Chicago Brings Brandy Norwood to the Kennedy Center

Jordan Wright
April 9, 2017

First you see it.  The hands.  The jazz hands.  Fingers spread wide and pivoting quickly from left to right.  A bit of moonwalk (a famous Fosse move before Michael Jackson came along) and the swaying of the arms behind the back with fingers again outstretched – another of famed choreographer Bob Fosse’s signature moves.  Bodies slither across the floor.  Face down.  Belly up.  Long before “The Worm” came along.  Gangsters. Conmen. Jailbirds.  It’s Chicago.  It debuted on Broadway in 1975 and has toured the world since then.

Then you hear it.  The sound of the Roaring ‘20’s.   Opening with the number “All That Jazz” and a ton of dancers, the razzamatazz never stops.  Not even in the murder scenes, the women’s prison and the love songs.  It’s just flat out visceral.

In this latest revival of composer and lyricist Kander and Ebb’s smash hit supersonic popstar and Grammy Award-winning singer, Brandy Norwood, stars in the role of Roxie, the cheating wife and boyfriend murderer, and, amazingly, she can dance – right along with all the other seasoned hoofers.  She can sing of course, albeit softer than you’d have expected, putting her own soul music spin on the end of each line.  The audience is digging it.  They’ve come for her and she doesn’t disappoint.

The plot isn’t much to write about in Chicago it’s just the vehicle for the music and dance.  And there’s a ton of dancing by long legged, hard body dancers in sexy, black lingerie.  There’s only one set – the prison (later doubling as a courtroom) where Velma Kelly (I saw it with the terrific Lauren Gemelli who subbed for Terra C. MacLeod, another Broadway company veteran) and Roxie play out their rivalry as two vaudevillian murderesses whose slick-as-a-brick lawyer, the movie star handsome, Billy (Brent Barrett), flimflams the jury with a sob story to spare them the death penalty.  Barrett is terrific in the soft shoe number “Razzle Dazzle”.

With the orchestra on stage throughout, Roz Ryan plays Matron “Mama” Morton with a voice as deep and strong as blues legend Big Mama Thornton’s.  In this jail Mama takes care of her girls and her girls take care of her, handing over cash for prison favors.  In her show-stopping solo “When You’re Good to Mama”, and later in the duet “Class” with Velma, she really shines.

Roxie’s cuckolded spouse, Amos Hart, is played admirably by Paul Vogt, who played the role on Broadway.  His rendition of the iconic tune “Cellophane Man” about a man so ignored he is transparent to everyone, is a classic – and so is the show.

Through April 16th at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St., NW, Washington, DC.  For tickets and information call 202 467-4600 or visit www.Kennedy-Center.org.

Wicked ~ The Untold Story of the Witches of Oz ~ Kennedy Center

Jordan Wright
December 19, 2016
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

Amanda Jane Cooper as Glinda - photo by Joan Marcus

Amanda Jane Cooper as Glinda – photo by Joan Marcus

The Stephen Schwartz (Composer)/Winnie Holzman (Book) collaboration on Wicked presents us with a fresh interpretation of the classic L. Frank Baum book “The Wizard of Oz”.  In this version Glinda the Good Witch is arch-frenemies with Elphaba the wicked witch.

We learn how they met as young girls at sorcerer’s school and how Elphaba became a vengeful witch.  “Are people born wicked?  Or do they just have it thrust on them?”  Simply stated, it delves into life lessons that the book never addressed.

I saw this production several years ago at Kennedy Center and it left me flat – so I was less than enthusiastic about a return viewing.  Thankfully, my fears were unfounded.  That afternoon I became as rabid a fan as many in the audience who have reveled in its music and redemptive story line many times over.  Straight up, this is a fantastic production of Wicked.  What’s different? Let’s check those boxes, shall we?

Amanda Jane Cooper as Glinda – A cross between Reese Witherspoon (think Elle in “Legally Blonde”) and Kristin Chenoweth who originated the role on Broadway.  Bubbly appeal and killer comedic talent matched only by her soaring soprano voice.  A smashingly good witch with excellent sorcery credentials.

Jessica Vosk as Elphaba – A fearless, verdigris witch-with-a-heart who manages to make sisterhood with your fiercest enemy look appealing.  Her powerful, spot on vocal range will give you goose bumps.  After all, she’s reprising Idina Menzel’s role in the original.  She has to be THAT GOOD!

Isabel Keating as Madame Morrible – There’s nothing horrible about Madame Morrible, except her ability to cower children and perhaps her skill at malaprops.  Keating brings posh poise to the role of headmistress and sorcery cohort of the Wizard.

Jeremy Woodard as Fiyero & Jessica Vosk as Elphaba. Photo by Joan Marcus

Jeremy Woodard as Fiyero & Jessica Vosk as Elphaba. Photo by Joan Marcus

Jeremy Woodard as Fiyero (the Prince) – For his good looks, swagger and savoir faire.  Another killer voice that brings it home in spades.

Fred Applegate as The Wonderful Wizard of Oz – A spit-and-polish old school wizard whose endearing charm balances out all the evil he conjures up.  “I told them the lies they wanted to hear.”  Sound familiar?

Kristen Martin as Nessarose – For her ability to transition seamlessly from loving sister to vindictive enemy.

Chad Jennings as Doctor Dillamond - photo by Joan Marcus

Chad Jennings as Doctor Dillamond – photo by Joan Marcus

Chad Jennings as Doctor Dillamond – The caprine professor with empathy.  He’ll pave a path into your heart while teaching about the dangers of discrimination.

Since this is such a huge production with so many atmospheric elements – flying monkeys, inclement weather (cyclone and thunder!), giant pendulums, and silver dragons with glowing eyes notwithstanding – it’s crucial the gears mesh seamlessly.  And they do.

Kenneth Posner on Lighting – Gives us hairy and scary in equal doses.

Susan Hilferty on Costumes – The best and most sparkly ever.

Tom Watson on Wigs – For towering pompadours and saucy curls.

Eugene Lee on Sets – Brighter, greener, more technically sophisticated and lavish than ever.

Highly recommended.

Through January 8th at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St., NW, Washington, DC.  For tickets and information call 202 467-4600 or visit www.Kennedy-Center.org.

into the Woods ~ Kennedy Center

Jordan Wright
December 13, 2016
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

Laurie Veldheer as Cinderella and Bonne Kramer as Cinderella's Stepmother -Phone credit Joan Marcus

Laurie Veldheer as Cinderella and Bonne Kramer as Cinderella’s Stepmother -Phone credit Joan Marcus

Smack dab in the heart of the holiday season comes Into the Woods.  For fans of the legendary collaboration of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, this is sheer heaven.  This semi-autobiographical musical has brilliant lyrics, a stunning score and all around silliness wrapped up neatly in a big red bow.  It’s part farce and part tragedy – played to the hilt by a formidable cast.

Lesa Helmi Johanson as Little Red Ridinghood and Anthony Chatmon II as the Wolf - Photo credit Joan Marcus

Lesa Helmi Johanson as Little Red Ridinghood and Anthony Chatmon II as the Wolf – Photo credit Joan Marcus

This gift of classic fairy tales reimagined is brought to us by New York’s Fiasco Theater ensemble.  It’s a minimalist rustic version – like a tiny log cabin in the deep woods – and it’s a hoot.  Remember the Disney film version with Meryl Streep that came out a few years back?  Well, it’s nothing like that.  This feels more like Monty Python and his Flying Circus did a mash up of Jack in the Beanstalk, Cinderella, Little Red Ridinghood and Rapunzel.  Oh, and there’s a brief reference to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.  But unlike those zany knights, it has deeply intimate moments of love and loss – and of hope, sorrow and romance – as when one of the princes (Anthony Chatmon II) has a syvlan tryst with the baker’s wife and explains it away by asserting, “Foolishness can happen in the woods.”

There are heroes and villains and those we think are, but even they protest their typecasting.  Why? Because, “people make mistakes” and others are complicit in carrying them out.

As for keeping a light-hearted dynamic in the face of gloom and doom, a feather duster subs for the goose that laid the golden egg, the wolf is a mounted head, campy wicked stepsisters move around in an oxen’s yoke and an enchantress, the Witch, becomes a slinky, sexy glamour girl well after she makes demands on the Baker (Evan Harrington) and his barren wife (Eleasha Gamble).  In order to have a child, they must deliver to her Jack’s beloved milky white cow, Red Riding Hood’s blood red cape, Rapunzel’s yellow-as-corn hair and the golden slipper from Cinderella – quite the tall order.  You would think it couldn’t get any sillier until a dressmaker’s form is imagined as a tree.

Lisa Helmi Johanson as Rapunzei  and Venessa Reseland as The Witch - Photo credit Joan Marcus

Lisa Helmi Johanson as Rapunzei and Venessa Reseland as The Witch – Photo credit Joan Marcus

Vanessa Reseland’s marvelously haunting voice produces more goosebumps than the wolf on “No More” and “Last Midnight”.  And look for DC native, Eleasha Gamble, as the Baker’s Wife to steal your heart in “Moments in the Woods”.

Directors Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld keep the ten actors (who double and often triple their role responsibilities) on stage throughout, playing accompanying instruments when they’re not otherwise engaged in mayhem, which prevails most notably in Act Two.  Solo pianist, Evan Rees, on stage at an upright piano, jumps in as Milky White just as things get dicey.

Lighting Designer, Christopher Akerlind, gives us dramatic atmosphere – cue the thunder and lightning – while Derek McLane’s unusual backdrop of thick-spun, rafters-to-stage floor ropes, imagined as piano strings and framed by silvery silhouettes of pianos, reminds us that ultimately it’s all about the music.  And that’s why we pilgrimage to Sondheim – no matter where, no matter when.

Through January 8th 2017 at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St., NW, Washington, DC.  For tickets and information call 202 467-4600 or visit www.Kennedy-Center.org.

The Company in Into These Woods - Photo credit Joan Marcus

The Company in Into These Woods – Photo credit Joan Marcus

A View from the Bridge ~ Kennedy Center

Jordan Wright
November 16, 2016
Special to The Alexandria Times

Company of A View From the Bridge - Photo by Jan Versweyveld.

Company of A View From the Bridge – Photo by Jan Versweyveld.

A fresh interpretation of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge streaked across the stage like a fireball at the Eisenhower Theatre last night.  Credit Kennedy Center President Deborah F. Rutter who has endeavored mightily to give us contemporary productions, edgy, young musicians, playwrights, hip hop artists, and an exciting group of artistic directors.  Produced by the prestigious Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles and directed by Ivo Van Hove, this avant-garde production won the Tony Award this year for “Best Revival of a Play”.  And it’s no surprise.  This one has muscle and bone.

Set in Red Hook a rough neighborhood with a view to the Brooklyn Bridge, the story is told by Alfieri (Thomas Jay Ryan), a local lawyer.  (Miller claimed it was true, as told to him by a lawyer who represented longshoremen).  Alfieri acts as witness, arbitrator and conscience to Italian-American longshoreman, Eddie Carbone (Frederick Weller).  Eddie still operates under the code of omertà, or silence, and the unimpeachable honor code of rispetto, spelled R-E-S-P-E-C-T.  Ignore that and you’re six feet under.

- Photo by Jan Versweyveld

Alex Esola, Catherine Combs, Dave Register and Frederick Weller – Photo by Jan Versweyveld

In the dramatic opening scene two men, drenched in blood red lighting and a rising mist, are putting on their clothes as Alfieri begins his narration.  It is immediately reminiscent of the intense boxing series’ paintings by American Realist George Bellows, and lends a foreboding of dark and murderous things to come.  Designer Jan Versweyveld, who won two Tony Awards this year for “Best Scenic Design of a Play” and “Best Lighting Design of a Play” for this production, gives us a stripped down set framed out by glass panels topped by benches, all the better to home in on the characters’ body language and the raw power of Miller’s words.

Eddie is old school Sicilian married to Beatrice (Andrus Nichols) the family mediator.  Together they raise his orphaned niece, Catherine (Catherine Combs), a teenager looking to spread her wings, but still a “baby” to her Uncle Eddie.  When Beatrice’s cousins, Marco (Alex Esola) and Rodolpho (Dave Register), arrive in the country to work illegally, they live on the QT with the couple, getting longshoreman jobs through the local Mafia.  Trouble comes when Rodolpho and Catherine fall in love and Eddie’s unsubstantiated fears surface, threatening the couple’s marriage plans.  He accuses Rodolpho of wanting to marry her to get his citizenship, or, perhaps worse to Eddie, that he prefers men.

A View From the Bridge_Photo by Jan Versweyveld

A View From the Bridge_Photo by Jan Versweyveld

Two devices are used here to great effect.  The haunting overlay of sacred Medieval music lends context and heft to the drama and a series of slow drumbeats between lines emphasizes the searing conflict between the family members.

What is surprising, however, is Van Hove’s decision not to use regional accents of any kind.  So don’t expect Italian accents from the immigrant cousins, or Brooklynese from Catherine, Eddie or his friend, Louis (Howard W. Overshown), even though they speak in the language of dese-dems-and-dose with the occasional ain’t.  The focus here is on the dialogue and the story.  The cast is just the vehicle, but a fine, well-honed vehicle they are.

Highly recommended.

Through Saturday, December 3rd at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St., NW, Washington, DC.  For tickets and information call 202 467-4600 or visit www.Kennedy-Center.org.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time ~ Kennedy Center Opera House

Jordan Wright
October 11, 2016
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

Adam Langdon and The Curious Incident North American Tour Cast 2016 Photo Credit Joan Marcus

Adam Langdon and The Curious Incident North American Tour Cast 2016 Photo Credit Joan Marcus

A most unusual and fascinating wonder of a show burst onto the stage of the Opera House theatre last week.  Packed with drama, pathos and indelible charm, this stupendous Tony Award-winning show explodes with energy.  It’s an unusual premise and a real thinking person’s show with power and magnetism.  You’d be well-advised to afford it the space in your head to spirit you away on its “curious” journey.

(L to R) Adam Langdon, (Background) Felicity Jones Latta and Gene Gillette of The Curious Incident North. Photo Credit Joan Marcus

(L to R) Adam Langdon, (Background) Felicity Jones Latta and Gene Gillette of The Curious Incident North. Photo Credit Joan Marcus

Simon Stephens’ play, based on the novel by Mark Haddon, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is a story of a high-functioning autistic boy, Christopher Boone (Adam Langdon), whose parents are about to get divorced.  Christopher is a brilliant, precise and very detailed 15-year old who loves math, astronomy and all things formulaic.  When his neighbor’s beloved dog, Wellington, is mysteriously killed, he sets about, to the consternation of his father, to solve the crime.

The crime itself is the thread employed to delve into Christopher’s complicated and challenging world, as well as the vehicle for our understanding of his fears and challenges.  But it by no means defines the magnetic experience of climbing inside the mind of an autistic, quasi-savant teen.

(L to R) Adam Langdon, (Background) Maria Elena Ramirez and Gene Gillette. Photo Credit Joan Marcus

(L to R) Adam Langdon, (Background) Maria Elena Ramirez and Gene Gillette. Photo Credit Joan Marcus

For example, Christopher takes metaphors at face value, which is hilarious, especially when you think of the things we say every day that are not near as dire or nor as realistic as the descriptive words we use.  Langdon portrays Christopher’s tenderness and his clashing emotions with a captivating performance.  He is well-matched by Gene Gillette in his ability to portray both anger and compassion in the role of his father, Maria Elena Ramirez, as his patient and loving schoolteacher Siobhan, and Felicity Jones Latta as his irresponsible mother Judy.  The rest of the crack cast appear in a myriad of revolving roles.

Director Marianne Elliott crafts an intricate adventure with precision and comedic intrigue, which is mesmerizingly pulled off by the complex choreography of Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett for Frantic Assembly.  Thanks to a spectacular light show using pixel-mapping technology on a grid with roving arc lights and pulsing strobes mastered by Paule Constable; and a sound system engineered by designer Ian Dickson for Autograph, the energy level is mind-blowing.  For all you techies out there, Constable uses an ETC EOS Titanium system guaranteed to knock your socks off.  Kudos to Finn Ross for crafting the eye-popping video design.  It’s like attending a rock concert sans music, but with a heartwarming and emotionally charged story.

Highly recommended.

Through October 23rd at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St., NW, Washington, DC.  For tickets and information call 202 467-4600 or visit www.Kennedy-Center.org.