Jersey Boys ~ The Story of Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons ~ National Theatre

Jordan Wright
December 17, 2019 

(l to r) Corey Greenan, Eric Chambliss, Jon Hacker and Michael Milton – Photo: Joan Marcus

In an era when Motown was delivering hit after hit and Black singing groups ruled the charts, a quartet of Italian kids from the blue-collar town of Belleville, NJ began their journey to stardom.  Most of them were small-time crooks who knew a hot hustle when they saw it.  Tommy, one of the original members, was street smart enough to keep the others out of the worst kind of trouble, though all of them wound up serving time in the pen.  After they all got out, they re-formed, playing local dives and bowling alleys – an arduous route followed by many bands.  Only a handful of these white quartets made it big.  How Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons achieved the pinnacle of success and were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame defines this Tony, Grammy and Olivier-award winning musical.

Bob Crewe’s Apartment ~ (l to r) Michael Milton, Corey Greenan, Jon Hacker, Justin Albinder, Sean McGee and Eric Chambliss – Photo: Joan Marcus

Valli’s powerhouse falsetto and the group’s sweet harmonies, set them apart from other groups, but success didn’t come easily.  After years of struggle as unknown studio backup singers for big recording artists and a sleazy group member who put them over $1M in debt, the group finally found their identity when a young Joe Pesci (Yes! That Joe Pesci.) introduced them to a little-known singer/songwriter named Bob Crewe.  Crewe subsequently churned out mountains of hits for the group and apart from their personal troubles managed to keep them on the road and on the charts.  Of particular interest for me, was learning about Crewe, the most grounded, educated and philosophical of the band members.

Thanks to Murray the K, a popular New York City radio disc jockey, the group got airplay of their first release, “Sherry”.  It went straight to the top of Billboard’s pop charts selling one million records.  After that the hits, and the fans, kept coming – “Big Girls Don’t Cry”, “Walk Like a Man”, “Dawn” and dozens more.

Snowflake Ladies ~ (l to r) Katie Goffman, Connor Lyon, Amy Wagner and Ashley Bruce – Photo: Joan Marcus

The plot, though somewhat predictable and thin as a minute, is based on their fortunes and misfortunes.  Think of it as the glue that supports the musical numbers.  Fans will hear over two dozen of their biggest hits plus a few of their earliest song stylings.  Sung by a quartet whose voices are a near perfect match to the originals, think of it as a Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons concert.  The harmonies are pitch perfect.

(l to r) Ashley Bruce, Amy Wagner and Connor Lyon – Photo: Joan Marcus

Former original Broadway cast member Jon Hacker as Frankie shows off an astonishing falsetto range accompanied by slick dance moves.  Expect James Brown-style splits and spins executed in retro sharkskin suits.  All the band’s songs are choreographed as are those for a sexy mini-skirted girl group that accompanies the boys on tour.

A high energy concert-styled musical set in a retro 60’s music scene, it features all their greatest hits.

Highly entertaining.  (Note: This show is appropriate for ages 12+ only due to strong language throughout.)

Directed by Des McAnuff; Written by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice; Choreographed by Sergio Trujillo; Music by Bob Gaudio; Lyrics by Bob Crewe; Lighting by Howell Binkley; Costume Design by Jess Goldstein; Orchestrations by Steve Orich.

Starring Sean McGee as Bob Crewe; Michael Milton as Nick Massi; Eric Chambliss as Bob Gaudio; Corey Greenan as Tommy DeVito; Ashley Bruce as Mary Delgado/Angel. The rest of the cast all play multiple roles.

Through January 5th at the National Theatre – Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington, DC.  For tickets and information visit www.TheNationalDC.com or call 1.800.514-3849.

Fiddler on the Roof ~ National Theatre

Jordan Wright
December 11, 2019 

An exhilarating and fresh new production of Fiddler hit the National Theatre this week.  The Tony-nominated revival comes in at number eight in the venue’s 2019-2020 “Broadway at the National” series – a series that includes an unprecedented 17 productions.  As with many a national touring show, it is only here for a few performances before hitting the road and straight on to yet another U. S. city.  Catch it if you can.  The voices, as well as the production values, are sublime, and the energy and dance numbers are at full throttle.

The Cast of Fiddler on the Roof. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Written at the turn of the 20th century, the story of the lone fiddler is inspired by the Yiddish stories of Sholem Aleichem.  In this funny and sweetly endearing folk tale set in the fictional Russian Jewish shetl called Anatevka, live Tevye, a milkman, his wife, Golde and their five eligible daughters.  In their small village the rabbi, or rebbe, is the ultimate authority on Jewish tradition and Yente the Matchmaker, who is the Dolly Levi of arranged marriages, has the final say in whom the young women will marry.

Yehezkel Lazarov, Jonathan Von Mering & the Cast of Fiddler on the Roof. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Alas, poor Tevye.  He is eternally conflicted by the changing times as he wrestles with the frightening political climate, the ever-looming pogroms, and the strict religious precepts laid down by the rabbi.  Fiercely traditional in a paternalistic society, he tries to rationalize his daughters’ unorthodox marital choices.  “On the other hand, look at my daughter’s eyes,” he muses, trying to justify the adoration he sees in them for the men they love.   We see Tevye at odds between keeping tradition or accepting the decisions of his beloved daughters.  “Without tradition our lives would be as shaky as the fiddler on the roof,” he warns them.

Natalie Anne Powers, Mel Weyn & Ruthy Froch. Photo by Joan Marcus.

This tender and uplifting story is directed by Tony Award winner Bartlett Sher (South Pacific, The King and I) with all-new spectacular choreography (including the epic bottle dance) by famed Israeli Choreographer, Hofesh Schechter are drawn from authentic folkloric dances and by Jerome Robbins original choreography.  As an added treat, Tevye is played by the critically acclaimed Israeli theatre, film, and TV star Yehezkel Lazarov.  Altogether the cast is seamless.  Notable, too, is Noa Luz Barenblat, as Chava, who reminds me of a young Shirley Jones.

Carolyn Keller, Michael Hegarty, Maite Uzal & Yehezkel Lazarov. Photo by Joan Marcus.

“Tevye’s Dream”, a scene featuring the ghost of Fruma-Sarah, is especially stunning with gargantuan creatures inspired by artist Marc Chagall’s images.  Together they serve as an eerie and phantasmagorical imagining of Tevye’s nightmare – the one in which he and Golde must face the marriage of their independent-minded daughter Tzeitel to the crusty old butcher Lazar Wolf.  “I realize we are the chosen people,” he tells God, “but sometimes couldn’t you choose someone else.”

Olivia Gjurich, Yehezkel Lazarov & the Cast of Fiddler on the Roof. Photo by Joan Marcus.

You’ll revel in “If I Were a Rich Man”, “Matchmaker, Matchmaker”, “Miracle of Miracles”, and “Sunrise, Sunset”, all the time-tested tunes that background the important moments of our lives.

The Cast of Fiddler on the Roof. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Highly recommended whether you’ve seen it once or a hundred times.

With Maite Uzal as Golde; Kelly Gabrielle Murphy as Tzeitel; Ruthy Froch as Hodel; Emma Taylor Schwartz as Shprintze; Carly Post as Bielke; Carol Beaugard as Yente; Nick Siccone as Motel the tailor; Nick Casaula as Perchik; Jonathan Von Mering as Lazar Wolf; Danny Arnold as Mordcha; David Scott Curtis as Rabbi; Cam Cote as Mendel; Kelly Glyptis as Fruma-Sarah; Jack O’Brian as Constable; Sam McClellan as Fyedka; Ali Arian Molaei as The Fiddler.

Conducted by Michael Gildin with Set Design by Michael Yeargan; Costume Design by Catherine Zuber; Lighting Design by Donald Holder; and Sound Design by Scott Lehrer & Alex Neumann.  Book by Joseph Stein, Music by Jerry Bock and Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick.

At the National Theatre, 1321 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington, DC.  For tickets and information visit www.TheNationalDC.com or call 1.800.514.3849.

Jimmy Buffett’s Escape – to – Margaritaville ~ The National Theatre

Jordan Wright
October 10, 2019 

Parrot Heads know where paradise is – on a beach with a tequila-laced cocktail in hand – and that’s exactly where this bio-musical will transport them.  Last night an audience filled with Jimmy Buffett fans were jazzed to hear a mix of his best-loved hits coupled with Broadway-style tunes designed to enhance the singer’s life story.

Company of the National Tour, Jimmy Buffett’s ESCAPE TO MARGARITAVILLE. Photo credit Matthew Murphy

The sweet love stories play out at a run-down hotel on a Caribbean island where two besties go for different reasons.  Rachel, a Harvard-educated environmentalist, is there to collect soil samples for a project she hopes to get funded and Tammy wants a beach blowout before her upcoming nuptials to Chad.  When they arrive, the beach party is in full swing with revelers dancing in minis and cutoffs and tropical drinks flowing.  The overarching theme is party hardy and Brick shakes up shooters like “Sex on the Beach”, “Screaming Orgasm” and “Long Slow Comfortable Screw” that are no doubt familiar within the drinking culture.

Shelly Lynn Walsh as Tammy, Peter Michael Jordan as Brick, Chris Clark as Tully, Sarah Hinrichsen as Rachelin Jimmy Buffett’s ESCAPE TO MARGARITAVILLE. ~ Photo credit Matthew Murphy

Tully Mars and his friend, Brick, live on the island where they’ve carved out a laidback lifestyle – Tully as the beach party’s guitar-strumming singer and Brick as the bartender.  The guys time their affairs to the vacationers’ week-long stay.  As Tully puts it, “Relationships are designed to only last a week.”  Tammy puts it more succinctly, “Zip flop, namaste!” But the men soon find themselves falling in love – Brick when he discovers Tammy likes puns and the hokey pokey and Tully when he realizes Rachel is not his typical hookup. “Changes in Attitudes” is the forerunner to her opening up to Tully and his island life.

Sarah Hinrichsen as Rachel and Chris Clark as Tully in Jimmy Buffett’s ESCAPE TO MARGARITAVILLE. ~ Photo credit Matthew Murphy

The crowd eats this up, especially the Margaritaville song, yelling out “Salt, salt, salt!” between verses.  These are diehard fans, and if this isn’t your jam – tiki huts, Hawaiian shirts and tequila – you’re in the wrong place.  Despite the party atmosphere, there are lessons to be learned and everyone seems to arrive at nirvana at their own pace.  J. D., the island’s patch-sporting Yoda, finds love with Marley, Margaritaville Hotel’s charming owner, and it’s a kick to see where Buffett’s greatest hits turn up.  “Cheeseburger in Paradise” being one of the silliest when Tammy returns home to Cincinnati and breaks her diet in a dance with a trolley stacked high with her favorite junk food.

Shelly Lynn Walsh as Tammy, Peter Michael Jordan as Brick, Chris Clark as Tully, Sarah Hinrichsen as Rachelin Jimmy Buffett’s ESCAPE TO MARGARITAVILLE. ~ Photo credit Matthew Murphy

Twenty-five songs sung by some top-notch vocalists backed by an eight-piece band are the glue that holds this fun-night-out musical together.  As Tully’s African American talent agent puts it when Tully thinks his songs won’t sell, “White people love this shit!”  And we all know how that turned out for Buffett.

Recommended for ages 13 and up.

Music by Jimmy Buffett, Book by Greg Garcia & Mike O’Malley, Directed by Amy Anders Corcoran, Choreography by Kelly Devine, Costumes by Paul Tazewell, Scenic Design by Walt Spangler, Lighting Design by Howell Binkley & Amanda Zieve with Orchestrations by Michael Utley.  Based on the Original Direction by Christopher Ashley.

With Chris Clark as Tully, Sarah Hinrichsen as Rachel, Shelly Lynn Walsh as Tammy, Peter Michael Jordan as Brick, Rachel Lynn Fobbs as Marley, Patrick Cogan as J. D., Matthew James Sherrod as Jamal, Noah Bridgestock as Chadd, Diego Alejandro González as Jesús and DeVon Buchanan as Ted – plus a 12-person ensemble.

Jimmy Buffett’s Escape – to – Margaritaville is part of The National’s 2019-2020 16-production series bringing the best of Broadway shows to DC.

Through October 13th at The National Theatre 1321 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington, DC.  For tickets and information visit www.TheNational.com or call 1-800-514-3849.

Pride & Joy ~ The Marvin Gaye Musical ~ National Theatre

Jordan Wright
May 12, 2019 

Headed to Chicago after a quick ten-day run at the National Theatre, Pride & Joy ~ The Marvin Gaye Musical has captivated Washington audiences with the life and indelible music of DC-born songwriter, musician, and sweet soul singer, Marvin Gaye.  It was in Washington where Gaye played the Howard Theatre with Bo Diddley and began his singing career.

Pride & Joy. Image by The National Theatre.

As a multiple Grammy Award-winning R&B artist, Gaye together with producer Berry Gordy, created Motown’s legendary hitmaking studio of the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s.  Along the way he married and divorced Gordy’s sister Anna, and, towards the end of his career, became an outspoken musical visionary during the contentious political era of the Vietnam War when R&B music steered clear of politics.  constant singing partner in the early days.

In the same vein as The Jersey Boys, Beautiful – The Carol King Story, and the recent multiple Tony Award-nominated Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations (reviewed here in July 2018 when it previewed at the Kennedy Center).  Musically, it is fabulous, though the sound on the night I was there had serious mic feedback problems and in general was not the high-caliber sound engineering we know from the National Theatre.  I’m cutting it some slack in hopes it develops into a tighter, more cohesive musical that could very well see Broadway in its future.

Jarran Muse (and Chae Stephen) as Marvin Gaye – Photo courtesy of New Day Entertainment

Pride & Joy is a bio-musical filled with Gaye’s finest and most memorable hits accompanied by an 8-piece kick-ass band.  You could call it a full-blown concert with innovative,  continual choreography and snazzy, period-perfect costume changes for each new number.  The plot hangs together on the singer’s relationship with Anna and the Gordy family and Gaye’s religious redemption.  Some of Gaye’s most memorable hits were with Tammi Terrell, featured here as his muse and singing partner.  Her sudden death at 24 deeply affected Gaye and nearly ended his career.

Video projections depicting the period’s history both musically and politically depict riots and racism during the 60’s rise of the KKK.  These videos feature early moments in Gaye’s career including the undeniable influence of the TV show Soul Train along with Gaye’s early performances at the legendary Flame Show Bar in Detroit and New York’s Apollo Theater.

Flame Show Bar dancers. Photo courtesy of New Day Entertainment

The musical has all the elements necessary for a hit, including a strong cast, but it needs some serious cutting.  As of now, it is overly long, gets lost in too many side stories, and lingers needlessly on Gaye’s volatile relationship with Anna.  Currently, there are 34 scene changes with 29 massive musical numbers including “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”, “Heaven Must Have Sent You”, “Sexual Healing”, “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing”, the anti-war classic “What’s Going On”, “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”, and many, many, more mega-hits.  Other huge Motown stars Jackie Wilson, Smokey Robinson, Tammi Terrell, Teddy Pendergrass, and The Marvelettes are part of the story too.

DC audiences were thrilled to hear the old Gospel songs, “His Eyes Are on the Sparrow” and “Precious Lord”, which accompany the most painful tragedies in Gaye’s life.  Arms were raised in praise and my seatmate and I agreed that we could probably skip church that week since it we had just had one heckuva Sunday-go-to-meeting.

Recommended for its high-octane performances, off-the-chain vocals and eye-popping dance numbers.

Kourtney Lenton  as Tammi Terrell and Jarran Muse as Marvin Gaye. Photo credit courtesy of New Day Entertainment

Starring Jarran Muse and Chae Stephen as Marvin Gaye, Krystal Drake as Anna Gordy Gaye, Kourtney Lenton as Tammi Terrell plus a 24-person ensemble cast of dancers and singers.

On its way to the Chicago Theatre for seven performances only from June 19-23.  For information visit www.msg.com. For tickets visit www.ticketmaster.com or call 800 745-3000.

STOMP ~ National Theatre

Jordan Wright
April 24, 2019
Photo credit The National Theater DC

STOMP has a long history as a crowd-pleaser with its roots going back over a quarter of a century.  Since that time the percussion-heavy, wordless sensation has been performed in over 50 countries and in front of 24 million people.  STOMP has won countless theater awards as well as an Academy Award nomination, four Emmy noms and one Emmy Award for the HBO special Stomp Out LoudAdditionally, its talents were featured at the closing ceremonies for the London Olympics as well as The Academy Awards.  It’s a show that speaks to everyone’s sense of rhythm, creativity and a sustaining beat.  It paralells the rhythm, not always discernible, that weaves in and out of our daily lives – sometimes chaotic, other times in harmony.

Eight performers – four women and four men – produce rhythmic sounds on an extensive variety of everyday items – from metal trash cans, matchboxes and push brooms, to dust pans, newspapers, and more.  Ever notice the sound of a straw squeaking in and out of a plastic cup lid?  Add that to the bass sound of a blown-up plastic bag when it’s stroked or thumped and a plastic shopping bag when it’s shaken rhythmically.

To accompany these unique sound combinations, performers keep the beat with their feet or hands, slapping thighs or simply clapping, an activity the audience is invited to participate in.  One routine, played out with long poles and mallets, takes on the primal appearance of a Maasai jumping dance.  Each routine leads to another interaction among the group of performers who provide silent, interactive comic relief.

There are times in this show when it is comparable to the cadence of a military drill, others when it is a coordinated, controlled frenzy and objects go flying across the stage.  It takes some serious hand-eye coordination to pull off metal lids or basketballs tossed and caught in ever-evolving circles of activity.

High-octane, toe-tapping, finger-snapping, kinetic energy.  Find your rhythm and go.  Especially exciting for kids.

Created and directed by Luke Creswell and Steve McNicholas with Lighting by Steve McNicholas. Starring Kayla Cowart, Jonathon Elkins, Alexis JulianoCary Lamb, Jr., Guido Mandozzi, Artis Olds, Jeremy Price, Krystal Renée, Ivan Salazar, Cade Slattery, Steve Weiss and Joe White.

Through Sunday, April 28th at The National Theatre, 1321 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington, DC.  For tickets and information web or call 1-800-514-3849 or at the box office weekdays from noon till 6pm.