February 17, 2015
Special to The Alexandria Times
Cast of Much Ado About Nothing. Photo by Koko Lanham.
Hot Diggity Dog Ziggity Boom! In Synetic Theater’s jived up version of Much Ado About Nothing Las Vegas’s flamboyant landscape of feathered and sequined showgirls becomes the backdrop for Director Paata Tsikurishvili’s reinvention of the beloved comedy and the next installment in the troupe’s “Silent Shakespeare” series. In his interpretation Beatrice (Irina Tsikurishvili) is a lovelorn lounge singer and Benedick (Ben Cunis) her castoff lover who are reunited in her Uncle Leonato’s (Peter Pereyra) casino. Much to each other’s dismay.
Benedick has joined Don Pedro’s (Philip Fletcher) gang the ‘Syneticons’ and blown into town on their boss motorcycles – – gleaming single-wheel choppers designed by Props Master Kasey Hendricks and Technical Director Phil Charwood. Soon gang member Claudio (Scott Brown) falls hard for Don Pedro’s daughter Hero (Emily Whitworth) and that’s when the jealousies, betrayals and backstabbing ruses begin.
Scott Brown as Claudio and Emily Whitworth as Hero. Photo by Koko Lanham.
In this Grease meets West Side Story meets Car 54 Where Are You? fantasy the comic relief is often provided by a hilarious trio of cops led by the Chief of Police, Dogberry, purposely overplayed by Vato Tsikurishvili. The cut-ups give chase to the lawless gang in slapstick routines worthy of Buster Keaton and Laurel and Hardy. Of particular note is Zana Gankhuyag who plays Asian cop, Verges.
Choreographer Irina Tsikurishvili pulls out all the stops, letting the dancing dictate the period. In a departure from the dark side dynamic that infuses many of Synetic’s productions, the cast’s mood and infectious enthusiasm is flat-out joyful. Girls jitterbug in poodle skirts with James Dean bikers clad in leather and tight jeans while the super-fly theme from Peter Gunn takes it into overdrive.
Ben Cunis as Benedick. Irina Tsikurishvili as Beatrice. Photo by Koko Lanham.
It’s a doo-wop mash-up of oldies from back in the day as Sound Editor and Composer Konstantine Lortkipanidze and Music Director Irakli Kavsadze conspire to bring back Chubby Checker with ‘The Twist’, Bobby Darin’s “Dream Lover” and the era of “Beach Blanket Bingo”. Actually a few decades overlap here, but who cares, it’s an idealized backdrop for teenage angst and puppy love. So even if the Chippendales didn’t launch their striptease act till 1979, we don’t mind these hot male dancers doing a bit of bump-and-grind along with a game of strip poker. And though Leonato reminds us a bit of Al Pacino in the 1980’s Scarface and the preacher is a Black Elvis (Wait! Was that James Brown?), it’s fun to play along.
Photo by Koko Lanham.
As expected there is breathtaking dancing and gravity-defying acrobatics from the classically trained Georgian troupe. And although it gets off to a bit of a slow start, after a few minutes in it explodes in full-throttle Synetic-styled mania fueled by dancers that look as if they’ve been just waiting to cut loose and show their cool daddy-o side.
Dig it! It’s like crazy, man, crazy!
Through March 22nd at Synetic Theater, 1800 South Bell Street, Arlington in Crystal City. For tickets and information call 866 811-4111 or visit www.synetictheater.org.
February 14, 2015
Special to The Alexandria Times
(L to R) Jessica Frances Dukes as Tonya and Bowman Wright as King in King Hedley II – Photo by C. Stanley Photography
Hangin’ in the hood in the 1980’s wasn’t so very different than it is today. In playwright August Wilson’s King Hedley II we find that guns, gambling, alcohol, drugs, teen pregnancy and prison time informed the toughest inner city neighborhoods and still does. It bears mentioning in light of the recent incidents in Ferguson and New York City, that this play reflects a societal atmosphere that is not much changed. The final play of Wilson’s ten-part cycle dives headlong into the seamy side of the African-American experience, setting the play in Pittsburgh’s rough Hill District (it’s still a dangerous place) and creating characters that appear to have stepped out of a Thomas Hart Benton mural or a Shakespearean tragedy.
Bowman Wright plays King Hedley, a man out of luck, out of money and out of opportunities. (Coincidentally Wright played another King – – as in Martin Luther King, Jr. – – in Arena’s earth-shattering production of The Mountaintop favorably reviewed here in April 2013.)
In this concentrated circle of life King is married to Tonya (Jessica Frances Duke), a young woman who aims to escape the ghetto and avoid another unwanted pregnancy through her steady job. Ruby (E. Faye Butler), a feisty yet endearing matriarch who rules the neighborhood and brooks no jive talk, has raised King with high hopes for his post-prison redemption. But Mister (Kenyatta Rogers) King’s crony and partner in crime has other ideas to raise fast cash for their hoped-for video store and hooks King up selling hot refrigerators while making plans for an armed robbery. In a world of dead ends there are few options and many temptations.
(L to R) Michael Anthony Williams as Elmore and E. Faye Butler as Ruby in King Hedley II – Photo by C. Stanley Photography.
When the notorious gambler Elmore (Michael Anthony Williams) returns after serving time for murder, Ruby, who has a past with Elmore, warns, “He talks sugar and gives salt.” Elmore teases her, “You still pretty. You just old.” In this hood there’s plenty of colorful trash talking to go around and enough gallows humor to lighten the load.
Bearing witness is the graybeard Stool Pigeon (André De Shields) – – a bible-spouting newspaper hoarder whose wisdom and experience is lost on the men’s nefarious activities. “God’s got a plan,” he warns them, “and God is a bad mother****er!”
André De Shields as Stool Pigeon in King Hedley II – Photo by C. Stanley Photography.
Director Timothy Douglas, who has directed most of Wilson’s plays, brings a concentrated pathos to the stage, setting the play in the round to reflect the cyclical nature of the characters’ lives and the destructive outcome of their interdependence. Douglas keeps the actors onstage, or perched nearby, at all times, intertwining their lives amid the concrete wreckage of designer Tony Cisek’s sparse set.
Composer and Sound Designer Ryan Rumery evokes the period with soulful strains reminiscent of the era. In fact some of the play’s lines seem grabbed straight from the lyrics of that tumultuous period.
Bowman Wright as King and the cast of King Hedley II at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater – Photo by C. Stanley Photography.
The cast is tight, tight, tight. Wright, undoubtedly one of the country’s pre-eminent actors, delivers another brilliantly intense performance. But so too, do Butler, whose comic timing is dead on, Williams, who creates an Elmore who is as unctuous and riveting as a snake oil salesman, and De Shields whose portrayal of Stool Pigeon is award-worthy.
Tough and gritty, but highly recommended.
Through March 8th at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024. For tickets and information call 202 488-3300 or visit www.ArenaStage.org.
February 1, 2015
Special to The Alexandria Times
Gigi stars Vanessa Hudgens
When MGM’s movie Gigi debuted in 1958 legions of little girls were captivated by the City of Lights and its magical allure. I know. I was one of them, listening hours on end to the vinyl soundtrack by Maurice Chevalier, Hermione Gingold, Louis Jourdan and Leslie Caron who transported us to a place we could only dream of.
Raised by her grandmère Mamita a calligraphy teacher and her spotlessly mannered grande dame, Aunt Alicia, the spunky Gigi was a paragon of insouciance. We embraced her joie de vivre, studied our français more diligently and longed for a soigné and très riche gentleman like, Gaston Lachaille, to sweep us off our feet. Indeed postwar Paris was everyone’s dream of the most exciting place in the world to be.
Fifteen years later Gigi was brought to the stage and another generation embraced Alan Jay Lerner’s and Frederick Lowe’s spectacular score and heartwarming tale. And now, 37 years hence, Director Eric Schaeffer has revived the musical in all its glorious splendor. I asked myself if it could have the same impact on a new audience as it did in the late 50’s. Does Gigi’s indelible charm translate to a more technologically absorbed generation of little girls?
Howard McGillin as Honore Lachaille and Victoria Clark as Mamita
To insure it does, Schaeffer has wisely cast Vanesa Hudgens as Gigi. An adorable and multi-talented actress, best known for her role in the wildly popular High School Musical series, Hudgens proves her acting, dancing and singing have the snap, crackle and pop to earn her the lead role against such seasoned Broadway actors and opera-caliber voices as Victoria Clark (Mamita), Dee Hoty (Aunt Alicia), Howard McGillin (Honoré Lachaille) and Steffanie Leigh as Liane d’Exelmans, Gaston’s mistress.
As you may recall Gigi is raised by her grandmother in a modest flat in Paris where the pair play frequent hosts to Gaston (Corey Cott), a dashing and well-to-do man about town who is an old family friend. Her sister Alicia, determined to marry Gigi off to a wealthy gentleman, is consumed with tutoring the girl in the art of feminine allure, including how to tell a real sapphire from a faux. “A girl must think constantly – – unless a man can tell,” she instructs her.
It is La Belle Epoque, Maxim’s is in its heyday, and all of Paris is très gai. Set Designer Derek McLane captures the mood of the era with drop-dead sets evocative of the period. Maxim’s becomes a wonderland of Can Can girls high-kicking amid red velvet banquettes and flower-shaped chandeliers, while Paris is evoked with the massive curved iron girders of the Eiffel Tower and the beach at Trouville, where Gaston sees Gigi in a new light and his Uncle Honoré revives a romance with Mamita, is a splendid seascape.
Steffanie Leigh as Liane of Exelmans, Howard McGillin, Victoria Clark, Vanessa Hudgens, Corey Cott as Gaston Lachaille
From five-time Tony Award-winning Costume Designer Catherine Zuber, we are treated to dreamy chiffon gowns, elegant frock coats, feathered picture hats, glittering jewels, bellmen in carmine britches and so much more extravagance. James Moore conducts the soaring strains of the 13-piece orchestra through the memorable songbook including “Thank Heaven for Little Girls”, “The Night They Invented Champagne” and sixteen other wonderful numbers. Emmy Award-winning Choreographer for the late, yet beloved, TV show Smash, Joshua Bergasse, enlivens the dancing with electrifying Broadway-bound energy.
Through February 12th at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St., NW, Washington, DC. For tickets and information call 202 467-4600 or visit www.Kennedy-Center.org.
January 29, 2015
Special to The Alexandria Times
TC Carson, Lori Williams, Stephawn Stephens, Roz White, Djob Lyons, Nia Harris, LC Harden Jr., Bernardine Mitchell – Photo credit Chris Banks
“I heard it said the Blues was the Truth.” And Bessie Smith had an intravenous line along the Truth Trail and straight to the heart of the Blues. Bessie’s Blues is a powerful homage to Smith. Produced by Artistic Director Carolyn Griffin this is neither a tribute concert, nor a paean to the late great blues singer, but a full throttle musical interpretation of her life and times, both good and bad. Bernadine Mitchell, Lori Williams and Roz White are among the cast of eight powerhouse singers.
Bernardine Mitchell, Lori Williams, Djob Lyons, Roz White – Photo credit Chris Banks
Thirty-three numbers, many co-written by the show’s writer, director and choreographer, Thomas W. Jones II, are belted, scatted, swung, jived, barbershopped and tenderly delivered by this exceptional ensemble rounded out by TC Carson, Stephawn P. Stephens, Djob Lyons, LC Harden, Jr. and Nia Harris. William Knowles leads the five-piece band that throws out some serious joint-jumpin’ chops.
The storyline that strings it together with soulful sounds is the rise to fame and fortune of the woman known as the “Empress of the Blues”. Smith’s life afforded plenty of raw material for Jones to work with – – her problems with men and managers, the Great Depression, racial discrimination, and her alcoholism. As Bessie says, “Pain ain’t got no geography.”
Mitchell, who has played iconic singers before at MetroStage – Mahalia comes to mind – owns this role and she proves it without a shadow of a doubt by reaching deep within to reveal the glory of her rare and matchless voice. Mitchell could rip the skin off a crocodile with her heart-wrenching vocals that display her breathtaking vocal range and high-wattage with the ability to scale back to lullaby level when it’s called for.
Costume Designer Frank Labovitz has adorned the women in Charleston era style with boas, feathers, fringe, red hot silk gowns and sexy lurex minis, while the men sport the plaid sharkskin suits of the Minstrel shows and the sequined vests of Vaudeville hoofers. In an uptown party scene where Smith is disastrously presented to high society, they sashay around in black tie with bowlers and canes.
Roz White, Djob Lyons, LC Harden Jr., TC Carson, Nia Harris, Stephawn Stephens -
Photo credit: Chris Banks
Roz White plays “Rhythm” a tougher side of Smith that reveals her motivation to be successful. “I could shake my bottom or pick cotton,” she declares which she does when she joins the Moses Stokes’ Traveling Show with Ma Rainey at St. Louis’s famed Ivory Theatre where the music speaks of “sweet steppin’ papas and hip shakin’ mamas”.
As “Passion” Lori Williams’s sweet voice adds a sexy, sultry element to the show. On “Wet Match” (“You can’t light a fire with a wet match.”) she shows her way of sensuously carving out notes that is both alluring and assertive at the same time.
TC Carson, Nia Harris, Djob Lyons, LC Harden Jr., Roz White, Stephawn Stephens – Photo credit Chris Banks
Nia Harris is “The Dancer” – – a sort of alter ego to Bessie. Wearing flapper dresses or flowing streams of chiffon, the sprite-like Harris weaves in and out of Smith’s journey, interpreting her travails through movement. Harris, who has trained at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts and the Alvin Ailey School, is sheer magic as she silently executes her sinuous movements in an exquisitely choreographed interplay.
At MetroStage through March 15th – 1201 North Royal Street, Alexandria, 22314. For tickets and information visit www.metrostage.org.
January 27, 2014
Special to The Alexandria Times
(L to R) Lucas Hall as Doctor Watson and Gregory Wooddell as Sherlock Holmes – Photo by Margot Schulman.
As I enjoy the second mountainously entertaining Ken Ludwig drawing room comedy in less than a week, I am reminded that the Washington-based American playwright is anything but British. So how does he nail the veddy, veddy stiff-upper-lip satire that evokes the stories of P. G. Wodehouse? Ludwig draws on the schadenfreude of watching the posh get their comeuppance, a premise employed in many of his comedies, and one in which we can all delight.
In Arena Stage’s premiere of Baskerville Ludwig concocts his fiction around Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, as in The Game’s Afoot, (reviewed here last week).
(L to R) Stanley Bahorek, Michael Glenn and Gregory Wooddell – Photo by Margot Schulman.
For “the greatest, most dangerous case, in his remarkable career”, as sidekick Watson describes it, Holmes must uncover the murderer of Sir Hugo, the lord of Baskerville. As it is revealed the haunting creature, rumored to be “a great black beast”, roams the moors and rips out the throats of its victims. (A charming thought referencing Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Hound of the Baskervilles”.) When the big-hearted Texan, Sir Henry, arrives to claim his rightful stake in the Devonshire estate “Y’all got anything out here I can shoot?” the plot gets curiouser and curiouser.
L to R) Michael Glenn and Jane Pfitsch – Photo by Margot Schulman.
Gregory Wooddell plays Holmes, Lucas Hall, Doctor Watson, and four other actors Stanley Bahorek, Michael Glenn, Jane Pfitsch and Milo Tindale, play dozens of roles while dashing offstage lickety-split for changes of both costume and character. By the second act the audience is clued in to the madness of the quick change as hats, wigs and props are tossed off stage in full sight and characters and props burst forth from five trapdoors embedded in the stage floor.
(L to R) Gregory Wooddell, Lucas Hall and Stanley Bahorek – Photo by Margot Schulman.
As you may imagine the crew is as crucial in the production’s helter-skelter pace as the actors – – and neither disappoints. Sound effects from storms and trains, lighting from vaudeville period stage lights to spots in full view, and props, some of which descend from above, all contribute to the haunting atmospherics as scenes change as rapidly as the costumes and roles. There is a night at the opera, the fog of the “gimpenmeyer” that swallows ponies, Sherlock’s bespoke study, the creepy castle and multiple scene and costume changes that require lightening quick switcheroos.
Jess Goldstein created the period costumes, Philip S. Rosenberg designed the dramatic lighting effects, Joshua Horvath and Raymond Nardelli created the sounds, and Gillian Lane-Pescia trained the actors in the multiple dialects. I noted Scottish, English, Texan, Cockney, Russian, German and Spanish. Bahorek mines a lisping Spanish accent as a campy concierge in charge of a luxury hotel where there has been some, need I say, very questionable activity. Bear in mind this was written before this year’s Golden Globes-winning movie “The Grand Budapest Hotel” which closely mirrors Ralph Fiennes role as the madcap concierge.
Stanley Bahorek in Ken Ludwig’s Baskerville -Photo by Margot Schulman.
Director Amanda Dehnert, whose background is mainly in Shakespeare’s plays, does a bang-up job with the pacing, turning a complex production into a seemingly effortless, entirely hilarious, Brit-wit romp.
Through February 22nd at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024. For tickets and information call 202 488-3300 or visit www.ArenaStage.org.