The King and I – A Royal Hit ~ The Kennedy Center

Jordan Wright
July 22, 2017 

The Cast of Rodgers & Hammerstein's The King and I. Photo credit Matthew Murphy

The Cast of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s The King and I. Photo credit Matthew Murphy

Under the expert direction of Barlett Sher we allow ourselves to be transported to the magic and majesty of the Kingdom of Siam.  It’s 1862 and the King (as played by Jose Llana) is fearful of France taking over his kingdom as learns they have done in Cambodia.  To prove his British-ruled country is worldly wise, he employs Anna Leonowens (Laura Michelle Kelly) a charming British schoolteacher to educate his extended family.  Recently widowed and accompanied by her young son, Louis (Graham Montgomery), the story begins with Anna and Louis arriving into Bangkok harbor.  It’s a breathtaking opening scene featuring an enormous wooden ship against the background of a fiery sunset and a scene of Siamese villagers going about their daily tasks in silhouette – figures toting baskets hung on poles and sporting coolie hats.  The menacing King’s guards arrive to terrify the locals into submission.  Cue the kowtowing – an issue we will see addressed by Anna and Prince Chulalonghorn (Kavin Panmeechao) later in the story.

Laura Michelle Kelly as Anna and the Royal Children. Photo credit Matthew Murphy

Laura Michelle Kelly as Anna and the Royal Children. Photo credit Matthew Murphy

Anna is soon greeted by Kralahome (Brian Rivera) the king’s aide, an intimidating figure who tells her the King’s instructions demand they live in the palace rather than a separate house.  “The King doesn’t always remember what he promises,” the King smugly pronounces upon their meeting.  This is the plot device that sets Anna and the King at sixes and nines as Anna strives to get her footing in a household filled with the King’s many children and favorite wives, most especially Lady Thiang (Joan Almedilla) and the beautiful, star-crossed Tuptim (Manna Nichols).  But it’s Anna’s sense of propriety, anti-slavery stance and insistence on female equality that especially trips her up with the King.  “I believe women are just as important as men,” she asserts.  The most hilarious moments derive from their contretemps.

Meanwhile the King in his “puzzlement”, as he refers to his indecision, compares his predicaments with that of Western world leaders.  “What would Lincoln do? What would Queen Victoria do?” he asks Anna whose advice he begrudgingly seeks as their love for each other grows deeper.

Manna Nichols and Kavin Parmeechao. Photo credit Matthew Murphy

Manna Nichols and Kavin Parmeechao. Photo credit Matthew Murphy

This outstanding musical provides a rich tapestry of emotional connection and unrequited love framed by sumptuous costumes ranging from Anna’s Victorian hoop-skirted silk dresses to lavishly encrusted golden chada hats and jewel-toned silks by designer Catherine Zuber.  Choreography that includes Thai dancing and intricate ballet, as well as Anna and the King’s waltz is by Christopher Gatelli and Greg Zane and faithfully based on Jerome Robbins’ original dance sequences.  The sets by Michael Yeargan, plus a mega-sized golden Buddha, are designed to blow your socks off.  And they do.  One of the most spectacular scenes is Tuptim’s play set to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s historic story “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, here called “The Small House of Uncle Thomas”.  It is a rich tale performed in traditional Thai ballet and elaborate costume and written by the lovelorn maiden to bring awareness to the country’s treatment of women as slaves.

Laura Michelle Kelly and Jose Llana. Photo credit Matthew Murphy

Laura Michelle Kelly and Jose Llana. Photo credit Matthew Murphy

There are so many powerful voices and goose-bump solos it’s hard to know who to single out.  Naturally Kelly as Anna, Almedilla as Lady Thiang, Nichols as Tuptim, and Llana as the King of Siam, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera as the King is fond of saying.  Of course, you’ll revel in the sweeping score with classic songs like “I Whistle a Happy Tune”, “Hello Young Lovers”, “Getting to Know You”, “Something Wonderful” and “Shall We Dance” as the most memorable.  And the royal children are so endearing, we awaited their entrances at every turn.

Brought here by the wildly successful national touring company, Ambassador Theatre Group, this production is top drawer.  My plus one and I reveled in memories of the first Rodgers and Hammerstein Broadway blockbuster starring Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr and weren’t disappointed by this faithful reprise for a New York minute.

Highly recommended for the whole family.

Through August 20th in the Opera House at The Kennedy Center, 2700 F St., NW, Washington, DC.  For tickets and information call 202 467-4600 or visit www.Kennedy-Center.org.

Cabaret ~ Kennedy Center

Jordan Wright
July 17, 2017

Jon Peterson as the Emcee and the 2017 National Touring cast of Roundabout Theatre Company’s CABARET. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Jon Peterson as the Emcee. Photo by Joan Marcus.

New York’s Roundabout Theatre Company, now celebrating its fiftieth year, has brought a sensational version of Cabaret to Kennedy Center in a production that gives Kander and Ebb’s original Broadway show a run for its money.  In this eye-popping staging, directed by award-winning Director BT McNicholl, a chorus line of dancers that double as musicians give us legs, legs, legs thanks to the top-notch choreography based on the original by Rob Marshall and recreated by Cynthia Onrubia.  High kicks, undulating spines, towering lifts and pseudo copulations performed by bare-chested men and ladies in lingerie is the order of the day.  How we love slumming it at the Kit Kat Club.  Beats the news from Capitol Hill.

(l-r) Joey Khoury as Bobby, Jon Peterson as the Emcee and Chelsey Clark as Lulu. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Co-directed by Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall, Jon Peterson, of Broadway Cabaret fame, reprises the role of Emcee.  As the enigmatic, gender-bending character, Peterson pulls it off with aplomb and a black leather trench coat, managing to affect a character of sadistic amorality and razor-sharp charm in an atmosphere so sexually charged a single match could set the whole theatre ablaze.  He even pulls a few audience members onstage.  Dancing with a male audience member, he tells him he looks a little Spanish.  When the man balks, he asks him, “How would you like a little German in you?”  Bada-boom!

Leigh Ann Larkin as Sally Bowles. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Leigh Ann Larkin as Sally Bowles. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Sally Bowles is played by Leigh Ann Larkin, a mere slip of a girl, blonde (wasn’t expecting that), blue-eyed and as bubbly as a bottle of French champagne.  Her Sally is frothier, all pink and feathered, than others we’ve seen in the role.  She definitely has her own interpretation of the hard-on-her-luck dancer.  And she’s feistier, more independent.  Madly in love with Cliff Bradshaw, a Midwestern English teacher who has chosen a rather inopportune place and time, during the rise of the Nazi regime, to write a novel.  Benjamin Eakeley, who reprises his role from the Studio 54 revival of Cabaret when he played opposite Michelle Williams, is masterful (and swoon-worthy) as Cliff – – managing to be both subtle and forceful in his interpretation of the lovesick innocent abroad.

Scott Robertson as Herr Schultz and Mary Gordon Murray as Fraulein Schneider. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Scott Robertson as Herr Schultz and Mary Gordon Murray as Fraulein Schneider. Photo by Joan Marcus.

But it’s grim times for the couple and their friends, landlady Fraulein Schneider (the fabulous Mary Gordon Murray), Ernst the smuggler and Nazi sympathizer (Patrick Vaill), Fraulein Kost (Alison Ewing) and Herr Schultz (Scott Robertson) the fruit seller and gentleman who seeks the affections of Fraulein Schneider.  Much to their dismay jackboots and turncoats keep encroaching on their merry life.  For Sally, it’s her last chance for a world outside the cruel reality of a seedy nightclub in a rapidly changing political climate.  “One must keep mobile,” she gaily tells Cliff before launching into a goosebump-worthy version of the ballad “Maybe This Time”.

Sarah Bishop as Helga, Leigh Ann Larkin as Sally Bowles and Alison Ewing as Fritzie. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Sarah Bishop as Helga, Leigh Ann Larkin as Sally Bowles and Alison Ewing as Fritzie. Photo by Joan Marcus.

So impressive is the lighting design by Peggy Eisenhauer and Mike Baldassari, you’ll think you’re in Vegas, if Vegas were transported to Germany in the 30’s.  Cue the descending pineapple lights for the duet “It Couldn’t Please Me More”.

Look for all your favorite numbers – “The Money Song”, “Perfectly Marvelous”, “Cabaret” and “Willkommen” to thrill as expected, with orchestrations by Michael Gibson.  Costumes by six-time Tony Award award-winning designer, William Ivey Long run the gamut from sexy lingerie, beaded flapper dresses and 1930’s hausfrau frocks, to the sinister red armbands of the Third Reich.

Fierce, fabulous and highly recommended.  This is the gold standard for Cabaret!

Through August 6th 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 Sound of Music Hits All the Right Notes ~ The Kennedy Center

Jordan Wright
June 19, 2017 

Charlotte Maltby as Maria Rainer, and the von Trapp children in The Sound of Music. Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

Charlotte Maltby as Maria Rainer, and the von Trapp children in The Sound of Music. Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

Watching Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s classic, The Sound of Music, is like reuniting with a dear friend from your childhood. Though many of the songs are familiar and beloved, “The Sound of Music”, “Do-Re-Mi”, “Climb Every Mountain”, “My Favorite Things” and “Edelweiss” (the latter two reprised during Christmas season), there are others just as meaningful that we don’t hear as often – like “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” and “No Way to Stop It” – that seem to have fallen into obscurity yet deserve to be reheard.

Nicholas Rodriguez and Charlotte Maltby in The Sound of Music. Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

Nicholas Rodriguez and Charlotte Maltby in The Sound of Music. Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

In this national touring company Maria, played puckishly by the very youthful Charlotte Maltby is more Scarlet Johanssen than Julie Andrews. And that’s a good thing because the current generation of children that fall in love with this musical will need a modern-day heroine who is energetic and adorable with a side of feisty and flippant.  A woman who can stand toe to toe with Captain von Trapp, played by the Helen Hayes awarded actor, Nicholas Rodriguez whom you may remember in the role of Billy Bigelow in Arena Stage’s last year’s production of Carousel at Arena Stage.

Melody Betts as 'The Mother Abbess' and Charlotte Maltby as 'Maria Rainer' - Photo: Matthew Murphy

Melody Betts as ‘The Mother Abbess’ and Charlotte Maltby as ‘Maria Rainer’ – Photo: Matthew Murphy

Smooth as silk and pitch-perfect is Teri Hansen as Elsa Shraeder, the would-be fiancée to the widowed Captain, who brings a shot of Old World elegance to the part and Merwin Foard as Max Detweiler, Elsa’s political ally, whose luscious baritone and comic timing bring a dose of levity to the role of turncoat. All seven children are adorable including little Birgitta played by Dakota Riley Quakenbush and Gretl played by cute-as-a-button Anika Lore Hatch. But the ne plus ultra is Melody Betts as The Mother Abbess with a mellifluous voice and a dignified gravitas.

Paige Silvester as 'Lies!' and Austin Colby as 'Rolf Gruber' - Photo: Matthew Murphy

Paige Silvester as ‘Lies!’ and Austin Colby as ‘Rolf Gruber’ – Photo: Matthew Murphy

Director Jack O’Brien breathes fresh air, passion and energy into the characters making the entire production more modern and clearly wowing the audience who literally leapt to their feet at curtain call in full appreciation.

Sound designer Ken Travis delivers a terrifying thunder storm to counter Lighting Designer Natasha Katz’s stunning depiction of the abbey with its glowing rosette window and late day shafts of sunlight onto the tender wedding scene. And Douglas W. Schmidt’s sets that include a massive statue of an angel and massive Romanesque arches bordered by panels of Austrian lace, offer an evocative sense of place and time.

Despite the period in which it’s set, 1932, and perhaps because it speaks to the bravery of Maria and the entire von Trapp family in their struggles against the Nazis and Hitler’s takeover of their homeland of Austria, it is entirely relevant in today’s worldwide political climate.  It serves as a cautionary tale to those afraid to speak truth to power and an inspiration to families who find strength in their combined ability to overcome obstacles.

Highly recommended for all ages.

Through July 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.

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.