Spunk ~ Signature Theatre

Jordan Wright
May 14, 2019 

Zora Neale Hurston’s exuberant play-with-music, Spunk, takes us into the African-American experience of America’s Deep South.  It’s like gaining admission to a private club, not just to witness, but to experience full-on a sense of place that no longer exists.  It doesn’t hinge on racism nor rely on oppression to tell its stories, though Hurston makes clear the characters have suffered from their legacy.  Three distinctly different tales provide a glimpse into the colorful characters that peppered the African American communities of the 1930’s and 40’s.  Part celebration and part revelation, part history and part Black culture, Spunk  is the spinning of tales that claim a deep appreciation of a particular time and place.

KenYatta Rogers (Folk Man 1) in Spunk at Signature Theatre. Photo by Christopher Mueller.

“Blues, grits, spit, spunk and pain” describe the colorful activities and lively characters who weave in and out of one another’s lives.  In Tale Number One: “Sweat”, there’s Delia, a washerwoman married to Sykes, a cruel drunkard whom she supports through “blood, sweat and tears” while he’s out messin’ with another woman.  You can almost feel the steamy Florida summer heat when Delia sings “Dirty Water” as she exacts her revenge.

Ines Nassara (Folk Woman) in Spunk at Signature Theatre. Photo by Christopher Mueller.

In Tale Number Two: “Story in Harlem Slang”, we find Slang Talk Man and his cronies, Jelly and Sweet Back – zoot-suited men, called “Harlem pimps” whose only thoughts were of money, the lack of it, the allure of it, and how to get the domestics who bring their paychecks home on a Friday night to give it to them.  Sweet Back, who’s always broke and “bug-a-booin’” while looking to score a fine lady, struts around in his finery with his pal, Jelly.  The two are like a couple of banty roosters sizing up the barnyard.

Tale Number Three: “The Gilded Six-Bits” is a love story and by then we’re ready for it.  Set in Chicago Missy May and Joe have their differences, but when a fast-talking grifter comes to town he turns Missy May’s head with the promise of riches, and the two lovers have to decide if they’ll stay together.  “If you burn me down, you won’t get nothin’ but a pile of ashes,” Missy May warns him.

Marty Austin Lamar (Folk Man 2) in Spunk at Signature Theatre. Photo by Christopher Mueller.

Hip expressions and street corner colloquialisms keep the humor moving at a rapid clip.  And between all the movin’ and groovin’, struttin’ and slipslidin’, there is music, wonderful bluesy music played by Guitar Man and sung by the players.  Written by Chic Street Man a musician and Psychology grad who runs his own youth center and scored the music to this Broadway sensation, it uses some classic tunes as well as stylistically apropos music to reflect the period.

Iyona Blake (Blues Speak Woman) in Spunk at Signature Theatre. Photo by Christopher Mueller.

In granting these characters ethnically correct vernacular, Hurston gifts them with the unique personalities she knew and cherished – though if any writer but an African-American writer had told these stories, they would be tarred and feathered and run out of town on a rail.  Hurston endured criticisms of these Black “caricatures”, even though she was steadfast in her belief that this time and place should not be forgotten.  In the end, she chronicled a period in American folklore that is both historic and universal.

Sweet as cane sugar, sassy and funny with a polished and perfect cast.

With Iyona Blake as Blues Speak Woman, Jonathan Mosley-Perry as Guitar Man, KenYatta Rogers as Folk Man One and Fight Choreographer, Marty Austin Lamar as Folk Man Two, Drew Drake as Folk Man Three, and Ines Nassara as Folk Woman – all playing multiple roles.

Adapted & Originally Directed by George C. Wolfe.  Current direction under Timothy Douglas with Musical Direction by Mark Meadows, Choreography by Dane Figueroa Edidi, Costume Design by Kendra Rae, Lighting Design by Sherrice Mojgani, Scenic Design by Luciana Stecconi, and Sound Design by Ryan Hickey.

Through June 23rd in the ARK 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.

Pride & Joy ~ The Marvin Gaye Musical ~ National Theatre

Jordan Wright
May 12, 2019 

Headed to Chicago after a quick ten-day run at the National Theatre, Pride & Joy ~ The Marvin Gaye Musical has captivated Washington audiences with the life and indelible music of DC-born songwriter, musician, and sweet soul singer, Marvin Gaye.  It was in Washington where Gaye played the Howard Theatre with Bo Diddley and began his singing career.

Pride & Joy. Image by The National Theatre.

As a multiple Grammy Award-winning R&B artist, Gaye together with producer Berry Gordy, created Motown’s legendary hitmaking studio of the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s.  Along the way he married and divorced Gordy’s sister Anna, and, towards the end of his career, became an outspoken musical visionary during the contentious political era of the Vietnam War when R&B music steered clear of politics.  constant singing partner in the early days.

In the same vein as The Jersey Boys, Beautiful – The Carol King Story, and the recent multiple Tony Award-nominated Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations (reviewed here in July 2018 when it previewed at the Kennedy Center).  Musically, it is fabulous, though the sound on the night I was there had serious mic feedback problems and in general was not the high-caliber sound engineering we know from the National Theatre.  I’m cutting it some slack in hopes it develops into a tighter, more cohesive musical that could very well see Broadway in its future.

Jarran Muse (and Chae Stephen) as Marvin Gaye – Photo courtesy of New Day Entertainment

Pride & Joy is a bio-musical filled with Gaye’s finest and most memorable hits accompanied by an 8-piece kick-ass band.  You could call it a full-blown concert with innovative,  continual choreography and snazzy, period-perfect costume changes for each new number.  The plot hangs together on the singer’s relationship with Anna and the Gordy family and Gaye’s religious redemption.  Some of Gaye’s most memorable hits were with Tammi Terrell, featured here as his muse and singing partner.  Her sudden death at 24 deeply affected Gaye and nearly ended his career.

Video projections depicting the period’s history both musically and politically depict riots and racism during the 60’s rise of the KKK.  These videos feature early moments in Gaye’s career including the undeniable influence of the TV show Soul Train along with Gaye’s early performances at the legendary Flame Show Bar in Detroit and New York’s Apollo Theater.

Flame Show Bar dancers. Photo courtesy of New Day Entertainment

The musical has all the elements necessary for a hit, including a strong cast, but it needs some serious cutting.  As of now, it is overly long, gets lost in too many side stories, and lingers needlessly on Gaye’s volatile relationship with Anna.  Currently, there are 34 scene changes with 29 massive musical numbers including “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”, “Heaven Must Have Sent You”, “Sexual Healing”, “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing”, the anti-war classic “What’s Going On”, “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”, and many, many, more mega-hits.  Other huge Motown stars Jackie Wilson, Smokey Robinson, Tammi Terrell, Teddy Pendergrass, and The Marvelettes are part of the story too.

DC audiences were thrilled to hear the old Gospel songs, “His Eyes Are on the Sparrow” and “Precious Lord”, which accompany the most painful tragedies in Gaye’s life.  Arms were raised in praise and my seatmate and I agreed that we could probably skip church that week since it we had just had one heckuva Sunday-go-to-meeting.

Recommended for its high-octane performances, off-the-chain vocals and eye-popping dance numbers.

Kourtney Lenton  as Tammi Terrell and Jarran Muse as Marvin Gaye. Photo credit courtesy of New Day Entertainment

Starring Jarran Muse and Chae Stephen as Marvin Gaye, Krystal Drake as Anna Gordy Gaye, Kourtney Lenton as Tammi Terrell plus a 24-person ensemble cast of dancers and singers.

On its way to the Chicago Theatre for seven performances only from June 19-23.  For information visit www.msg.com. For tickets visit www.ticketmaster.com or call 800 745-3000.

Tosca ~ Washington National Opera ~ The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

Jordan Wright
May 12, 2019 

The role of Tosca, known as “the infamous soprano killer” for its powerhouse arias, was duly tamed by Latonia Moore who made her spectacular Washington National Opera debut last Saturday.  Moore, who has played the title role of Aida at the Metropolitan Opera, the Royal Opera House in London and Buenos Aires’ Teatro Colón, as well as the title role in Madame Butterfly at the Metropolitan Opera, was in superb form and well-matched with tenor Robert Watson as Mario Cavaradossi.  Watson was also making his WNO debut, though he has already gained wide acclaim elsewhere for his leading roles in Tosca, Carmen, Rusalka, and Les Contes d’Hoffmann.

Riccardo Massi as Cavaradossi and Michael Hewitt as Angelotti (L) in WNO’s ‘Tosca.’ Photo by Scott Suchman

A bit of history about the opera sharpens our listening as we absorb the music, contextualize the story, and grok the composer and history behind the score.  Admittedly, my experience is gained not through decades of study as a musicologist, nor from hours of listening to operatic scores (although dutifully bolstered by a childhood spent at NYC’s Met), but by attending the pre-performance lectures provided to ticketholders by the Kennedy Center which I highly recommend.

In his day, Puccini was hugely popular, and, of all his operas, Tosca is the fifth most performed opera in the world, despite the sexual violence, suicide, murder and torture that color the lives of our hero and heroine.  (Not entirely different from our present TV crime dramas.)  Based on the history of Napoleon’s conquest and ultimate defeat in Rome in 1800, it is considered his most inventive score, and characterized as “cinematic music” for its sweeping structure and big numbers.

Keri Alkema as Tosca and Alan Held as Scarpia in WNO’s ‘Tosca.’ Photo by Scott Suchman.

Consumed by love and jealousy and manipulated by the sadistic machinations of the villainous Baron Scarpia (performed masterfully by baritone Alan Held), Floria Tosca is a deeply sympathetic character – one to whom Puccini afforded great compassion with her  octave-defying arias and heart-stopping duets.  Based on Victorien Sardou’s five-act play, “La Tosca”, it was first performed in Paris by the great Sarah Bernhardt in the title role.  It’s inescapable not to note that the star-crossed lovers are both artists – Mario, a painter, and Tosca, a famed singer.

The sets here are the original painted drops from the 1940’s and are provided by Seattle Opera.  They are breathtakingly beautiful and historically accurate as to the actual Roman locations.  Act One puts us in the Barberini chapel built between 1590 and 1650, while Act Two plays out in the Palazzo Farenese, currently the French Embassy in Rome.  Act Three is set in the Castel Sant’Angelo, the oldest of the three buildings, built in 139AD and where visions of St. Michael were reported.  Attention Tour Organizers: It would be fascinating to tour these Roman locales while listening to Puccini’s music on our smart phones.

Keri Alkema as Tosca and Alan Held as Scarpia in WNO’s ‘Tosca.’ Photo by Scott Suchman.

Highly recommended for its soaring score and five-star performances.

With Latonia Moore or Keri Alkema as Floria Tosca, Robert Watson or Ricardo Massi as Mario Cavaradossi, Michael Hewitt as Cesare Angelotti, Wei Wu as the Sacristan, David Cangelosi as Spoletta, Samson McCrary as Sciarrone, Holden Browne and/or Aidan Stanton-Brand as Shepherd Boy, and Samuel J. Weiser as Jailer.

With the Washington National Opera Orchestra exceptionally conducted by Speranza Scappucci with the WNO Chorus and the WNO Children’s Chorus.   

Directed by Ethan McSweeny with Costume Design by Lena Rivkina, and Lighting Design by Gary Marder.  In Italian with projected surtitles in English.

May 11th, 12th matinee, 14th, 17th, 19th matinee, 20th, 22nd, and 25th in the Opera House at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 2700 F St., NW, Washington, DC.  For tickets and information call 202 467-4600 or visit www.Kennedy-Center.org.

The Oresteia ~ Shakespeare Theatre Company

Jordan Wright
May 8, 2019 

It’s been many moons since I was immersed in Greek mythology and the travails of  Agamemnon and Clytemnestra who lived together in marital discord in what the prophetess Cassandra called, “the house of spite”.  The tragedy of their lives is a frightfully gruesome allegory from Aeschylus’s original trilogy written in 458 BCE.  It is the only surviving trilogy from ancient Greek theater.

Kelley Curran as Clytemnestra and Simone Warren as Iphigenia in The Oresteia by Scott Suchman.

Later tackled by Eugene O’Neill in Mourning Becomes Electra, the tragedy encompasses Agamemnon’s conquering of Troy, his marriage to Clytemnestra, and the destruction of his family – especially his daughter Electra and son Orestes.  If it had American ratings it would be TV-MA for Mature Audiences Only and V for Graphic Violence.  There are no sex scenes or romance, but there is enough violence to quench the horror-centric thirsts of filmmakers Brian de Palma or Quentin Tarantino.

Simone Warren as Iphigenia, Kelley Curran as Clytemnestra and Kelcey Watson as Agamemnon in The Oresteia by Scott Suchman.

Simone Warren as Iphigenia, Kelley Curran as Clytemnestra and Kelcey Watson as Agamemnon in The Oresteia by Scott Suchman. Photo credit The Oresteia Company

It’s right up Director Michael Kahn’s artistic alley and where he left us after his recent production of Richard III, which gave us a blood-soaked stage that had to be mopped up throughout the play after thirteen murders by Richard’s thugs.  If you had any doubt of his predilection for murderous plots rife with bloodlust, Kahn’s now given us The Oresteia as his swan song.  Yes, after 33 extraordinary years as Artistic Director of the Shakespeare Theatre Company, he is retiring.

Alvin Keith as Chorus, Franchelle Stewart Dorn as Chorus and Jonathan Louis Dent as Chorus in The Oresteia by Scott Suchman.

I’ll say straight off, that this one is not my cup of tea, though you’ll want to know if it’s well-acted with a creative set, evocative lighting and period-perfect costumes.  I’ll give it all that.  There is modern dialogue too, as with the feisty Clytemnestra who doesn’t believe in “mumbo-jumbo”, though that’s quickly disproved when she rails against the gods for their disfavor. “What god presided over such a situation,” she demands. Characters use grisly nightmares, imagined curses from the gods, and elusive spirits to explain both their wrath and subsequent retribution.

Kelley Curran as Clytemnestra in The Oresteia by Scott Suchman.

In any case, should you take this on, you will find Kelley Curran(Clytemnestra) sensational and Zoë Sophia Garcia(Cassandra) absolutely magnetic in her portrayal of the seer with the power of retribution.

Zoë Sophia Garcia as Cassandra in The Oresteia by Scott Suchman.

There is an important message here about how violence begets violence and we can reflect on the ways we’ve seen that play out around the world – the never-ending cycle of revenge, what is justice, what sort of punishment for acts of retribution, and how does a society that seeks fairness in all matters achieve democracy.  The Greek chorus raises all those issues, “Blood on blood.  Crime on crime,” they intone.  And, considering the lessons of the past, they come away with a peaceful solution.

Josiah Bania as Orestes in The Oresteia by Scott Suchman

Distinguished playwright Ellen McLaughlinhas condensed the three plays into one – a practical matter for single-night theatre-goers.  She imagines the Furies as Clytemnestra’s house servants who stand in watch debating the proper punishment for Orestes’s murder of his mother, who murdered their father, whose brother murdered and ate their daughter.  The eight-person ‘chorus’ of servants address the atrocities and resolve how to move forward.  In the abstract, it’s an interesting topic.  On stage it does not allow us that physical or psychological remove.

With Kelley Curran as Clytemnestra, Simone Warren as Iphigenia, Kelcey Watson as Agamemnon, Zoë Sophia Garcia as Cassandra, Rad Pereira as Electra, and Josiah Bania as Orestes.  Chorus – Corey Allen, Kati Brazda, Helen Carey, Jonathan Louis Dent, Franchelle Stewart Dorn, Alvin Keith, Patrena Murray, and Sophia Stiles.

The cast of The Oresteia by Scott Suchman.

Directed by Michael Kahn.  Scenic and Costume Designer Susan Hilferty, Sound Designer Cricket S. Myers, Composer Kamala Sankaram, Movement Director Jennifer Archibald.

Through June 2ndat the Sidney Harman Hall 610 F Street, NW, Washington, DC 20004.  For tickets and information call 202 547-1122 or visit www.ShakespeareTheatre.org.

Love’s Labor’s Lost ~ Folger Theatre

Jordan Wright
May 6, 2019 

The King of Navarre (Joshua David Robinson) has a word for the ladies of France (l to r: Yesenia Iglesias, Chani Wereley, Kelsey Rainwater). Photo by Brittany Diliberto

One of Shakespeare’s most delightful rom-coms has arrived with a fresh, new take thanks to Director Vivienne Benesch.  Set in the 1930’s with lots of modern-day dialogue, hilarious puns and wicked asides, and contemporary twists on the characters, this witty play provides plenty of laughs at the expense of egotistical, narcissistic lords who, obeying their King’s decree, forswear women, food and sleep in pursuit of higher learning.  Unfortunately for these knaves, their willpower is weak, and the ladies’ is strong.  “Young blood doth not obey an old decree,” sayeth Berowne.  It’s a sort of #MeToo for the Princess of France and her ladies-in-waiting as they lure the men, then conspire to trick them into making fools of themselves.

The King of Navarre (Joshua David Robinson, top) proclaims his court as a place of scholarly pursuit to his companions (Zachary Fine, Jack Schmitt, Matt Dallal). Photo by Brittany Diliberto

It would be just the ticket for coquettish larks, except that the women in this production can’t seem to carry it off.  I’ve never seen a cast so off-balance.  The male actors are brilliant, but the women are stilted and dull, and when they prank the men, it just seems like a gang of angry harpies, as opposed to a bit of a romp with a wink and a nod.  It’s almost as if they rehearsed in different theaters.  Perhaps it would have worked better had Shakespeare himself cast it, due to his predilection for all-male casts.

Zachary Fine as Berowne, Eric Hissom as Don Armado, Louis Butelli as Holofernes. Photo credit Brittany Diliberto

Zachary Fine as Berowne, one of the lords, is flat out, award-winning caliber, fantastic.  Totally engaging and utterly believable, he is riveting to watch in his hapless pursuit of forbidden love.  Eric Hissom as Don Armado gives us one crazy-ass Spaniard whose struggles to command the English language whilst mooning over unrequited love, will have you in stitches.  And, for added comic relief, Louis Butelli as Holofernes, the tweed-sporting pedantic who overemphasizes his diction, quite nearly steals the show, though he has some competition from Edmund Lewis as Costard, a tool belt-sporting slave who fumbles everything.

Jaquenetta (Tonya Beckman) and her admirer Costard (Edmund Lewis) in Love’s Labor’s Lost. Photo by Brittany Diliberto

There is a great deal of physical comedy for the men – in one scene they wrestle in pajamas, in another they visit the women disguised as dancing Cossacks – whereas the women just seem to stand around gossiping and griping in pretty clothes.  Not so for Susan Romeas Nathaniel whose comic flirtations with Holofernes afford us with some of the funniest, pinkies-out moments of the play.  Rome plays Nathaniel as a lady with lightning-quick aplomb.

Lee Savage’s set design is so fox clever, you have to wonder why it’s never been done before.  A reconstruction of the Folger’s own two-tiered Paster Reading Room, replete with green reading lamps, old books and stained glass window provide the perfect backdrop to the King’s demand for serious study.  The aisles provide the rest, leaving the actors to personally connect with the audience.

So, two casts – male and female – that seem to be in entirely different plays.  More’s the pity.

With Joshua David Robinson as King of Navarre; Amelia Pedlowas Princess of France; Megan Graves as Mote; Yesenia Iglesias as Maria; Kelsey Rainwater as Rosaline; Matt Dallal as Longaville; Jack Schmitt as Dumaine; Chani Wereley as Katherine; Josh Adams as Dull and Marcade; and Tonya Beckman as Boyet and Jaquenetta.

Lighting by Colin K. Bills; Costume Design by Tracy Christensen; Original Music and Sound Design by Lindsay Jones.

Through June 9that 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 website.  To follow discussions of Shakespeare’s world with some of today’s leading artists, authors and scholars you’ll find Shakespeare Unlimited podcasts entitled “Will & Our World” at www.Folger.edu/unlimited.  These are free wherever you get your podcasts.