A Bronx Tale ~ The National Theatre

Jordan Wright
March 27, 2019 

With actor/playwright Chazz Palminteri there to cheer on his cast, A Bronx Tale kicked off its one-week run at The National Theatre.  It was a ready audience filled with those who know and love this show and they were ready for the laughs and the tunes.

Richard H. Blake (Lorenzo), Frankie Leoni (Young Calogero) and Michelle Aravena (Rosina) ~ Photo: Joan Marcu

As Palminteri reminded everyone about his autobiographical story, it’s all about not wasting talent, advice his father, a Bronx bus driver, imparted to him from the time he was a nine-year old kid on the mean streets – streets that were divided by the blacks on Webster Avenue who guarded their turf with fists and Molotov cocktails and Italian mobsters who ruled Belmont Avenue with guns and bats – guys like Tony 10 to 12, Frankie Coffeecake, Eddie Mush and Jojo the Whale.  Between the gunshots and street fights, bar fights and insults, are the musical numbers.

Jane and Friends (front) Brianna-Marie Bell (Jane) with Brandi Porter and Ashley McManus Photo: Joan Marcus

It’s a set piece from the 60’s filled with the doo-wop croonings from the impromptu jukebox jockeys and the sweet sha-na-nas from the neighborhood black girls singing early Motown.  The musical has a primetime pedigree.  Directed by two-time Oscar winner Robert De Niro and four-time Tony Award winner, Jerry Zaks, the snappy tunes are composed by Oscar, Grammy and Tony Award-winning composer Alan Menken.

Webster Avenue (center) Brianna-Marie Bell, with (l to r) Antonio Beverly, Ashley McManus, Brandi Porter and Jason Williams. (rear) Kirk Lydell. // Belmont Avenue – women and men (foreground, l to r) Haley Hannah, Kyli Rae, Joseph Sammour, Giovanni DiGabriele,~ Joshua Michael Burrage and Sean Bell. (background, l to r) Robert Pieranunzi, Michael Barra, Paul Salvatoriello. (on balconies, l to r) Joey Calveri, Mike Backes and John Gardiner. Photo: Joan Marcus

If you like mobsters, hitmen and their nefarious gangs and how they drew a kid into their criminal lair, this one is for you – the fights, the crap games and the fear that Sonny, the crime boss, imparts to his crew of ignorant thugs.  A ‘rat’ is the worst kind of enemy when you live under the code of Omerta, and Calogero, the boy, chooses not to rat on Sonny when he sees him shoot a man in cold blood.  Sonny is appreciative of the boy’s silence and takes him under his wing.  He tells him to choose Love or Fear as a way of life.  Calogero’s parents are appalled.

Sonny and Young Calogero Joe Barbara (Sonny) and Frankie Leoni (Young Calogero) Photo: Joan Marcu

The story touches on the racism that existed in the Italian neighborhoods and, warning: crude slang is used to describe African Americans, especially when Calogero grows up and falls for Jane, a lovely black girl who sees a better future for him.  After all the deaths and all the murders, Sonny turns into a kindly paternal figure to the teenage Calogero who goes straight.

Sonny and Lorenzo at Chez Bippy Joe Barbara (Sonny) and Richard H. Blake (Lorenzo); (at table) John Gardiner, Robert Pieranunzi and Paul Salvatoriello. Photo: Joan Marcus

With Joey Calveri as Sonny; Shane Pry or Frankie Leoni as Young Calogero; Giovanni DiGabriele as Calogero; Richard H. Blake as Lorenzo; Michelle Aravena as Rosina; Brianna-Marie Bell as Jane; Antonio Beverly as Tyrone; John Gardiner as Rudy the Voice; Mike Bakes as Eddie Mush; Michael Barra as Jojo the Whale; Robert Pieranunzi as Frankie Coffeecake; Paul Salvatoriello as Tony 10 to 12; Sean Bell as Sally Slick; Giovanni DiGabriele as Handsome Nick; Alex Dorf as Crazy Mario; Jason Williams as Jesse; Brandi Porter as Frieda; and Peter Gregus as Carmine/Police Officer/Gang Leader.

Scenic Design by Beowulf Boritt; Costume Design by William Ivey Long; Lighting Design by Howell Binley; Sound Design by Gareth Owen; Choreography by Sergio Trujillo.  A ten-piece orchestra is led by Brian P. Kennedy.

Through March 31st at The National Theatre, 1321 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20004.  For tickets and information visit www.TheNationalDC.org or call 202 628-6161.

Finding Neverland ~ The National Theatre

Jordan Wright
February 27, 2019

Melody Rose in Finding Neverland ~ Photo Credit Jeremy Daniel

 Finding Neverland flew into the National Theatre last night, straight from the second star on the right.  As the second-oldest theater in America, the National continues to provide us with the Broadway shows we are dying to see plus some that have made their out-of-town debuts right here.  Seeing a big show on this smaller stage in this grand historic theater makes it feel as if you’re right on stage with the actors.

Ruby Gibbs in Finding Neverland ~ Photo Credit Jeremy Daniel

This supremely delightful musical takes its cue from the life of author J. M. Barrie and his inspiration for the beloved children’s book, “Peter Pan”.  It’s an adventure suitable for all ages – that is if you still believe in fairies.  And we do!  Written by James Graham with music and lyrics by the composing duo of Gary Barlow & Eliot Kennedy, it is chockful of sweet ballads, rousing Irish jigs and toe-tapping chorus numbers.  This song-writing team is solid gold.  Barlow has sold over 45 million records with his pop group Take That and is co-writer on the popular musical The Band.  Kennedy is a Grammy-Award winning musician/singer/songwriter who has had number-one hits with the Spice Girls, Celine Dion, Aretha Franklin and many more.  Altogether, Finding Neverland has twenty original numbers.

The Company of Finding Neverland ~ Photo Credit Jeremy Daniel

Kensington Gardens is where Barrie, a playwright with writer’s block, meets Sylvia, a widow with four boys – George, Peter (of course), Jack and Michael.  Trapped in a loveless, childless marriage with his imperious wife, Mary, he soon becomes enchanted with Sylvia and her lively brood, providing fuel to the boys’ imaginations as he recaptures his own inner child with a script heartily disapproved by his dyspeptic producer, Charles Frohman, and a stubborn-minded cast who refuse to play children’s roles.

The Company of Finding Neverland ~ Photo Credit Jeremy Daniel

Not to be compared with Peter Pan, the 1954 musical with Mary Martin who flew and crowed her way into Broadway history books, this fantasy adventure has equal amounts of appeal.  Wonderfully engaging choreography by Mia Michaels, choreographer on So You Think You Can Dance and Cirque de Soleil’s Delirium.  Michaels has choreographed for Madonna and Prince and is a three-time Emmy Award-winner.  For this production, rather than flights aided by ceiling wire, cast members lift their mates as they ‘soar’ around Neverland.  The children (and the adults!) around me were gobsmacked with glee.

Jeff Sullivan and Seth Erdley in Finding Neverland ~ Photo Credit Jeremy Daniel

A large banquet table proves to be a hilarious hiding place for the guests when napkins fly in Barrie’s posh home in “The Dinner Party” and “The Circus of Your Mind” that plays out to the sounds of a calliope as it delves into Mary and James’ private lives.  At last, Barrie gets the theater’s troupe to recall their childhood imaginations in “Play”, a wildly animated  tavern scene that brings all the imaginary characters together dancing and singing.

The Company of Finding Neverland ~ Photo Credit Jeremy Daniel

A nine-piece band, beautiful voices, adorable children, pirates! and clever projections (How do they create the stardust? Asking for a friend.) is guaranteed to keep this magical musical close to your heart.

Highly recommended for all ages.  Hurry!  It’s only in town till Sunday.

Through March 3rd at the National Theater, Washington DC – 1321 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20004.  For tickets and information visit www.TheNationalDC.org or call 202 628-6161.

With Jeff Sullivan as J. M. Barrie; Ruby Gibbs as Sylvia Llewelyn Davies; Ashley Edler as Mary Barrie; Paul Thiemann as Albert; Conor McGiffin as Charles Frohman and Captain James Hook; Michael Luongo as Lord Cannan; Emmanuelle Zeesman as Mrs. Du Maurier; Joshua William Green as Mr. Henshaw; Spenser Micetich as Mr. Cromer; Kelsey Seaman as Miss Jones; Adrien Swenson as Miss Bassett; Melody Rose as Peter Pan; Marie Choate as Wendy; Daniel S. Hayward as Captain Hook.

Llewelyn Children played by Brody Bett (Jack/Michael); Seth Erdley (George/Peter/Jack); Caleb Reese Paul (George/Peter/Jack); Peter Schoeller (George/Peter/Jack); Josiah Smothers (Jack/Michael); and Ethan Stokes (George/Peter/Jack).

Original Direction by Diane Paulus; Direction Recreated by Mia Walker; Orchestrations by Simon Hale; Scenic Design by Scott Pask, Lighting Design by Kenneth Posner, Costume Design by Suttirat Larlarb, and Sound Design by Shannon Slaton.

School of Rock ~ The Musical ~ At The National Theatre

Jordan Wright
January 19, 2019 

Cameron Trueblood in School of Rock Tour. Photo Matt Murphy

For anyone who has harbored fantasies of joining a rock and roll band, School of Rock is a flat-out fantastic, fun-loving musical with an Andrew Lloyd Webber score that hits all the right wah-wahs.  With screaming guitar and drum solos – from kids no less – this show will rock you out of your comfy zone.  Based on the movie that starred Jack Black, its story is simple.  Aging rocker, about to be evicted from his former band mates’ apartment for non-payment of his share of the rent, finagles (or shall we say, “cons”) his way into a substitute teaching job at a posh prep school and starts a band with kids who are still mastering their times tables.  Booted from his band for lack of sex appeal, Dewey (Merritt David Janes) is on his last dime and last pair of socks when he arrives at Horace Green prep and meets Rosalie Mullins (Lexie Dorset Sharp), the take-no-prisoners, hard-nosed principal whose secret passion is Stevie Nicks.  Thanks to Dewey the fourth-graders shed both their shyness and classical music studies to study Rock and Roll, while secretly preparing to compete in the Battle of the Bands.

School of Rock Tour. Photo by Evan Zimmerman-Matt Murphy

At home, the kids hide their intentions from parents who are too distant or too consumed by what they want their kids to become.  In “If Only You Would Listen” the children hope for better communications with parents who are too busy to care about their individual hopes and dreams.

Due to the many questions about the reality of the kids playing their instruments, Webber makes a pre-curtain, taped announcement to assure us that they do – backed by a nine-piece pit orchestra.  Though the set up and introduction of the characters is a tad slow going, by Scene 6 in Act 1 under the expert direction of Laurence Connor, the story comes alive when the students, with Dewey’s encouragement and guidance, lose their inhibitions and rock out.  As actor musicians you can sense their youthful enthusiasm which is as palpable as it is contagious.

School of Rock Tour. Photo by Evan Zimmerman-Matt Murphy

Of the kids in leading roles watch for outstanding performances from Sami Bray as the feisty, smarty-pants Summer; Leanne Parks as the stone-faced, pigtail-sporting, bass player Katie; Mystic Inscho as the hard-driving, moves-like-Jagger, lead guitarist Zack; Theo Mitchell-Penner as the nerdy, shy keyboard player; Grier Burke as Tomika the soulful singer who sheds her insecurities; and Cameron Trueblood as James the kick-ass drummer.

A cast of nearly three dozen, some in multiple roles – with Layne Roate as Ned, Madison Micucci as Patty, Arianna Pereira as Shonelle, Gary Trainor who also plays Dewey, Sinclair Mitchell as Snake/Mr. Mooneyham.

School of Rock Tour. Photo by Matt Murphy

Book by Julian Fellowes, Lyrics by Glenn Slater, Choreography by JoAnn M. Hunter; Scenic and Costume Design by Anna Louizos, Lighting Design by Natasha Katz, Sound Design by Mick Potter, Music Direction led by Martyn Axe with Julie Homi.

Through January 27th at the National Theater, Washington DC – 1321 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20004.  For tickets and information visit www.TheNationalDC.org or call 202 628-6161.

Beautiful ~ The Carole King Musical ~ National Theatre

Jordan Wright
November 29, 2018 

Carnegie Hall. Sarah Bockel (Carole King) ~ Photo credit: Joan Marcus

Where were you when you first heard The Righteous Brothers sing “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” or “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” by The Shirelles?  Maybe you were dancing to “Locomotion” by Little Eva or “Up on the Roof” by The Drifters, all songs written by Brooklyn-born Carole King (Sarah Bockel) and her husband Gerry Goffin (Dylan S. Wallach).  Working for music producer Don Kirshner (James Clow), known as “The Man with the Golden Ear”, their partnership produced hit after hit keeping them on the pop charts throughout the 60’s.

1650 Broadway. (l to r) James Clow (Don Kirshner), Dylan S. Wallach (Gerry Goffin), Sarah Bockel (Carole King), Jacob Heimer (Barry Mann) and Alison Whitehurst (Cynthia Weil). Photo credit: Joan Marcus.

During their early career lyricist Gerry and the precociously talented composer Carole churned out hits at Aldon Music, a music publishing house and hit factory in New York’s Brill Building, where they worked side-by-side with fellow hit makers, Cynthia Weil (Alison Whitehurst) and Barry Mann (Jacob Heimer) in friendly competition.

Beautiful tells the story of their romance, marriage and tumultuous breakup.  The simple story chronicles their struggles and successes and ultimately King’s solo career, which broke the pop mold with the release of her first album – the four-time Grammy Award-winning, “Tapestry”.

“The Locomotion.” The Touring Cast of Beautiful – The Carole King Musical. Photo credit: Joan Marcus.

The latest national tour has rearranged the order of the music.  It now opens with Carole on piano at Carnegie Hall.  She is singing “So Far Away”, accompanying herself and showing confidence with her trademark masses of wavy hair gowned in a blue-flowered maxi-dress.  It was not always so for the shy, yet ambitious teen who wrote songs for the top African American artists of that era.  The plot then takes us back to the beginning of Carole’s career, when as a whip-smart sixteen-year old, Carole bucked her Jewish mother Genie (Suzanne Grodner with plenty of comic relief), to peddle her tunes in the Big Apple where she has an auspicious meeting with Kirshner.

The Drifters. (l to r) Dimitri Joseph Moïse, Deon Releford-Lee, Nathan Andrew Riley and Michael Stiggers, Jr. Photo credit: Joan Marcus.

A medley of hits from the 50’s includes some of the greatest hits from that era – “Poison Ivy”, “Love Potion #9”, “Yakety Yak” and “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” to name a few.  Dressed in flashy sharkskin suits and skinny ties, The Drifters and The Shirelles in their trademark beaded dresses perform the couple’s greatest hits, along with Little Eva (Alexis Tidwell), discovered when she was their babysitter and the entirely fictitious Janelle Woods (McKynleigh Alden Abraham), a glamorous pop singer who becomes Gerry’s extramarital lover.

Queens College. Sarah Bockel (Carole King) and Dylan S. Wallach (Gerry Goffin) ~ Photo credit: Joan Marcus.

The musical is light on script, but heavy on songs, twenty-seven numbers backed by a twelve-piece orchestra.  But that’s just fine as you’ll probably be silently singing along, tapping your toes and recalling your first dance, first kiss or first breakup.  Goosebumps kick in with “Some Kind of Wonderful”, Gerry and Carole’s first duet, and The Righteous Brothers big number, “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling”.

Scenic Designer Derek McLane captures the mood by creating a wall of instruments and tricking out the musical performances with hundreds of moving, neon-colored lights.  Mid-century modern furnishings reflect Carole’s home and office.

“Natural Woman.” Sarah Bockel (Carole King) ~ Photo credit: Joan Marcus.

 

Bockel does a superb job as Carole, especially at the end of Act Two when she lets loose her powerful voice on the biggest hits from the album “Tapestry” – “Natural Woman”, later covered by Aretha Franklin and Mary J. Blige, and “Beautiful”.  The musical reflects Carole’s coming of age as an independent composer and soloist who has emerged from pain and loss to find joy and recognition as an artist in her own right.

See it if you love the music of this era, or even for the music with its sweet harmonies and catchy lyrics that draws us back to an age of innocence.

Book by Douglas McGrath; Words and Music by Gerry Goffin, Carole King, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil; Scenic Design by Derek McLane; Costume Design by Alejo Vietti; Lighting Design by Peter Kaczorowski; Sound Design by Brian Ronan; Wig and Hair Design by Charles G. LaPointe.

Through December 30th at the National Theatre, Washington DC – 1321 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20004.  For tickets and information visit www.TheNationalDC.org or call 202 628-6161.

Waitress ~ The National Theatre

Jordan Wright
May 17, 2018 

I now know why New York critics went gaga over Waitress.  It earned Tony nominations for Best Musical and Best Original Score in 2016, won a Drama Desk Award, and an Outer Critics Award too.  This sweet, funny, big-hearted musical by composer Sara Bareilles continues its run on Broadway with its first national tour here in DC at the National Theatre.  How apropos!

Desi Oakley, Charity Angel Dawson and Lenne Klingaman in the National Tour of WAITRESS – Photo Credit Joan Marcus

Bareilles, if you recall, became successful as a singer/songwriter/actress and New York Times best-selling author.  Nominated for six Grammys, the California native has composed a score loaded with catchy tunes and tender ballads transforming the rather dark original movie version into a feel-good musical tailor made for foodies.  It’s Fried Green Tomatoes meets Nine to Five with the added attraction of a musical score.

Nick Bailey and Desi Oakley in the National Tour of WAITRESS – Photo Credit Joan Marcus

Set in a diner in a sleepy Southern town, waitress and amateur piemaker Jenna (Desi Oakley) discovers she is pregnant, just when she was planning to leave her abusive husband Earl (Nick Bailey).  Her co-workers and gal pals, Dawn (Lenne Klingaman) and Becky (Charity Angel Dawson), and their boss Cal (Ryan G. Dunkin) try to keep her spirits up in spite of cranky customers and Earl’s insults.  “You’re no Sara Lee,” he tells her as she secretly makes plans to enter the state pie contest.

Maiesha McQueen, Desi Oakley and Bryan Fenkart in the National Tour of WAITRESS – Photo Credit Joan Marcus

Soon Jenna meets the handsome gynecologist Dr. Pomatter (Bryan Fenkart) with whom she stealthily starts an affair.  Meanwhile addled-headed Dawn and wise-cracking Becky are busy looking for Mr. Right.  Soon Dawn finds Ogie, a poetry-spouting accountant á la Don Knotts who only eats white food and plays Paul Revere in reenactments.  He’s a perfect match to her Betsey Ross fantasies.  Recreating his Broadway role, scene-stealer Jeremy Morse plays Ogie.  Veteran Broadway actor Larry Marshall plays Joe, the diner’s octogenarian owner and perennial grouch.

Desi Oakley and Larry Marshall in the National Tour of WAITRESS – Photo Credit Joan Marcus

Standout numbers by Dawson in “I Didn’t Plan It”, Morse with “Never Ever Getting Rid of Me” which brings the house down, and Oakley’s rendition of “She Used to Be Mine”, a tender ballad.

Ryan G. Dunkin and the Cast of the National Tour of WAITRESS – Photo Credit Joan Marcus

So, if it’s pie you want, be it ‘White Knuckle Cream Pie’, ‘Betrayed By My Eggs Pie’, ‘Mermaid Marshmallow Pie’, ‘Doesn’t Want The Baby Pie’ or any other of Jenna’s quirkily-named pies, you will love this sunny, funny, honey of a show.  Just remember sugar, butter, eggs are just the start.

Highly recommended.

Breaking news from the diner!  Six-time Grammy nominee and composer of Waitress, Sara Bareilles will be at the National Theatre to host “Cast Album Karaoke” following the 8pm show this Saturday, May 19.  Limited seats for that performance remain. Interested audience members at that show will be chosen at random for the chance to sing any song from Waitress on the National Theatre’s historic stage accompanied by the show’s band.  It’s the first time Sara Bareilles has hosted a post-show “Cast Album Karaoke” during the national tour of Waitress.

Two familiar faces from Washington, D.C.’s WUSA9 will host “Cast Album Karaoke” on Friday, May 25 and Friday, June 1: “Get Up DC!” host Reese Waters (May 25) and Andi Hauser from “Great Day Washington” (June 1).

Book by Jessie Nelson, orchestrations by Sara Bareilles, directed by Diane Paulus, conducted by Jenny Cartney, choreographed by Lorin Latarro, Set Design by Scott Pask, Costume Design by Suttirat Anne Larlarb, Lighting Design by Ken Billington and Sound Design by Jonathan Deans.

With Grace Stockdale as Mother, Jim Hogan as Father, Maiesha McQueen as Nurse Norma, Kyra Kennedy as Francine, and Alexa M. Lueck and Eva Pieja as Lulu.  With ensemble members Mark Christine, Donterrio Johnson, and Gerianne Pérez.

Through June 3rd, 2018 at The National Theatre, 1321 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington, DC.  For tickets call 202.628.6161 or visit online.