Nina Simone: Four Women ~ Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
November 18, 2017
Special to The Alexandria Times

Harriett D. Foy (Nina Simone) in Nina Simone: Four Women, Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Harriett D. Foy (Nina Simone) in Nina Simone: Four Women, Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

There’s no getting around one of the darkest moments in American history, when four African-American girls were murdered by white supremacists in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing of 1963.  There’s also no getting around that it continues unabated in present day America.  Playwright Christina Ham’s deeply emotional and highly relevant play, Nina Simone: Four Women, directed by Timothy Douglas, gets to the heart of this tragedy by focusing on Nina Simone, the jazz singer whose bluesy songs made her popular in in both white and black America.  For Simone (Harriett D. Foy), this horrific event in Birmingham, Alabama and the murder of Medgar Evers in Mississippi, galvanized her into speaking out through her music.  Inspired, Simone sets about writing “Mississippi Goddam”, her iconic civil rights anthem about the slaughter of the little girls.  “I want that song to cut folks like a razor,” Simone proclaims.

(L to R) Toni L. Martin (Sephronia), Harriett D. Foy (Nina Simone), Felicia Curry (Sweet Thing) and Theresa Cunningham (Sarah) in Nina Simone: Four Women. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

(L to R) Toni L. Martin (Sephronia), Harriett D. Foy (Nina Simone), Felicia Curry (Sweet Thing) and Theresa Cunningham (Sarah) in Nina Simone: Four Women. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

While she works on her composition, she encounters three women also hiding within the confines of the church.  Each speak of this devastating tragedy through different eyes.  Auntie Sarah (Theresa Cunningham), a longtime church member, is a matronly, black woman (she would say ‘colored’), who has lived her life respectably – dutiful to her white employers and a strong believer in the power of religion.  Sephronia (Toni L. Martin), is an activist, a girl of mixed race (she would say ‘high yellow’).  She takes inspiration from Martin Luther King, Jr. and the protest movement.  Lastly, Sweet Thing (Felicia Curry) is a street hooker, a rough-and-ready ghetto girl with a switchblade and a heap of anger.  Each woman brings a unique perspective to what it means to be black in America.  Each one has her own truth.

We see Simone as the consummate artist, a woman of conscience who has been radicalized by the inequality and injustice she has faced throughout her career.  She tells the others, despite her success she has doubts and self-loathing, “Every day I have to conjure myself into a queen.”

(L to R) Toni L. Martin (Sephronia), Felicia Curry (Sweet Thing) and Theresa Cunningham (Sarah) in Nina Simone: Four Women. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

(L to R) Toni L. Martin (Sephronia), Felicia Curry (Sweet Thing) and Theresa Cunningham (Sarah) in Nina Simone: Four Women. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

With music directed and arranged by Darius Smith, who also accompanies the women on piano, their lush harmonies and deliberate delivery ensure that no one will miss hearing the lyrics nor their fierce intent as this fine cast scrolls through gospel hymns, jazz tunes and protest songs including Simone’s “Sinnerman”, Oscar Brown, Jr.’s “Brown Baby”, Simone’s co-written anthem, “Young, Gifted and Black”, and of course its eponymous song, “Four Women”.  Choreography by Lady Dane Figueroa Edidi captures the spirit of African dance and old-time church revivals.

A powerful, brilliantly crafted, musical tribute to a woman and a movement.

Recommended.

Through December 24th at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information call 202 488-3300 or visit www.ArenaStage.org.

RIP David Cassidy November 21, 2017 ~ An Interview with David Cassidy

Jordan Wright
September 25, 2012
Special to The Alexandria Times

David Cassidy, pictured in 2009, rocketed to stardom as Keith Partridge on the ABC series 'The Partridge Family'. (AP Photo/Dan Steinberg)

David Cassidy, pictured in 2009, rocketed to stardom as Keith Partridge on the ABC series ‘The Partridge Family’. (AP Photo/Dan Steinberg)

In the six decades David Cassidy has been in the limelight, he has worked in television, theater and live concerts as a musician, actor, songwriter, singer, director and producer.  That’s a lot of crossover.  But when you’re the son of theatrical and TV royalty Jack Cassidy and Evelyn Ward you could say, “Well, kids, that’s showbiz!”

From the tender age of eight Cassidy started touring and performing in summer stock productions along with his parents, landing his first Broadway role before he was a teenager.  Many of his fans literally grew up with him in the ‘70’s as the adorable heartthrob Keith from the long-running, now syndicated sitcom, The Partridge Family, where he and stepmother Shirley Jones were the only two cast members to actually sing on the show’s ten albums.  With over 30 million records sold worldwide his career has taken him back to Broadway and on to Vegas, transcending his pop star status.  Currently concerts take him on the road nearly 200 days a year, though he admits he’ll be cutting back on lengthy tours in future.

Cassidy and his five-piece band’s October 6th appearance at The Birchmere in Alexandria will be the last stop in the States on his eight-month tour before traveling to England where he will perform for over ten thousand people a night.  I spoke to him by phone this week from his base in upstate New York.

Jordan Wright – How has the U.S. leg of your tour been?

David Cassidy – I’ve had the greatest summer I can remember.  I’m with my band of eight years.  The audiences have been great.  I can’t explain it.  I’ve never enjoyed playing as much and the momentum keeps growing.

JW – Are you looking forward to playing The Birchmere?

DC – The wonderful thing about The Birchmere is it is one of the most legendary places in the U.S. to play.  It’s genuine and earthy.  Some of the greats have played there.  It reminds me of the Bottom Line in New York.  There are virtually no other venues I play that are so intimate.  The management and the backstage crew and the vibe are so great.  It has that true blues, rock and roll sort of authenticity.  My band [including guitarist Dave Robicheau of the The Monkees] said, “Let’s go back there!”

JW – How much of the show is new music?

DC – Virtually none.  But I do songs that are a part of my journey.  My fans come to hear the songs they love.  I don’t do the same show every night.  That’s not me.  I like to interact with the audience and keep it spontaneous.

JW – Who are your musical influences now?

DC – The same that have been my influences before.  I like John Mayer and Sting, as an incredible writer, bass player and singer.  My earlier influences were Rogers and Hammerstein, Gershwin, Cole Porter, Bobby Darin.  But when I became a teenager it was the Beatles.  I remember the night I turned twelve was when I first heard them.  The next day I bought an electric guitar.  I knew from the time I was three I wanted to become an actor.  I was in acting school in New York and my first professional job was on Broadway.  I played blues in garage bands when I was younger and I loved B. B. King and Buffalo Springfield, who played at my high school.  The Beach Boys were another favorite and I became good friends with Carl Wilson.  Later Brian [Wilson] and I wrote a song together.  I got to play with my musical heroes and became good friends with John Lennon and Yoko Ono.  I played with him a few times when he was making the Rock ‘n’ Roll album in the 70’s.  I think John and Paul were the greatest songwriting team ever.  And Yoko has such an amazing soul.

JW – Your son, Beau, and daughter, Katie, are in show business.  Do you support their showbiz careers?

DC – I do now.  I didn’t support them earlier when her mom wanted her to be Brittany Spears.  Now she’s done five TV series, Gossip Girl was one, and some films. I’m very proud of the work she’s done.  My son has been studying at Michigan State, Boston University and NYU.  He’s a very talented musician and songwriter in a band called The Fates.  I heard their first few songs and the stuff is remarkable.

JW – Are you excited about your upcoming Lifetime Achievement Award at the Film, Recording & Entertainment Council’s Star Gala in November?

DC – I say this humorously and somewhat sarcastically.  If you do enough work and stick around long enough and don’t give up, you pick yourself up a few times and then someone says, “What about this guy?”  I’m very flattered by it.  And because I’ve been accused of being a workaholic, I’ve finally backed off from working 52 weeks a year.  I tell my kids and in talks at colleges and schools, it’s never been about the money, and I appreciate working so much more now.  Because if you’re going to write and produce and direct with a lot of people with a lot of talent, it makes a difference if they have a strong investment in it.

JW – What’s next for you?

DC – I plan to do at least one more album.  I have a concept that I have never fully explored that I’d like to work on.  It’s not about the multi-platinum records anymore.  Before I only focused on the end result – now I like to take my time.

This interview was conducted, condensed and edited by Jordan Wright.

David Cassidy performs one night only at The Birchmere on October 6th.  For tickets visit www.ticketmaster.com.  For venue information visit www.birchmere.com.  The Birchmere is located at 3701 Mount Vernon Avenue, Alexandria VA 22305

Crazy for You ~ Signature Theatre

Jordan Wright
November 17, 2017
Special to The Alexandria Times

Is there such a thing as a ‘tapa-palooza’?  If no one’s yet invented this neologism, I offer it up as a descriptor for Signature’s shiny, splashy production of Ken Ludwig and Mike Ockrent’s musical comedy, Crazy for You.  It’s the only way to explain the sensational tap extravaganza you’ll see from Director Matthew Gardiner and Choreographer Denis Jones.

Ashley Spencer as Polly Baker, Danny Gardner as Bobby Child ~ Photo Credit – C. Stanley Photography

Ashley Spencer as Polly Baker, Danny Gardner as Bobby Child ~ Photo Credit – C. Stanley Photography

Danny Gardner and Ashley Spencer play lead characters and love interests, Bobby and Polly, and they make the dance routines in LaLa Land look amateur.  Think Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell.  Spencer is light as a feather and Gardner, who is equally as nimble, mirrors her moves with dazzling athleticism.

The storyline is basic.  Banking scion Bobby Child wants to be on the stage, but his well-heeled mother, played to perfection by Sherri Edelen (who later appears as travel book author Patricia Fodor) wants none of it.  The ever-versatile Natascia Diaz as Bobby’s demanding girlfriend, Irene, wants marriage – and pronto.  But Bobby, ignoring their pleas, spends his time at the theater and its bevy of flashy, feathered, Follies girls presided over by Russian impresario Bela Zangler (Bobby Smith).  There are too many funny bits to mention, but key in on Smith’s hilarious bottle opening bit played in tandem with Polly, and hayseed Pete’s erudite interpretation of famous playwrights.  The silly one-liners and sight gags are sure to catch you off guard.  They did me.

Danny Gardner as Bobby Child, Sherri Edelen as Fodor Ashley Spencer as Polly Baker (these are the three people in the center), and the ensemble ~ Photo Credit – C. Stanley Photography

Danny Gardner as Bobby Child, Sherri Edelen as Fodor Ashley Spencer as Polly Baker (these are the three people in the center), and the ensemble ~ Photo Credit – C. Stanley Photography

Scenic Designer, Paul Tate dePoo III, gives us the look of New York’s Broadway by night – glamourous and glitzy, that is until Bobby’s mother sends him to Deadrock, Nevada to foreclose on an old family investment – a bankrupt theater where dePoo’s backdrop switches to Lank Hawkins’ (Cole Burden) saloon in a one-jalopy ghost town.  There, way before Vegas was a thing, Bobby falls for the feisty postmistress Polly who keeps company with a motley crew of miners and cowboys.  His plans to revive the theater and resurrect the town involve getting these drunken malingerers to dance and sing.  No mean feat, but with Polly’s help, and the arrival of eight sexy chorines from New York, they do whip the Deadrock deadbeats into shape.

I found myself utterly rapt while mentally singing along to all eighteen Gershwin tunes – like “Bidin’ My Time”, “Someone To Watch Over Me”, “Slap That Bass”, “Embraceable You”, and “Nice Work If You Can Get It” conducted flawlessly by Jon Kalbfleisch’s 14-piece orchestra.  But just watching these über-amazing performers dance their brains out whilst singing their lungs out was epic, especially in numbers that required complex props – farm tools and kitchen utensils to keep the beat – as in the mind-blowing number “I Got Rhythm” and the chain-rattling, floor-quaking, “Chin Up”, performed partly tabletop.

Cole Burden as Lank Hawkins and Natascia Diaz as Irene Roth ~ Photo Credit – C. Stanley Photography

Cole Burden as Lank Hawkins and Natascia Diaz as Irene Roth ~ Photo Credit – C. Stanley Photography

Costumes by Tristan Raines run the gamut from 1930’s sparkly glam gowns, elegant black tie and frothy chorus girl costumes to dusty Western wear.

Highly recommended.

Through January 14, 2018 at Signature Theatre (Shirlington Village), 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, VA 22206.  For tickets and information call 703 820-9771 or visit www.sigtheatre.org.

 

The Pajama Game ~ Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater

Jordan Wright
November 16, 2017
Special to The Alexandria Times

(L-R) Tim Rogan (Sid Sorokin) and Britney Coleman (Babe Williams) in The Pajama Game. Photo by Margot Schulman.

(L-R) Tim Rogan (Sid Sorokin) and Britney Coleman (Babe Williams) in The Pajama Game. Photo by Margot Schulman.

A freshly minted production of Richard Adler and Jerry Ross’s musical, The Pajama Game, now on the Fichandler Stage, lightens the country’s mood considerably.  This is not your grandmother’s version of the original 1954 classic.  Director Alan Paul has condensed it for modern day audiences, but it is as fresh and applicable today as it was then.  The story centers on two main characters, Babe Williams (the beautiful and talented Britney Coleman) and Sid Sorokin (Tim Rogan, a matinee idol-caliber, leading man if ever there was one).  Their aims are different, their love story is not.  Babe heads up the Union Grievance Committee at the Sleep-Tite Pajama Factory and Sid is the new superintendent in charge of maintaining order at the factory.  Though they are operating at cross purposes under a curmudgeonly boss, Fred Hasler (played by the inimitable Ed Gero), that doesn’t put a stop to their love connection.  Well, maybe a few near insurmountable crimps.

(L-R) Paul Scanlan (Salesman), Edward Gero (Hasler) and Eddie Korbich (Hines) in The Pajama Game. Photo by Margot Schulman.

(L-R) Paul Scanlan (Salesman), Edward Gero (Hasler) and Eddie Korbich (Hines) in The Pajama Game. Photo by Margot Schulman.

In two sensational hours featuring some of the most memorable show tunes, Choreographer Parker Esse packs in a ton of dance on this reconfigured theater-in-the-round stage.  It begins with an electrifying opening number, “Hurry Up”, that reflects the seamstresses’ battle for a seven-and-a-half cents’ raise and the pressure they’re under to stitch up pajamas at breakneck speed.  Set Designer James Noone’s use of vintage sewing machine stations on wheels is an effective opening.  Later his use of an old Coke machine, 50’s typewriters, avocado green office phones, a classic juke box and a sunshine yellow dinette set, contribute mightily to a sense of time and place.

(L-R) Bridget Riley (Doris), Casey Wenger-Schulman (Carmen), Alexandra Frohlinger (Sandra), Nancy Anderson (Gladys), Gabi Stapula (Mae) and Heidi Kershaw Quick (Virginia) in The Pajama Game. Photo by Margot Schulman.

(L-R) Bridget Riley (Doris), Casey Wenger-Schulman (Carmen), Alexandra Frohlinger (Sandra), Nancy Anderson (Gladys), Gabi Stapula (Mae) and Heidi Kershaw Quick (Virginia) in The Pajama Game. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Expect to hear favorite tunes like “There Once Was a Man”, “Slow Down” – a dance that alternates between slow motion and fast forward, cleverly performed with flying bolts of cloth and tape measures, “Hey There” – sung by Sid using an office playback machine, and “Hernando’s Hideaway” – a castanets plus jitterbug dance between Sid and the hilariously drunken Gladys (Nancy Anderson).  Notable too is a duet with skirt chaser Prez (the captivatingly comic Blakely Slaybaugh) and the company’s bookkeeper Mae (the delicious Gabi Stapula) in a reprise of “Her Is”, and the factory timekeeper, Vernon Hines’ (Eddie Korbich) tap dance in “Think of the Time I Save” performed with the factory girls’ ensemble.

(L-R) Eddie Korbich (Hines) and Donna McKechnie (Mabel) in The Pajama Game. Photo by Margot Schulman

(L-R) Eddie Korbich (Hines) and Donna McKechnie (Mabel) in The Pajama Game. Photo by Margot Schulman

The outstanding 21-member cast includes Tony Award-winning actress, Donna McKechnie as Mabel, the boss’ secretary.  Musical Director and Conductor, James Cunningham’s 12-piece orchestra, hidden beneath the stage, doubles and triples on a total of 24 instruments to give this memorable production the full complement of sound it deserves.

Blakely Slaybaugh (Prez), Britney Coleman (Babe Williams) and cast of The Pajama Game. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Blakely Slaybaugh (Prez), Britney Coleman (Babe Williams) and cast of The Pajama Game. Photo by Margot Schulman.

A big, fat, all-American hit!  Highly recommended.

Through December 24th at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information call 202 488-3300 or visit www.ArenaStage.org.

Vicuña and the American Experience ~ Mosaic Theater Company of DC at The Atlas Performing Arts Center

Jordan Wright
November 7, 2017
Special to The Alexandria Times

Presidential wannabe Kurt Seaman (John de Lancie) ~Photo by C. Stanley Photography

Presidential wannabe Kurt Seaman (John de Lancie) ~Photo by C. Stanley Photography

A timely, re-engineered version of Jon Robin Baitz’s brilliantly acerbic, Trump-inspired, politically explosive, outrageously hilarious play, Vicuña and the American Experience, had audiences cheering wildly last at The Atlas.  For this latest incarnation of the play, Baitz has added a dystopian ending “intended as a warning”.  It imagines the country’s political landscape after a presidency built on lies and obfuscations.  The two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist and noted TV writer has crafted a timely play that tracks both the pre- and post- election rise of a candidate for U. S. President.  As he describes it, “It’s social, political and anarchical.” And, what’s more, satisfyingly hilarious!  Just what’s needed right now.

Brian George plays Anselm Kassar, the elderly and elegant Jewish tailor -apprentice, Amir Massoud (Haaz Sleiman) ~ Photo by C. Stanley Photography

Brian George plays Anselm Kassar – Kurt Seaman (John de Lancie) –  Amir Massoud (Haaz Sleiman) ~ Photo by C. Stanley Photography

Several story lines weave together to present a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the near-farcical making of a blindly egotistical Republican candidate whose chicanery and buffoonery parallel our daily news feeds.  Presidential wannabe Kurt Seaman (John de Lancie), whose smarmy campaign slogan is, “Women love Seamen.  Seaman [semen] Loves Women”, is a man preparing for his final debate against a female Democratic candidate.  To clinch the vote, he has pressured a bespoke New York tailor with a celebrity clientele to hastily stitch up a vicuña suit.  Brian George plays Anselm Kassar, the elderly and elegant Jewish tailor.  His young apprentice, Amir Massoud (Haaz Sleiman), is an Iranian Muslim and Harvard educated student.  The two are connected through their families’ struggles in Iran during the Shah’s persecution of political dissidents. The outspoken Amir has gotten expelled from university as a result of his attacks against the U. S. government and though he is a naturalized American citizen, his parents’ immigration status is unsure – something that the fear-mongering Seaman uses to threaten him. “If you can’t make it in your own country, what kind of people are we taking in? I call them losers,” he claims calling Muslims radical Islamist terrorists.

Laura C. Hayes plays Srilanka ~Photo by C. Stanley Photography

Laura C. Hayes plays Srilanka, the candidate’s smartly dressed, socialite daughter and campaign manager who is working feverishly on her father’s behalf to secure the women’s vote.  Srilanka is brainy and driven – here depicted as a sympathetic character attempting to reign in her father’s verbal excesses, race-baiting and flip-flopping on issues.  Ring a bell?

At Seaman’s insistence, Anselm promises to make a suit for him, one that is cut and fit so expertly that he will be assured a successful debate performance.  Think “The Emperor’s New Clothes”.  But though the suit’s imaginary powers take on near mythical proportions, Amir warns Seaman that, “the suit can’t stand in for principles.”  Ah, principles, morals and truth – in such short supply today.

Amir Massoud (Haaz Sleiman) – Kitty Finch-Gibbon (Kimberly Schraf) ~ Photo by C. Stanley Photography

Act Two introduces Kitty Finch-Gibbon (Kimberly Schraf), the fiercely principled, Old Guard conservative, chair of the Republican National Committee.  Kitty tells Seaman the RNC considers him “stark, raving mad” and is willing to buy him off at any cost.

Under DC native Robert Egan’s exquisite direction, we have a cast with purpose, passion and pace.  Original Music and sound design by Karl Lundeberg.

A brilliantly acerbic, politically explosive, outrageously hilarious piece of theater.  Highly recommended.  

Through December 3rd at the Atlas Center for the Performing Arts, 1333 H Street, NE, Washington, DC 20002.  For tickets, special rates and discounts visit www.MosaicTheater.org or call the box office at 202.399.7993 ext. 2.