Sense and Sensibility ~ Folger Shakespeare Theatre

Jordan Wright
September 20, 2016
Special to The Alexandria Times

Colonel Brandon (James Patrick Nelson) receives some troublesome news in Folger Theatre’s Sense & Sensibility. On stage September 13 – October 30, 2016. Photo by Jesse Belsky.

Colonel Brandon (James Patrick Nelson) receives some troublesome news in Folger Theatre’s Sense & Sensibility. On stage September 13 – October 30, 2016. Photo by Jesse Belsky.

Of course, Sense and Sensibility adaptor Kate Hamill was going to mix it up.  Taking a cue from Jane Austen’s gossipy letters to friends and family, Hamill recognized the author’s sharp-tongued sense of humor and plumbed beneath the characters’ ostensible formalities to infuse this modern interpretation with an exuberance and hilarity ignored on earlier stage and film productions.  Director Eric Tucker, Wall Street Journal’s “Director of the Year”, who worked with Hamill on the New York production in 2014, sees this version as, “wickedly funny and extremely romantic”, which quite neatly sums it up.

Austen was the consummate social arbiter, an irreverent chronicler who snubbed the upper crust’s pretenses by poking fun at them.  Austen’s love of romance and the irony of domestic virtue aren’t lost in this version – they are merely brightened up with tongue firmly planted in cheek.  The end result is an exhilarating romp that rediscovers Austen’s side-eyed portrayal of Victorian gentility.

Maggie McDowell stars as the subdued Elinor Dashwood in Folger Theatre’s production of Jane Austen’s Sense & Sensibility. On stage September 13 – October 30, 2016. Photo by Teresa Wood.

Maggie McDowell stars as the subdued Elinor Dashwood in Folger Theatre’s production of Jane Austen’s Sense & Sensibility. On stage September 13 – October 30, 2016. Photo by Teresa Wood.

The play opens with a disco scene of colored lights and electropop music.  The women sport lace petticoats and the men get down with it in loose white poet shirts and matching leggings, that is until they break into a formal quadrille and we see where Hamill is going with this reinterpretation.  Topsy-turvy, indeed!

Windowed panels and furniture on wheels define the settings from parlor to field, and it is an absolute marvel of John McDermott’s scenic design and Alexandra Beller’s choreography that keeps it in near constant motion.  It’s all in great fun as the cast leaps on and off stage into the audience providing a cacophony of snippy, back-stabbing asides about their friends and family.

Marianne (Erin Weaver) shares a private moment with her love, John Willoughby (Jacob Fishel) in Sense & Sensibility. On stage at Folger Theatre, September 13 – October 30, 2016. Photo by Teresa Wood.

Marianne (Erin Weaver) shares a private moment with her love, John Willoughby (Jacob Fishel) in Sense & Sensibility. On stage at Folger Theatre, September 13 – October 30, 2016. Photo by Teresa Wood.

There are silly bits too.  In one, an audience member is asked to hold the reins of Edward Ferrars’ imaginary horse.  In another, Willoughby enters the Dashwood’s cottage through a mist provided by two of the actors visibly spraying him with water spritzers.  It’s all a hoot.

Thanks to Jamie Smithson, who we loved in Signature Theatre’s Cake Off last fall, we are treated to a side-splitting, show-stealing performance as Ferrars.  Especially notable too are Caroline Stephanie Clay as the gossipy Mrs. Jennings (she also plays Lucy Steele), whose appalling manners and ear-piercing howls at the dinner table are deliciously naughty, and Erin Weaver whose interpretation of the idealistic and impulsive Marianne Dashwood, is riveting.  Lisa Birnbaum who plays Mrs. Dashwood as well as Lucy’s sister Anne Steele, is another one to watch.  But it’s Jacob Fishel (audible gasps from the audience for his tearingly handsome good looks) as both John Dashwood and Marianne’s love interest, John Willoughby, that is indelible.  Switching from cad to callow fellow and back all in a madcap frenzy, is what sticks.

Kudos to a superb cast whose athleticism, humor and feistiness gives us the most delightful version of Austen’s classic ever to hit the stage.

Elinor Dashwood (Maggie McDowell) learns of some distressing news from Colonel Brandon (James Patrick Nelson) in Jane Austen’s Sense & Sensibility. On stage at Folger Theatre, September 13 – October 30, 2016. Photo by Teresa Wood

Elinor Dashwood (Maggie McDowell) learns of some distressing news from Colonel Brandon (James Patrick Nelson) in Jane Austen’s Sense & Sensibility. On stage at Folger Theatre, September 13 – October 30, 2016. Photo by Teresa Wood

See it now!

If you’re curious about Austen’s connection to Shakespeare, be sure to give yourself extra time to visit the Library’s spectacular exhibition, “Will & Jane: Shakespeare, Austen and the Cult of Celebrity”, now on display in the Folger’s Great Hall.  This fascinating collection of rare memorabilia reveals the authors’ surprising parallels, and is part of Folger’s year-long “The Wonders of Will” celebration, commemorating 400 years of Shakespeare in 2016.

Through October 30th at 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 www.Folger.edu/theatre.

Blackberry Daze ~ MetroStage

Jordan Wright
September 15, 2016
Special to The Alexandria Times

Blackberry Daze Ensemble

Blackberry Daze Ensemble

Director, Choreographer and Lyricist Thomas W. Jones II and Musical Director William Knowles are the collaborators of a world premiere musical at MetroStage.  Adapted from the murder mystery, “Blackberry Days of Summer” by Lynchburg native Ruth P. Watson, Blackberry Daze is the story of a mother and her teenage daughter, a jazz club singer and her soldier husband back from World War I, a host of churchgoing ladies, and a two-timing hustler.  Set in the backwoods of rural Virginia the action swings back and forth from the sophisticated Black nightclubs in Washington, DC to a hard knock life in the country.

(l to r) Ayana Reed ~ Roz White ~ Duyen Washington

(l to r) Ayana Reed ~ Roz White ~ Duyen Washington

Ayana Reed plays Carrie Parker, a teenager struggling with a grim secret, with Roz White as her mother, Mae Lou.  Mae Lou has a heart of gold until she meets and marries Herman Camm, a fast-talking lowlife, and betrays her daughter’s trust.  Reed gives an outstanding and deeply affecting performance, and though her character is by far the most emotionally critical element it is not given enough importance.  For me, Carrie’s plight and ultimate redemption, is where the real story lies.  I compare it to the films “Precious” or “The Color Purple”, for sheer poignancy.  Unfortunately, Carrie’s story is truncated by an overabundance of gospel tunes interspersed with jazz songs of the era.  And though Reed has but a single solo in “Palm of God”, it is the most indelible moment of the show.

(l-r) Yvette Spears ~ TC Carlson

(l-r) Yvette Spears ~ TC Carlson

TC Carson succeeds in portraying the slick Camm, a cad and rapist who has the whole town gunning for him, including his red hot paramour and juke joint singer, Pearl (the husky-voiced Yvette Spears).  But tying the characters and their motives together becomes confusing when the story is overloaded with so many disparate objectives.  There are fourteen numbers in all, including the surprisingly chosen, “O Holy Night”.  It was baffling at times trying to make out whose story was being told, and by whom.  In some cases, the characters tell their own stories which would work better if there were one narrator.  Some streamlining would help clear this up, but where?  It would be blasphemous to cut any of Knowles’ songs.  And with a seasoned, stand-out cast of Carson as Herman Camm; White as Carrie’s mother Mae Lou; Duyen Washington as both Ginny and Auntie May; Nia Harris as Hester; and Duane Richards II in dual roles as Simon, Carrie’s adoring boyfriend, and Willie, Pearl’s husband; whose lines would you cut?

(l-r) Duane Richards II ~ Ayana Reed

(l-r) Duane Richards II ~ Ayana Reed

Better yet focus on the razzmatazz of the era, the fine acting, Knowles’ onstage piano playing, and the dance segments.

At MetroStage through October 9th – 1201 North Royal Street, Alexandria, 22314.  For tickets and information visit www.metrostage.org.

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.