veldheer as Cinderella and Bonne Kramer as Cinderella’s Stepmother -Phone credit Joan Marcus

Smack dab in the heart of the holiday season comes Into the Woods.  For fans of the legendary collaboration of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, this is sheer heaven.  This semi-autobiographical musical has brilliant lyrics, a stunning score and all around silliness wrapped up neatly in a big red bow.  It’s part farce and part tragedy – played to the hilt by a formidable cast.

Lesa Helmi Johanson as Little Red Ridinghood and Anthony Chatmon II as the Wolf - Photo credit Joan Marcus

Lesa Helmi Johanson as Little Red Ridinghood and Anthony Chatmon II as the Wolf – Photo credit Joan Marcus

This gift of classic fairy tales reimagined is brought to us by New York’s Fiasco Theater ensemble.  It’s a minimalist rustic version – like a tiny log cabin in the deep woods – and it’s a hoot.  Remember the Disney film version with Meryl Streep that came out a few years back?  Well, it’s nothing like that.  This feels more like Monty Python and his Flying Circus did a mash up of Jack in the Beanstalk, Cinderella, Little Red Ridinghood and Rapunzel.  Oh, and there’s a brief reference to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.  But unlike those zany knights, it has deeply intimate moments of love and loss – and of hope, sorrow and romance – as when one of the princes (Anthony Chatmon II) has a syvlan tryst with the baker’s wife and explains it away by asserting, “Foolishness can happen in the woods.”

There are heroes and villains and those we think are, but even they protest their typecasting.  Why? Because, “people make mistakes” and others are complicit in carrying them out.

As for keeping a light-hearted dynamic in the face of gloom and doom, a feather duster subs for the goose that laid the golden egg, the wolf is a mounted head, campy wicked stepsisters move around in an oxen’s yoke and an enchantress, the Witch, becomes a slinky, sexy glamour girl well after she makes demands on the Baker (Evan Harrington) and his barren wife (Eleasha Gamble).  In order to have a child, they must deliver to her Jack’s beloved milky white cow, Red Riding Hood’s blood red cape, Rapunzel’s yellow-as-corn hair and the golden slipper from Cinderella – quite the tall order.  You would think it couldn’t get any sillier until a dressmaker’s form is imagined as a tree.

Lisa Helmi Johanson as Rapunzei  and Venessa Reseland as The Witch - Photo credit Joan Marcus

Lisa Helmi Johanson as Rapunzei and Venessa Reseland as The Witch – Photo credit Joan Marcus

Vanessa Reseland’s marvelously haunting voice produces more goosebumps than the wolf on “No More” and “Last Midnight”.  And look for DC native, Eleasha Gamble, as the Baker’s Wife to steal your heart in “Moments in the Woods”.

Directors Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld keep the ten actors (who double and often triple their role responsibilities) on stage throughout, playing accompanying instruments when they’re not otherwise engaged in mayhem, which prevails most notably in Act Two.  Solo pianist, Evan Rees, on stage at an upright piano, jumps in as Milky White just as things get dicey.

Lighting Designer, Christopher Akerlind, gives us dramatic atmosphere – cue the thunder and lightning – while Derek McLane’s unusual backdrop of thick-spun, rafters-to-stage floor ropes, imagined as piano strings and framed by silvery silhouettes of pianos, reminds us that ultimately it’s all about the music.  And that’s why we pilgrimage to Sondheim – no matter where, no matter when.

Through January 8th 2017 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 Company in Into These Woods - Photo credit Joan Marcus

The Company in Into These Woods – Photo credit Joan Marcus