Fully Committed ~ MetroStage

Jordan Wright
December 13, 2016
Special to The Alexandria Times

Tom Story in Fully Committed Photo credit Chris Banks

Tom Story in Fully Committed Photo credit Chris Banks

Fully Committed comes with so much stage cred, it’s hard to know where to start – so I’ll start with the underpinnings.  Drum roll, please.  It is directed by Alan Paul, whom we know and love as the Associate Director of the Shakespeare Theatre Company and for his countless productions ranging from Shakespeare to musical theatre to concerts, including opera at the Kennedy Center.

Written by Becky Mode, an alumna of HBO, Disney, Nickelodeon, Columbia Pictures and ABC, this nifty one-man comedy is coming off a successful Broadway run, and MetroStage’s Artistic Director, Carolyn Griffin has scored a major coup in getting it here.  The original has been newly revised for this production and features the immensely talented and highly endearing, Tom Story, who juggles 40 different characters at warp speed.

Tom Story in Fully Committed Photo credit Chris Banks

Tom Story in Fully Committed Photo credit Chris Banks

Story plays Sam, a struggling actor who has taken an in-between-auditions-and-gigs job as a reservations clerk at a Michelin-starred, Manhattan-based temple of cutting edge molecular gastronomy.  Arriving at his basement office, he discovers that the other two reservations clerks, Sonya and Bob, have ditched him at the height of the holiday season and he is left to fend for himself against all the self-entitled crazies and their outrageous requests.  Add to that a staff consisting of a haughty, bi-polar, French chef with a drug habit, a prissy hostess, a Latino sous chef and a kindly manager of Indian descent.

Presto chango! Story cycles through an astonishing array of accents from Brooklynese and Manhattan Old Guard, to Cockney, French, Indian, Italian (a mobster needs a table STAT), a helicopter pilot with a lateral lisp, a Southern drawl from an octogenarian who overshares her medical issues, the flat nasal voice of a Midwestern accent and a Transylvanian-sounding caller willing to pay a bribe – a table for a heaping wad of cash.  Of particular hilarity is Story’s interpretation of Gwyneth Paltrow’s swishy assistant, Bryce, who phone-friends him with increasingly insistent updates of Ms. Paltrow’s demands for a special vegan tasting menu and the most flattering lighting.  (Bryce will bring golden-hued Edison bulbs to replace the harsh sconce lights.)  Famed British chef Heston Blumenthal is channeled when he shows up unannounced to find his reservation is missing and the restaurant is “fully committed”.

Tom Story in Fully Committed Photo credit Chris Banks

Tom Story in Fully Committed Photo credit Chris Banks

Throughout the mayhem Sam takes calls on his private cell from his supportive father and rival Jerry, another out-of-work actor who updates him on his shiny prospects just as Sam is at the end of his rope.  To add insult to injury, just as Sam is hoping to join his family for Christmas, he gets a call from the chef telling him he must work through the holidays.

As we see, it’s not just the constant phone calls for rezzies, it’s the intercom micromanaging between the front of the house and the kitchen that challenge Sam’s sweet demeanor.  As amenable as he seems he’s no dummy and when he discovers co-worker Bob has been faking a car accident to get out of his shift, he begins to see the light.

Story’s ability to convey these absent callers through accent, emotion, and gesture is a triumph to behold.

Highly recommended for anyone who has ever dined or eaten in a restaurant.  And that means, you!

At MetroStage through January 8th – 1201 North Royal Street, Alexandria, 22314.  For tickets and information visit www.metrostage.org.

Blackberry Daze ~ MetroStage

Jordan Wright
September 15, 2016
Special to The Alexandria Times

Blackberry Daze Ensemble

Blackberry Daze Ensemble

Director, Choreographer and Lyricist Thomas W. Jones II and Musical Director William Knowles are the collaborators of a world premiere musical at MetroStage.  Adapted from the murder mystery, “Blackberry Days of Summer” by Lynchburg native Ruth P. Watson, Blackberry Daze is the story of a mother and her teenage daughter, a jazz club singer and her soldier husband back from World War I, a host of churchgoing ladies, and a two-timing hustler.  Set in the backwoods of rural Virginia the action swings back and forth from the sophisticated Black nightclubs in Washington, DC to a hard knock life in the country.

(l to r) Ayana Reed ~ Roz White ~ Duyen Washington

(l to r) Ayana Reed ~ Roz White ~ Duyen Washington

Ayana Reed plays Carrie Parker, a teenager struggling with a grim secret, with Roz White as her mother, Mae Lou.  Mae Lou has a heart of gold until she meets and marries Herman Camm, a fast-talking lowlife, and betrays her daughter’s trust.  Reed gives an outstanding and deeply affecting performance, and though her character is by far the most emotionally critical element it is not given enough importance.  For me, Carrie’s plight and ultimate redemption, is where the real story lies.  I compare it to the films “Precious” or “The Color Purple”, for sheer poignancy.  Unfortunately, Carrie’s story is truncated by an overabundance of gospel tunes interspersed with jazz songs of the era.  And though Reed has but a single solo in “Palm of God”, it is the most indelible moment of the show.

(l-r) Yvette Spears ~ TC Carlson

(l-r) Yvette Spears ~ TC Carlson

TC Carson succeeds in portraying the slick Camm, a cad and rapist who has the whole town gunning for him, including his red hot paramour and juke joint singer, Pearl (the husky-voiced Yvette Spears).  But tying the characters and their motives together becomes confusing when the story is overloaded with so many disparate objectives.  There are fourteen numbers in all, including the surprisingly chosen, “O Holy Night”.  It was baffling at times trying to make out whose story was being told, and by whom.  In some cases, the characters tell their own stories which would work better if there were one narrator.  Some streamlining would help clear this up, but where?  It would be blasphemous to cut any of Knowles’ songs.  And with a seasoned, stand-out cast of Carson as Herman Camm; White as Carrie’s mother Mae Lou; Duyen Washington as both Ginny and Auntie May; Nia Harris as Hester; and Duane Richards II in dual roles as Simon, Carrie’s adoring boyfriend, and Willie, Pearl’s husband; whose lines would you cut?

(l-r) Duane Richards II ~ Ayana Reed

(l-r) Duane Richards II ~ Ayana Reed

Better yet focus on the razzmatazz of the era, the fine acting, Knowles’ onstage piano playing, and the dance segments.

At MetroStage through October 9th – 1201 North Royal Street, Alexandria, 22314.  For tickets and information visit www.metrostage.org.

Black Pearl Sings ~ MetroStage

Jordan Wright
April 26, 2016
Special to The Alexandria Times

Roz White ~ Teresa Castracane ~ Photo credit Chris Banks

Roz White ~ Teresa Castracane ~ Photo credit Chris Banks

Sandra L. Holloway’s searing production of Black Pearl Sings opens to the haunting music of a Black chain gang singing in cadence as they swing their pickaxes to the dirge-like rhythm.  This indelible, spine-tingling chant leads us to Alberta ‘Pearl’ Johnson who has spent ten miserable years in a swamp-surrounded prison in southeast Texas for the murder of her abusive husband.  The story is inspired by folklorist John Lomax’s real life discovery of the legendary folk singer and guitarist, Huddie ‘Lead Belly’ Ledbetter.

In this telling, Johnson is discovered by Susannah Mullally, an ambitious, and not incidentally, White ethnomusicologist employed by the Library of Congress to uncover America’s earliest indigenous music, and, by deduction, its African roots.  “You are a doorway to our past,” Susannah pleads.  Playwright Frank Higgins, whose previous work has starred such notable actresses as Blythe Danner and Gwyneth Paltrow, gives pathos and humor to this sensitive portrait of a woman hardened by a segregationist South and the destructive men in her life.

Roz White and Teresa Castracane ~ Photo credit Chris Banks

Roz White and Teresa Castracane ~ Photo credit Chris Banks

At first Susannah’s attempts to coax the old plantation songs out of Johnson are met with a steely rebuke.  But eventually, after a considerable period of enmity and suspicion and her description of the suppression of her country’s Gaelic language, the two women form a partnership with Susannah gaining Pearl’s freedom, hard-fought trust and a wealth of songs.

Twenty memorable American folk songs and spirituals weave in and out of this musical, performed entirely in a capella by Roz White’s sinuous contralto and Teresa Castracane’s lilting Irish mezzosoprano and led by legendary Musical Director William Hubbard.  Their shared struggles, Pearl’s to earn enough money to track down her long, lost daughter, and Susannah’s seeking success as a woman in a man’s world, eventually bring the women together culminating in a heart-wrenching duet with “Six Feet of Earth” at the end of the second act.  Other numbers familiar to many of us are “Down on Me”, later made famous by Janis Joplin (also called “Pearl”), “This Little Light of Mine”, the Gospel favorite “Do Lord, Remember Me”, the sultry “Don’t You Feel My Leg”, and the universal peace anthem, “Kum Ba Yah”.

Roz White and Teresa Castracane ~ Photo credit Chris Banks

Roz White and Teresa Castracane ~ Photo credit Chris Banks

There are many funny bits but one that gets knowing laughter is when Pearl makes reference to her birth home on the Gullah island of Hilton Head, which back then was a desolate island off the coast of South Carolina populated by the descendants of African slaves.  After hearing a developer recount his vision of a golf course and condos on the tiny island, she decides to use it to motivate her to follow Susannah’s vision for her success.  It’s knowing how that turned out, that resonates with us.

Highly recommended.

At MetroStage through May 29th – 1201 North Royal Street, Alexandria, 22314.  For tickets and information visit www.metrostage.org.

Shake Loose – A Musical Night of Blues Moods & Icons – MetroStage

Jordan Wright
February 1, 2016
Special to The Alexandria Times

(L-R) Anthony Manough, Lori Williams,Rayshun LaMarr, Roz White - Photo credit: Chris Banks

(L-R) Anthony Manough, Lori Williams,Rayshun LaMarr, Roz White – Photo credit: Chris Banks

If you’ve been seeing clouds of steam heat billowing over the rooftop of MetroStage lately, blame it on the four-member cast and six-piece band of Shake LooseFire and ice and everything nice best describes the cool daddies and hot ladies in this sizzling revue of music by William Knowles and William Hubbard and the lyrics of Thomas W. Jones II who doubles as the show’s choreographer.  If you’ve followed the musical careers of the composers there are songs and snippets from their other hit shows – Ladies Swing the Blues, Cool Papa’s Party, Three Sistahs, Bessie’s Blues, and Pearl Bailey…by request – shows that have been at the core of MetroStage’s musical productions over the years.

Geared to each decade the show taps into the zeitgeist of 20th century African-American music to include vaudeville, big band, jazz, R&B, swing, rural gospel and soul, with a smattering of Broadway-style show tunes.  Supporting the pitch-perfect soulful voices of Lori Williams, Roz White, Rayshun LaMarr and Anthony Manough, are the sweet sounds of a trio of horns and the slow thump of a bass with Knowles himself on a grand piano.

(L-R) Roz White, Rayshun LaMarr, Anthony Manough, Lori Williams - Photo credit: Chris Banks

(L-R) Roz White, Rayshun LaMarr, Anthony Manough, Lori Williams – Photo credit: Chris Banks

But this is not a concert, it’s a series of seven movements that divide and define the 39 memorable numbers.  It opens with the section “Migration Blues” when the rhythms of 1920’s Harlem beckoned blacks to leave the South in droves for the bright lights and vaudeville stages of uptown New York.  There are jumpin’ and jivin’ numbers dotted with the staccato sounds of the quartet’s mad tapping skills in “Sho’ Feet Can Dance” and mournful ballads like, “Rivers Swollen With My Tears” delivered heartachingly by Williams who warns of “rivers that bury the bones”.  Here Robbie Hayes’ projections follow the early days of Black musical history with clips of New York’s famed Cotton Club and its glamorous chorus girls, and as one lyric claims, “Every boy’s an Almond Joy.”

The demise of the big stages and the rise of vinyl is chronicled in the second movement, “Riot & Rebellion”.  In “SSOS” (alternately expressed as sweet sound of soul and sweet sound of surrender) the foursome shift dance styles to The Watusi and Hully Gully while projections of Malcolm X, sit-ins and the march to Selma take us down to the nitty-gritty and Williams again solos in “Lay Your Body Down” as the images recall the assassinations of the great leaders of our time.  And in no time flat we’re swaying to the gyrations of Manough and White in “A Basement Kind of Love” and recalling the days of impromptu parties and hookups in the basement of 1960’s homes everywhere.

(L-R) Lori Williams, Rayshun LaMarr - Photo credit: Chris Banks

(L-R) Lori Williams, Rayshun LaMarr – Photo credit: Chris Banks

Rolling through the decades of jazz and swing White takes the spotlight in “Barely Breathing”, a song from Three Sistahs that evokes the hot soul sounds of the era and describes a hook up as, “I was his cocoa Cinderella throwin’ myself a ball.”

The cast utilizes every piece of available real estate from the tiered stage and between the aisles to bring the joyful and occasional heartbreaking songs to the audience.  It’s like being in a nightclub where the band jams out on stage behind the singers.

Each singer takes a sexy, sultry star turn in this hold-your-breath production.  The music is as mesmerizingly haunting as anything from Tin Pan Alley or 60’s Detroit, and where Michael Jackson, Nat King Cole, Boyz to Men and other musical icons are remembered and re-interpreted.  Utterly riveting for the beautifully blended harmonies, hilarious antics, and the music and lyrics from these iconic composers.  I can hardly wait to see this show again.

Highly recommended.

At MetroStage through March 6th – 1201 North Royal Street, Alexandria, 22314.  For tickets and information visit www.metrostage.org.

Uprising – MetroStage

Jordan Wright
September 29, 2015
Special to The Alexandria Times

As part of this fall’s ongoing Women’s Voices Theater Festival featuring over 50 world premiere productions of plays by female playwrights, MetroStage Artistic Director Carolyn Griffin presents Uprising, a musical telling of the true story of noted abolitionist Osborne “Ossie” Perry Anderson.  Set against the backdrop of a free black community during Secession Era America, it reflects a time of grave uncertainty, even for freed African Americans, who remain in fear of being kidnapped for bounty, taken south and sold again.

(right to left) Cynthia D. Barker as Sal and Anthony Manough as Ossie - Photo credit: Chris Banks

(right to left) Cynthia D. Barker as Sal and Anthony Manough as Ossie – Photo credit: Chris Banks

Ossie (Anthony Manough), on the run as the lone black survivor of John Brown’s ill-fated raid on Harper’s Ferry, encounters Sal (Cynthia D. Barker), a freed slave who picks cotton to support a child she has taken in.  Ossie begs Sal not to turn him in, but she has plans for the future and is conflicted.  Together they represent two diametrically opposing choices for African Americans of their day – – insurrection or keeping within the established racial system in an attempt to improve their lot.  Sal chooses to work for meager wages on the plantation in the hopes of building a school for her adopted son, Freddie (Jeremiah Hasty), while Ossie is determined to crush the backbone of slavery by convincing others to join his movement.

Little Freddie, played by Jeremiah Hasty - Photo credit: Chris Banks

Little Freddie, played by Jeremiah Hasty – Photo credit: Chris Banks

The musical opens with the melancholy strains of Tuneman’s blues guitar setting the tone for the conflicts to come.  Conditions are relatively good for the men and women on this plantation just north of the Mason-Dixon line and their paternalistic boss, Whistle (Peter Boyer), often rewards them with bonuses.

When Sal finds Ossie in the field hungry and cold, she rejects his advances, refusing to feed him or offer shelter, afraid to jeopardize her freedom.  But Ossie persists and Sal is fascinated by his surprising eloquence, his ability to read and his courtly manners.  “Words,” he tells her, “I’ve seen them heal a man.”  “Kill em too!” insists Sal who proves an equally verbal sparring partner to Ossie’s progressive views.

When Whistle learns of the insurrection and of Ossie’s escape, he becomes a cruel master, “I’m appalled at the lawlessness,” he barks, threatening them with reduced pay.  If they find the fugitive, they must turn him in.  When Ossie tries to convince the others to “Liberate your souls!” and join the movement, Bo-Jack (Djob Lyons), who’s hidden his love for Sal, and Ossie get into a brawl and all their lives become endangered.

(left to right) Cynthia D. Barker,Peter Boyer, Doug Brown, Cynthia D. Barker, Jeremiah Hasty, Anthony Manough, Enoch King - Photo credit Chris Banks

(left to right) Cynthia D. Barker,Peter Boyer, Doug Brown, Cynthia D. Barker, Jeremiah Hasty, Anthony Manough, Enoch King – Photo credit Chris Banks

Musical interstices composed by Theodis Ealey and directed by William Knowles, are soulful and uplifting, filled with the emotionally stirring strains of gospel, spirituals and plantation work chants and blended by this cast’s exquisite voices.

Brilliantly directed by Thomas W. Jones II who has cast an impressive ensemble to present this powerful tale – – Manough, Barker, Lyons, Doug Brown as Charlie, Naomi LaVette as Lottie; David Cole as Tuneman, the strolling minstrel, and the captivating Jeremiah Hasty making his stage debut as Sal’s boy, Freddie.  (Expect the inimitable Roz White to resume the roles of Lottie and Miss Ellen May, and Enoch King to return as Bo-Jack as they end their roles in a national touring company and rejoin the cast.)

Costume Designer, Janine Sunday, captures the period perfectly with subtle colors that blend seamlessly with Set/Projection Designer Robbie Hayes grainy-filtered backdrops of life in the Deep South.

Highly recommended.

At MetroStage through October 25th – 1201 North Royal Street, Alexandria, 22314.  For tickets and information visit www.metrostage.org.