Dear Evan Hansen ~ The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

Jordan Wright
August 11, 2019 

Four years ago, Dear Evan Hansen premiered at Arena Stage under the direction and guidance of Molly Smith and Edgar Dobie.  The angsty teen musical starred Ben Platt who subsequently became a huge star when the show went to Broadway where it won six Tony Awards in 2017 plus a Grammy for “Best Musical Theater Album” in 2018.  Before seeing this national touring company production, I reread my original review, which surprisingly, was quite specific as to the pros and cons.

Ben Levi Ross as ‘Evan Hansen’ and the Company of the First North American Tour of Dear Evan Hansen. Photo by Matthew Murphy

Although a fresh, new concept in musical theater, I noted the production seemed overly cloying and needed work with some of the songs.  More specifically, I was eager to see the show get some much-needed, strategic editing and a sharper focus.  From my August 2015 review:  “The show loses momentum as the characters’ roles are overly fleshed out and side stories stretch into distractions.  Another bump is the annoying repetition of lyrics and all too frequent use of falsetto called for in the songs.”  Thankfully the overuse of falsetto is gone.  Gone too is the annoying repetition of some lyrics, and the story now is now focused on a universal, multi-generational message that truly resonates.

Ben Levi Ross as ‘Evan Hansen,’ Aaron Lazar as ‘Larry Murphy,’ Christiane Noll as ‘Cynthia Murphy’ and Maggie McKenna as ‘Zoe Murphy’. Photo by Matthew Murphy

I give huge credit to producers Stacey Mindich, Wendy Orshan and Jeffrey M. Wilson who hung on tight and cherished the vision of Steven Levenson’s book, and the music and lyrics of Benj Pasek & Justin Paul by taking the musical to the next level – a more polished, fully developed, gorgeous musical that provides the audience with the humanity and humor it craves.

Ben Levi Ross as ‘Evan Hansen’ and Jessica Phillips as ‘Heidi Hansen’ in the First North American Tour of Dear Evan Hansen. Photo by Matthew Murphy

The coming-of-age story of Evan Hansen centers around a tormented teen raised by a single mother in the fraught age of social media.  Insecure and an outcast at school, Evan’s psychologist asks him to self-examine by writing letters to himself.  That alone doesn’t curb the bullying or bring him closer to his teen crush Zoe until the day Connor Murphy, a fellow outcast, takes his own life and a series of unconnected events offer Evan purpose to his lonely life, recognition from his peers, and a made-up tale for his broken arm.  “You play who you have to play,” his pal Jared advises him as he, Evan and Alana concoct a social media scheme to capitalize on Connor’s untimely death.  Unfortunately, the result proves how devastating Twitter and Facebook can be when used to promote a false narrative.  On a larger scale it can be socially and politically devastating as we have witnessed in our national political system.

Christiane Noll as ‘Cynthia Murphy’ and Jessica Phillips as ‘Heidi Hansen’ in the First North American Tour of Dear Evan Hansen. Photo by Matthew Murphy

Fans will thrill to Ben Levi Ross’ (Evan Hansen) galvanic voice in hits like “Waving Though a Window”, “For Forever”, “You Will be Found” and “Words Fail” which brings the house down.  Another high point is the beautiful and lyrical intensity actor Jessica Phillips (as Evans’ mother, Heidi) brings to the number, “So Big/So Small” which is when you wish you’d brought a handkerchief.

Highly recommended.  Moving and relatable, Dear Evan Hansen calls out to both parents and teens with truth and humor.

Also starring Jared Goldsmith as Jared Kleinman; Phoebe Koyabe as Alana Beck; Maggie McKenna as Zoe Murphy; Christiane Noll as Cynthia Murphy; Aaron Lazar as Larry Murphy and Marrick Smith as Connor Murphy.

Directed by Michael Greif; with Orchestrations & Original Arrangements by Alex Lacamoire; Costume Design by Emily Rebholz; Choreography by Danny Mefford; Scenic Design by David Korins; Projection Design by Peter Nigrini; Lighting Design by Japhy Weideman and Sound Design by Nevin Steinberg with the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra. 

Through September 8th at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 2700 F St., NW, Washington, DC.  For tickets and information call 202 467.4600 or visit www.Kennedy-Center.org.

Aladdin ~ The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

Jordan Wright
July 22, 2019 

For those of you who love fantasy and adventure with royalty and villains, Disney’s Aladdin sits at the pinnacle of Broadway extravaganzas.  I doubt there’s ever been any production with more glitter, more sequins, more light-reflecting crystal beads, fields of chiffon, sky-high feathered turbans and all-around glitz and glamour on one stage since Florence Ziegfeld’s Follies.  The pyrotechnics and projections alone make this a must-see.

Friend Like Me ~ Aladdin North American Tour. Photo by Deen van Meer

Everything you might expect from an Arabian spectacle is all here in eye-popping splendor, thanks to multiple Tony Award-winning Set Designer Bob Crowley.  If only desert life was this colorful.  Moorish minarets loom over sword swallowers, belly dancers and whirling dervishes as the handsome, oh so impoverished, Aladdin tries to woo the beautiful Princess Jasmine to save her and her kingdom from the clutches of the Sultan’s Grand Vizier, Jafar, and his vertically-challenged sidekick, Iago.  Poor Aladdin, our hero is trapped in poverty, while Jasmine is trapped in a gilded cage.  Nothing is simple in the kingdom of Agraba, but there’s a lot that’s hilarious.  As Genie (played absolutely gloriously by Major Attaway) explains in his usual wry tone, “Everyone here has 0% body fat.”… except for Genie, who is a full-figured, jive-talking bundle of high-stepping, street-smart exuberance who can nail a medley of Disney show tunes as easily as he can grant three wishes.

Friend Like Me ~ Major Attaway (Genie) & Ensemble Aladdin North American Tour ~ Photo by Deen van Meer

There’s drama and frolic, and frolicsome drama as Aladdin finds himself in the aurelian ‘Cave of Wonders’ having been sent by the wicked Jafar to fetch the Genie’s golden lamp.  Predictably, it’s a set up as Jafar plans to do away with our hero and grab the lamp for his own nefarious machinations.

Arabian Nights Men ~ Photo by Deen van Meer

But wait.  Did I mention the magic carpet? Where would we be without a magic carpet ride to underscore Aladdin and Jasmine’s amorous vows to wed despite all odds?  Traveling through the starry sky the pair soar above the stage in a flight of fantasy and wonder professing their love with the musical’s most memorable number, “A Whole New World”.

Major Attaway (Genie). Aladdin North American Tour. Photo by Matthew Murphy

The score by Alan Menken (Little Shop of Horrors, Beauty and the Beast, Newsies) with lyrics by Tim Rice (Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita with Andrew Lloyd Webber), Howard Ashman (The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast) and Chad Beguelin (The Prom, The Wedding Singer, Elf), is orchestrally wonderful, fulfilling a wide range of musical styles – some you might expect with an Arabian influence and others that trend rock/pop/rap – boosted by a sizzling horn section.  The huge sound is from the Aladdin Touring Orchestra joined by the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra.

Kaena Kekoa (Jasmine) & Clinton Greenspan (Aladdin). Aladdin North American Tour. Photo by Deen van Meer

Highly recommended.  This one should be high on your wish list.  Go before you run out of wishes.

With Major Attaway as Genie; Clinton Greenspan as Aladdin; Kaenāonalani Kekoa as Princess Jasmine; Jonathan Weir as Jafar; Jerald Vincent as Sultan; Reggie De Leon as Iago; Zach Bencal as Babkak; Ben Chavez as Omar; Colt Prattes as Kassim; and over 20 performers in the ensemble cast.

Kaena Kekoa (Jasmine). Aladdin North American Tour. Photo by Deen van Meer

Directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw; Costume Design Gregg Barnes; Orchestrations by Danny Troob; Music Director/Conductor Faith Seeto; and Lighting Design Natasha Katz.

Through September 7th at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 2700 F St., NW, Washington, DC.  For tickets and information call 202 467.4600 or visit www.Kennedy-Center.org.

The Band’s Visit ~ The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

Jordan Wright
July 16, 2019 

The Band’s Visit is a timeless musical, a romantic intrigue, and a wryly funny tale based on a true story.  You may have seen the movie, but the musical allows the story to be fully fleshed out bringing to life the story of a 7-piece classical Arab band known as the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra and its conductor, Colonel Tewfiq, and how they all wind up in a dusty desert town in Israel where no one is expecting them.  Winner of ten Tony Awards including “Best Musical” and “Best Original Score”, the sultry number “Omar Sharif” was performed on the night of the 2018 awards.  Countless other prestigious theater awards have showered down upon this tenderhearted tale with original screenplay written by Eran Kolirin, book by Itamar Moses with composer/lyricist David Yazbek, and beautifully directed by David Cromer.  It stars Sasson Gabay, who played the lead in the film version, as well as Chilina Kennedy (Carole King in Beautiful on Broadway), Pomme Koch and Joe Joseph, both of whom were in the Broadway cast.

‘The Band’s Visit,’ now playing at The Kennedy Center. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Imagine Tel Aviv in 1996.  Egyptian music and movies have been banned even though generations of Israelis have thrilled to the haunting voice of the internationally famous singer, Umm Kulthum, and films starring the divinely suave and handsome Egyptian box-office idol, Omar Sharif (Lawrence of Arabia and Dr. Zhivago).  It is a fraught time, not so different from today, when cultures are separated by politics or war, and borders, real or imagined, are redrawn or redefined.  And it is how Tewfiq and Dina find their music connection.

When the youthful Haled purchases the band’s tickets and mistakenly gives the wrong name for their destination, his miscommunication sends the men to Bet Hatikva, a tiny town where nothing ever happens and where the song “Waiting”, sung by the residents of the town, describes their ennui.  At the café the musicians meet the lovely and fiery Dina, owner of the town’s sole café, who finds them homes to stay for a single night till the next day’s bus can take them to their correct destination.

Chilina Kennedy as Dina and Sasson Gabay as Tewfiq in ‘The Band’s Visit.’ Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Nine musicians – including players of the traditional Arab instruments oud, darbouka and riq – perform all the numbers onstage in a sort of musical ballet assisted by a rotating center stage.  This beautifully expressed musical accompaniment weaves together the characters’ personal stories enhancing their shared communion with their temporary hosts.  The story centers around the initial awkwardness of the two separate cultures attempting to understand each other’s cultural differences, ultimately discovering that they are more similar than not, and that love and family and the universality of music are at the heart of the human connection.

‘The Band’s Visit,’ now playing at The Kennedy Center. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Highly recommended.  Take everyone you know!

With Chilina Kennedy (Carole King in Beautiful on Broadway) as Dina; Sasson Gabay as Tewfiq; Pomme Koch as Itzik; Joe Joseph as Haled; Mike Cefalo as Telephone Guy; Adam Gabay as Papi; Ronnie Malley as Camal; David Studwell as Avrum; Jennifer Apple as Anna; Marc Ginsburg as Sammy; Kendal Hartse as Iris; Sara Kapner as Julia; James Rana as Simon; and Or Schraiber as Zelger.  The Band is conducted by Rick Bertone, Music Director – with Tony Bird, George Crotty, Evan Francis, Roger Kashou, and Ronnie Malley.

Choreography by Patrick McCollum; Scenic Design by Scott Pask; Sound Design by Kai Harada; Costume Design by Sarah Laux; Lighting Design by Tyler Micoleau.

Through August 4th at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in the Eisenhower Theater – 2700 F St., NW, Washington, DC.  For tickets and information call 202 467-4600 or visit www.Kennedy-Center.org

Falsettos ~ The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

Jordan Wright
June 18, 2019 

Written at the height of the AIDS epidemic, Falsettos has been an anthem to the love and emotional support gays and their families experienced as they watched their love ones die off in droves.  It had its Broadway debut in 1992, but before that the musical had appeared Off-Broadway as March of the Falsettos in 1981 and Falsettoland in 1990.  Thanks to Composer and Lyricist James Lapine’s efforts, you’d be hard pressed to find a musical with a more difficult score to sing.

Trina, Jason and Marv in Eden Espinosa, Thatcher Jacobs and Max von Essen. Photo by Joan Marcus.

It is a story of Marvin, his wife, Trina, and their boy, Jason.  When Marvin leaves his family for Whizzer, a cocky, handsome gay man, the couple turns to Mendel, the psychiatrist to sort it all out.  Mendel falls for Trina and, oh well, it’s complicated.

Mendel and Marvin – Nick Blaemire and Max von Essen. Photo by Joan Marcus.

If you look at it as a story only about gays and AIDS, it seems incontrovertibly dated.  A broader perspective might be to think of it in terms of devotion or, perhaps, altruism – the devotion of caregivers and the empathy required to sacrifice one’s own needs for another’s touches everyone.  At least that’s how I came to view it, because, in that deeper way, it can be far more relatable.

But it’s not for everyone.  It’s overly long, nearly three hours, and demands our sympathies in uncomfortable ways.  Do we like how Marvin destroys his marriage to Trina and cavalierly ignores his own son?  Certainly not.  Is he not vain, egotistical, obsessive, hurtful and destructive?  All of the above.  Do we notice that their shrink Mendel cuckolds Marvin, his original patient?  Indeed, we do.  What about the tempestuous and superficial relationship between Whizzer and Marvin?  “We like fighting most,” he admits.  Should we care?  And, though they are Jewish, their only nod to religion is their insistence that Jason have a Bar Mitzvah, even though the boy is dead set against one.  The pessimism, obsessions and neuroses can be soul-killing to witness.

Marvin and Whizzer ~ Max von Essen and Nick Adams. Photo by Joan Marcus.

In “Trina’s Song” she laments that men are so immature yet rule the world.  Here, Lapine and Finn offer a brief nod to women’s liberation and her hopes for a more fulfilling life, but then do a 180 making Trina a stay-at-home wife and mother.  It is only when Whizzer is dying and Marvin returns to care for him with their lesbian neighbors, Cordelia and Dr. Charlotte, that we witness the human connection.

Cordelia and Dr. Charlotte ~ Audrey Cardwell and Bryonha Marie Parham. Photo by Joan Marcus.

As a sing-through that includes 37 titled numbers and scenes, the musical stretches the vocal talents of any singer and in this production it takes a host of Broadway veterans.

The Company ~ Photo by Joan Marcus

Directed by James Lapine, Set by David Rockwell, Costumes by Jennifer Caprio, Lighting by Jeff Croiter, Choreography by Spencer Liff, and Sound by Dan Moses Schreier.

With Max Von Essen as Marvin, Thatcher Jacobs or Jonah Mussolino as Jason, Nick Adams as Whizzer, Nick Blaemire as Mendel, Eden Espinosa as Trina, Bryonha Marie Parham as Dr. Charlotte, and Audrey Cardwell as Cordelia.

Through June 23rd in the Eisenhower Theater at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 2700 F St., NW, Washington, DC.  For tickets and information call 202 467-4600 or visit www.Kennedy-Center.org.

Byhalia, Mississippi ~ The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts


Jordan Wright
June 13, 2019 

Evan Linder’s play has all the elements of a hackneyed soap opera starring a young, broke, white couple with adultery issues and a bible-thumping mother in bitterly acrimonious conflict with her daughter and son-in-law, Jim.  If not for Linder’s uncompromising storytelling, an admirable and passionate cast, and superb directing, it would seem like a story we have heard all too many times with the exception that this one comes with sharp incisors and a propensity for equal doses of poignancy and hilarity.

(L-R) Caroline Neff, Jack Falahee, and Cecelia Wingate ~ Photo by Jeremy Daniel.jpg

Overdue and big as a watermelon, Laurel cuddles up with Jim who is excited about the prospect of a son, “Are you my stupid baby?” he asks sweetly, ear to Lauren’s swollen tummy.  Even Laurel’s mother, Celeste, whose late husband was a serial philanderer and doesn’t cotton to her out-of-work son-in-law, can’t wait to be a grandma.  “The only thing I care about is this baby.”

(L-R) Blake Morris and Jack Falahee ~ Photo by Jeremy Daniel.jpg

A few years before, Jim had a brief fling.  Laurel reluctantly forgave him, and, still very much in love, they recommitted themselves to their marriage.  But when the baby is born and is black, Jim loses his mind, blaming his best friend, Karl, who happens to be African American.  Celeste’s reaction is mortification about what the townspeople will think of her and her daughter, insisting Laurel “get rid of it”.

(L-R) Blake Morris and Aime Donna Kelly ~ Photo by Jeremy Daniel.jpg

There are so many spoilers that I won’t reveal any more of the plot as the story takes twists and turns so serpentine that it proves totally unpredictable as to where the characters’ paths take them.  Do we like them?  Not always, but we are kept in jocular hysterics by both their Southern-ness and their messy lives.  Celeste’s drawl and quirky backwoods metaphors alone are priceless.  To put a frame around it, Linder, who is white, references the ghost of civil rights activist, Skip Robinson, leader of a 1974 boycott of businesses in Byhalia after the shooting death by a local policeman of a young, unarmed black man named Butler Young, Jr.  Young’s memory was ignored by Byhalia, and still is.  Linder is determined to correct the town’s selective memory and provoke a conversation about race relations.  You will see that there is racism on both sides here, and emotional disconnects that are a mile wide.

(L-R) Jack Falahee, Blake Morris, and Aime Donna Kelly ~ Photo by Jeremy Daniel.jpg

Byhalia, Mississippi is a story about truth, forgiveness, commitment and racism – real or imagined.  It is also a  sweet, crazy tale of hope and redemption set in a blip of a provincial town caught up in a changing world.  As Laurel, who commits to raising her baby, tells her mother, “Nothing ever changes unless people like you watch it happen.”

Highly recommended.  A perfect cast beautifully directed by Kimberly Senior.  You will be glued to your seat, if you don’t keel over from laughter.

With Caroline Neff as Laurel, Cecelia Wingate as Celeste, Jim Falahee as Jim, Blake Morris as Karl, and Aimé Donna Kelly as the surprise character, Ayesha.

(L-R) Jack Falahee and Caroline Neff 2 ~ Photo by Jeremy Daniel.jpg

Scenic Design by Cameron Anderson, Costume Design by Jen Caprio, Lighting Design by Jennifer Reiser, and Sound Design by Mikhail Fiksel.

Through July 7th in the Terrace Theater at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 2700 F St., NW, Washington, DC.  For tickets and information call 202 467-4600 or visit www.Kennedy-Center.org.