Anything Goes ~ Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
November 10, 2018 

A feel-good, razzamatazz, hotsy-totsy lollapalooza musical just blew into town like a tornado.  And if you’ll pardon my saying so, it’s the Tower of Pisa, the Louvre Museum, it’s the Top (with apologies to Cole Porter).  You won’t have to head to Broadway to take in fabulous hoofing, gorgeous singing and shtick.  Director Molly Smith’s Anything Goes is the show to see right here and right now!  In the pantheon of American musicals, it’s one of the finest ever written, and fair warning: I expect it will be sold out, so grab your tickets STAT!

(L to R) Soara-Joye Ross (Reno Sweeney) and Corbin Bleu (Billy Crocker) in Anything Goes. Photo by Maria Baranova.

When Cole Porter wrote the music and lyrics in 1934 with humorist P. G. Wodehouse, who penned the sophisticated bon mots of Bertie Wooster and Jeeves the Butler, & Guy Bolton, the musical comedy writer, plus Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, it was a different era.  Some ideas were not as politically or socially correct as we would like.  Securing permission from the composer’s estate, Artistic Director Molly Smith received permission to update the musical.  The story remains intact – a boy and girl experience unrequited love on an ocean liner joined by an evangelist and her “angels”, a covey of crooks, a slew of sailors and a soupçon of society’s upper crust.  What’s fresh is the new book by Timothy Crouse & John Weidman and the diversity of the cast, a thoughtful interpretation of the action, sensational choreography and comic throwaway lines directed at the audience.  “C’mon it’s opening night,” Reno Sweeney calls out to the audience getting us pumped and prepped for what’s to come.  And just like that we’re off, crossing the Atlantic on the U. S. America ocean liner, pulling for them and yukking it up with every cliché, mishap and malapropism.

(L to R) Nicholas Yenson (Ensemble/Quartet), Maria Rizzo (Erma/Ensemble) and Mickey Orange (Ensemble/Quartet) in Anything Goes. Photo by Maria Baranova.

Here is a cast that surprises at every turn.  Soara-Joye Ross (Reno Sweeney) showcases her tremendous diva voice with heaps of attention-getting vibrato, captivating from the get-go with the immensely talented Corbin Bleu (Billy Crocker) and scene stealers Maria Rizzo as Erma, Thomas Adrian Simpson as Elisha Whitney, Jimmy Ray Bennett as Lord Evelyn Oakleigh, and Stephen DeRosa as Moonface Martin.

Thanks to award-winning choreographer Parker Esse, there’s soft shoe, modern dance, waltz and eye-popping tap which gratefully is making a strong resurgence.  Think Gower Champion, Jerome Robbins and Tommy Tune all rolled into one.  It’s that good with heaps of singing and dancing up close and personal in the Fichandler’s theater-in-the-round.  Factor in the talents of Conductor/Musical Director Paul Sportelli whose orchestra outdoes itself with orchestration that soars on some of the musical’s most memorable numbers – “I Get a Kick Out of You”, “You’re the Top”, “Easy to Love”, Anything Goes”, “It’s De-lovely” – and many more.

(L to R) Mickey Orange (Ensemble/Quartet), Ben Gunderson (Purser/Ensemble/Quartet), Soara-Joye Ross (Reno Sweeney), Brent McBeth (Ensemble/Quartet/Fred/Photographer) and Nicholas Yenson (Ensemble/Quartet) in Anything Goes . Photo by Maria Baranova.

With Lisa Helmi Johanson as Hope Harcourt, Lisa Tejero as Evangeline Harcourt, Jonathan Holmes as Captain, Ben Gunderson as Purser, Christopher Shin as Luke, Julio Catano-Yee as John, DeMoya Watson Brown as Purity, Kristyn Pope as Chastity, Andrea Weinzierl as Charity, and Maximillian Moonshine/Olly as “Cheeky” the dog.

Soara-Joye Ross (Reno Sweeney) and the cast of Anything Goe. Photo by Maria Baranova.

Set Design by Ken Macdonald, Costumes by Alejo Vietti, Lighting Design by Kimberly Purtell, Hair and Wig Design by Charles G. Lapointe.

Spunk, pizazz and sumptuous buffoonery in spades.  You’ll want to see this one over and over again.

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

Turn Me Loose ~ A Play About Comic Genius Dick Gregory ~ Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
September 17, 2018

Playwright Gretchen Law’s political, darkly comic drama is a starkly drawn love letter to comedian activist, Dick Gregory.  It reminds us of Gregory’s take-no-prisoners battle against racism and America’s dark past and its current treatment of indigent African-Americans.  I use the term ‘African-American’ though you won’t hear Gregory use it.  It was not yet in fashion in Gregory’s day, folks were still saying ‘Negro’ or the newly coined term, ‘Black’.  In this monologue, Gregory liberally slings what we now refer to as the ‘N’ word.  It’s sickening to hear it used today – though rappers frequently do.  The audience squirms.  It’s exactly what Law wants us to feel.  We know it’s a word for Blacks’ usage only.  Gregory used the word to shock and to defuse its dehumanizing effect.  If you’re White, don’t even think about using it. You are not that cool and probably never will be.

Edwin Lee Gibson (Dick Gregory) in Turn Me Loose. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Director John Gould Rubin puts Gregory (played compellingly by Edwin Lee Gibson) center stage in Christopher Barreca’s simple set design, to focus on Gregory’s impact on and dedication to the Civil Rights movement.  Using humor to promote change, Gregory endeavored to heighten awareness of such issues as income disparity, corporate greed, capitalism, consumerism, drug companies and Wall Street.

Growing up in poverty in St. Louis, he was acutely aware of its demonic grip.  “Poverty is what threatens Democracy,” he foretold. And comedy was his salvation.  As a young man he started out performing standup in small local nightclubs catching the eye of Playboy magazine publisher, Hugh Hefner, who invited him to perform a one-night only gig at the Mansion where Gregory quickly offended a congress of rednecks.  As the first black comedian on the nightclub scene, his popularity led to gigs in Vegas and national TV appearances.  Soon after he became close friends with Civil Rights activist Medgar Evans and began performing for the NAACP.  To say he was a hero to the movement, is an understatement.

Edwin Lee Gibson (Dick Gregory) in Turn Me Loose. Photo by Margot Schulman.

The play toggles between the 60’s when Gregory became radicalized – even running for President during the Nixon-era – and the 2017 post-Obama era when he was able to witness a modicum of change.  John Carlin reprises his roles as Stand-up Comic/Emcee/Interviewer/Heckler and Cabbie in this riveting presentation.

Gregory died last summer after more than half a century of activism and before witnessing the growth of the #BlackLivesMatter movement and the nation’s conflicted response to pro football player Colin Kaepernick’s taking a knee to draw attention to young men killed in record numbers by police. In later years, Gregory made DC his home.  You have to wonder what he would say if he were still here.

Edwin Lee Gibson (Dick Gregory) in Turn Me Loose. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Highly recommended.

In association with John Legend, Get Lifted Film Company and the Will and Jada Smith Family Foundation.  Costume Design by Susan Hilferty, Lighting Design by Stephen Strawbridge and Sound Design by Leon Rothenberg.

Through October 21st at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information call 202 488-3300 or visit

Dave ~ Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
July 29, 2018 

Frustrated with the current administration’s wackadoodle politics and its daily grind of mean-spirited tweets?  Then let Dave be your panacea.  This uplifting story is drawn from the 1993 eponymous movie written by Gary Ross and starring Kevin Kline and Sigourney Weaver.  Remember that?  Well, it’s now a musical written by Tony Award-winning composer Tom Kitt (Next to Normal, If/Then, Bring it On: The Musical, Freaky Friday and SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical) and book writer/lyricist Nell Benjamin (co-writer with her husband Laurence O’Keefe of Legally Blonde, Mean Girls, Life of the Party, Huzzah!).  We need this.  We really, really need this!

Drew Gehling (Dave Kovic/President Bill Mitchell) in Dave, running July 18-August 19, 2018 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Director Tina Landau (SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical and many more) has achieved an astonishing assemblage of A-Plus experienced cast, crew and creators to produce a musical that soars in every category – choreography, sets, actors, musical numbers and lighting.  Set Designer Dane Laffrey and Projection Designer Peter Nigrini have conceived a sensational, floor-to-the-rafters cyclorama embedded with LED projections that changes scenes at the proverbial drop of a hat.  It’s not just cleverly conceived, it’s mind-blowing.

Set in Washington, DC, our hero, Dave Kovic (Drew Gehling) is a recently fired liberal-leaning, Abraham Lincoln-loving high school teacher who decides to take up posting YouTube videos of himself doing impressions of the current President, Bill Mitchell (also Gehling).  When POTUS suffers a stroke whilst in flagrante delicto with his girlfriend, Randi (Rachel Flynn), Dave is summoned to act as his secret stand-in.  He’s so convincing that FLOTUS, Ellen (Mamie Parris) and VP Nance (sounds like… oh, never mind… played by Jonathan Rayson), can’t tell it’s not Mitchell.  The only ones in on the ruse are the Secret Service, his Director of Communications, Susan Lee (Bryonha Marie Parham), and his devious Chief of Staff, Bob Alexander (Douglas Sills).

(L-R) Drew Gehling (Dave Kovic/President Bill Mitchell), Bryonha Marie Parham (Susan Lee) and Douglas Sills (Bob Alexander) in Dave, running July 18-August 19, 2018 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Up till the switcheroo, Lee and Alexander had been serving a President who was a self-consumed, self-aggrandizing idiot, demeaning to his wife while unceremoniously wrecking the country.  Sound familiar?  Meanwhile, Dave becomes more and more irreplaceable as his poll numbers continue to soar and the country (along with the audience!) cheers on his progressive agenda.  While POTUS is still in a coma, Dave feels guilty continuing the subterfuge until the ghosts of former Presidents – Buchanan, Taft, Harding, Harrison, Johnson, Hayes and John Quincy Adams – appear to him in the Lincoln Bedroom to convince him otherwise in one of the show’s most hilarious scenes.  Imagine the Secret Service as an armed-and-dangerous chorus line fronted by the President’s Chief of Staff.  Now, you’ve got the picture.

It’s a feel good, validating, change-the-world, political comedy musical with a flawless cast that will have you cheering all the way home.

Highly recommended.  A total hoot from beginning to end.

Drew Gehling (Dave Kovic/President Bill Mitchell) and the cast, in Dave, running July 18-August 19, 2018 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Photo by Margot Schulman.

With Jenny Ashman (Reporter, Ensemble), Jared Bradshaw (Reporter, Harding, Ensemble), Josh Breckenridge (Duane Bolden), Dana Costello (Reporter, Montana Jefferson, Ensemble), Trista Dollison (Reporter, Harrison, Ensemble), Sherri L. Edelen (Tour Guide, Mrs. Smit, Taft, Ensemble), Kevin R. Free (Murray Stein, Adams, Ensemble), Adam J. Levy (Mr. Wheeler, Ensemble), Erin Quill (Reporter, Hayes, Ensemble), Jonathan Rayson (Gary Nance, Johnson, Ensemble) and Vishal Vaidya (Paul, Ensemble)

Book by Thomas Meehan and Nell Benjamin, Set Design by Dane Laffrey, Choreography by Sam Pinkleton, Orchestrator Michael Starobin, Music Director Rob Berman, Costume Design by Toni-Leslie James, Lighting by Japhy Weideman, Sound Design by Walter Trarbach, Projection Design by Peter Nigrini.

In the Kreeger Theater through August 19, 2018 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information call 202 488-3300 or visit

Snow Child ~ Arena Stage Produced with Perseverance Theatre

Jordan Wright
April 27, 2018 

Out of the darkness of a frigid Alaskan winter, comes a sweet story of an enchanted, forest-dwelling wild child and her effect on a childless couple making their way in the forbidding landscape.  Molly Smith directs this premiere – the last of the season’s ‘Power Plays’ series at Arena Stage.  Smith’s connection to Alaska runs as deep as the snow drifts.  She began her theatre career opening Perseverance Theatre in Juneau in 1979 and was Founding Artistic Director there before coming to Arena twenty years ago.  To put it mildly, this is personal.

As Arena’s Artistic Director her influence is felt in all of her theatrical choices.  Smith’s commitment to this particular project is reflected in the length of time it took for it to go from page to stage – four years from the time the decision was made for John Strand to write the book based on Eowyn Ivey’s children’s story based on a Russian fairy tale.

L to R) Alex Alferov (Garrett) and Christiane Noll (Mabel) in Snow Child. Photo by Maria Baranova.

Set in pre-statehood Alaska of the 1920’s, a young suburban couple, Jack (Matt Bogart) and Mabel (Christiane Noll), makes the brave (reckless?) decision to homestead a 167-acre parcel in a wilderness where their nearest neighbors are an hour’s trek away.  The prerequisites to ownership are to farm the land for at least five years.  They seem determined.  But can they survive the brutal winters and the loss of their child so unbearable it will break them apart?

(L to R) Matt Bogart (Jack), Fina Strazza (Faina) and Dorothy James (Ensemble/Fox) in Snow Child. Photo by Maria Baranova.

In a brilliant feat of casting Fina Strazza plays the illusive snow child, Faina.  Strazza is utterly captivating as are the puppets – a giant Dapple Grey horse, a Tundra swan and Faina’s ‘familiar’, a curious white fox – designed by Emily Decola.  They are the perfect foil for the couple’s rough-hewn neighbors, George (Dan Manning) who makes moonshine, his wife Esther (Natalie Toro) and their son, Garrett (Alex Alferov) who vacillate between being good neighbors (who doesn’t like moose meat stew?) and imagining they will take over the homestead when Jack and Mabel quit trying.

(L to R) Dan Manning (George), Alex Alferov (Garrett), Natalie Toro (Esther), Christiane Noll (Mabel) and Matt Bogart (Jack) in Snow Child. Photo by Maria Baranova

Bob Banghart and Georgia Stitt composed 24 numbers for this heartfelt musical ranging from tender, melancholy ballads to upbeat songs (porch clogging, anyone?) – all to the tune of bluegrass accompaniment.  Expect to enjoy a score filled with mandolin, fiddle, banjo, piano, spoons and guitar led by conductor/percussionist/keyboardist William YaneshShawn Duan creates the spectacular stage-wide projections evoking the aurora borealis as well as the alpenglow against Alaskan mountain vistas. Cue the snow! Lots of it.

Pack your bags.  We’re going to Alaska!  Highly recommended.

With lighting by Kimberly Purtell, sound by Roc Lee, set designs by Todd Rosenthal, costumes by Joseph P. Salasovich, and musical supervision and orchestrations by Lynne Shankel.

Through May 20th 2018 in the Kreeger Theater at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information call 202 488.3300 or visit

Two Trains Running ~ Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
April 6, 2018 

Victor Vazquez and Kaitlin McIntyre have assembled a cast so perfect that the actors wear their roles like a second skin.  Spend two hours in Memphis Lee’s diner with Wolf, a hustler and numbers runner (Reginald André Jackson); Risa, an emotionally bereft waitress (Nicole Lewis); Holloway, a philosophical realist (David Emerson Toney in a scene stealing performance); West, an opportunistic undertaker (William Hall, Jr.); Hambone, a man denied his fair compensation (another exceptional performance from local actor Frank Riley III); and Sterling, an optimistic, lovesick ex-con (the very impressive Carlton Byrd), and you will come to know them well.

(L to R) David Emerson Toney (Holloway), William Hall, Jr. (West) and Eugene Lee (Memphis Lee) in August Wilson’s Two Trains Running. Photo by Nate Watters for Seattle Repertory Theatre.

Two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning American playwright August Wilson’s Two Trains Running affords a fly-on-the-wall view of a period and place in African American history, when the trains were moving but not everyone could board.

It was a time of frustration and economic disparity when arguments might be settled at the muzzle end of a gun.  But lest you imagine the story is moralistic or depressing, it’s far from it.  It’s actually hilarious with most of the setups provided by Holloway who also has one of the play’s most prophetic lines, “You got love and you got death.  Death will find you.  It’s up to you to find love.”  So is there room for love here?  There is.  Sterling works his charm on Risa and the group shows concern and affection for Hambone.

(L to R) Nicole Lewis (Risa), Carlton Byrd (Sterling) and Eugene Lee (Memphis Lee) in August Wilson’s Two Trains Running. Photo by Nate Watters for Seattle Repertory Theatre.

For this superb production, Arena’s Artistic Director Molly Smith has partnered with Seattle Repertory Theatre and its Artistic Director Braden Abraham, bringing in Director Juliette Carrillo who marshals the ensemble into giving some of the finest and most synchronistic performances we’ve seen in a long time.

(L to R) Frank Riley III (Hambone) and Carlton Byrd (Sterling) in August Wilson’s Two Trains Running. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Eugene Lee, a veteran actor most recently at Arena in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, breathes fire and ice into the role of Memphis, a man toggling between hope and despair.  Lee gives an outstanding multi-dimensional and nuanced portrait of the brash dreamer seeking redemption.  In fact, the theme that most resonates throughout, is redemption – even if the path steers believers to the home of a 322-year-old psychic Aunt Esther (unseen) or a local charlatan who goes by the name of the Prophet Samuel (also unseen).

Eugene Lee (Memphis Lee) in August Wilson’s Two Trains Running. Photo by Nate Watters for Seattle Repertory Theatre.

Here religion and the occult are given their due in equal measure.  It takes a limitless leap of faith to see through the fog of disappointment and despair, but they are clearly up to the challenge.

Set Designer, Misha Kachman, has scored August Wilson’s personal 1955 Rock-Ola jukebox to complete the chrome-and-naugahyde luncheonette look to go with Costume Designer Ivania Stack’s outfitting of the cast in 50’s clothing, most notably Holloway’s array of street-slick polyester shirts.

With Lighting Design by Sherrice Mojgani and Music/Sound by David R. Molina.

Superb and highly recommended.

Through April 29th 2018 in the Fichandler at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information call 202 488-3300 or visit