In The Heights ~ Kennedy Center

Jordan Wright
March 29, 2018

If you blinked you missed it.  Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In The Heights blew into the Kennedy Center for a few days and just as quickly fled.  Shades of things to come as the arrival this June of his blockbuster musical Hamilton hits a feverish pitch.  This was just the teaser.

In The Heights Cast ~ Photo by Teresa Wood

The Kennedy Center’s production starred a wealth of Broadway’s In The Heights original cast members like Blanca Camacho as Camilla; Eden Espinosa as Daniela; Eliseo Roman as Piragua Guy (Drama Desk Award); and tons of other notable Broadway stars including Ana Villafañe who plays Nina the Puerto Rican girl who goes off to Stamford to prove there’s a way out of the barrio if you’re willing to sacrifice love.  Villafañe originated the role of Gloria Estefan in On Your Feet which played the Kennedy Center in January.

Arianna Rosario, Ana Villafane, Eden Espinosa, and Vanessa Hudgens ~ Photo by Teresa Wood

Other cast members from Broadway’s Hamilton are J. Quinton Johnson who plays Benny Nina’s African-American love interest.  He currently stars in Hamilton as Hercules Mulligan and James Madison; and Grammy Award-winning musician and actor Anthony Ramos as the lead character Usnavi.  Ramos originated the roles of John Laurens and Phillip Hamilton in Hamilton.  Miranda likes to re-cast his actors.  A lot!

Lin-Manuel Miranda and Vanessa Hudgens_Photo by Yassine El Mansouri

The audience went wild for the adorable Vanessa Hudgens of Broadway’s Gigi and also of the High School Musical movies.  Here she plays Vanessa, the hairdresser who dreams of a better future.  Squeals could be heard throughout the chandeliered theatre for Anthony Ramos who has his own adorable factor as well as a killer voice.   Yet, most captivating to this reviewer was newcomer Mateo Ferro as Sonny.  If there’s a scene stealer here, it’s this 16-year old who had been cast as Usnavi in In The Heights in Strathmore theatre’s Young Artists of America summer theatre and who played Sonny at Clarksburg High School in Montgomery County, Maryland. We need to see more of him.

J Quinton Johnson, Anthony Ramos, and Mateo Ferro ~ Photo by Teresa Wood

There was a huge refresh in terms of dance and musical delivery.  There’s more rapping by Usnavi and even pop-locking by a bevy of dancers who salsa their tail feathers off.

Miranda himself showed up on the final night of the show to thunderous applause.  If we have a National Hero in the theatre it’s this.

If you haven’t seen In The Heights yet, try to catch a production somewhere in the area.  It augurs Miranda’s rap/ballad style which has revolutionized musical theater and will prepare you for the Kennedy Center’s production of Hamilton – should you have been fortunate enough to be one of the lucky ones who snagged a ticket.

Seen at the Kennedy Center on March 22nd.

Chess ~ Kennedy Center

Jordan Wright
February 16, 2018

Bryce Pinkham and Ensemble in CHESS_Photo by Teresa Wood.jpg

Kennedy Center theatregoers were treated to an all-star inaugural production of Chess on Thursday night.  Heading for its Broadway run, this latest treatment of the original 1986 rock opera is chockful of enough extraordinary singers to make any producer green with envy – Raúl Esparaza, Ramin Karimloo, Ruthie Ann Miles, Karen Olivo, Bradley Dean, Sean Allan Krill and Bryce Pinkham.

With a rich score by Björn Ulvaeus (ABBA songwriter) and Benny Andersson (ABBA bandmember), and lyrics by Tim Rice (collaborator on Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, The Lion King, Alladin, Beauty and the Beast), Broadway Center Stage expects this new version to achieve supersonic stature.  Tony Award-winning director Michael Mayer, who is top-loaded with stage and screen credits, has been charged with pulling it all together.  In this five-day only musical concert, all performers remain on stage reading their lines and singing their numbers from script books which, unfortunately, renders most of their words unintelligible.

Ramin Karimloo and Raul Esparza in CHESS_Photo by Teresa Wood.jpg

For pill-popper and American grandmaster Freddie Trumper (the oddest choice of names), it’s a mental duel with himself – and he’s losing.  His paranoia (though it turns out the Russians were spying on him and trying to psyche him out) threatens to undermine his chances for success.  It all goes down against the backdrop of the historic SALT II Treaty talks, the success of which hinges on convincing Freddie to lose the tournament so the Soviets can regain their pride.

Raul Esparza and Karen Olivo in CHESS_Photo by Teresa Wood.jpg

Freddie (Raúl Esparaza Company, Sunday in the Park with George) and Anatoly (Ramin Karimloo Anastasia) are both in love with Florence (Karen Olivo West Side Story, In the Heights), a Hungarian national forced to work for the CIA, but Anatoly is still wed to Svetlana (Ruthie Ann Miles The King and I, Here Lies Love) who lives apart from him in Moscow with their two children.  Alex Molokov (Bradley Dean Dear Evan Hansen) is Anatoly’s KGB handler and Walter de Courcey (Sean Allan Krill Honeymoon in Vegas) is Freddie’s CIA handler.  The Arbiter (Bryce Pinkham A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder) relates the backstory while the tournaments are held in different countries.  It’s a fairly basic love story brightened by international cloak-and-dagger schemes backgrounded by the Cold War.

Video projections by Darrell Maloney reflect history-making moments and Lorin Latarro (Waitress) choreographs the dance sequences (one of which is super erotic) in this human chess game where winning is the only goal despite the threat of a looming nuclear war.

Through February 18th in the Eisenhower Theatre at The Kennedy Center, 2700 F St., NW, Washington, DC.  For tickets and information call 202 467-4600 or visit online.

The Humans ~ Kennedy Center

Jordan Wright
January 13, 2018 

Richard Thomas, Therese Plaehn, Pamela Reed, Lauren Klein, Daisy Eagan, and Luis Veda in the national tour of The Humans. Photo by Julieta Cervantes

Richard Thomas, Therese Plaehn, Pamela Reed, Lauren Klein, Daisy Eagan, and Luis Veda in the national tour of The Humans. Photo by Julieta Cervantes

Stephen Karam’s The Humans takes a deep dive into the zeitgeist of the modern middle-class American family where there is much to recognize and even more to ponder.  The Blake Family are a caring and tolerant lot, more progressive than their Scranton roots might have ou think.  They tenderly care for their wheelchair-bound Momo, the family matriarch, who suffers from acute Alzheimer’s, their gay daughter Aimee, their unmarried daughter Brigid (Daisy Egan) and her social worker boyfriend Richard (Luis Vega), and, what may be even more surprising, they are willing to look away from their father Erik’s career-destroying adultery.  What they are not accepting of is how their lost jobs and mounting debt are affecting their future happiness.

As the family gathers around the Thanksgiving table at Brigid and Rich’s recently rented rundown duplex, they appear to be anything but dysfunctional as they exchange gifts and speak in pleasantries and platitudes.  Soon though, Aimee (Therese Plaehn), a successful attorney, goes into total meltdown.  She’s lost both her job and her girlfriend.  To temper the drama there is much dark humor as Momo (Lauren Klein) interrupts with repeated outbursts and foul curses, while Brigid and Rich do their best to explain away the bars on the windows and the cockroaches in the bedroom.

As a deeply Irish Catholic family, they embrace one another’s failings with grace.  Deirdre (Pamela Reed), a mother whose schadenfreude extends to musings on lesbians, AIDS, and cancer, keeps up a cheerful front to jolly everyone along.

The play’s suspense derives from a curious cacophony emanating from an upstairs Asian neighbor.  What can we draw from that?  Does it signify the random incremental erosion of the status quo?  Or is it related to Erik and Rich’s talk of dreams and monsters?  Talk that seems to affirm the unpredictability of their future.  Even the traditional celebratory peppermint pigs, cracked at a table to signify thankfulness, cannot keep out the unknown.  “We just have a lot of stoic sadness,” Aimee opines

Director Joe Mantello brings together a superbly flawless cast.  Richard Thomas shines as the darkly complex father, Erik, in this compelling and empathetic American dramedy that examines the universal human condition.

A multiple Tony-Award winning play, it is highly recommended.

Through January 28th in the Eisenhower Theatre at The Kennedy Center, 2700 F St., NW, Washington, DC.  For tickets and information call 202 467-4600 or purchase them online.

On Your Feet! – The Emilio and Gloria Estefan Broadway Musical is a Grand Salsa Party ~ Kennedy Center

Jordan Wright
January 11, 2018 

Christie Prades as Gloria Estefan and Company ~ Photo credit Matthew Murphy

When the original ten-piece Miami Sound Machine is banging out a full-on Latin beat smack dab onstage and bringing sizzling hot salsa rhythms and house party funk, you can party like it’s 1985, the year the group’s huge crossover hit “Conga” soared to the top of the Billboard pop charts.

Entering the theatre Emilio and Gloria Estefan graciously greet fans ~ Photo credit Jordan Wright

It didn’t mitigate the excitement that the show’s producers Gloria and Emilio Estefan were in the house last night driving the on-their-feet audience wild with cheers and selfies.  But when it comes right down to it, it’s her story.  Their story.  A universal story of hopeful immigrants everywhere, that bonds us to their triumphs and tragedies in this electrifying musical.

Christie Prades (Gloria Estefan), Mauricio Martinez (Emilio Estefan), Danny Burgos and Omar Lopez-Cepero ~ Photo credit Matthew Murphy

On Your Feet! tells the story of 26-time Grammy Award-winning pop singer/songwriter Gloria Estefan and her producer/husband Emilio and their sensational rise to fame.  In spite of a talent agent who blocked the act from crossing over into mainstream American pop and a record company who wouldn’t allow them to sing in English, the pair did an end-run around discrimination by directly approaching local DJ’s and dance clubs where their beat-driven music had an immediate fan base. “See this face?” Emilio demands of his agent.  “This is an American!”  With this line, the audience broke into instantaneous and sympathetic applause.  After all, it’s kill DACA season and we feel their pain.

Mauricio Martinez as Emilio Estefan, Christie Prades as Gloria Estefan and Devon Goffman as Phil the Agent ~ Photo credit Matthew Murphy

The “jukebox musical”, as these throwback rock musicals are familiarly called (though one wonders if anyone from that era has ever played a jukebox), depicts the Estefans as children leaving on the “Pedro Pan” flights from Cuba in the early 60’s – flights that brought families from Havana to Miami from the fresh hell that was Batista’s revolution – and settling into the burgeoning Cuban community in Miami. Emilio hears Gloria sing and invites her to join his band, the Miami Latin Boys to gig weddings, bar mitzvahs and quinceañeras.  To her mother’s dismay, Gloria joins the band.  Even a mother’s wishes can’t hold back her teenager’s dreams or her talent.

Nancy Ticotin as Gloria Fajardo and Company ~ Photo credit Matthew Murphy

Flashbacks include Havana’s Montmartre Club and her mother’s truncated career as a nightclub singer, her Vietnam vet father José’s (Jason Martinez) tragic end, and little Gloria’s fondness for her grandmother (Alma Cuervo) and her guitar.  The story charts the pop star’s meteoric success and the near career-ending tragedy of the car accident that left her unable to perform for months.  It’s a deeply personal story that parallels artists’ dreams and immigrants’ aspirations.

Colored by the aqua and hot pink colors made popular by Miami Vice, it stars Christie Prades and Mauricio Martinez (from the original Broadway cast) as Gloria and Emilio.  The Tony Award-winning musical includes many of Gloria’s greatest hits in 26 numbers from “Live for Loving You”, “Get on Your Feet” and “Rhythm Is Gonna Get You”, to heart-melting ballads like “Don’t Wanna Lose You” and “Here We Are”.  80’s period costumes by Emilio Sosa and Cuba-evoking sets by David Rockwell, the band is joined by three additional musicians from the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra.

Filled with uplifting sparkle.  Get ready to party Latin-style!

Highly recommended for the whole family.

Through January 21st 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.

Company of the National Tour ~ Photo credit Matthew Murphy

An American in Paris ~ A New Musical

Kennedy Center
Jordan Wright
December 15, 2017 

An American in Paris in USA - Photo credit Matthew Murphy

An American in Paris in USA – Photo credit by Matthew Murphy

Ballet buffs and George and Ira Gershwin enthusiasts will adore Director/Choreographer Christopher Wheeldon’s film-to-stage homage of An American in Paris.  Wheeldon successfully recaptures the mid-century modernist style of dance that Kelly created for the eponymous 1951 classic.  The movie garnered six top Academy Awards and gave Kelly his one and only Oscar.  In this multiple Tony Award-winning interpretation, Craig Lucas has freshened up both the story and the dialogue to appeal to millennials, mad for anything Parisian.

Allison Walsh and McGee Maddox ~ Photo by Matthew Murphy

Set in post-war Paris it is a story of three men enamored with the captivating, Lise (Allison Walsh), an aspiring ballerina whose backstory touches on France’s Nazi occupation.  Jerry Mulligan (McGee Maddox), an American GI and amateur painter who, like many other soldiers, stayed behind in the City of Light, soon bonds with budding composer and jazz pianist, Adam Hoch (Matthew Scott), an American Jew who survived the war and stayed on with the intention of writing a ballet about it.  Adam makes a few francs mentoring Henri Baurel (Ben Michael), a well-to-do society gent keen on a career as a song-and-dance man in America.  All three pals are unaware that the others are in love with Lise.

Ben Michael, McGee Maddox and Matthew Scott – Photo by Matthew Murphy

There are disparate, sometimes awkward elements in the stage version that can sometimes feel as though it was produced by an ad hoc committee.  The debonair insouciance we remember fondly of Kelly goes missing, yet the salient parts – the wonderful dancing, Bob Crowley’s seamless Parisian set designs, as well as his 1940’s costumes, are superb.  Milo Davenport (Kirsten Scott), Jerry’s American sugar momma and arts patron, wows in an emerald green gown reminiscent of the period.

Kristen Scott and Matthew Scott – Photo by Matthew Murphy

If you love arabesques, multi-revolution pirouettes, dancing en pointe, lofty lifts and leaps, you will fall hard for Maddox and Walsh, who seem cloud-like and gravity-defiant.  After a slew of hip rolls and high kicks in a nightclub can-can, comes Jerry and Lise’s 18-minute pas de deux finale that will cause you to dismiss any less than stellar moments.  Crowley again delivers with Mondrian color-block leotards echoing the abstract minimalist movement of the period.

A twenty-person dance ensemble delights as feather-bedecked Follies girls (Henri’s show biz fantasy tapdanced in tails and high hats), in Grecian tableaus at a salon reception given by Henri’s staid maman, Madame Baurel (Teri Hansen), and in the many jazz ballet numbers.

And harder you may fall for David Andrew Rogers’ soaring orchestra backing songs like “I Got Rhythm”, “S Wonderful”, “The Man I Love”, “Shall We Dance”, “They Can’t Take That Away From Me”, and twelve other somewhat lesser known Gershwin tunes that dovetail neatly into the plot.

Through January 7, 2018 at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts at 2700 F St., NW, Washington, DC.  For tickets and information call 202 467-4600 or visit website.