Native Gardens ~ Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
September 20, 2017
Special to The Alexandria Times

(L to R) Dan Domingues as Pablo Del Valle, Jacqueline Correa as Tania Del Valle, Sally Wingert as Virginia Butley and Steve Hendrickson as Frank Butley. Photo by Dan Norman for Guthrie Theater.

(L to R) Dan Domingues as Pablo Del Valle, Jacqueline Correa as Tania Del Valle, Sally Wingert as Virginia Butley and Steve Hendrickson as Frank Butley. Photo by Dan Norman for Guthrie Theater.

Playwright Karen Zacarías’s Native Gardens directed by Blake Robison is hugely hilarious.  I had to stop myself from typing “bigly”.  You know how things are these days.  Everything is viewed through a partisan political filter, no matter which side on the aisle you may seat yourself.  And that’s where we find ourselves in this flat-out entertaining dark comedy that pits two widely divergent couples against each other.

The very prescient Zacarías, founder of DC’s Young Playwrights’ Theater and first ever Playwright-in-Residence at Arena Theatre, crafts this social construct of two couples of different ethnic backgrounds whose hearts are in the right place but whose politics and cultural views are worlds apart.

(L to R) Jacqueline Correa as Tania Del Valle and Dan Domingues as Pablo Del Valle. Photo by Dan Norman for Guthrie Theater

(L to R) Jacqueline Correa as Tania Del Valle and Dan Domingues as Pablo Del Valle. Photo by Dan Norman for Guthrie Theater

Set in Georgetown, an aristocratic, young lawyer, Pablo Del Valle (Dan Domingues) and his pregnant wife Tania (Jacqueline Correa), buy a brownstone next door to an older couple.  Pablo is trying to make partner while Tania is studying for her PhD.  They are young, Hispanic, open-minded intellectuals, unafraid to speak their minds.

Unfortunately, their formerly abandoned backyard borders the Butleys.  Frank Butley (Steve Hendrickson), a retiree devoted to his well-manicured garden, and his wife, Virginia (Sally Wingert), a former executive who clawed her way to the top in a male-dominated industry.  Virginia is savvy, sophisticated and sarcastic.  Frank is henpecked and self-entitled.  Notwithstanding the couples’ differences, they are eager to get along.  “Old neighborhood, new neighbors,” Frank says cheerfully.

(L to R) Sally Wingert as Virginia Butley and Steve Hendrickson as Frank Butley. Photo by Dan Norman for Guthrie Theater.

(L to R) Sally Wingert as Virginia Butley and Steve Hendrickson as Frank Butley. Photo by Dan Norman for Guthrie Theater.

In the beginning all goes well, as the couples sip wine and swap stories about themselves and their gardening philosophies.  Tania is eco-conscious and leans towards insect-attracting native plants, while Frank tends his exotic annuals with pesticides and fertilizers. You can smell trouble brewing.

Within days of their moving in, Pablo shocks Tania with the news that he has committed to a party for his entire law firm.  They decide it must be outdoors since the house is in dire need of restoration.  They hire a team of workmen to beautify their weed-infested garden, remove a ratty chain link fence dividing the properties, and replace it with a spiffy new wooden one.

(L to R) Dan Domingues as Pablo Del Valle and Steve Hendrickson as Frank Butley. Photo by Dan Norman for Guthrie Theater

(L to R) Dan Domingues as Pablo Del Valle and Steve Hendrickson as Frank Butley. Photo by Dan Norman for Guthrie Theater

At first the Butley’s are overjoyed to have a lovely new backdrop for Frank’s formal garden, mere days before the Potomac Horticultural Society is to give out their “Best Garden” awards.  But the couples soon hit a snafu when legal eagle Pablo, who has had his property’s boundaries surveyed by the city, tells Frank his beloved roses and hydrangeas are encroaching on their property.

Racist insults fly from both sides of the fence as the couples reveal their prejudices.  “They must be Democrats,” Virginia claims while Tania flings Spanish curses and shows her solidarity with the Hispanic workmen.  Meanwhile the Butleys bicker amongst themselves, plotting to invoke squatters’ rights.  It becomes all-out war with a rapid-fire pace when Pablo accuses Frank’s plants of being “Colonialists”.

Dan Domingues as Pablo Del Valle, Steve Hendrickson as Frank Butley and Sally Wingert as Virginia Butley. Photo by Dan Norman for Guthrie Theater.

Dan Domingues as Pablo Del Valle, Steve Hendrickson as Frank Butley and Sally Wingert as Virginia Butley. Photo by Dan Norman for Guthrie Theater.

The surprising set by Joseph Tilford of an enormous tree flanked by the backyards of the two brownstones – one shabby, one straight out of House and Garden – is a standout.  You’ve probably passed homes in Georgetown just like this, though you won’t find any fixer-uppers left.

Highly recommended for multiple viewings.  I couldn’t get enough of it.

Through October 22nd at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information call 202 488-3300 or visit www.ArenaStage.org.

Leonard Bernstein Lovers Rejoice ~ The Kennedy Center

Jordan Wright
September 15, 2017
Special to The Alexandria Times 

For one night only, some of Broadway’s leading lights will captivate audiences with the iconic American composer’s greatest hits.  Bernstein on Broadway launches the year-long international centennial celebration of Leonard Bernstein with the opening weekend of Leonard Bernstein at 100, a celebration of the Leonard Bernstein’s musical contributions to American theatre.

(l-r) Mikaela Bennett - Santino Fontana - Matthew Hydzik - Photo credit Kennedy Center

(l-r) Mikaela Bennett – Santino Fontana – Matthew Hydzik – Photo credit Kennedy Center

Three-time Tony Award-winning Director Kathleen Marshall and Music Director Musical Rob Fisher, will lead Mikaela Bennett (The Golden Apple at Encores!), Santino Fontana (CinderellaAct One), Matthew Hydzik (the Kennedy Center production of Side Show), Norm Lewis (Porgy and Bess), Beth Malone (Fun Home), and Laura Osnes (BandstandCinderella) in an extraordinary evening of Bernstein’s music for the theater. Joining them will be an ensemble of Broadway triple-threats including Max ClaytonKim Fauré, Keven QuillonShina Ann MorrisBrandon RubendallSamantha SturmErica Sweany, and Anthony Wayne. 

(l-r) Norm Lewis - Beth Malone - Laura Osnes - Photo Credit Kennedy Center

(l-r) Norm Lewis – Beth Malone – Laura Osnes – Photo Credit Kennedy Center

The sensational production will feature a lush 40-piece orchestra and the acclaimed Choral Arts Society of Washington as more than 75 performers fill the Eisenhower Theater with the unforgettable music of West Side StoryWonderful Town, and Candide. The performance will also include the irresistibly tuneful score and dancing from On the Town, as well as selections from Bernstein’s Mass, originally commissioned by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis for the opening of the Kennedy Center in 1971.

Don’t miss it!

This Friday, September 22, 2017 at 8:00pm in the Eisenhower Theater at 2700 F St., NW, Washington, DC.  For tickets and information call 202 467-4600 or visit www.Kennedy-Center.org.

Driving Miss Daisy ~ The Little Theatre of Alexandria

Jordan Wright
September 12, 2017
Special to The Alexandria T
imes

Boolie (Joel Durgavich), Daisy (Patricia Kratzer) and Hoke ~ Photographer: Matt Liptak

Boolie (Joel Durgavich), Daisy (Patricia Kratzer) and Hoke (Kevin Sockwell) ~ Photographer: Matt Liptak

A talented, tightly knit cast of three deliver on Alfred Uhry’s heartwarming tale of Daisy Werthan, a well-heeled elderly Southern lady, Boolie Werthan, her successful son, and Hoke Colburn, her dutiful chauffeur.  The Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, made into a film with Jessica Tandy and Morgan Freeman, gave Tandy and the picture Academy Awards in 1989 and has been beloved by audiences ever since.

Daisy (Patricia Kratzer) and Hoke ~ Photographer: Matt Liptak

Daisy (Patricia Kratzer) and Hoke (Kevin Sockwell) ~ Photographer: Matt Liptak

Daisy (Patricia Kratzer) is the paragon of Southern respectability in the Jim Crow South.  Adhering to all its social restraints and mindful of her position as an upstanding member of her Jewish temple, she has both a girlish vulnerability and, alternatively, a stern demeanor from her days as a schoolteacher that could set your hair on fire.  Daisy hails from the bygone era of Southern ladies who ruled their households with an iron fist in a velvet glove and kept guard dog-like vigilance in fear their servants would steal behind their backs.  It is the true story of Uhry’s grandmother and the chauffeur she employed for over 25 years.

Set in Atlanta, Georgia in 1948 when ladies of means had drivers and fancy cars to shuttle them from their hairdressers to their places of worship – including the Piggly Wiggly, the legendary supermarket of the South – it opens to a scene with her concerned son Boolie (Joel Durgavich) after she has crashed her Packard due to her failing eyesight.  (Written in the late 80’s, Daisy at 72 is over the hill.  Hmm.)  Boolie, standing firm against her protestations, has decided her driving days are kaput and Hoke (Kevin Sockwell) is hired on as her chauffeur.

Daisy (Patricia Kratzer) and Hoke (Kevin Sockwell) ~Photographer: Matt Liptak

Daisy (Patricia Kratzer) and Hoke (Kevin Sockwell) ~Photographer: Matt Liptak

Director Jim Howard takes us seamlessly through a series of some twenty-eight tricky scene changes with the help of Lighting Designer Marzanne Claiborne who focuses attention on the evolving vignettes from 1948, a time when Jews and Blacks were second class citizens in the South, to 1973 Mobile, Alabama where, decades after they have formed an indestructible bond, Daisy invites Hoke to a dinner for Martin Luther King, Jr.  Setting the tone, vintage photos of the period and Daisy’s fading furniture are featured along with a “car” of sorts where the two converse on life’s puzzlements and injustices.  Shades of the Ku Klux Klan and their fiery reign of terror hover menacingly over both Daisy and Hoke’s life.   When Hoke relates a gruesome tale of lynching, Daisy is faced with the harsh reality that her life shares the same pain and uncertainty as Hoke’s.

But it is the humor and wisdom they impart that strengthens the bonds of their unusual friendship as well as the tender mercies they offer one another that make this tale so heartwarming while affording us a glimpse into the uneasy relationship between mistress and servant, Black and Jew, with charm, humor and poignancy.  Nuanced performances by Kratzer and Sockwell are indelible.

Recommended for its relevance to today’s struggles against the re-emerging political climate of hate and prejudice. Lest we forget.

Through October 15th 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

A Little Night Music ~ Signature Theatre

Jordan Wright
August 29, 2017 

Holly Twyford (Desiree Armfeldt) and Bobby Smith (Fredrik Egerman) in A Little Night Music at Signature Theatre. Photo by Christopher Mueller

Holly Twyford (Desiree Armfeldt) and Bobby Smith (Fredrik Egerman) . Photo by Christopher Mueller

The most difficult reviews to write are the ones in which there is nothing to critique – where the music washes over you like a waterfall, the Noel Cowardesque repartee is both witty and snarky, the voices luscious and the costumes, sheer Victorian elegance.  How do you argue perfection?  That’s the quandary I find myself in with Director Eric Schaeffer’s production of A Little Night Music.  Schaeffer has kicked off the new season with an eye-popping, ear-swooning production that will knock your socks off.  Not only is the cast superlative but the 13-piece orchestra led by Jon Kalbfleisch soars.

Bobby Smith (Fredrik Egerman) and Will Gartshore (Carl-Magnus Malcolm) . Photo by Christopher Mueller

Four-time Helen Hayes award-winning actress Holly Twyford stars as the glamorous femme fatale Desiree Armfeldt, a Swedish actress who is both feisty and vulnerable and comes armed with a rapier wit.  Twyford, who has never done a musical before, proves she can sell a song purely through tenderness and raw emotion.  Neither sharp, nor flat, nor off-key, her delivery of the iconic number “Send in the Clowns” is poignant, wry and edge-of-your-seat at the same time.  The entire show is, but for different reasons.

Maria Rizzo, Kevin McAllister, Tracy Lynn Olivera, Nicki Elledge, Sam Ludwig, Holly Twyford, Will Gartshore, and Florence Lacey. Photo by Paul Tate DePoo III

Pulling from some of the finest singers in our area the range of voices from baritone to tenor and alto to soprano is breathtaking – their harmonies flawless.  It’s every singer’s dream to perform in this show, and Schaeffer has cast the best of the best.  There’s Bobby Smith as Fredrik Egerman, a well-heeled attorney in the throes of a mid-life crisis and married to the virginal Anne, played by the adorable Nicki Elledge, and Sam Ludwig, just coming off of Jesus Christ Superstar, who garnered a well-earned Helen Hayes nomination for last year’s lollapalooza Titanic, here playing the angst-ridden cellist Henrik Egerman.

Florence Lacey, who lays claim to a string of Broadway hits, plays the curmudgeonly sentimentalist, Madame Leonora Armfeldt.  Lacey was also in Signature’s Titanic – as well as another alum from the show, Tracy Lynn Olivera, here as the beleaguered, but shrewd, Countess Charlotte Malcolm.

Maria Rizzo (Petra). Photo by Christopher Mueller.

The sheer schadenfreude deliciousness between the characters creates the necessary tension behind some of the comic encounters, such as Petra’s tempestuous seduction of Henrik in “Soon”.  (Petra played by the voluptuous Maria Rizzo) and Fredrik’s suggestion to his old flame Desiree, “You must meet my wife.” To which she sarcastically replies, “Let me get my hat and my knife!”

Holly Twyford (Desiree Armfeldt) . Photo by Christopher Mueller.

Scenic Designer Paul Tate dePoo III gives us a stately banquet table that lowers from the rafters and a massive bed that features prominently as seducers and the seduced frolic with abandon in merry games of chase all choreographed by Karma Camp.  Lighting by the brilliant Colin K. Bills and the dreamy costumes by legendary designer Robert Perdziola.

Highly recommended.  Five stars, if I gave out stars, which I don’t.  Just go.

Through October 8th at Signature Theatre (Shirlington Village), 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, VA 22206.  For tickets and information call 703 820-9771 or visit www.sigtheatre.org.

The Wizard of Hip (Or When in Doubt Slam Dunk) ~ MetroStage

Jordan Wright
August 21, 2017
Special to The Alexandria Times

The Wizard of Hip

The Wizard of Hip – Photo credit Chris Banks

Getting schooled by Thomas W. Jones II, aka “Afro Joe”, is a lesson in growing up Black, Catholic, and urban hip – “sticky leg” and all.  Jones is a poet with a fusillade style of comedic delivery that gets under your skin with its beat-bopping rhythms and déjà vu tales of adolescence.  It’s a story about being Black in modern culture that transcends Blackness and goes to the heart of teen angst and family dynamics.  Jones is already cool.  At 60+ he’s still got all the moves including a dip in the hip (he assures us it’s not about hip replacement), when he’s demonstrating the art of getting the girl.  Or, at least, trying to get the girl, which doesn’t go well for Jones as a teenager until he realizes that making a well-rehearsed, slow-rolling, wordless entrance into a dance club isn’t at all the kind of approach that his target has in mind.  “You enter on an angle,’ he advises, twisting his agile frame into a slow-walking, undulating gait.  After a few rookie moves in which the women rebuff his advances, he switches gears and tries a little tenderness.  Cue the adoring girl.

Jones and his two, talented singer/actor sidekicks, Jasmine Eileen Coles as Lady Doo Wop 1 and Kanysha Williams as Lady Doo Wop 2, blast out street-funky, free-style, free-verse poetry filled with the pain and glory of growing up and growing cool in Queens, New York.  They dance, slide and do the funky chicken to James Brown, Sidney Poitier and other Black towers of power from the 1950’s rock n’ roll era as archival photos of the period, including Dr. J and Willie Mays, are projected behind them.

The Wizard of Hip

The Wizard of Hip – Photo credit Chris Banks

Filling the black box stage, the indefatigable Jones peels off in warp speed with riffs on his youth.  One episodic piece delves into the sanctity of mamas and papas, as in “don’t talk about my mama”, a multi-character piece in which he is pitted against street toughs while defending his mother’s honor.  In it he goes from getting beat up (he’s a genius at morphing into two or more characters at once) to slip sliding off in dishonor with a panoply of excuses to go home – homework, dinner, mow the lawn.

In fact, “mow the lawn” becomes a particularly notable euphemism in the troubles he has with his father (whom Jones also plays).  The father figure is seen as a model of ineptitude and intransigence – forever diverting punitive decisions back onto mama while urging his son to step up his game and be a man.  This impossible balance of constantly maintaining peer-pressure hipsterness while trying to score with the ladies, is what keeps our hero rocked back on his heels as he deciphers what everyone wants and where he fits in.  Because in the gospel of Cool with a capital ‘C’, “You gotta be John Wayne in a Shirley Temple world.”

The Wizard of Hip

The Wizard of Hip – Photo credit Chris Banks

Jones is familiar to MetroStage as writer, director and choreographer on Three Sistahs, Ladies Swing the Blues and many other original productions that had their premieres here.  He’s also known for his performances at Studio Theatre and more recently at Woolly Mammoth Theatre.

Two veteran musicians keep pace with Jones high energy.  On keyboards is William Knowles, known to MetroStage aficionados as Music Director for his work on the Helen Hayes’ award-winning Cool Papa’s Party as well as Three Sistahs, Blues in the Night, Ella Fitzgerald: First Lady of Song, Blackberry Daze and more.  Knowles also provides original music to syncopate Jones’ kinetic style.  Keeping the backbeat is Greg Holloway on drums – a staple of many of MetroStage’s original productions.

See it, if you want to keep your cool.

Through September 17th at MetroStage, 1201 North Royal Street, Alexandria, VA 22314.

For tickets and information call 703 548-9044 or visit www.metrostage.org.