Camelot ~ Shakespeare Theatre Company

Jordan Wright
May 30, 2018 

The days of light-hearted versions of Camelot may have gone the way of 50¢ bus rides.  The whole frothy, castle keep shtick flies out the window in director Alan Paul’s modern interpretation of Lerner & Loewe’s Broadway hit musical of the early 60’s.  And I must admit, I wasn’t ready for such a sea change.  For those of you who remember the 60’s (you’re excused if you don’t), the original cast starred the magnificent-voiced Robert Goulet, Julie Andrews (‘nuff said) and sex symbol at the time, Richard Burton, before he was actually knighted.  Paul delves deeper into the sociological and psychological implications of the 12th century Knights of the Round Table and comes up with a view edgier, darker, and a lot more Shakespearean.  We should have expected it.

Ken Clark as King Arthur ~ Photo credit Scott Suchman

Paul has assembled a fine cast to see his vision through.  DC-based actor Ted van Griethuysen plays Merlyn the Magician.  Van Griethuysen, an eight-time Helen Hayes Award winner was awarded the Robert Prosky Award for “Outstanding Lead Actor in a Play” at the Helen Hayes Awards this May.  Merlyn is the defining influence on the young King’s life, at least until wise King Pellinore (skillfully played by Floyd King) steps up to the plate as his confidante after Merlyn loses his powers.  Pelli has been around the block.  The sympatico King Arthur (Ken Clark) wants peace and justice to flourish in Camelot in a new social order rejecting violence and bloodshed and stripping the powers of the landed gentry.  Proposition: The feisty knights would be dumped into the dustbin.

Queen Guenevere (Alexandra Silber) and Ken Clark as King Arthur ~ Photo credit Scott Suchman

Meanwhile, the beautiful and spirited Queen Guenevere (Alexandra Silber), and his closest comrade, Lancelot du Lac, the handsomest and most vaunted knight in the land (played by the dashing Nick Fitzer), become lovers and their treasonous romance becomes the talk of the court.  Enter Mordred (Patrick Vaill), the King’s illegitimate son.  Plotting to seize the throne through blood and terror, he threatens to reveal the Queen’s secret love affair.  Nevertheless, the lovers cannot bear to part.  “If Ever I Would Leave You”, sung by Lancelot, is one of the songs everyone remembers.  I could have sworn I heard humming from the audience.

Nick Fitzer as Lancelot Du Lac and Alexandra Silber as Quenn Guenevere ~ Photo by Scott Suchman

Vaill, a Bard College alum, uses his Mick Jagger looks and indelible charm to give us a gutsy-cool, bad boy Mordred – a character who declares “Fie on goodness!” and whose wicked, leather-clad street-thugs prove to be King Arthur’s undoing.  “The table is not round,” Mordred insinuates.  “It is a triangle.”  And as we all know, three’s a crowd. 

Nick Fitzer as Lancelot Du Lac and Alexandra Silber as Quenn Guenevere ~ Photo by Scott Suchman

The cast is wonderful most especially Clark, Vaill and Fitzer whose musical numbers and fiery soliloquies bring the house down.  Led by designer Ana Kuzmanic, STC’s masterful costume department has outdone themselves with yards of heavily embroidered silk, chiffon and velvet for the women, and leather outfits, voluminous capes and gleaming suits of armor for the knights.

Patrick Vail as Mordred, Alexandra Silber as Guenevere and Michael Bingham as Ensemble ~ Photo by Scott Suchman

Alas and alack, I found the unimaginative, wood-paneled backdrops by Walt Spengler to be lackluster, but his use of disappearing platforms for set changes and descending-from-the-rafters bevy of shiny knights to be eye-popping.  Fight choreographer David Leong handles the flashy sword fights and choreographer Michele Lynch delights with the lovers’ waltz among rose petals and the lusty courtiers a-Maying.

Cast of Lerner & Loewe’s Camelot ~ Photo by Scott Suchman

With Music Direction by James Cunningham, Lighting Design by Robert Wierzel, and Sound Design by Ken Travis.

With Melissa Wimbish as Nimbue, Mark Banik as Sir Dinadan, Brandon Bieber as Sir Sagamore, Paul Victor as Sir Lionel, Ben Gunderson as Squire Dap and the adorable Trinity Sky Deabreu as Child.  Knights and Ladies of the Court include Michael Bingham, Veronica Burt, Julio Catano-Yee, Chadaé, Jennifer Cordiner, Bridget Riley, Frankie Shin, and Casey Wenger-Schulman.

Through July 8st at Sidney Harman Hall 610 F Street, NW, Washington, DC 20004.  For tickets and information call 202 547-1122 or visit www.ShakespeareTheatre.org.

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.

Saint Joan ~ Folger Theatre

Bedlam Theater Company
May 16, 2018 

A dizzying modernized version of George Bernard Shaw’s notable play, Saint Joan, is now at the Folger Theatre presented by the New York-based Bedlam theater company.  Historically, and even contemporarily, it’s relevant to the discussion of church v. state v. the ruling classes.  That’s what Joan, or Jeanne as the French have it, is all about. Whether tis nobler to have the church or nobility or the patriarchy back your lofty ideals, is the question.  Alas, in the end, poor Joan managed to piss them all off.

Robert de Baudricourt (Eric Tucker) tries in vain to put the peasant girl, Joan (Dria Brown) in her rightful place. Photo by Teresa Wood.

In the relentlessly verbose classic, four characters take on twenty-five roles, some switching roles mid-paragraph.  Joan is the only character that stays herself.  It’s clever.  There are tons of funny bits, but after nearly three hours it feels overly long. Besides, knowing her fiery ending as well as her legacy, it seems more than a little overblown to listen to repeated reassessments of both her value (initially they bought into her hearing voices) and her condemnation as a heretic which came after she led the French to victory.

Is it instructive?  Yes.  Is it well-acted?  To a person.  Does it speak to our modern sensibilities?  Somewhat.  In an age of serfdom, where knights were ransommed and the church and aristocracy reigned supreme, landowners had great sway.  One’s family dictated one’s ultimate station in life and thus one’s future opportunities.  Joan broke too many rules, most importantly the one that didn’t allow women to leave their household duties, don armor and go to war.  So as a feminist piece, it is culturally interesting that Shaw thought it important to write of the inequality of the sexes.  As a religious diatribe, the Church feels threatened by Mohammad, calling him the anti-Christ.  They accuse Joan of being a nationalist and call out the Jews as treacherous.  And their justifications for burning her at the stake, are entirely self-serving.  As social commentary, the interest lies in the playwright’s condemnation of the church and the folly of the aristocracy.

The Earl of Warwick (Eric Tucker, left) discusses the fate of Joan of Arc with the Bishop of Beauvais (Sam Massaro), as chaplain John de Stogumber (Edmund Lewis) listens intently in Saint Joan. Photo by Teresa Wood.

But in our modern world, with a pope who has a social conscience, nobility who has little influence, and governments who rule predominantly by individual vote, would we have a Joan of Arc?  Today we call them cult leaders, known in the 15th century as sorcerers, and they are equally reviled.  Mostly for good reason.

But we come to like this true-hearted teenager who is dogged in her determination to save France from the expansionist policies of England. “There is something about the girl,” as the bishops and the Dauphin acknowledge.

Brother John Lemaitre, the Inquisitor (Eric Tucker) and John de Stomgumber (Edmund Lewis) await the trial of Joan in Saint Joan at Folger Theatre. Photo by Teresa Wood.

Bedlam’s Artistic Director Eric Tucker (who also created the costumes and sound design) uses every trick in the book to keep it fresh – sight gags, pratfalls and slow-motion fights.  A dozen or more audience members are invited to sit onstage adding to the immediacy of the response.  I must say, I don’t know how the actors find their way around all the chairs and spout their lines without taking notice of their proximity.  No mean feat!

The Inquisitor (Eric Tucker) leads the accused Joan (Dria Brown) to her seat to stand trial in Bedlam’s Saint Joan. Photo by Teresa Wood.

Be your own critic, especially if you love Shaw.  After all, Bedlam’s staging of Saint Joan was honored by Time magazine as a Top Ten Play and listed in the New York Times’ Best of Theater list.

Lighting by Les Dickert.  Roles played by Dria Brown as Joan; Edmund Lewis as the Dauphin, John de Stogumber and others; Sam Massaro as Cauchon, Poulengey and others; and Eric Tucker as Dunois, Warwick and others.

Through June 10th at the Folger Theatre at the Folger Shakespeare Library, 201 East Capitol Street, SE, Washington, DC 20003.   For tickets and information call 202 544-7077 or visit online.

Hamlet ~ The Royal Shakespeare Company from Stratford-upon-Avon at The Kennedy Center

Jordan Wright
May 7, 2018 

Gasp!  The Royal Shakespeare Company at The Kennedy Center!  Unfortunately, they blew into town as quickly as they departed.  Four days only.  Nonetheless they made a thunderous impression on this reviewer and the audience too, who went crazy for this wonderful interpretation.

Paapa Essiedu and Buom Tihngang with the cast of Hamlet. Photo by Manuel Harlan.

So… Hamlet (Paapa Essiedu), goes mad when his dad the king dies, and mom marries his uncle, and he drops Ophelia like a stone, except she floats.  But you already knew that.  So, I’ll spare you all the deets.  What’s refreshing is the eighteen-member troupe – African, British and Jamaican, with the exception of three white cast members, Byron Mondahl as the Professor of Wittenberg, James Cooney as Horatio and Eleanor Wyld as Guildenstern, gifter of English biscuits.  And though they speak of Denmark, director Simon Godwin uses themes from both ancient and modern-day Africa to achieve this fresh, new dynamic.  (There’s a Wakanda salute from Hamlet to Horatio. Watch for it!)  What’s exciting is this alternative perspective – imagining how the tragedy would go down in contemporary society.  It’s entirely relatable.

Paul Will’s contemporary design demands richly colored kente cloth costumes and lofty headdresses for Queen Gertrude with formal military dress uniforms for King Hamlet.  Palace guards, Barnardo and Francisca, sport stylish camouflage and Cordelia’s four-inch heels and dreadlocks beside Hamlet’s hipster get-ups and drummers in dashikis, assure us we are firmly in the present day.

Mimi Ndiweni and Paapa Essiedu in Hamlet. Photo by Manuel Harlan.

Will envisions Hamlet as a graffiti-painting, boombox-toting lad who’s gone off the rails.  (For some unknown reason, I thought of Prince Harry’s rebellious period after the loss of his mother.)  In a mash-up of past and present, the mood shifts precipitously from formal Danish court to ancient African rituals and indigenous dances.  As in The Lion King, characters frequently dash down the aisles and leap onstage.  Composer Sola Akingbola sets the tone with fierce drumming and African music from calypso to tribal.

Of particular note was the ghost of Hamlet’s father, spotlighted up in the balcony, and the handling of Ophelia’s speech about the flowers – fennel, pansy, rue, columbine – as she mourns Hamlet’s repudiation of her love.  It is in this tragic scene that she, grief-stricken, pulls out locks of her hair, one for each flower she names, to give to the King and Queen.

With Lorna Brown as Queen Gertrude, Clarence Smith as Claudius, Joseph Mydell as Polonius, Buom Tihngang as Laertes, Mimi Ndiweni as Ophelia, James Cooney as Horatio, Romayne Andrews as Rosencrantz, Patrick Elue as Marcellus, Lucianus and Fortinbras, Kevin N Golding as Barnardo and Tracy-Anne Green as Francisca.

Direction by Simon Godwin, Design by Paul Wills, Lighting by Paul Anderson, Composed by Sola Akingbola with Fight Direction by Kev McCurdy.

What a joy and privilege to experience this brilliant production by a such fine cast!

Candide ~ The Kennedy Center

Jordan Wright
May 8, 2018 

Imagine, if you will that composer Leonard Bernstein’s 18th C set piece opera Candide was first staged the year following the Broadway premiere West Side Story.  1956.  It seems incredible that these two wildly divergent stories were composed, staged and produced by one man in less than twelve months.  Okay, he was a genius, which is why the Kennedy Center is lauding his songbook for its exciting celebration on the 100th anniversary of his birth.

Wynn Harmon, Emily Pogorelc, Alek Shrader, and Denyce Graves in Candide. Photo by Scott Suchman.

Under the virtuoso direction of Francesca Zambello, this imaginative, new production hails from New York’s The Glimmerglass Festival, where she is Artistic Director.  And it is not hyperbole to say it is a jaw-dropping extravaganza of dance, opera, comedy and, yes, drama too.  Sword fights!  Its list of lyricists – Richard Wilbur, Stephen Sondheim, Lillian Hellman, John La Touche, Dorothy Parker and Bernstein too – puts one in mind of late, martini-soaked nights plotting the script at the Algonquin’s famed Round Table.  One can only imagine the heady repartee.

Based on the dystopian novel by Voltaire in which Candide (Alek Shrader) discovers that the world, and his royal pals, are not the egalitarian society he had been taught.  And that Professor Pangloss’s (Wynn Harmon who doubles as Voltaire, the musical’s raconteur) rosy outlook on the world has its challenges – chief among them Candide’s love for the dazzling, gold-digging ingenue, Cunegonde (Emily Pogoreic).  That, and survival.

Amid the velvet breeches and Gainsborough frock coats of the aristocracy, Candide encounters war, famine and human suffering but manages to keep a cheerful and brave demeanor.  Along the way he meets the characters who will shape his life – The Old Lady (DC’s own superstar Denyce Graves), the haughty Maximillian (Edward Nelson), Candide’s comrade in arms Cacambo (Frederick Ballentine), the naughty servant girl Paquette (Eliza Bonet) and James (Matthew Scollin doubling as Martin the pessimistic street sweeper).  Balancing out his misadventures are the ruthless Grand Inquisitor (Alexander McKissick) and the addle-headed Baroness (Keriann Otaño) who would give Marie Antoinette a run for her money with a powdered wig so high she needs her lackey to hold it up with what appears to be a fishing pole.  Credit David C. Zimmerman for hair and makeup.

Emily Pogorelc, Denyce Graves, and Alek Shrader in Candide. Photo by Scott Suchman.

Throughout Candide’s peregrinations through the Old and New Worlds – in Holland, Paris, Spain, Uruguay, Paraguay and Surinam – he encounters war and misery, but somehow fortune prevails, and, unlike the thousands killed, he is spared hanging, burning at the stake, bayoneting and drowning.  I may have left a disaster out.  When our hero finally arrives at the Doge’s masquerade ball in Venice after some consorting with edenic Incans, he discovers his long lost Cunegonde bereft of the money and jewels she sold her soul to acquire.  They work it out.

This is a lavishly artistic, sublimely witty, while yet philosophical, musical that never slows down. You will adore it!  And, while I’m raving, I must single out the remarkable beauty, charm, comedic skills and flawless soprano voice of Emily Pogoreic.  Her aria “Glitter and Be Gay” is breathtaking.  And did I mention her dancing?  Absolutely marvelous.  Everyone is.  Twelve additional cast members add to the beautiful chorus and the Opera House’s acoustics sound particularly magnificent thanks to G Thomas Clark and crew for GTC Sound Design LLC.

Please, please go! Even if you never thought you’d see an opera. It’s Bernstein, for Pete’s sake.

With surtitles. Even though it’s in English, they’re useful.  You don’t want to miss a line.

Conducting by Nicole Paiement, book adaptation from Voltaire by Hugh Wheeler in a new version by John Caird, choreography by Eric Sean Fogel and Felicity Stiverson, lighting by Mark McCullough.  Soloists are Andrea Beasom, Tom Berklund, Jaely Chamberlain, Andrew Harper, Katherine Henly, Michael Hewitt, Nicholas Houhoulis, Jarrod Lee, Danny Lindgren, Alison Mixon, Ameerah Sabreen, Louisa Morrison Waycott.

Performances on May 12th, 14th, 18th, 20th, 22nd, 24th and 26th at The Kennedy Center, 2700 F St., NW, Washington, DC.  For tickets and information call 202 467-4600 or visit www.Kennedy-Center.org.