Paper Dolls ~ A Play with Songs ~ Mosaic Theater Company of DC

Jordan Wright
April 4, 2018 

Are you ready to plunge headlong down a rabbit hole with a cross-cultural mash-up led by five Filipino “lady boys” aka drag queens called the Paper Dolls?  No, it’s not part of the far-out Fringe Festival, but it is edgy, hilarious, mind-bending and heartwarming.  It’s a caution and a small miracle alive and kicking with hope, kindness and transformation.

Lise Bruneau, Chris Bloch, and Ariel Felix ~ Photo credit Stan Barouh

First, suspend reality.  Start by allowing yourself to forgo the day-to-day grind of American politics and pop culture, then travel, vicariously that is, to Israel – the land of Yiddish, the Shabbat dinner, daily bombings and tradition with a capital ‘T’.  There’s not much milk and honey for the temporary Filipino workers whose jobs are caring for elderly Jews.  It’s their off-hours that provide the story with its humor.

Set in 2004 after the second intifada, and faced with the problem of caring for its aging population, Israel brought in 30,000 foreign workers from the Philippines.  Some of these were home health aides.  Hired through recruitment agencies to care for elderly Orthodox and Chasidic men, the workers were forced to work until they could pay off their unreasonably high agency fees.

L to R: Evan D’Angeles, Kevin Shen, Rafael Sebastian ~ Photo credit Stan Barouh

Many of these were gay men looking to send money back home to their own aging parents.  Some formed strong, familial bonds with kindly employers.  Others were badly treated and fled, or were arrested and deported.  Think this isn’t happening today?  Think again.  In some Asian and Middle Eastern countries foreign workers are kidnapped or trafficked and forced to work in life-threatening conditions with no chance of escape.

Playwright Philip Himberg, who adapted the play from the 2006 documentary film by Israeli-born Tomer Heymann, weaves these wildly disparate elements into an engaging comic drama driven by the relationship between Chaim (Christopher Bloch in a standout performance as a rheumy, wheelchair-bound Jew) and Sally, short for Salvador, a Paper Doll charged with his care.

Ariel Felix (Sally) and Chris Bloch (Chaim) ~ Photo credit Stan Barouh

Ariel Felix’s Sally gives an exceptionally tender portrayal of a someone who learns the culture and cuisine of his/her adopted country in order to show respect and kindness to her employer who adores and accepts Sally for what she is.

Beneath the surface of the glitz and glamour of the quintet’s drag act, are the everyday challenges they face living in Israel – homophobia, racism and exploitation – in a culture as foreign to them as to a fish on land.  Paper Dolls is about pride, fantasy as survival, activism, unexpected human connections and personal sacrifice.  It’s a hilarious stick-in-the-eye against social and religious conventions – not exactly what you might expect from a play-with-music, though the music portion ranges from what you’d expect to hear from a Tel Aviv DJ at a Miss Philippines-Israel Beauty Pageant (Yes, this happens!) to traditional Israeli songs and pop music.

Bold, entertaining and timely.

Additional cast members – Evan D’Angeles, Jon Norman Schneider, Rafael Sebastian, Kevin Shen, John Bambery, Lise Bruneau, Chris Daileader, Brice Guerriere, Dallas Milholland, and Elan Zafir.

Directed by Mark Brokaw, choreography by J. M. Rebudal, musical direction by William Knowles, vocal arrangements by Howard Breitbart, set design by James Kronzer, lighting by Brittany Shemuga, costumes by Frank Labovitz, sound by David Lamont Wilson and projections by Sarah Tundermann.

Through April 29th in the Theresa and Jane Lang Theatre at the Atlas Center for the Performing Arts, 1333 H Street, NE, Washington, DC 20002.  For tickets, info on post show discussions, special rates and discounts visit MosaicTheater Online or call the box office at 202.399.7993 ext. 2.  Valet parking at 1360 H Street, NE.

On Floor: John Bambery ~ L to R: Jon Norman Schneider, Evan D’Angeles, Ariel Felix, Rafael Sebastian, Kevin Shen ~ Photo credit Stan Barouh

In The Heights ~ Kennedy Center

Jordan Wright
March 29, 2018

If you blinked you missed it.  Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In The Heights blew into the Kennedy Center for a few days and just as quickly fled.  Shades of things to come as the arrival this June of his blockbuster musical Hamilton hits a feverish pitch.  This was just the teaser.

In The Heights Cast ~ Photo by Teresa Wood

The Kennedy Center’s production starred a wealth of Broadway’s In The Heights original cast members like Blanca Camacho as Camilla; Eden Espinosa as Daniela; Eliseo Roman as Piragua Guy (Drama Desk Award); and tons of other notable Broadway stars including Ana Villafañe who plays Nina the Puerto Rican girl who goes off to Stamford to prove there’s a way out of the barrio if you’re willing to sacrifice love.  Villafañe originated the role of Gloria Estefan in On Your Feet which played the Kennedy Center in January.

Arianna Rosario, Ana Villafane, Eden Espinosa, and Vanessa Hudgens ~ Photo by Teresa Wood

Other cast members from Broadway’s Hamilton are J. Quinton Johnson who plays Benny Nina’s African-American love interest.  He currently stars in Hamilton as Hercules Mulligan and James Madison; and Grammy Award-winning musician and actor Anthony Ramos as the lead character Usnavi.  Ramos originated the roles of John Laurens and Phillip Hamilton in Hamilton.  Miranda likes to re-cast his actors.  A lot!

Lin-Manuel Miranda and Vanessa Hudgens_Photo by Yassine El Mansouri

The audience went wild for the adorable Vanessa Hudgens of Broadway’s Gigi and also of the High School Musical movies.  Here she plays Vanessa, the hairdresser who dreams of a better future.  Squeals could be heard throughout the chandeliered theatre for Anthony Ramos who has his own adorable factor as well as a killer voice.   Yet, most captivating to this reviewer was newcomer Mateo Ferro as Sonny.  If there’s a scene stealer here, it’s this 16-year old who had been cast as Usnavi in In The Heights in Strathmore theatre’s Young Artists of America summer theatre and who played Sonny at Clarksburg High School in Montgomery County, Maryland. We need to see more of him.

J Quinton Johnson, Anthony Ramos, and Mateo Ferro ~ Photo by Teresa Wood

There was a huge refresh in terms of dance and musical delivery.  There’s more rapping by Usnavi and even pop-locking by a bevy of dancers who salsa their tail feathers off.

Miranda himself showed up on the final night of the show to thunderous applause.  If we have a National Hero in the theatre it’s this.

If you haven’t seen In The Heights yet, try to catch a production somewhere in the area.  It augurs Miranda’s rap/ballad style which has revolutionized musical theater and will prepare you for the Kennedy Center’s production of Hamilton – should you have been fortunate enough to be one of the lucky ones who snagged a ticket.

Seen at the Kennedy Center on March 22nd.

George Don’t Do That ~The Music and Magic of Joyce Grenfell ~ MetroStage

Jordan Wright
March 13, 2018
Special to The Alexandria Times

Catherine Flye as British Comedian Joyce Grenfell ~ Photo credit Christopher Banks

If you were unfamiliar with famed British comedienne, Joyce Grenfell, you won’t be any longer with Catherine Flye’s tribute performance to Grenfell’s long and notable career.  In the second show of MetroStage’s Spring Solo Series, British-born Flye brings to life the singer, actress and monologist, and one of England’s most beloved entertainers.

Catherine Flye as British Comedian Joyce Grenfell ~ Photo credit Christopher Banks

The show is a series of pastiches illustrating Grenfell’s best loved characters interwoven with songs and spoofs and remembered moments of humor and pathos.  You’ll even spot echoes of Gilbert & Sullivan.  Veteran performer Flye is accompanied delightfully by musical arranger and pianist Joseph Walsh playing music written by Richard Addinsell as well as standards like “Fly Me to the Moon”, “Don’t You Know” and “The Girl From Ipanema”.  Narrator Michael Tolaydo provides backdrop to the period.

Catherine Flye as British Comedian Joyce Grenfell ~ Photo credit Christopher Banks

Flye, who devised the production, dons Grenfell like a second skin weaving the best of Grenfell’s British music hall follies as effortlessly and cheerily as Mary Poppins would.  This was the style of the day and audiences familiar with this era will have fond memories of the music and this particular form of humor.  She reminded me of Patricia Routledge’s character, Hyacinth Bouquet, in PBS’s long-running series Keeping Up Appearances.

Catherine Flye as British Comedian Joyce Grenfell ~ Photo credit Christopher Banks

The show has been performed throughout the U. S., including the British Embassy in DC, East Africa and across the United Kingdom.

A treat for Anglophiles.

The second in a trio of one-woman shows at MetroStage through March 25th .  1201 North Royal Street, Alexandria, 22314.  For tickets and information visit online.

The Big Apple Circus is Big Time Fun ~ At National Harbor

Jordan Wright
March 12, 2018 

National Harbor is thrilled to host the Big Apple Circus to celebrate their 10th anniversary.  “We are delighted to bring such a highly acclaimed circus to National Harbor.  In honor of our 10th year, we’re welcoming several new premium events, including Big Apple Circus,” said Rachel Ball, Director of Events at National Harbor. “The performers with Big Apple Circus are extremely talented and it’s no surprise that they just received rave reviews throughout the east coast and currently for their show in Atlanta.”

Host and WJLA Weatherman Brian van de Graaff opened the show to an excited audience of children and adults who roared at the hilarious clowns (a slip-and-slide routine, high flying routine and plenty of fart jokes the kids ate up!), a beautiful contortionist, tons of tumblers, jugglers and acrobats along with eight clever dogs, precious mini-ponies and pretty horses all accompanied by an 8-piece live band.

Ringmaster Tyrone McFarlan welcomes the audience to the Big Apple Circus at National Harbor ~ Photo credit Jordan Wright

Led by Ringmaster Tyrone “Ty” McFarlan and famed for its one-ring, intimate and artistic style, this circus claims no seat is more than 50 feet from the performers.  And as we watched several audience members were called up to play jokes along with the clowns.  This intimate setting separates the Big Apple Circus from the style the now-defunct Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey made famous.  More importantly, there are no exotic animals – a practice that, rightly so, has finally been condemned.

Nik Wallenda and The Flying Wallendas perform their seven-person pyramid on the high wire ~ Photo credit Jordan Wright

Recently purchased by renowned orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Neil Kahanovitz, who along with his wife performed as trapeze and acrobatic artists after college, the circus now celebrates its 40th  anniversary with a full lineup of global artist and acts, the biggest and best-known headliners being 10-time Guinness world record-holding high wire artist Nik Wallenda and The Fabulous Wallendas performing their famous seven-person pyramid on the high wire.  Nik is the seventh generation of Great Wallendas who trace their roots back to the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1780.  For Nik, whose motto is #NeverGiveUp, every walk is an expression of honor to his great-grandfather, the legendary Karl Wallenda who brought the family to America for The Greatest Show on Earth.  You’ll also thrill to see the daring quadruple somersault on the trapeze by The Flying Tunizianis for the first time in circus history that both legendary feats are performed under the same big top.

Jan Damm on the Rola Bola reaches new heights ~ Photo credit Jordan, Wright

These record-setting acts are joined by Dandino & Luciana, a dynamic duo who combine speed, acrobatics and daredevil grace on roller skates; award-winning contortionist Elayne Kramer; master juggler Gamal Garcia; Jan Damm on the Rola Bola; acclaimed Risley acrobats The Anastasini Brothers (who broke the World Record for most flips on Nov. 9, 2017); and the lovely Jenny Vidbel, who performs in the ring with 16 horses and ponies as well as six rescue dogs.

Jenny Vidbel with her mini ponies Photo credit Jordan Wright

Outside of the ring, Big Apple Circus continues to honor the essential and iconic characteristics that have set them apart for the past four decades with multiple community outreach programs and a vital no-wild-animals policy.  Their “Circus of the Senses” performances offer special enhanced experiences for audiences with autism, visual and auditory challenges and other special performances include ASL interpretation, assistive listening devices with live audio commentary, pre- and post-show touch therapy experiences, and a Braille program book. Sensory-friendly performances for Autistic audience members feature lowered light and sound levels, a descriptive picture book showing the different areas and acts involved with the circus, and a “calming center” that can be accessed at any point during the show.

The Big Apple Circus 40th anniversary season is directed by Mark Lonergan, artistic director of three-time Drama Desk Award-nominated physical theater company Parallel Exit, with choreography and associate direction by Antoinette DiPietropolo and music direction by Rob Slowik. Tony Award-winning Lighting Designer Jeff Croiter (Peter and the Starcatcher, Something Rotten!), Scenic Designers Rob Bissinger (Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark, Legally Blonde – Assoc) and Anita LaScala (Magic Mike Live) of ARDA Studio, Inc, and Drama Desk-nominated Costume Designer Amy Clark (Heathers: The Musical, Chaplin) come together to create a vibrant environment to fit the momentous occasion.

Highly recommended for all ages. 

Through Sunday, April 1st.  For tickets and performance times visit www.BigAppleCircus.com or call 855-258-0718. Ticket prices range from $27.50 – $109 for VIP Ringside. Group tickets start at $17.50.  At 238 Waterfront St., National Harbor, Md. 20745 (intersection of Waterfront St. and St. George Blvd.).  Parking is available in the National Harbor St. George or Mariner garages.

Death By Design ~ A Comedy with Murder ~ Aldersgate Church Community Theater (ACCT)

Jordan Wright
March 12, 2018
Special to The Alexandria Times 

Bridgit: Emily Golden ~ Photo credit Howard Soroos

Oh, it’s murder alright and murder most foul and funny.  Ask Bridget (Emily Golden).  She’s the insolent maid with a penchant for solving mysteries.  It’s 1932 in the living room of the Bennett’s house in Cookham, England and Edward Bennet (James McDaniel) is fighting with his wife Sorel (Heather Norcross).  He’s a playwright.  She’s an actress and his muse.  Together they live a Noel Cowardesque life peopled with a bohemian, an activist and a politician.  In this zany bit of British froth, we are treated to a whirlwind of characters.

Edward and Sorel Bennett: James McDaniel and Heather Norcross ~ Photo credit Howard Soroos

Much to Edward’s dismay, Sorel has taken up with Walter Pearce (Larry Grey), a Conservative Party leader fresh from the hinterlands.  She’s invited him to stay the weekend at their country estate where insanity reigns supreme.  Walter is as naive as a kitten and ill-prepared for the Bennetts and their sophisticated hijinks.  He’s even more addled by Edward as the witness to his amorous undertakings with the delightful Sorel.

Bridgit and Jack: Emily Golden and Erik Rieloff ~ Photo credit Howard Soroos

Jack’s (Erik Rieloff) their chauffeur and he and Bridget have a thing.  Well, sort of – except Jack’s a Lothario which Bridget overlooks.  Then there’s Eric (Cal Whitehurst), the liberal activist and recent escapee from the local funny farm.  Got it?  You will.

Who is Dead: Elizabeth Replogle, James McDaniel, Heather Norcross, Carol Jean Clark, Cal Whitehurst and Erik Rieloff ~ Photo credit Howard Soroos

When Victoria Van Roth (Elizabeth Replogle) arrives swooning over her own artistic and psychic talents, Walter reacts with horror, “This is what comes from government funding of the Arts!” which gets a huge laugh from the audience.  This declaration, however, is Walter’s undoing in a house filled with artistes with guns and poisons, and the following morning he’s discovered dead as the proverbial doornail.  With the finger pointed at everyone else, the drinking begins in earnest, till everyone is decidedly sloshed and in firm possession of a reason to knock off Walter, including Victoria, Sorel’s kindred soulmate in Isadora Duncan dances and the contacting of the spirits.  Soon Alice (Carol Jean Clark), with connections to both Walter and Jack, arrives on the scene and Victoria is subsequently murdered.

It’s not easy to single out a few actors for recognition (it takes a village of cast and crew), but as the central character, Heather Norcross is marvelous.  Her part requires an excessive amount of over-the-top emoting and swanning about with a cocktail in hand – and she doesn’t miss a beat.  One minute she’s berating Edward and the next adoring him and just as suddenly she’s coddling the half-mad Eric or cavorting in impromptu skits with her pal Victoria.  I’d also like to single out Emily Golden as Bridget.  Golden gives us a strong, feisty character that centers the cast and provides the glue for this hilarious farce.

Director Eddie Page corrals the madness with excellent pacing by a fine cast of well-loved local actors.

Recommended for light “spirited” fun!

Through March 25th at the Aldersgate Church Community Theater, 1301 Collingwood Road, Alexandria, VA 22308.  For tickets and information on the performance, schedule visit www.acctonline.org.

Front Row: James McDaniel and Heather Norcross Back Row: Erik Rieloff, Elizabeth Replogle, Larry Grey, Carol Jean Clark, Cal Whitehurst and Emily Golden ~ Photo credit Howard Soroos