All the Way ~ Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
April 11, 2016
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

(L to R) Jack Willis as President Lyndon Baines Johnson and Bowman Wright as Martin Luther King, Jr. Photo by Stan Barouh.

(L to R) Jack Willis as President Lyndon Baines Johnson and Bowman Wright as Martin Luther King, Jr. Photo by Stan Barouh.

Robert Schenkkan’s exhilarating play, All the Way, allows us to step into the very large Texas boots of our 36th President.  Set between November of 1963 and November of 1964, it is set in the time of Lyndon Baines Johnson’s sudden and untimely ascension to the presidency and his efforts toward passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

(L to R) Adrienne Nelson as Muriel Humphrey, Richard Clodfelter as Hubert Humphrey, Jack Willis as President Lyndon Baines Johnson, John Scherer as Walter Jenkins and Susan Rome as Lady Bird Johnson. Photo by Stan Barouh.

(L to R) Adrienne Nelson as Muriel Humphrey, Richard Clodfelter as Hubert Humphrey, Jack Willis as President Lyndon Baines Johnson, John Scherer as Walter Jenkins and Susan Rome as Lady Bird Johnson. Photo by Stan Barouh.

All the pivotal players of the period are represented and the cast adopts many roles in filling in for the lesser characters.  Jack Willis offers up a formidable LBJ, strident, bullying, oftimes terrifying yet indelibly effective, larger-than-life president at the peak of his powers.  Then there’s Lady Bird (Susan Rome), Walter Jenkins (John Scherer), George Wallace (Cameron Folmar) and his wife Lurleen Wallace (Adrienne Nelson), Richard Clodfelter as Hubert Humphrey, Richmond Hoxie as the slithery, red-baiting J. Edgar Hoover and Stephen F. Schmidt as his henchman Cartha DeLoach, David Bishins as Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and Tom Wiggin as Stanley Levison, the white civil rights activist.

(L to R) JaBen Early as Stokely Carmichael, David Emerson Tony as Roy Wilkins, Desmond Bing as Bob Moses, Craig Wallace as Ralph Abernathy and Bowman Wright as Martin Luther King, Jr.. Photo by Stan Barouh.

(L to R) JaBen Early as Stokely Carmichael, David Emerson Tony as Roy Wilkins, Desmond Bing as Bob Moses, Craig Wallace as Ralph Abernathy and Bowman Wright as Martin Luther King, Jr.. Photo by Stan Barouh.

Pitted against the lawmakers, influence peddlers and power brokers were those black Americans who had been lobbying tirelessly for voting rights and anti-discrimination laws.  Maintaining peace between the activists, the protesters and church representatives were Martin Luther King, Jr. (Bowman Wright), NAACP leader Roy Wilkins (David Emerson Toney) and Ralph Abernathy (Craig Wallace) who kept the younger, more outspoken SNCC student activists, led by Stokely Carmichael (Jaben Early) and Bob Moses (Desmond Bing), from squandering an opportunity to change the course of history.  Shannon Dorsey becomes an integral part of this flawless cast as Coretta Scott King.

(L to R) Bowman Wright as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Shannon Dorsey as Coretta Scott King. Photo by Stan Barouh.

(L to R) Bowman Wright as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Shannon Dorsey as Coretta Scott King. Photo by Stan Barouh.

There are so many knock-out performances to chronicle, but most memorable are LBJ, MLK, Lady Bird and Wallace, whose stump speech echoes a few of today’s presidential candidates and will throw chills up your spine.

(L to R) Stephen F. Schmidt, David Emerson Tony, Richard Clodfelter and Lawrence Redmond. Photo by Stan Barouh.

(L to R) Stephen F. Schmidt, David Emerson Tony, Richard Clodfelter and Lawrence Redmond. Photo by Stan Barouh.

Under Kyle Donnelly’s superb direction this groundbreaking production emerges as a riveting tale of back door dealings, arm-twisting, personal threats and bullying, ameliorated by a hefty dose of schmoozing, drinking and ego-stroking in the Oval Office.  LBJ made it his business to find everyone’s Achilles’ heel and capitalize on it, even brutalize it if he needed to.  As to succeeding at passing the Civil Rights Act, he declares, “I’m gonna out-Roosevelt, Roosevelt!”  The story presents Johnson warts and all – from Southern charm and foul language to his innate political savvy.

(L to R) Richmond Hoxie as J. Edgar Hoover and Stephen F. Schmidt as Cartha “Deke” DeLoach. Photo by Stan Barouh.

(L to R) Richmond Hoxie as J. Edgar Hoover and Stephen F. Schmidt as Cartha “Deke” DeLoach. Photo by Stan Barouh.

No interaction between the characters is stagnant with Set Designer Kate Edmunds’ rotating presidential seal depicting the Oval Office.  Players step on and off, circulating, converging and dispersing.  It is hugely effective lending an intense and immediate energy.  Less effective are the multiple TV screens above the stage, so compelling is the action on stage.

Jack Willis as President Lyndon Baines Johnson and the cast. Photo by Stan Barouh.

Jack Willis as President Lyndon Baines Johnson and the cast. Photo by Stan Barouh.

When at last the bill sees passage after all Johnson’s wrangling, he admits, “There’s no gracious losers.  There’s no sore losers – just the walking dead.”  There’s a whiff of the Gulf of Tonkin incident, a memorable speech by civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer, and a dramatic turn in recalling the tragedy of the three murdered students, killed while trying to register black voters registered in Mississippi.

Highly recommended.  (N. B. There is a wealth of salty language, inappropriate for children.)

Through May 8th at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information call 202 488-3300 or visit www.ArenaStage.org.

The City of Conversation – Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
February 9, 2016
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

(L-R) Caroline Hewitt as Anna Fitzgerald, Margaret Colin as Hester Ferris and Michael Simpson as Colin Ferris. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

(L-R) Caroline Hewitt as Anna Fitzgerald, Margaret Colin as Hester Ferris and Michael Simpson as Colin Ferris. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Anthony Giardina’s The City of Conversation opens with a prophetic quote from then President Jimmy Carter – “the erosion of our conscience in the future is threatening to destroy the Social and Political fabric of America”.  And in this tale, its families too.

It’s 1979, eight years before journalist and Washington power hostess Sally Quinn declared the death of the political insider dinner party.  It was a time when the city’s power elite regularly negotiated over congenial cocktails and swank dinner parties in historic Georgetown homes – a time when the socially talented wives of certain influential men held considerable political sway.  The title comes courtesy of author and social reformer, Henry James, a Victorian liberal who would have known that a social gathering of Supreme Court justices, politicians of both stripes, DC socialites and media power brokers would create a highly charged atmosphere.

(L-R) Tyler Smallwood as Young Ethan and Caroline Hewitt as Anna Fitzgerald. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

(L-R) Tyler Smallwood as Young Ethan and Caroline Hewitt as Anna Fitzgerald. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

In admirable fashion Margaret Colin portrays Hester Ferris, a modern-day Helen of Troy, who is based on a composite of several well known Washington hostesses of their day – Pamela Harriman, Kitty Kelley, Evangeline Bruce, Perle Mesta and Sally Quinn, wife of the late Washington Post editor, Ben Bradlee.  (We know this from the revolving slide show of their photos in the theatre’s lobby and from Giardina’s acknowledgement that Quinn gave script advice.)

Tom Wiggin as Chandler Harris. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Tom Wiggin as Chandler Harris. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Hester is a staunch liberal whose inner circle includes her lover, Virginia Senator Chandler Harris (Tom Wiggin) and her spinster sister and secretary Jean, played outstandingly by Ann McDonough.  On this night she is preparing to entertain the racist Republican Senator from Kentucky, George Mallonee (Todd Scofield), in order to sway his vote.  But her dinner is upended when her son Colin (Michael Simpson), returns home early from Britain with his future fiancée and conservative firebrand, Anna (Caroline Hewitt).  Colin wryly explains his upbringing to Anna, “Dinner is always about something.  Other kids got “Pat the Bunny”, I got Tocqueville.”  When the politically ambitious Anna challenges Hester’s liberalism, and proves to be a worthy opponent, the drama kicks into high gear and Colin is forced to take sides in a house divided by power, politics and ultimately a mother’s betrayal of her only child.

(L-R) Todd Scofield as George Mallonee and Caroline Hewitt as Anna Fitzgerald. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

(L-R) Todd Scofield as George Mallonee and Caroline Hewitt as Anna Fitzgerald. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Less than a decade later we find Hester fighting Reagan’s nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court, Anna triumphing the cause of Oliver North and Chandler asking for sexual reassurance.  When Anna threatens Hester that her actions will result in her never seeing her adored grandson Ethan (Tyler Smallwood) again, there is a collective gasp from the audience that could rattle the 12-paned windows of Georgetown’s historic homes.

Director Doug Hughes places the action in the round, which sometimes results in 90˚ of the theatre laughing uproariously while the other 270° are straining to catch the punch lines.  Though some were missed, enough landed to sustain the humor, especially this zinger from Hester, “A president used to be able to get out of the White House, come to Georgetown and get advice!”  That went out with bell-bottom trousers.

If you’ve ever wanted a sneak peek into the glamor, gossip and Machiavellian intrigues of the Georgetown salon, this play lays it all at your feet – the polite arm-twisting, the post-prandial cigars and the deal-making all taking place over bourbon and branch.  It’s parlor politics at its best, served up effortlessly by a cast who does witty and wisecracking to perfection.

Highly recommended.

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

Sweat – Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
January 25, 2016
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

(L-R) Kimberly Scott as Cynthia, Kevin Kenerly as Brucie, Tara Mallen as Jessie and Johanna Day as Tracey. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

(L-R) Kimberly Scott as Cynthia, Kevin Kenerly as Brucie, Tara Mallen as Jessie and Johanna Day as Tracey. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Playwright Lynn Nottage must be gearing up for a second Pulitzer Prize.  Her latest production, Sweat, a gritty, hard-driving play has all the elements of a masterpiece.  Skillfully directed by Kaye Whoriskey the story plunges us headlong into the underbelly of an American drama in a story centered around factory workers whose jobs are endangered by the implementation of NAFTA – – the controversial trade agreement that forever altered the nation’s manufacturing landscape and destroyed the economic livelihood of thousands of workers and the social fabric of their cities and towns.

In Sweat, Nottage illustrates the fallout of those decisions by focusing on a town whose families have worked at the same factory for generations.  The plot, which toggles between 2000 to 2008, shows what befalls the town’s citizens as their rights and salaries are diminished and their unions are rendered defenseless when corporations take production to Third World countries.  In researching the story Nottage lived among those disenfranchised workers in Reading, PA, one of the areas of the country most affected by NAFTA.

(L-R) Jack Willis as Stan, Kimberly Scott as Cynthia and Johanna Day as Tracey. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

(L-R) Jack Willis as Stan, Kimberly Scott as Cynthia and Johanna Day as Tracey. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Stan (Jack Willis), a former millworker, now on disability, runs the bar where the locals meet to nurse their drinks, mark their birthdays and wallow in their miseries.  It serves as a part-time living room for factory working mothers and their sons like Tracey (Johanna Day) and her son, Jason (Stephen Michael Spencer) and Tracey’s best friends and co-workers on the factory floor, Jessie (Tara Mallen) and Cynthia (Kimberly Scott) and her son Chris (Tramell Tillman).  John Lee Beatty’s set design of the down-and-dirty local bar is spot on with its neon beer signs and rundown furnishings.

As they struggle through these issues, Tracey and Cynthia learn that a management job has opened up at the factory, compromising their friendship as they vie for the same position.  At last after being locked out and walking the picket line for nearly two years, the friends are offered an ultimatum – – take a pay cut and lose your benefits or lose your job – – a scenario played out across the country as corporations sought to bust the unions.  “They squeeze us like a sponge,” Tracey indignantly howls.

(L-R) Johanna Day as Tracey and Reza Salazar as Oscar. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

(L-R) Johanna Day as Tracey and Reza Salazar as Oscar. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

In a twist of fate, Stan’s barback, Oscar (Reza Salazar), a solicitous young Hispanic working at minimum wage, breaks the line to take a job at the factory and the situation turns uglier.

Nottage focuses on the families, friendships and towns that were changed and challenged overnight by drug addiction, suicide and alcoholism.  As the young men’s parole officer Evan (Tyrone Wilson) explains to them, “Shame is crippling.  Shame eats away at us until we disappear.”

It is a gut-wrenching, darkly humorous and powerfully visceral story that reveals the suspicion, hatred, racism and jealousies that arise when workers looking for explanations for their cruelly altered circumstances seek to spread the blame.  Performed by a seasoned cast who convey these raw emotions exquisitely.

Brilliantly acted and highly recommended.

Through February 21st at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SW, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information call 202 488-3300 or visit www.ArenaStage.org.

New Production of Oliver Is Edgy at Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
November 12, 2015
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

Jeff McCarthy as Fagin and the company of Oliver! at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater Photo by Margot Schulman.

Jeff McCarthy as Fagin and the company of Oliver! at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater Photo by Margot Schulman.

A decidedly refreshing Oliver debuted at Arena Stage last night signaling a break with traditional productions of Charles Dickens’ mid-19th century classic of the underbelly of England’s Victorian era.  Director Molly Smith’s interpretation transports the audience to the seedy streets of modern day London to prove when it comes to crime and passion, poverty and the exploitation of the unfortunate, one of Dickens’ familiar themes, not much has changed.  Choreographer Parker Esse and Costume Designer Wade Laboissoniere perfectly echo that insight using breakdancing, pop-locking and electro-dancing coupled with edgy, urban streetwear combined with period Victoriana.  Special praise for Kyle Coffman as the Artful Dodger who executes some ballet/moonwalk dancing in “Consider Yourself”.  Props by Marion Hampton Dube are modernized to reflect the era – a boombox is boosted, credit cards hoarded, cell phones take selfies and Oliver sports a backpack.  Can you picture Fagin grilling sausages on a BBQ grill?  You’d better.  He does. 

Eleasha Gamble as Nancy and the company of Oliver! at Arena Stage at the Mead CenterPhoto by Margot Schulman.

Eleasha Gamble as Nancy and the company of Oliver! at Arena Stage at the Mead CenterPhoto by Margot Schulman.

Notwithstanding this edgy version, the story of the tiny orphan Oliver (Jake Heston Miller) hasn’t changed a whit.  It is still the tale of Oliver Twist, a street urchin first captured by Mr. Bumble (Paul Vogt) and his reluctant paramour, the Widow Corney (Rayanne Gonzalez), who then sel him off to Draconian funeral parlor owners Mr. and Mrs. Sowerberry (Tom Story and Dorea Schmidt), only to be indoctrinated into a life as a pickpocket by the captivating Svengali, Fagin (Jeff McCarthy), and his workhouse boys with the sympathetic portrait of Nancy (Eleasha Gamble), the mohawk-sporting crook with a heart of gold, and her swaggering lover, Bill Sykes (Ian Lassiter), the evilest villain in London town. 

(L-R) Jeff McCarthy as Fagin and Jake Heston Miller as Oliver in Oliver! at Arena Stage at the Mead CenterPhoto by Margot Schulman.

(L-R) Jeff McCarthy as Fagin and Jake Heston Miller as Oliver in Oliver! at Arena Stage at the Mead CenterPhoto by Margot Schulman.

Twenty-one numbers neatly envelop the plot.  I particularly loved Story and Schmidt’s portrayal as two perfectly matched grim reapers with Story playing the foil to Schmidt’s dominatrix in a snappy Noel Coward-style rendition of “That’s Your Funeral”; Gamble’s soaring soul-filled version of “It’s a Fine Life” and “As Long As He Needs Me” (goosebumps guaranteed); Miller’s “Where is Love?” sung in an angelic, pitch perfect, boychoir treble; and McCarthy’s gravelly-voiced, comedic handling of “Pick a Pocket or Two” and “Reviewing the Situation”.  Paul Sportelli leads the 13-piece orchestra so seamlessly you’d think it was recorded from the original. 

(L-R) Jake Heston Miller as Oliver and Tom Story as Mr. Sowerberry in Oliver! at Arena Stage at the Mead Center - Photo by Margot Schulman.

(L-R) Jake Heston Miller as Oliver and Tom Story as Mr. Sowerberry in Oliver! at Arena Stage at the Mead Center – Photo by Margot Schulman.

To add to the intensity, there are dozens of mood-altering light cues by Lighting Designer Colin K. Bills that instantly transform the atmosphere from dark and gritty to warm and fuzzy to reflect the dramatic transitions in Oliver’s circumstances.  Much of the action is played out above the audience on Set Designer Todd Rosenthal’s crisscrossed steel bridge allowing for extra staging beyond the immediate theater-in-the-round.  And there are plenty of thrills as Oliver and his gang of juvenile delinquents evade the London bobbies. 

Though this is a hugely entertaining, high-adrenaline show, I would not recommend it for young children as there is a good deal of bump-and-grind, coupled with hard drug use by the urchins.

Through January 3, 2016 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information call 202 488-3300 or visit www.ArenaStage.org

Dear Evan Hansen Taps Into Teen Angst – Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
August 4, 2015
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

(L to R) Laura Dreyfuss as Zoe and Ben Platt as Evan in the world-premiere musical Dear Evan Hansen at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater July 10-August 23, 2015. Photo by Margot Schulman.

(L to R) Laura Dreyfuss as Zoe and Ben Platt as Evan in the world-premiere musical Dear Evan Hansen at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater July 10-August 23, 2015. Photo by Margot Schulman.

A good indicator that this is a production in flux is the playbill’s last minute insert – – the list of the 16 musical numbers in the show and the characters that sing them – – decisions undoubtedly made after the printing.  But if you watched the much-beloved, now-cancelled Smash, you’d know that was a key aspect of the TV show’s story line.  Benj Pasek and Justin Paul are the show’s musical team and lyricists who are both alumni of the romantic drama that focused on the angst of creating a hit Broadway show.

In this coming-of-age musical written by Steven Levenson and directed by Michael Greif, Evan Hansen (Ben Platt, best known as the endearing star of the Pitch Perfect films) is an socially tormented teen, raised by a single mother (Rachel Bay Jones) in the age of social media.  An outcast at school, his psychologist prescribes anti-anxiety meds and the self-examining exercise of writing letters to himself.  But that alone won’t curb the bullying and cure his aimless life until the day Connor Murphy (Mike Faist), a fellow outcast, takes his own life and a series of seemingly unconnected events converge to give Evan a purpose and an imaginative explanation for his broken arm.  “You play who you have to play,” Jared tells Evan.

(L to R) Michael Park as Larry, Jennifer Laura Thompson as Cynthia, Ben Platt as Evan and Laura Dreyfuss as Zoe in the world-premiere musical Dear Evan Hansen at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater July 10-August 23, 2015. Photo by Margot Schulman.

(L to R) Michael Park as Larry, Jennifer Laura Thompson as Cynthia, Ben Platt as Evan and Laura Dreyfuss as Zoe in the world-premiere musical Dear Evan Hansen. Photo by Margot Schulman.

The show has all the elements necessary to captivate – an absorbing story, tremendous cast, catchy, emotionally affecting tunes (backed by a 16-member choir, each described as “Additional Voice” in the program), the brilliant Music Director Ben Cohn with orchestrations by Alex Lacamoire, and a hot topic.  The problem is it’s overly long causing it to drift into a number of obfuscating side stories.  Even though Jennifer Laura Thompson and Michael Park are terrific as Connor’s bereaved parents and Laura Dreyfuss is engaging as Zoe Murphy, Evan’s love interest, and notwithstanding that Will Roland and Alexis Molnar hit all the right emotional and comedic notes as Evan’s pals.  But the show loses momentum as the characters’ roles are overly fleshed out and side stories stretch into distractions.  Another bump is the annoying repetition of lyrics and all too frequent use of falsetto called for in the songs.  And although an intriguing device, Connor’s ghost, who haunts Evan and becomes his raison d’être, is more reminiscent of Ebenezer Scrooge than a reality check for Evan, as it eats up a great deal of the plot.

(L to R) Ben Platt as Evan, Michael Park as Larry, Jennifer Laura Thompson as Cynthia and Laura Dreyfuss as Zoe in the world-premiere musical Dear Evan Hansen at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater July 10-August 23, 2015. Photo by Margot Schulman.

(L to R) Ben Platt as Evan, Michael Park as Larry, Jennifer Laura Thompson as Cynthia and Laura Dreyfuss as Zoe in the world-premiere musical Dear Evan Hansen at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater July 10-August 23, 2015. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Instead, enjoy Set Designer David Korins’s furnishings drifting onstage via half-moon tracks and Projection Designer Peter Nigrini’s fantastic backdrop of text messages and emails projected onto a series of two-story sliding scrims and spilling out onto the stage floor.  The messages serve to remind us of the influence of Facebook and Twitter on teens and the impact of the typed word to enhance or endanger their lives in a single keystroke.  Can you say “going viral”?  The story has more sociological and psychological messages than Dr. Phil and Days of Our Lives combined.

Still despite the thought of tweaks and cuts, you can rest assured its message will captivate Millennials and Generation Z’ers raised in a world of student warehousing, cyber-bullying, secret email accounts and electronic devices.  There is an important story to be told here.  It just needs work.

Through August 23rd at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information call 202 488-3300 or visit www.ArenaStage.org.