Midwestern Gothic ~ Signature Theatre

Jordan Wright
April 2, 2017 

Morgan Keene (Stina) with Jp Sisneros, Evan Casey, Chris Sizemore and Stephen Gregory Smith (Hired Boys). Photo by Margot Schulman

Morgan Keene (Stina) with Jp Sisneros, Evan Casey, Chris Sizemore and Stephen Gregory Smith (Hired Boys). Photo by Margot Schulman

Midwestern Gothic is an unexpected palate cleanser – a sharp-as-knives psychological thriller reminiscent of Fargo – the Coen Brothers brilliant cinematic drama of crime and revenge in America’s heartland.

In this twisted tale of jealousy, seduction and sexual domination, our focus falls on Stina (Morgan Keene), a honey blonde nymphette whose movie star dreams of James Dean and Natalie Wood lay far beyond the farmhouse she shares with her lascivious stepfather, Red (Timothy J. Alex) and four hired hands who form a harmonious Greek chorus of unfulfilled desire.  But this creamy-thighed siren has set her sights on Anderson (Sam Ludwig), a love-struck greenhorn who does her bidding – some of which involves neighborhood thieving, putting him squarely at odds with Sheriff Dwayne (Bobby Smith) who urges him to walk the “Straight and Narrow”.

Timothy J Alex (Red) and Rachel Zampelli (LuAnn) . Photo by Margot Schulman.

Timothy J Alex (Red) and Rachel Zampelli (LuAnn) . Photo by Margot Schulman.

Meanwhile Stina’s mother, Deb (Sherri L. Edelen), runs a shot-and-beer bar where she finds the attention she has been missing from Red.  In the number “Whiskey Courage” she works her boozy magic on Rodney (Evan Casey) spiking Red’s anger.  To get revenge he runs off with the town tramp, LuAnn (Rachel Zampelli), to put a hurtin’, as they say, on Deb.  But his revenge is not so sweet after all when Stina catches them back at the house in flagrante delicto.

Writer and Co-Lyricist Royce Vavrek and Composer Josh Schmidt set a complex balance in this World Premiere production adding quaint references to curling, cows, rednecks and Jesus while splicing in Stina’s dizzyingly cruel imagination and her powers of emasculation.

Sherri L Edelen (Deb) and Timothy J Alex (Red). Photo by Margot Schulman.

Sherri L Edelen (Deb) and Timothy J Alex (Red). Photo by Margot Schulman.

Keene, using a haunting flat-accented vibrato voice, is wonderfully cast as the beautiful and voracious sex kitten who lures, then punishes, every man within her small sphere.  A supporting cast, cleverly directed and choreographed under Matthew Gardiner, fairly flies through seventeen musical numbers encompassing a range of emotions, from Stina’s love song to a spring flower in “Tell Me a Story, Crocus” to “Saint Sebastian” with Stina, Anderson and the burly hired hands (Evan Casey as Rodney, Jp Sisneros as Evodio, Chris Sizemore as DJ and Stephen Gregory Smith as Brett), in a song that backgrounds a bizarre scene of crucifixion.

Timothy J Alex (Red), Sam Ludwig (Anderson) and Bobby Smith (Dwayne). Photo by Margot Schulman.

Timothy J Alex (Red), Sam Ludwig (Anderson) and Bobby Smith (Dwayne). Photo by Margot Schulman.

As the latest installment in Signature’s American Musical Voices Project, the musical is spellbindingly dark, think Truman Capote’s classic “In Cold Blood” and Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita”, and yet utterly riveting.  An audience member likened it to TV’s Criminal Minds.

Highly recommended for adults only.

Through April 30th at Signature Theatre (Shirlington Village), 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, VA 22206.  For tickets and information call 703 820-9771 or visit www.sigtheatre.org

Classic Cher ~ The Theater at MGM National Harbor

Jordan Wright
March 21, 2017
Special to DC Metro Theatre Arts

Accompanied by a phalanx of golden shield-carrying gladiators, The Goddess of Pop strode onstage last night in a massive afro and shimmering turquoise and silver ensemble that exposed one singular, very buff, perfectly rounded butt cheek.  Seventy is the new twenty, if it’s Cher we’re talking about.  Glamorous, fit and fierce, she seized the night with style and purpose, opening to deafening cheers with, “This Is a Woman’s World”.

A two-tiered Moroccan palace with central dome served as backdrop for a myriad of cultural themes as Cher took her fans through an intimate tour of her life before during and after the Sonny Bono years in her latest show, CLASSIC CHER.  Projected above the stage were vintage videos of her childhood interspersed with film clips from her movies and bits from her three CBS variety shows – The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour, Cher and the short-lived The Sonny & Cher Show.  For fans of the raven-haired beauty this was solid gold.  (Sony’s Get.TV runs the shows on Monday nights)

Just as riveting were snapshots of the clothes she wore – the bejeweled Bob Mackie gowns, the Op Art Mary Quant miniskirts and white go-go boots of the mid-60’s, the tie-dyed shirts and bell-bottoms of the psychedelic era – that brought back memories of Cher’s major influence on the pop fashion scene.  There was no mistaking that this show was as much about her spectacular wardrobe as her Grammy-winning pop songs, as she took us through the history of the music, costumes and wigs from the mid 1960’s and throughout the history of her meteoric career.

As the pop diva regaled fans with personal stories about her life and times both on stage and off, she sang duets with Sonny on video of some of their most fondly remembered songs – “The Beat Goes On”, the 1965 hit “All I Really Want to Do” and “I Got You Babe”, the closing number in the pair’s first show and a song she’s been reluctant to sing in the past, fearful she’d break down in tears.

Surrounded by nine dancers, some doubling as acrobats perched high above the stage, Cher made as many as ten costume changes to dovetail with her greatest hits.  There were grass-skirted African dancers, a burlesque scene from a Berlin cabaret, Cher in hot pink veils a la Scheherazade, a life-size faux elephant that emerged for the circus-themed “Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves”, and of course, the full-feathered Indian headdress that she wore for the 1973 song, “Half-Breed” which was only her second US solo number.

Between snippets of songs, laser lights, Pop Art graphics and video footage, the Oscar-winning actress told of her musical influences – Tito Puente, Hank Williams and ultimately Elvis who above all inspired her to take risks.  And isn’t that what this show is all about.  Cher, backed by five musicians, proving that the beat does indeed still go on.

Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.

Cher performed on March 20, 2017, at The Theater at MGM Grand National Harbor – 101 MGM National Ave, in Oxon Hill, MD.

Remaining performances are on March 23, 25, and 26, 2017, and she returns on August 31, 2017 and on September 2, 3, 7, 9, and 10, 2017. For tickets and information visit their website.

Ragtime ~ The Musical ~ A Box Office Bonanza ~ Ford’s Theatre

Jordan Wright
March 16, 2017

Cast of the musical “Ragtime” at Ford’s Theatre, directed by Peter Flynn. Photo by Carol Rosegg

Cast of the musical “Ragtime” at Ford’s Theatre, directed by Peter Flynn. Photo by Carol Rosegg

The Ford’s Theatre Society delivers a heart-meltingly tender Ragtime by gifting the audience with twenty-seven extraordinarily talented performers in this portrait of intersecting American lives.  Taken from E. L. Doctorow’s eponymous novel we become willingly immersed in a sweeping 20th century saga of three distinct elements of American society – Black America, on the rise as a strong middle class in Northern cities; middle and upper class White Americans; and Jewish and Irish immigrants bent on hard work and rapid assimilation in their new found country.  Director Peter Flynn masterfully takes the reins of this award-winning Broadway lollapalooza that pairs Terrence McNally’s book with Lynn Ahrens’ emotionally stirring lyrics and Stephen Flaherty’s indelible music.  A drop dead amazing cast takes us the rest of the way.

In this period of America’s rapid advance, the country was forced to confront the underlying causes of racism and an unprecedented influx of immigrants.  Ragtime brings us face to face with the headliners of the day – Emma Goldman (Rayanne Gonzales) an early labor reformer and union organizer; financier J.P. Morgan (Christopher Bloch); Harry Houdini (Christopher Mueller) the Jewish immigrant who became the world’s most famous magician; and Evelyn Nesbitt, the great beauty who carved out her vaudeville career on a velvet swing while paramour to millionaire architect Stanford White (Elan Zafir).  It also introduces us to the fictional character of Tateh (Jonathan Atkinson), a first-generation Jewish immigrant and silhouette maker and his little girl (Dulcie Pham).

DulciePham and Jonathan Atkinson in the Ford’s Theatre production of “Ragtime,” directed by Peter Flynn. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

DulciePham and Jonathan Atkinson in the Ford’s Theatre production of “Ragtime,” directed by Peter Flynn. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

It harkens back to a period that both blossomed and suffered under the rapidly changing landscape of industrialization and growing civil unrest, when Ragtime music was sweeping the country and Coalhouse Walker, Jr. (Kevin McAllister), a fictional version of Scott Joplin, was creating a new sound that crossed over into White high society.  Booker T. Washington (Jefferson A. Russell) the great African-American orator and Presidential advisor guided and inspired Black Americans and Henry Ford (John Leslie Wolfe) hired them.  In Doctorow’s sweeping saga ordinary people become extraordinary people as their lives intersect and their humanity is tested.

A very proper Victorian family of Father (James Konicek) and Mother (Tracy Lynn Olivera) live with their Little Boy (Henry Baratz).  While Father is off on a polar expedition Mother discovers a Black newborn abandoned in her garden and goes about finding the boy’s mother.  “I never thought they had lives besides our lives,” she confesses while searching for the baby’s mother.  When at last she finds Sarah (Nova Y. Payton), she offers her the comfort of their home – allowing her humanity to overtake her Victorian rigidity.

Tracy Lynn Olivera, Henry Baratz, Dulcie Pham and Jonathan Atkinson in the Ford’s Theatre production of “Ragtime,” directed by Peter Flynn. Photo by Carol Rosegg

Tracy Lynn Olivera, Henry Baratz, Dulcie Pham and Jonathan Atkinson in the Ford’s Theatre production of “Ragtime,” directed by Peter Flynn. Photo by Carol Rosegg

Scenic designer Milagros Ponce de Leon gives us three levels of verdigris wrought iron staircases on which the cast can be highlighted for their separate numbers while on stage throughout the show.  The orchestra remains in full view on the central level, remaining an integral part of every scene.  The blending of the human form on stage comes from Choreographer Michael Bobbit.  In one particular scene the characters perform a ragtime dance, until they realize they are dancing with someone of another race and promptly change partners.

Kevin McAllister and Nova Y. Payton in the Ford’s Theatre production of “Ragtime,” directed by Peter Flynn. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Kevin McAllister and Nova Y. Payton in the Ford’s Theatre production of “Ragtime,” directed by Peter Flynn. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Twenty-eight songs come at you with such passion and such emotion, I had goosebumps more times than I could count as the ensemble acted out a poignant story of hope, redemption, human rights and justice.

Highly recommended.  Grab your tickets now!

Through May 20th at Ford’s Theatre, 511 Tenth Street, NW, Washington, DC 20004.  For tickets and information visit www.fords.org or call 202 347-4833.

Intelligence ~ Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
March 10, 2017
Special to The Alexandria Times

(L to R) Hannah Yelland as Valerie Plame and Lawrence Redmond as Joseph Wilson. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

(L to R) Hannah Yelland as Valerie Plame and Lawrence Redmond as Joseph Wilson. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

“Hung out to dry” is the phrase that popped into my head regarding the case of Valerie Plame, the CIA covert operative who was outed by a conservative newspaper columnist in 2003.  Third in the series of Arena Stage’s “Power Plays”, this cautionary tale focusses on politics and power, and by nature, those that abuse or are abused by the dark forces that control the political climate.  Written by Jacqueline E. Lawton, “I write to bear witness”, and ably directed by Daniella Topol, it is set primarily at CIA Headquarters, Langley, Virginia; Plame and Wilson’s Georgetown home; Amman, Jordan; and various locations in Baghdad, Iraq.  The haunting set design of massive grey rotating columns is by Misha Kachman.

L to R) Ethan Hova as Dr. Malik Nazari, Nora Achrati as Leyla Nazari and Hannah Yelland as Valerie Plame. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

L to R) Ethan Hova as Dr. Malik Nazari, Nora Achrati as Leyla Nazari and Hannah Yelland as Valerie Plame. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

The backstory of Plame, who was later outed by conservative news columnist Bob Novak, was well-known.   Plame was involved in securing “assets” in the Middle East.  One in particular, Dr. Malik Nazari (Ethan Hova), was the nuclear scientist who provided her with raw intelligence on the development of the Iraqis’ nuclear weapons capabilities.  She got to him through his niece Leyla (Nora Achrati), a couturière in Georgetown.  Plame directed Nazari to gather intel on the Iraqi scientists he worked with, expecting him to lend credibility to the Bush administration’s reasons for mounting the Iraq war.  But that’s not how it went down.

(L to R) Aakhu TuahNera Freeman as Elaine Matthews and Hannah Yelland as Valerie Plame. Photo by C. Stanley Photography

(L to R) Aakhu TuahNera Freeman as Elaine Matthews and Hannah Yelland as Valerie Plame. Photo by C. Stanley Photography

The beautiful spy, played compellingly by the equally stunning Hannah Yelland, led a glamorous life among the Washington cognoscenti where she lived with husband Joseph Wilson (Lawrence Redmond), former U. S. Ambassador to Iraq and later an oversharing TV talking head and Senior Director for African Affairs.  If you’ll recall, Wilson’s connection to Africa was crucial to an administration pressed for time and making its case for war with Iraq.  Sent by the CIA to confirm Saddam Hussein’s efforts to purchase uranium for WMDs, Wilson reported back that no such transaction had ever taken place.  He shared this knowledge with his wife.  This inconvenient truth – inconvenient for Bush, Powell, Cheney and Rumsfeld who needed to justify the war – was ultimately Wilson’s, and by default, Plame’s, undoing.

(L to R) Ethan Hova as Dr. Malik Nazari, Lawrence Redmond as Joseph Wilson, Hannah Yelland as Valerie Plame, Nora Achrati as Leyla Nazari and Aakhu TuahNera Freeman as Elaine Matthews. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

(L to R) Ethan Hova as Dr. Malik Nazari, Lawrence Redmond as Joseph Wilson, Hannah Yelland as Valerie Plame, Nora Achrati as Leyla Nazari and Aakhu TuahNera Freeman as Elaine Matthews. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Yelland provides us with a credible picture of an agent whose mission was to protect her assets and get at the truth.  Taut, compelling and powerful, the play confronts the realities of gathering the sort of intelligence that rubberstamps what those in a position of deciding the direction of our country’s military, want to hear.  Aakhu Tuahnera Freeman portrays Plame’s bloodless boss, a woman who turns on Plame colluding with then CIA Director George Tenet force Plame out and scuttle her intel.

Highly recommended.

Through April 9th at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information visit www.ArenaStage.org or call 202 488-3300.

Mrs. Miller Does Her Thing ~ Signature Theatre

Jordan Wright
March 9, 2017
Special to The Alexandria Times 

: Debra Monk as Mrs. Elva Miller ~ Photo Credit is Margot Schulman

James Lapine’s latest opus, a story about the housewife with the caterwauling voice who becomes an overnight success, may be a metaphor to showcase how everyone’s wildest dreams can come true…or not.  With this latest work, Lapine, best known for Sunday in the Park with George and Into the Woods, both co-written with composer Stephen Sondheim, has given us an undistinguished anomaly to his earlier masterpieces.  His world premiere musical based on the life of Mrs. Elva Miller (Debra Monk), centers around a church lady who was “discovered” by a record producer who pegged her for a comedic diversion.  This was in the mid-1960’s when comedians like Allan Sherman and Victor Borge were wittily parodying or satirizing familiar songs and the record-buying public was easily amused during an unpopular war.  But Mrs. Miller, as she preferred to be called, was unaware the joke was on her.  Or so she is portrayed. “I might have been off on one or two notes,” she allows.

The story begs comparison to this year’s Oscar-nominated film, Florence Foster Jenkins, that features a delusional New York heiress with an equally appalling voice.  The movie stars the brilliant Meryl Streep as Foster Jenkins and the eternally soigné Hugh Grant as her adoring gentleman and enabler.  Grant plays a winning charmer in a film set a few decades earlier in 1940’s New York, whereas Miller’s husband is a wheelchair-bound, crotchety old gent who resents Mrs. M’s success.  Lapine sets his piece in small town Claremont, a bedroom community outside of Los Angeles.  Similarly, both women are clueless about their lack of vocal abilities.

Boyd Gaines as Mr. John Miller, Debra Monk as Mrs. Elva Miller ~ Photo Credit is Margot Schulman

The plot takes us through a three-year span of Miller’s short-lived yet meteoric career against the backdrop of her niece Joelle (Rebekah Brockman) and Joelle’s romance with Miller’s accompanist Simon Bock (Corey Mach) and, later, Simon’s looming draft service.  Unfortunately, there is not enough heft to carry an hour and forty-five minutes of pop music covers sung in a screeching voice with a trio of backup singers drawn from predictable stereotypes – one groovy African American gal, Denise (Kimberly Marable, who pulls off arguably the best scene in the show), one fluffy blonde, Carol Sue (Kaitlyn Davidson), and one gay guy, Bobby (Jacob ben Widmar doubling as Tiny Tim) who runs off to Greenwich Village in search of sexual diversion.  I won’t fault the actors.  They did a fine job given the material.

Photo Credit is Margot Schulman ~ Photo Credit is Margot Schulman

Monk is superb in the role of Elva Miller.  Despite the thin plot and hackneyed script, she’s totally believable as the ditsy, maniacally cheery Miller with her ingratiating manners and off-key, nails-on-a-blackboard howling.  There’s even a bit of toggling back and forth to her actual singing voice in a few dream sequences.  And character actor Will LeBow is exceptional in all seven roles – among them a stoner record producer, Ed Sullivan, Mr. Miller’s Jewish doctor and a snooty salesman at Tiffany’s.

Those under fifty may be clueless as to the obscure references to Tiny Tim, Ed Sullivan and Topo Gigio as well as many of the songs of that era.  Millennials won’t fare any better.  But if the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s are in your wheelhouse, you’ll feel right at home.

Through March 26th at Signature Theatre (Shirlington Village), 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, VA 22206.  For tickets and information call 703 820-9771 or visit www.sigtheatre.org.