Moby Dick ~ Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
November 27, 2016
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

The cast of Moby Dick. Photo by Liz Lauren/Lookingglass Theatre Company.

The cast of Moby Dick. Photo by Liz Lauren/Lookingglass Theatre Company.

Co-production alliances benefit all theatregoers and the latest collaboration between Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre Company and Arena Stage proves the point.  It saves theatres a heavy outlay by not having to mount expensive, new productions – plus shorter rehearsal time saves space and the actors already know their blocking and lines.  In addition, these productions come with critics’ raves.

Which brings me to Moby Dick – one of the most splendid and spectacular, alluringly bizarre plays I’ve reviewed to date.  Imagine, if you will, the physicality of Cirque du Soleil driving Melville’s major opus, coupled with all the theatrics of a Greek tragicomedy.  You can’t?  Neither could I until I saw this eye-popping interpretation of the classic tale of a whale.  Theatregoers will be talking about this production for years to come.

Using the parable of Jonah as fugitive from God, a preacher inspires Ishmael (Jamie Abelson) to find his soul through a whaling voyage.  Lured on by red-haired Puritan furies in funereal Victorian dresses and tight chignons (they later morph into a chorus of sea sirens in spectral gowns) the hapless fellow soon finds himself at the Spouter’s Inn among a rowdy group of drunken Nantucket scrimshanders bellowing sea chanties and preparing for passage on the fated Pequod.

Director David Catlin, who adapted the play from the book, delivers a Dante-inspired version replete with a structure of ivory-hued masts curving inward like the narrowing rib cage of a whale.  Sailors shinny up the masts and dangle from the ship’s rigging in daredevil fashion and lifeboats seesaw above.

L to R) Christopher Donahue as Captain Ahab and Javen Ulambayar as Mungun in Moby Dick. Photo by Greg Mooney.

L to R) Christopher Donahue as Captain Ahab and Javen Ulambayar as Mungun in Moby Dick. Photo by Greg Mooney.

Notwithstanding the spectacular acrobatics, there is the underlying story of the vengeful Captain Ahab (Christopher Donahue) – his Devil’s bargain to capture and kill the evil leviathan who bit off his leg – and Ishmael’s struggle to find his life’s purpose.

Woman is portrayed as not only the object that lures men to their deaths, but as the sea personified, and also as the whale itself.  They become a symbol of what must be captured, conquered and stripped of life.  In a particularly powerful scene, a woman is hung by her heels.  Her voluminous skirts trail down over her head rendering her faceless and exposing the whalebone structure of her petticoat.  Her flesh is summarily stripped away as if cleaning a fish.  It is the height of machismo culture.

(L to R) Jamie Abelson as Ishmael and Anthony Fleming III as Queequeg i. Photo by Liz Lauren/Lookingglass Theatre Company.

(L to R) Jamie Abelson as Ishmael and Anthony Fleming III as Queequeg i. Photo by Liz Lauren/Lookingglass Theatre Company.

Some of these dramatic visual elements, twice used to great effect by hundreds of yards of silken fabric billowing out like waves, are balanced by extraordinarily fierce acting, haunting music and, yes! hilarity, most especially in the character of Queequeg (Anthony Fleming III), the savage outlier who becomes the catalyst for Ishmael’s voyage to manhood and redemption.

An outstanding production crew ties it all together with dramatic panache.  Costumes Sully Ratke; Aerial/Acrobatic Second City’s Actors Gymnasium founder Sylvia Hernandez-Distasi; Set Designer Courtney O’Neill; Lighting Design William C. Kirkham; Sound Design/Original Music Rick Sims.

Highly recommended.  If I gave out stars this would be an entire constellation!

Through December 24th at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For information and tickets for the Lillian Hellman Festival visit www.arenastage.org/hellman-festival or call 202 488-3300.

Carousel ~ Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
November 13, 2016
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

The cast of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Carousel. Photo by Maria Baranova.

The cast of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Carousel. Photo by Maria Baranova.

A brief moment of panic set in as my jaw hit the floor.  I’d just read Artistic Director, Molly Smith’s notes in the playbill and saw she was inspired by Thornton Wilder’s use of “mime in the entire show”.  Really?

“Somehow it feels right with the mythic nature of the story – and to remind us this isn’t reality TV,” she wrote, adding that collaborator David Leong is the show’s mime and fight expert.  Would the cast mime this indelibly lush score?  Would there be no orchestration?  I looked up hopefully and saw the orchestra perched on the catwalk and the conductor hidden in a cubby off to one side of the stage.  Okay, there was going to be music, but singing was still up in the air.  And maybe… literally.

Act One opens with the women miming the art of weaving on their looms.  As you’ll recall the story is set in a small town along the Maine coast, where the men are fishermen and the women work at Bascom’s Cotton Mill.  Silence.  And then an astonishing collection of lavishly costumed circus characters appears – a dancing bear, the strong man, a contortionist and other fabulous creatures parade around the revolving stage.  A coup for Designer Ilona Somogyi who presents us with a wide range of costumes from the elaborate fantasy circus characters, to the soft-colored linen dresses worn by the women – fisherman gear and natty togs worn by the men.

(L to R) Nicholas Rodriguez as Billy Bigelow and Betsy Morgan as Julie Jordan. Photo by Tony Powell.

(L to R) Nicholas Rodriguez as Billy Bigelow and Betsy Morgan as Julie Jordan. Photo by Tony Powell.

At this point we are still in mime mode.  I am crestfallen.  Until…the talking begins and Billy Bigelow, lowlife carnival barker (Nicholas Rodriguez), Mrs. Mullin (E. Faye Butler) amusement park impresario, and Julie Jordan (Betsy Morgan) adorable ingénue come to life – conversationally.  Thank heavens!  The music swells to Julie and Carrie’s duet “When I Marry Mr. Snow”, and it’s game on!

(L to R) Kurt Boehm, Nicole Wildy, Thomas Adrian Simpson, Rayanne Gonzales and Ethan Kasnett. Photo by Maria

(L to R) Kurt Boehm, Nicole Wildy, Thomas Adrian Simpson, Rayanne Gonzales and Ethan Kasnett. Photo by Maria Baranova.

The story focuses on Julie and her enduring adoration of Billy who treats her worse than a junkyard dog.  Billy, a low-life gambler, is fired from the park and down on his luck, with no prospects other than his upcoming marriage to Miss, I-am-in-serious-denial, Julie.  With the help of his pal, Jigger (played skillfully and creepily by Kyle Schliefer) they concoct a scam to rob old Mr. Bascom (Thomas Adrian Simpson).  While they’re up to no good, the townsfolk merrily carry on with their annual clambake and treasure hunt in “A Real Nice Clambake”.

Expect a phenomenal cast singing their heads off to the tunes we adore.  Morgan lending her dulcet tones to songs like “If I Loved You”.  Rodriguez blowing the roof off with his tremendous baritone in “Soliloquy” and “The Highest Judge of All”.

The production, directed by Molly Smith and choreographed by the multi-award winning Parker Esse, is a far cry from what we’ve come to expect from stale summer stock versions.  This one comes at you freshly minted, with a white-washed stage set, and utterly captivating.  The composer geniuses, Rodgers and Hammerstein II, would melt at the exquisite dance routines designed by Esse and the richly orchestrated music.  We can thrill to duets like, “You’ll Never Walk Alone”, sung here in operatic style by Julie and Nettie (Ann Arvia).

The biggest surprise though comes in Act Two with the introduction of Louise, Billy’s daughter, played by masterfully by Skye Mattox.  A mere slip of a girl who moves like spilled mercury, Mattox is as graceful as a prima ballerina and as fluid as a cool stream.

A twelve-member orchestra playing multiple instruments backs up the extraordinary cast.

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 Year of Magical Thinking ~ Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
October 16, 2016
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

Kathleen Turner as Joan Didion in The Year of Magical Thinking at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, October 7-November 20, 2016. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Kathleen Turner as Joan Didion in The Year of Magical Thinking at Arena Stage at the Mead Cente . Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Joan Didion’s 2005 memoir The Year of Magical Thinking forms the basis of this one-woman monologue starring Oscar-winning film and stage star Kathleen Turner.  The dramatic version of which first appeared on Broadway in 2007.  Much has been written about Didion’s style of writing, both before her death and after.  But whether favorable or not, she was considered one of the most important writer/journalist/essayists of her time.  In a way she ushered in the “Me” generation with her self-absorbed, edgy style of writing.  You either like her, or you don’t.  Either way you slice it, she was an influential voice for decades. 

The plot chronicle’s Didion’s personal journey while mourning the tragic loss of her husband, author John Gregory Dunne and tending to her ailing daughter, Quintana, who lies in a comatose state.  From her early life in New York City as part of an elite group of writers (a 70’s version of the famed Algonquin Round Table), to her later life in fashionable Brentwood and Malibu enclaves, “I drove my Corvette down the PHC [Pacific Coast Highway for you non-Californians],” she quips, the conservative Republican author was eager to be regarded as a style-setter with the street cred of a bi-coastal, jet-setting journalist and wife of a successful Hollywood screenwriter. 

Kathleen Turner as Joan Didion in The Year of Magical Thinking at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, October 7-November 20, 2016. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Kathleen Turner as Joan Didion in The Year of Magical Thinking at Arena Stage at the Mead Center. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

In this drama the grieving Didion explores her mental breakdown during the most disastrous year of her life warning us repeatedly that, “This will happen to you,” as a way of explaining what can and will befall an ordinary life.  With the discipline of a scholar, and naming the posh hospital she held vigil in, “Doctors Hospital, which became Beth Israel Medical Center, was right across from Gracie Mansion,” she proudly quips, she takes comfort in memorizing diagnoses and researching medical treatments and medications.  Struggling to maintain her sanity, she micro-manages the doctors and nurses and chronologizes her daughter’s failing health.  Some of it is humorous – though you can imagine feeling pity for the nurses she abuses – and some of it is superficial, as she namedrops her celebrity pals and notes her fondest memory of her daughter is her blond hair bleached by the California sun. 

In her attempt to grapple with the day-to-day realities of planning her husband’s funeral and caring for her daughter, she seizes on primitive man’s anthropological concept of “magical thinking”.  But notwithstanding her attempts at the spiritual, she soon learns that all of her maneuvering can’t protect her from the anguish and the debilitating vortex of despair.  

Director Gaye Taylor Upchurch does a fine job of keeping the pace lively and Turner proves a more than capable candidate to channel Didion’s internal conflicts. 

Through November 20th at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information call 202 488-3300 or visit www.ArenaStage.org. 

The Little Foxes Brings Lillian Hellman Festival to Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
October 1, 2016
Special to The Alexandria Times

(L to R) Megan Graves as Alexandra Giddens and Kim James Bey as Addie in Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, running September 23–October 30, 2016. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

(L to R) Megan Graves as Alexandra Giddens and Kim James Bey as Addie in Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes . Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Artistic Director Molly Smith kicked off the theatre’s Lillian Hellman Festival, with one of the playwright’s better-known plays, The Little Foxes. Hellman, one of America’s greatest women writers, was an iconoclast whose career spanned six decades. Branded a Communist during the McCarthy era and blacklisted in Hollywood, she nevertheless continued her groundbreaking work for the stage. With this play she exposed the dark underbelly of the South during the turn of the 20th century, weaving together themes of racism and internecine family rivalry. The drama is said to be based on her great uncles and aunt.

(L to R) Gregory Linington as Oscar Hubbard, Edward Gero as Benjamin Hubbard and Stanton Nash as Leo Hubbard in Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, running September 23–October 30, 2016. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

(L to R) Gregory Linington as Oscar Hubbard, Edward Gero as Benjamin Hubbard and Stanton Nash as Leo Hubbard in Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes at Arena Stage. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

It portrays the Hubbards, a family whose successes and failures are umbilically linked by greed and jealousy. The brothers, Benjamin (Edward Gero) and Oscar (Gregory Linington), run the family business with young Leo (Stanton Nash). In an effort to shore up their failing cotton plantation, they strike a deal with a Northern businessman, William Marshall (James Whalan) to modernize their operation. But their sister, Regina Hubbard Giddens, a woman of considerable connivance (played by the incomparable Marg Helgenberger), is determined to get a cut of the deal.

Regina is married to the much older and wheelchair-bound Horace (Jack Willis), a man of considerable fortune. However, as primogeniture was the custom of the period, and women did not inherit estates, Regina envisions a far more glamorous future for herself when Horace passes.

 (L to R) Edward Gero as Benjamin Hubbard, Gregory Linington as Oscar Hubbard, Isabel Keating as Birdie Hubbard and Marg Helgenberger as Regina Giddens in Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, running September 23–October 30, 2016. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

(L to R) Edward Gero as Benjamin Hubbard, Gregory Linington as Oscar Hubbard, Isabel Keating as Birdie Hubbard and Marg Helgenberger as Regina Giddens in Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes at Arena Stage. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Isabel Keating plays Oscar’s wife Birdie, whose vast plantation, Lyonette, the Hubbards now have in their control. In other words, the conniving Oscar has married her for her lands and she’s been taken to the cleaners. Her son Leo is equally as unscrupulous – finding a way to steal the funds necessary to close the deal without Horace’s approval.

Fortified by a decanter of elderberry wine, Keating’s Birdie affords us the most amusing, and bittersweet, highlight of the drama. Add to that fine performances from Kim James Bey as Addie and David Emerson Toney as Cal.

Director Kyle Donnelly’s staging lends an ominous air to the deceit and collusion between Oscar, Leo and Ben, and later Regina. It’s enough to make your hair stand on end.

Set Designer Mikiko Suzuki Macadams presents us with an opulent Victorian living room with raised dining room and a stark treeless backdrop and Jess Goldstein gives us period costumes to match.

Warning: Do not jump out of your seat, as I did, when you hear the “N” word which occurs several times during the course of the play.

Through October 30th at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024. For information and tickets for the Lillian Hellman Festival visit www.arenastage.org/hellman-festival or call 202 488-3300.

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.