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Gigi – Kennedy Center

Jordan Wright
February 1, 2015
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

Gigi stars Vanessa Hudgens

Gigi stars Vanessa Hudgens

When MGM’s movie Gigi debuted in 1958 legions of little girls were captivated by the City of Lights and its magical allure.  I know.  I was one of them, listening hours on end to the vinyl soundtrack by Maurice Chevalier, Hermione Gingold, Louis Jourdan and Leslie Caron who transported us to a place we could only dream of.

Raised by her grandmère Mamita a calligraphy teacher and her spotlessly mannered grande dame, Aunt Alicia, the spunky Gigi was a paragon of insouciance.  We embraced her joie de vivre, studied our français more diligently and longed for a soigné and très riche gentleman like, Gaston Lachaille, to sweep us off our feet.  Indeed postwar Paris was everyone’s dream of the most exciting place in the world to be.

Fifteen years later Gigi was brought to the stage and another generation embraced Alan Jay Lerner’s and Frederick Lowe’s spectacular score and heartwarming tale.  And now, 37 years hence, Director Eric Schaeffer has revived the musical in all its glorious splendor.  I asked myself if it could have the same impact on a new audience as it did in the late 50’s.  Does Gigi’s indelible charm translate to a more technologically absorbed generation of little girls?

Howard McGillin as Honore Lachaille and Victoria Clark as Mamita

Howard McGillin as Honore Lachaille and Victoria Clark as Mamita

To insure it does, Schaeffer has wisely cast Vanesa Hudgens as Gigi.  An adorable and multi-talented actress, best known for her role in the wildly popular High School Musical series, Hudgens proves her acting, dancing and singing have the snap, crackle and pop to earn her the lead role against such seasoned Broadway actors and opera-caliber voices as Victoria Clark (Mamita), Dee Hoty (Aunt Alicia), Howard McGillin (Honoré Lachaille) and Steffanie Leigh as Liane d’Exelmans, Gaston’s mistress.

As you may recall Gigi is raised by her grandmother in a modest flat in Paris where the pair play frequent hosts to Gaston (Corey Cott), a dashing and well-to-do man about town who is an old family friend.  Her sister Alicia, determined to marry Gigi off to a wealthy gentleman, is consumed with tutoring the girl in the art of feminine allure, including how to tell a real sapphire from a faux.  “A girl must think constantly – – unless a man can tell,” she instructs her.

It is La Belle Epoque, Maxim’s is in its heyday, and all of Paris is très gai.  Set Designer Derek McLane captures the mood of the era with drop-dead sets evocative of the period.  Maxim’s becomes a wonderland of Can Can girls high-kicking amid red velvet banquettes and flower-shaped chandeliers, while Paris is evoked with the massive curved iron girders of the Eiffel Tower and the beach at Trouville, where Gaston sees Gigi in a new light and his Uncle Honoré revives a romance with Mamita, is a splendid seascape.

Steffanie Leigh as Liane of Exelmans, Howard McGillin, Victoria Clark, Vanessa Hudgens, Corey Cott as Gaston Lachaille

Steffanie Leigh as Liane of Exelmans, Howard McGillin, Victoria Clark, Vanessa Hudgens, Corey Cott as Gaston Lachaille

From five-time Tony Award-winning Costume Designer Catherine Zuber, we are treated to dreamy chiffon gowns, elegant frock coats, feathered picture hats, glittering jewels, bellmen in carmine britches and so much more extravagance.  James Moore conducts the soaring strains of the 13-piece orchestra through the memorable songbook including “Thank Heaven for Little Girls”, “The Night They Invented Champagne” and sixteen other wonderful numbers.  Emmy Award-winning Choreographer for the late, yet beloved, TV show Smash, Joshua Bergasse, enlivens the dancing with electrifying Broadway-bound energy.

Highly recommended.

Through February 12th at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St., NW, Washington, DC.  For tickets and information call 202 467-4600 or visit www.Kennedy-Center.org.

Eight Compelling Reasons To See Little Dancer – Kennedy Center

Jordan Wright
November 21, 2014
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

Little Dancer (Boyd Gaines and Tiler Peck in Little Dancer, photo by Paul Kolnik)

Little Dancer (Boyd Gaines and Tiler Peck in Little Dancer, photo by Paul Kolnik)

Let’s break down this listicle to see why I predict this ballet musical will get to Broadway tout de suite before going on to Hollywood and the big screen.

#1 – The Story

Described as “part fact, part fiction” a young ballerina fights for her independence against the backdrop of the cruelly competitive world of the Paris Opera Ballet.  The musical is inspired by Edgar Degas’s fourteen-year old muse and model whom he called “the winged urchin”.

What’s not to love about a poor street urchin with a preternatural talent for ballet? New York City Ballet principal dancer Tiler Peck plays Young Marie, a girl as enchanting as a butterfly and as feisty as a mad hornet.  Think Annie.  Think Cosette in Les Miserables.  Think Billy Elliott. 

#2 – The Collaboration

For the first time in history the National Gallery of Art has collaborated with the Kennedy Center.  The show’s opening dovetails with the NGA’s Degas exhibit of Little Dancer Aged Fourteen shown alongside 14 additional works from the Gallery’s private collection that include the iconic pastel Ballet Scene in addition to monotypes and smaller original statuettes.

3# – The Cast

Little Dancer (Rebecca Luker in Little Dancer, photo by Paul Kolnik)

Little Dancer (Rebecca Luker in Little Dancer, photo by Paul Kolnik)

The word sensational barely begins to describe the talent in this world premiere production – – the aforementioned Tiler Peck as Young Marie van Goethem, a compelling actress and utterly captivating dancer whose solos will take your breath away.  Rebecca Luker as the Adult Marie, whose elegant stage presence reaffirms her Tony Award nominations in Mary Poppins and The Phantom of the Opera.  The incomparable Boyd Gaines as Edgar Degas, a crusty, nearly blind, self-doubting artist ahead of his time; Janet Dickinson, poised and sympatico as Mary Cassatt, the liberated, barrier-breaking artist; Karen Ziemba, deeply affecting as Martine, Marie’s hardworking alcoholic mother; Sophia Anne Caruso as Charlotte, Marie’s younger sister, who reveals the pitch-perfect voice of a nightingale.  Could she be related to “The Great Caruso”?  Sean Martin Hingston as Philippe de Marchal, deliciously evil, he is one of the silk hatted patrons of the ballet school; and Jenny Powers as Antoinette who blends pathos, humor and infectious charm to her role as Marie’s elder sister.  Oh, and I can’t omit the adorable “rats”, a soubriquet for the young dancers in the corps de ballet.

Little Dancer (Karen Ziemba and Sophia Anne Caruso in Little Dancer, photo by Paul Kolnik)

Little Dancer (Karen Ziemba and Sophia Anne Caruso in Little Dancer, photo by Paul Kolnik)

4# – The Creative Team

Titans of the theatre that will undoubtedly take it to Broadway: Lynn Ahrens, Book and Lyrics – Susan Stroman, Director/Choreographer – Stephen Flaherty, Composer and Arranger – Scenic Designer Beowolf Boritt – Costume Designer, William Ivey LongDoug Besterman, Orchestrations – Shawn Gough, Music Director and Conductor.

#5 – The Music

Stephen Flaherty’s memorable score studded with emotionally charged ballads, love songs and even a bawdy French bar tune.  Absinthe, anyone?

#6 – The Costumes

Long draws from the period but more directly from Degas’s own works (though a barmaid’s garb recalls Manet’s famous painting of the period).  Ballerinas are dressed in a wide array of tutus – orange with butterfly wings, white with black velvet throat ribbons and colorful satin sashes, and bright aqua.  Even the ballet master, Monsieur Corbeil (Michael McCormick), is garbed in a linen suit taken straight from a Degas painting.  Victoriana dresses and garish Can Can costumes are authentically referenced.

#7 – The Sets

Boritt envisions the mood by surrounding the stage with a gilt frame as though the audience is peering inside a Degas painting.  Some of the backdrops reflect the artist’s Impressionistic pastels.

#8 – Choreography

Totally transcendent!  Susan Stroman delves into the world of the dancer creating moments of pure magic.

Highly recommended.  If you can get a ticket!

Through November 30th at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St., NW, Washington, DC.  For tickets and information call 202 467-4600 or visit www.Kennedy-Center.org.

And be sure to see the exhibit “Degas’s Little Dancer” at the National Gallery of Art through January 11th 2015.  For information visit http://www.nga.gov/content/ngaweb/exhibitions/2014/degas-little-dancer.html.

To view video “Little Dancer: C’est le Ballet” click here.

 

Evita – Kennedy Center

Jordan Wright
October 6, 2014
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

Sean MacLaughlin as Juan Peron and Caroline Bowman as Eva - Photo credit Richard Termine

Sean MacLaughlin as Juan Peron and Caroline Bowman as Eva – Photo credit Richard Termine

When we mention the names Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber we are floating around in the pantheonic stratosphere of most beloved collaborators ever to hit the stage, and their blockbuster Evita is certainly one of the finest and most memorable shows they have ever written.  Drawing on the talents of Tony and Olivier Award-winning Director Michael Grandage, and Tony Award-winning Choreographer Rob Ashford to present the seven-time Tony Award-winning musical, the Kennedy Center brings this reinterpretation of the original Broadway production to a new dimension – and it is simply smashing.  There is so much to remark upon and so many to give credit to, but I must start with Lighting Designer Neil Austin and Projection Designer Zachary Borovay who create a mood that reflects the period.

It is 1952 at the funeral of Eva Peron.  Considered the spiritual leader of the people of Argentina, she was a highly controversial figure.  The curtain opens to reveal old newsreels projected across the backdrop of the stage. The First Lady who had risen from a life of poverty by her wits and beauty, and a series of ever-more influential lovers, had achieved her greatest success by marrying Juan Peron.

A haunting black-hooded, candle-lit chorus is chanting a requiem for her through a smoky blue haze.  It is a very dramatic opening, both ghostly and reverential.  The scene then shifts to a lowly tango hall in the provinces where Eva, at 16, became a nightclub singer with dreams of a life in Buenos Aires.  The shabby spot is lit with strings of bare light bulbs and bathed in sepia – the atmosphere appearing as though lifted from a vintage photograph.  In a later scene Austin uses amber-lit chandeliers to evoke the period.  Scenic & Costume Designer Christopher Oram continues the theme with muted-colored retro dresses for the women further expressing the drab shades worn during the Depression era.

Caroline Bowman as Eva - Photo credit Richard Termine

Caroline Bowman as Eva – Photo credit Richard Termine

From the moment Caroline Bowman (Eva) enters the stage her presence is  riveting.  Captivating and lithe, almost balletic in her movements, with a voice that is strong, fluid, totally capable of the huge range expected by the part.  But why do her low notes disappear, the high notes sound screechy?  When the dialogue begins everyone sounds garbled.  If you didn’t know the lyrics or the story, you would struggle to make out what they are singing or, for that matter, saying.  I can’t explain it, but others around me in the orchestra section were having the same reaction to the poor audio.  One can only hope it will be corrected by the time you read this review.

Yet there’s no denying the magic on stage.  The fireworks between Eva and Juan (Sean MacLaughlin) begin with the song, “I’d Be Surprisingly Good for You” and by the time the next number “Another Suitcase in Another Hall” is sung, Eva and Juan have formed their alliance, for better or for worse.

“One has to admire the stage management,” Che sarcastically remarks before Eva arrives onto the balcony of Casa Rosada, the presidential palace.  In one of the show’s most heartrending songs, “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” we witness her narcissistic manipulation as she cannily humbles herself to the adoring crowds.

Max Quinlan is brilliant as Che, Eva’s protector and reality check.  In his memorable duet with her, “High Flying, Adored” reflecting the time when she is at the height of her popularity, he warns, “Don’t look down.  It’s a long way.”  But Eva ignores his sage advice and her megalomania gets the best of her.  I’d quote her reaction if only I could have heard it.

Yet the orchestra is boffo, the set designs are killer, and the music is heaven on earth.  See it, love it, adore it…and try not to sing out loud.

Through October 19th at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St., NW, Washington, DC.  For tickets and information call 202 467-4600 or visit www.Kennedy-Center.org.

TRAILER – Evita at The Kennedy Center – Washington, DC

The Lion King – Kennedy Center

Jordan Wright
June 23, 2014
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

Brown Lindiwe Mkhize as ³Rafiki² in the opening number ³The Circle of Life² from THE LION KING National Tour. Copyright Disney.  Photo Credit  Joan Marcus

Brown Lindiwe Mkhize as ³Rafiki² in the opening number ³The Circle of Life² from THE LION KING National Tour. Copyright Disney. Photo Credit Joan Marcus

Disney’s The Lion King roars onto the stage with a procession of African wildlife in its opening number “Circle of Life”. Director Julie Taymor, who also serves as Costume Designer and Mask & Puppet Co-Designer with Michael Ward, sends her exquisitely conceived creatures – giraffes borne on stilts, a massive elephant and whirling birds held aloft on bamboo poles – streaming down the aisles of the Kennedy Center’s three-tiered Opera House in a fantastical African menagerie. Taymor, who studied Bunraku, the Japanese style of puppetry in which manipulators appear openly, and wayan kulit,the art of shadow puppetry, has magnificently incorporated these concepts into this spectacular production.

It is expected that by now (the animated film version premiered in 1994 and in 1998 the stage version garnered six Tony Awards) that you are familiar with the story of Simba the young lion, King Mufasa his kindly father, Scar the evil uncle, Rafiki the baboon shaman, and Zazu the Red-billed Hornbill. They all inhabit Simba’s life, along with the strong-willed Nala, Simba’s childhood friend, Pumbaa the gassy warthog and Timon the wise-cracking meerkat. These are not the only characters we are treated to. There are hordes of wildebeests that stampede onto the stage, a pride of lions that dance around and lurking laughing hyenas who are lampooned by Pumbaa and Timon in the famous song “Hakuna Matata” meaning “no worries” in Swahili.

Lyricist Tim Rice and Composer Elton John’s score is beyond fabulous. “Can You Seen the Love Tonight” is one of John’s biggest hits. But it was Hans Zimmer who won an Oscar, two Grammys and a Golden Globe for the original film score and Soweto émigré, Lebo M, known as the “voice and spirit of The Lion King”, who contributed the gloriously rich African rhythms and melodies.

Jordan A. Hall as ³Simba² and the ensemble in ³He Lives in You² from THE LION KING National Tour. Copyright Disney.  Photo Credit  Joan Marcus

Jordan A. Hall as ³Simba² and the ensemble in ³He Lives in You² from THE LION KING National Tour. Copyright Disney. Photo Credit Joan Marcus

Most memorable are Simba, played by the adorable Jordan A. Hall who stalks and pounces his way into your heart. “I hate public pools,” he jokes after a dangerous dunk in the river; L. Steven Taylor as Mufasa, whose superlative voice cradles the emotions in “They Live in You” when he explains to Simba about his ancestors who reside in the stars; and Tshidi Manye as the wise Rafiki, whose evocative South African voice burns brightly in “Circle of Life” and “He Lives in You”.

Taymor’s costumes, using the vivid colors of tribal kente cloth, juxtaposes Set Designer Richard Hudson’s backdrops of grassy savannas and cerulean skies, while in desert scenes she employs the earthy shades of patterned Malian mud cloth to accentuate Hudson’s parched earth colored sets.

The Lion King is a lavish feast for the eyes and a paradise of music for the ears. I’d gladly swing from a baobab tree limb to claim it as one of my favorite musicals of all time.

Through August 17th at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St., NW, Washington, DC. For tickets and information call 202 467-4600 or visit www.Kennedy-Center.org.

Side Show – Kennedy Center

Jordan Wright
June 20, 2014
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

 (l-r) Ryan Silverman as Terry Connor, Emily Padgett as Daisy, Erin Davie as Violet, Matthew Hydzik as Buddy Foster. Photo by Joan Marcus.

(l-r) Ryan Silverman as Terry Connor, Emily Padgett as Daisy, Erin Davie as Violet, Matthew Hydzik as Buddy Foster. Photo by Joan Marcus.

In the late 19th and up to the mid-20th century, before The Age of Political Correctness, the public’s fascination with human oddities was an acceptable form of entertainment. Traveling freak shows, pop-up circuses and dime museums were part of our culture and there was hardly a man, woman or child who had not been enthralled by a pinheaded man, a giant or a person with extra appendages. Midgets Chang and Eng, Andre the Giant, and Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy were headliners, as were the “Siamese” twins known as the Hilton Sisters. Side Show brings to life that bizarre era in American show business with the true and tragic story of the talented twins and the exploitation they endured.

Beautifully directed by Bill Condon (Oscar-winning screenwriter of Gods and Monsters) with gorgeous music by Grammy-Award winning composer Henry Krieger of Dreamgirls fame, and a touching story by veteran Broadway lyricist Bill Russell, this musical drama is a tumble down the rabbit hole into an “odditorium” where a tattooed lady with a propensity for dining on live chickens shares stage space with a three-legged man, a cannibal king, the lizard man, and a dozen other exotic creatures.

The story opens in Texas during the Depression, where the twins lead a dismal life performing in a San Antonio tent show with other “freaks”. Handsome talent scout Terry Connor (Ryan Silverman) discovers the girls, offering his credentials along with his partner Buddy Foster (Matthew Hydzik) in the jaunty and pun-laden tune, “Very Well Connected”. In all there are 24 smashing songs by Krieger.

The company of the Kennedy Center production of Side Show. Photo by Joan Marcus

The company of the Kennedy Center production of Side Show. Photo by Joan Marcus

The entire cast is a marvel. Many of the members play up to eight separate roles, led by the joined-at-the-hip Hiltons, performed spectacularly by Erin Davie as Violet and Emily Padgett as Daisy. Matching stride for stride, they dance, duet and, in one hilarious scene, pantomime a mock tennis match. The only thing they don’t do together is fall in love. In “A Private Conversation”, the show’s Phantom of The Opera moment, Silverman captivates in a duet with Padgett.

Robert Joy soars in the role of the archetypal slime ball, Sir, the sideshow’s manager, as does David St. Louis who plays his compassionate assistant Jake. St. Louis’s commanding bass-baritone in “You Should Be Loved”, moves earth and sky.

The show’s creative team gives us three-time Helen Hayes Award-winner Paul Tazewell, whose imaginative costumes span half a century from the twins’ Dickensian upbringing to Chicago’s Orpheum Theatre and on to the glitz and glamour of Hollywood where they become the toast of the town. Paul Kieve, whose stage and film illusions are legendary, dramatizes one of the most memorable scenes of the production when Javier Ignacio, performing a breathtaking illusion as Harry Houdini, sings “All in the Mind” in his haunting three-octave voice. I wished his were more than a cameo role.

Famed Special Effects/Prosthetics Designers, Dave Elsey and Lou Elsey who devised creatures for both Star Wars and Where the Wild Things Are, provide the rivetingly recognizable freaks.

Highly recommended.

Through July 13th at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St., NW, Washington, DC. For tickets and information call 202 467-4600 or visit www.Kennedy-Center.org.