Nina Simone: Four Women ~ Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
November 18, 2017
Special to The Alexandria Times

Harriett D. Foy (Nina Simone) in Nina Simone: Four Women, Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Harriett D. Foy (Nina Simone) in Nina Simone: Four Women, Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

There’s no getting around one of the darkest moments in American history, when four African-American girls were murdered by white supremacists in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing of 1963.  There’s also no getting around that it continues unabated in present day America.  Playwright Christina Ham’s deeply emotional and highly relevant play, Nina Simone: Four Women, directed by Timothy Douglas, gets to the heart of this tragedy by focusing on Nina Simone, the jazz singer whose bluesy songs made her popular in in both white and black America.  For Simone (Harriett D. Foy), this horrific event in Birmingham, Alabama and the murder of Medgar Evers in Mississippi, galvanized her into speaking out through her music.  Inspired, Simone sets about writing “Mississippi Goddam”, her iconic civil rights anthem about the slaughter of the little girls.  “I want that song to cut folks like a razor,” Simone proclaims.

(L to R) Toni L. Martin (Sephronia), Harriett D. Foy (Nina Simone), Felicia Curry (Sweet Thing) and Theresa Cunningham (Sarah) in Nina Simone: Four Women. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

(L to R) Toni L. Martin (Sephronia), Harriett D. Foy (Nina Simone), Felicia Curry (Sweet Thing) and Theresa Cunningham (Sarah) in Nina Simone: Four Women. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

While she works on her composition, she encounters three women also hiding within the confines of the church.  Each speak of this devastating tragedy through different eyes.  Auntie Sarah (Theresa Cunningham), a longtime church member, is a matronly, black woman (she would say ‘colored’), who has lived her life respectably – dutiful to her white employers and a strong believer in the power of religion.  Sephronia (Toni L. Martin), is an activist, a girl of mixed race (she would say ‘high yellow’).  She takes inspiration from Martin Luther King, Jr. and the protest movement.  Lastly, Sweet Thing (Felicia Curry) is a street hooker, a rough-and-ready ghetto girl with a switchblade and a heap of anger.  Each woman brings a unique perspective to what it means to be black in America.  Each one has her own truth.

We see Simone as the consummate artist, a woman of conscience who has been radicalized by the inequality and injustice she has faced throughout her career.  She tells the others, despite her success she has doubts and self-loathing, “Every day I have to conjure myself into a queen.”

(L to R) Toni L. Martin (Sephronia), Felicia Curry (Sweet Thing) and Theresa Cunningham (Sarah) in Nina Simone: Four Women. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

(L to R) Toni L. Martin (Sephronia), Felicia Curry (Sweet Thing) and Theresa Cunningham (Sarah) in Nina Simone: Four Women. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

With music directed and arranged by Darius Smith, who also accompanies the women on piano, their lush harmonies and deliberate delivery ensure that no one will miss hearing the lyrics nor their fierce intent as this fine cast scrolls through gospel hymns, jazz tunes and protest songs including Simone’s “Sinnerman”, Oscar Brown, Jr.’s “Brown Baby”, Simone’s co-written anthem, “Young, Gifted and Black”, and of course its eponymous song, “Four Women”.  Choreography by Lady Dane Figueroa Edidi captures the spirit of African dance and old-time church revivals.

A powerful, brilliantly crafted, musical tribute to a woman and a movement.

Recommended.

Through December 24th at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information call 202 488-3300 or visit www.ArenaStage.org.

The Pajama Game ~ Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater

Jordan Wright
November 16, 2017
Special to The Alexandria Times

(L-R) Tim Rogan (Sid Sorokin) and Britney Coleman (Babe Williams) in The Pajama Game. Photo by Margot Schulman.

(L-R) Tim Rogan (Sid Sorokin) and Britney Coleman (Babe Williams) in The Pajama Game. Photo by Margot Schulman.

A freshly minted production of Richard Adler and Jerry Ross’s musical, The Pajama Game, now on the Fichandler Stage, lightens the country’s mood considerably.  This is not your grandmother’s version of the original 1954 classic.  Director Alan Paul has condensed it for modern day audiences, but it is as fresh and applicable today as it was then.  The story centers on two main characters, Babe Williams (the beautiful and talented Britney Coleman) and Sid Sorokin (Tim Rogan, a matinee idol-caliber, leading man if ever there was one).  Their aims are different, their love story is not.  Babe heads up the Union Grievance Committee at the Sleep-Tite Pajama Factory and Sid is the new superintendent in charge of maintaining order at the factory.  Though they are operating at cross purposes under a curmudgeonly boss, Fred Hasler (played by the inimitable Ed Gero), that doesn’t put a stop to their love connection.  Well, maybe a few near insurmountable crimps.

(L-R) Paul Scanlan (Salesman), Edward Gero (Hasler) and Eddie Korbich (Hines) in The Pajama Game. Photo by Margot Schulman.

(L-R) Paul Scanlan (Salesman), Edward Gero (Hasler) and Eddie Korbich (Hines) in The Pajama Game. Photo by Margot Schulman.

In two sensational hours featuring some of the most memorable show tunes, Choreographer Parker Esse packs in a ton of dance on this reconfigured theater-in-the-round stage.  It begins with an electrifying opening number, “Hurry Up”, that reflects the seamstresses’ battle for a seven-and-a-half cents’ raise and the pressure they’re under to stitch up pajamas at breakneck speed.  Set Designer James Noone’s use of vintage sewing machine stations on wheels is an effective opening.  Later his use of an old Coke machine, 50’s typewriters, avocado green office phones, a classic juke box and a sunshine yellow dinette set, contribute mightily to a sense of time and place.

(L-R) Bridget Riley (Doris), Casey Wenger-Schulman (Carmen), Alexandra Frohlinger (Sandra), Nancy Anderson (Gladys), Gabi Stapula (Mae) and Heidi Kershaw Quick (Virginia) in The Pajama Game. Photo by Margot Schulman.

(L-R) Bridget Riley (Doris), Casey Wenger-Schulman (Carmen), Alexandra Frohlinger (Sandra), Nancy Anderson (Gladys), Gabi Stapula (Mae) and Heidi Kershaw Quick (Virginia) in The Pajama Game. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Expect to hear favorite tunes like “There Once Was a Man”, “Slow Down” – a dance that alternates between slow motion and fast forward, cleverly performed with flying bolts of cloth and tape measures, “Hey There” – sung by Sid using an office playback machine, and “Hernando’s Hideaway” – a castanets plus jitterbug dance between Sid and the hilariously drunken Gladys (Nancy Anderson).  Notable too is a duet with skirt chaser Prez (the captivatingly comic Blakely Slaybaugh) and the company’s bookkeeper Mae (the delicious Gabi Stapula) in a reprise of “Her Is”, and the factory timekeeper, Vernon Hines’ (Eddie Korbich) tap dance in “Think of the Time I Save” performed with the factory girls’ ensemble.

(L-R) Eddie Korbich (Hines) and Donna McKechnie (Mabel) in The Pajama Game. Photo by Margot Schulman

(L-R) Eddie Korbich (Hines) and Donna McKechnie (Mabel) in The Pajama Game. Photo by Margot Schulman

The outstanding 21-member cast includes Tony Award-winning actress, Donna McKechnie as Mabel, the boss’ secretary.  Musical Director and Conductor, James Cunningham’s 12-piece orchestra, hidden beneath the stage, doubles and triples on a total of 24 instruments to give this memorable production the full complement of sound it deserves.

Blakely Slaybaugh (Prez), Britney Coleman (Babe Williams) and cast of The Pajama Game. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Blakely Slaybaugh (Prez), Britney Coleman (Babe Williams) and cast of The Pajama Game. Photo by Margot Schulman.

A big, fat, all-American hit!  Highly recommended.

Through December 24th at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information call 202 488-3300 or visit www.ArenaStage.org.

The Price ~ Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
October 10, 2017
Special to The Alexandria Times

(L to R) Hal Linden as Gregory Solomon and Maboud Ebrahimzadeh as Victor Franz. Photo by Colin Hovde.

(L to R) Hal Linden as Gregory Solomon and Maboud Ebrahimzadeh as Victor Franz. Photo by Colin Hovde.

For Arena Stage’s 20th Anniversary season, Artistic Director Molly Smith has placed her bets on Hal Linden, an actor’s actor whose comedic timing is a veritable master class.  Linden plays the part of Gregory Solomon, a Russian Jew and antique dealer in Arthur Miller’s classic play, The Price.  It’s sheer pleasure to watch Linden ply his lines and experience his instinctively smooth delivery and Old Country accent – with a hearty dose of shtick added for good measure.  Playing off an exceptional performance of Maboud Ebrahimzadeh as Victor Franz, a frustrated cop who failed to realize his potential, this production, artfully directed by Seema Sueko, is a well-cast delight that brings both searing drama and mood-lightening humor to the American stage.

Victor and his wife, Esther (Pearl Sun) are liquidating the estate of his late, formerly wealthy father, a failed businessman that pitted his two sons against each other.  Walter (Rafael Untalan), a successful surgeon who hasn’t spoken to his brother in 16 years, encourages Victor and his wife to keep the proceeds.  Clearly, he feels some compunction that he hasn’t returned Victor’s calls.  And though Esther encourages them to patch up their relationship, Victor is stuck in past resentments, unable to decide on his retirement date and his plans for their future.

(L to R) Pearl Sun as Esther Franz, Maboud Ebrahimzadeh as Victor Franz and Rafael Untalan as Walter Franz. Photo by Colin Hovde.

(L to R) Pearl Sun as Esther Franz, Maboud Ebrahimzadeh as Victor Franz and Rafael Untalan as Walter Franz. Photo by Colin Hovde.

As Gregory tries to convince Victor how worthless the antiques are, it becomes a parlor game between the two, with the old man using his considerable bargaining skills and Victor feeling taken.  Every time Victor feels as though he’s struck a deal, the street savvy Gregory turns the tables, stalling for time.  In a particularly hilarious scene, the sly swindler plops down on a chair and peels a hard cooked egg, toying with Victor like a lion with its prey.

As the brothers attempt to smooth out their acrimony, with Esther as cheerleader, they relegate Gregory to a back room from where he pops out to renegotiate at the most inopportune moments to great comic relief.  Against the backdrop of his comedic interruptions, the brothers’ long-simmering jealousies surface and the self-righteous Victor destroys any hope of reconciliation.

(L to R) Maboud Ebrahimzadeh as Victor Franz and Hal Linden as Gregory Solomon. Photo by Colin Hovde.

(L to R) Maboud Ebrahimzadeh as Victor Franz and Hal Linden as Gregory Solomon. Photo by Colin Hovde.

The action takes place in the late 60’s in the attic of their father’s former shop where Set Designer Wilson Chin piles period antiques to the rafters evoking memories of the brothers’ past and a lifetime of disappointments.

Highly recommended.

Through November 12th at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information call 202 488-3300 or visit www.ArenaStage.org.

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.

Ed Gero Returns in His Triumphant Role in The Originalist ~ Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
July 13, 2017 

Edward Gero as Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia in The Originalist, which runs July 7-July 30, 2017 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Edward Gero as Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Welcome back Supreme Court Justice Antonin “Nino” Scalia!  A lot has happened since Ed Gero inhabited your body.  Donald Trump became our president (I think you would have been delighted) and the whole Roe v. Wade thing continues to be a hot button issue which might tickle you as a strict constitutionalist.

As you may recall Gero brilliantly portrayed you in a tour de force performance in The Originalist in 2015 shortly before you left this earth in 2016.  Was that the nail in the coffin?  On a lighter note you’ll be pleased to know your legacy has carried on much as you had hoped, with your alma mater Harvard University establishing a professorship in your name.  Unfortunately, George Mason University, who got a cool $30 million to rename its law school after you, chose the initialization ASSol for Antonin Scalia School of Law, which became the “butt” of many jokes.  As of this writing your place in history is secure, and you can stop spinning in your grave in that it has been more appealingly amended to read ASLS.  –  – Yours truly, J. Wright

Having reviewed Arena’s initial production in the Spring of 2015, I can say that this one is snappier, more irreverent, if that’s possible, and just as timely as my first viewing when Playwright John Strand was Arena’s Resident Playwright.  Its unprecedented success inspired Director Molly Smith’s “Power Plays” initiative in which the theatre commissions 25 new plays or musicals focusing on American political history.  These will reflect Presidential Voices, Women’s Voices, African-American Voices, Musical Theatre Voices and Insider Voices.

 (L to R) Edward Gero as Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and Jade Wheeler as Cat in The Originalist, which runs July 7-July 30, 2017 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Photo by Gary W. Sweetman, Asolo Repertory Theatre.

(L to R) Edward Gero as Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and Jade Wheeler as Cat. Photo by Gary W. Sweetman, Asolo Repertory Theatre.

In this refresh the role of Cat (Jade Wheeler), Scalia’s liberal law clerk intern, has been purposely expanded.  She is given a lot more lines – and latitude.  And Wheeler takes it on with brio, charm, feistiness and terrific comic timing.  The broadening of her role goes towards leveling the playing field between Cat the progressive liberal vs. Scalia the combative, law-and-order conservative and adds measurably to the sharp-as-knives verbal sparring.  “Law is carved in stone,” and “Emotion is whatever you had for breakfast,” warns Scalia.  References to Facebook, Politico and recent past Presidents keep it updated.

Accompanied by interstices of grandiose operatic arias (the Sicilian-born Scalia was a known opera buff as well as gun rights advocate), he delivers arguments and pronouncements like bullets on a battlefield, but so does, Cat, an equally cerebral Harvard Law grad determined to change his mind.   “I dissent!” is his most oft repeated line from the man who once had acting aspirations.  He later confesses, “The court is my theatre.  I am not an ideologue.  I am an originalist!”

(L to R) Jade Wheeler as Cat and Brett Mack as Brad in The Originalist, which runs July 7-July 30, 2017 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Photo by Gary W. Sweetman, Asolo Repertory Theatre.

(L to R) Jade Wheeler as Cat and Brett Mack as Brad. Photo by Gary W. Sweetman, Asolo Repertory Theatre.

In explaining his reason for hiring her he reveals, “Every now and then I like to have a liberal around.  It reminds of how right I am.”  Cat, who views the court as a “fantasy palace”, is determined to upend his intransigence.  She seeks his heart, while he wants her soul.  “You’re stuck alone in your bunker.  Your constitution is just a shield you hide behind,” she mocks, defining his brand of government a “monsterocracy”.

Strand uses the Supreme Court’s decision on the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) as the centerpiece for the characters’ arguments pitting Scalia’s strict interpretation of the law as it was written centuries ago against Cat’s humanistic philosophy.  Yet notwithstanding their legal and psychological parrying, there develops a firm respect, moreover an admiration, for one another’s unflinching will and unwavering opinions.  It’s irresistible to anyone interested in the workings of the law, SCOTUS or the evolution of the Court’s decisions.

Setting the tone and highlighting the majesty and gravity of the Court and its private chambers, Lighting Designer Colin K. Bills gives us two massive crystal chandeliers in order to appropriately frame the pronouncements from Scalia’s Kingly Court of Conservatism.  Set Designer Mischa Kachman adds floor-to-ceiling red velvet drapes trimmed with golden tassels: lest you forget the import of where you are.

Highly recommended.

Through August 6th at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information call 202 488-3300 or visit www.ArenaStage.org.