A Chorus Line ~ Signature Theatre

Jordan Wright
November 11, 2019 

Director Matthew Gardiner’s reinterpretation of A Chorus Line features brand new choreography from Denis Jones and departs from the original branded choreography by Michael Bennett.  Though I can’t recall the original enough to make a comparison of the two, I don’t think it’s necessary to enjoy the musical we’ve all come to love.

The cast of A Chorus Line at Signature Theatre ~ Photo by Christopher Muelle

A typical dance studio is the only set.  Framed by wide strips of Mylar ‘mirror’ and the traditional ballet barre, the focus is on the personalities and emotional stories of the 24 chorus line hopefuls.  Fairly quickly, seven are unceremoniously cut from consideration and we are left with seventeen dancers vying for a limited number of spots in an unnamed production.

Zach is the psychotic director.  From his command post, a desk, positioned in the center of the audience, he insults, cajoles, challenges and intimidates the dancers. “I just wanna hear you talk and be yourselves,” he says, insisting they reveal their innermost thoughts and childhood traumas, asking why they are there and why they chose to be dancers.  Larry, his emotionless assistant and choreographer, imposes Zach’s whimsical demands and works to corral the wannabes into a cohesive line.

Emily Tyra (Cassie) and Matthew Risch (Zach) in A Chorus Line at Signature Theatre ~ Photo by Christopher Mueller.

The story depicts a cross section of the dancers’ insecurities and neediness, and the fierce desperation of hoping for a break, as they are forced to relive the traumas of their childhood.  It’s intensely relatable and curiously human.  In a way, it’s pure schadenfreude.  We feel their pain and recognize their struggles, but we can’t, and shouldn’t, look away.

There are so many indelible, and identifiable, characters here – Cassie, the aging beauty once in a relationship with Zach and now begging him for a spot in the line; Sheila, a tough broad with attitude, desperate to forget a harsh childhood; Mark, an awkwardly naïve manchild who hilariously misdiagnosed gonorrhea from his addiction to medical textbooks; Val, a former cheerleader with Broadway aspirations and newly purchased plastic surgery; Paul, whose dance experience as a stripper in a drag club brings him shame; Maggie, a warm-hearted dreamer with a difficult past; Richie, a flashy dancer and former school teacher; and all the others, too numerous to describe here.  Among them they speak of their struggles to overcome the pain of suicide, incest, depression, poverty, homosexuality.  Among the dancers there is love, caring and understanding.

Joshua Buscher (Larry), Daxx Jayroe Wieser (Mark), Bryan Charles Moore (Don) and the cast of A Chorus Line at Signature Theatre ~ Photo by Christopher Mueller

You will easily recognize many of the musical numbers composed by Marvin Hamlisch with lyrics by Edward Kleban (Tony Awards for ‘Best Original Score’, ‘Best Musical’ and ‘Best Book of a Musical’).  Zach asks, “If today were the day you had to stop dancing, what would you do?” The answer is the torch song, “What I Did for Love.”  Beautifully expressed, the words and music reflect the highs and lows of showbiz life, yet with a universality recognizable to everyone.

A wonderful, shiny, madly talented cast.  Highly recommended.

With Maria Rizzo as Sheila; Emily Tyra as Cassie; Matthew Risch as Zach; Joshua Buscher as Larry; Michelle E. Carter as Tricia; Zeke Edmonds as Roy; Adena Ershow as Val; Samantha Marisol Gershman as Diana; Jeff Gorti as Paul; Ben Gunderson as Bobby; Lawrence Hailes as Butch; Vincent Kempski as Al; Julia Klavans as Vicki; Elise Kowalick as Kristine; Lina Lee as Connie; Bryan Charles Moore as Don; Corinne Munsch as Judy; Zachary Norton as Greg; Kayla Pecchioni as Maggie; Daniel Powers as Frank; MK Sagastume as Lois; Trevor Michael Schmidt as Mike; Jillian Wessel as Bebe; Daxx Jayroe Wieser as Mark; Phil Young as Richie; and Joshua Buscher as Dance Captain.

Book by James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante; Lighting by Adam Honoré; Sound Design Ryan Hickey; Orchestra led by Jon Kalbfleisch.

Through January 5th at Signature Theatre, (Shirlington Village), 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, VA 22206.  For tickets and information call 703 820-9771 or visit www.signature-theatre.org.

Mark Morris Dance Group ~ Pepperland ~ The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

Jordan Wright
November 16, 2019 

Mark Morris Dance Group_Pepperland – Noah Vinson (forwground) and Dallas McMurray (background) ~ Photo by Mat Hayward

“It was 50 years ago today.  Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play.  They’ve been going in and out of style, but they’re guaranteed to make you smile.” – – lyrics by Paul McCartney.  And smile we did with this joyfully exuberant reinterpretation by the Mark Morris Dance Group.  With no formulaic restrictions on movement and a choreography as light and unfettered as a butterfly on the wing, the dances flow as freely as the original music cleverly deconstructed by Composer Ethan Iverson.  It’s bouncy, angular and humor-inducing, shouldered by the gravitas of George Harrison’s lyrics in the Indian-inspired raga, “Within You and Without You”, that is mesmerizing, timely and deeply mystical.

Mark Morris Dance Group – Pepperland~ Photo by Mat Hayward

The performance begins with an intro of the initial characters – Billy Shears (whom we expected), then Marilyn Monroe, Marlene Dietrich, Shirley Temple, Sonny Liston!, Oscar Wilde, Albert Einstein, and other intriguing celebrities who later morph into miming, interpretive dancers that echo flight and fantasy interpreting the myriad of styles reflected in the album – from Jazz and Vaudeville to the strains of Music Hall, the avant-garde, and top of the pops.

Crayon-colored costumes by Elizabeth Kurtzman recall the aesthetics of artist Peter Max and author Tom Wolfe’s psychedelic-inspired, counter-culture celebration novel, “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” as well as the fashions of André Courrèges and London’s Carnaby Street of the same 60’s dynamic.

Mark Morris Dance Group – Pepperland ~ Photo by Mat Hayward

Accompanied by vocalist Clinton Curtis and a five-piece band that includes a soprano sax, trombone, keyboard and percussionist, the sound is further heightened by Ethan Iverson on the piano and the lilting strains of the avant-garde electronic instrument called a theremin played by Rob Schwimmer.  This fantasy-like reinterpretation of the original Beatles music (Yes, the songs are still recognizable) draws from both the minimalist stylings of composer Phillip Glass and 60’s dances.  Frug, anyone?

Seven Beatles compositions from the album are augmented by ‘Magna Carta’, ‘Adagio’, ‘Allegro’ and ‘Scherzo’.  One of the dances is a riff on Ringo’s song, “When I’m 64”.  It places the dancers shoulder-to-shoulder, chorus line style, all doing a different dance. So original!

Highly recommended.

Additional musicians – Sam Newsome on soprano saxophone; Jacob Garchik on trombone; Colin Fowler on keyboard; and Vinnie Sperrazza on percussion.

Mark Morris Dance Group – Pepperland ~ Photo by Mat Hayward

Dancers – Mica Bernas, Karlie Budge, Brandon Cournay, John Eirich, Domingo Estrada, Jr., Lesley Garrison, Lauren Grant, Sarah Haarmann, Deepa Liegel, Aaron Loux, Laurel Lynch, Matthew McLaughlin, Dallas McMurray, Minga Prather, Brandon Randolph, Nicole Sabella, Christina Sahaida, Billy Smith, Noah Vinson, and Jammie Walker.

At the Kennedy Center through November 16th .

Mark Morris will be in conversation with Wesley Stace, co-author of his new book, “Out Loud: A Memoir” on Sunday, November 17th between 5-6pm at Politics and Prose Bookstore – 5015 Connecticut Ave., NW, Washington, DC 20008

The Magic Flute ~ The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

Jordan Wright
November 4, 2019 

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote his final opera, The Magic Flute, in his later years after he had joined the Rationalist faction of the Freemasons known as the Illuminati who held differing views on society’s rank.  In this romantic tale, a dragon must be slain – this one’s a fire-breathing, glowing-eyed monster – a princess with a heartless mother must be rescued from the evil clutches of a sexual predator, and harmony shall reign through the brotherhood of man.  This humanist theme reflects the particular Masonic ethos which holds that nobility of the spirit was not defined by noble rank.  Very democratic.

(l-r) Alexandria Shiner (1st Lady), Deborah Nansteel (2nd Lady), Meredith Arwady (3rd Lady),Michael Adams (Papageno), David Portillo (Tamino) in WNO’s The Magic Flute. Photo credit by ScottSuchman

Incorporating vibrant themes of exotic Egyptian iconography with Freemasonry symbolism, the opera depicts a universal lesson in morality, unity and kindness.  And if all that sounds unusually weighty Emanuel Schikaneder’s libretto is the stuff of classic fairy tales.

Kathryn Lewek (Queen of the Night), David Portillo (Tamino)in the WNO’s The Magic Flute. Photo credit by Scott Suchman

The eye candy comes from the genius of children’s book writer and illustrator Maurice Sendak who designed both costumes and scenery.  Using a layered construction of fourteen entirely different sets involving wings, borders, flats and colored cloths that draw the eye into an ever-deeper perspective, the scenery is wonderfully whimsical and darkly haunting – think children’s pop up books which, according to Sendak’s friend and collaborator, Neil Peter Jampolis, is exactly the look Sendak was aiming for.

Michael Adams (Papageno), Alexandra Nowakowski (Papagena) in The WNO’s The Magic Flute. Photo credit by Scot tSuchman

It was discovered that the original sets had deteriorated.  So, how would these old sets be replicated?  Enter veteran set designer Jampolis who digitized the designs from Sendak’s original drawings.  What a treat for new audiences! since it affords us the thrill of imagining we are time-warped to 1980 when the Houston Grand Opera initially commissioned Sendak.  Fusing the neo-classical of the 18th century with pure folly, Sendak gives us a mashup of temples and palm trees coexisting with wild animals, Corinthian columns and sphinxes.

The Washington National Opera presents The Magic Flute. Photo credit by Scott Suchman

Masonic elements are everywhere.  Look for the clues.  From the Golden Mean compass half-hidden behind a massive rock, to the aprons and blindfolds used in Masonic rituals.   Sendak didn’t miss a single beat.  The splendid costumes range from dreamy fairy tale to British Colonials in perukes and britches meeting in secret ceremonies with blindfolded acolytes.  It’s pure science fiction, if you think about it.

Wei Wu (Sarastro), Alexander McKissick (1st Armed Man), Samuel J. Weiser (2nd Armed Man) in WNO’s The Magic Flute. Photo credit by Scott Suchman

A collection of magnificent voices brings this can’t-miss production to a crescendo.  The golden genies – three local youngsters whose harmonies are positively angelic, the breathtaking diva Kathryn Lewek who proves that three-plus octaves in her second act aria is no sweat, and the good looks and athleticism of Michael Adams as Papageno and tenor David Portillo as Tamino, are the icing on this delicious multi-tiered cake.  David Cangelosi as Monostatos shows his comic timing and brazen silliness is spot on, most especially in a scene with a bare-breasted statue and I was taken by surprise by the lovely voiced Alexandra Nowakowski as Papagena.

Don’t miss this full-throttle two-acter singspiel.  It’s epic!

Also featuring Sydney Mancasola as Pamina, Kathryn Lewek as Queen of the Night and the powerful bass, Wei Wu, who reminded me of Bert Lahr in The Wizard of Oz, as the evil Sarastro.

Conducted by Eun Sun Kim, directed by Christopher Mattaliano, Set Design and Lighting by Neil Peter Jampolis with the Washington National Opera Orchestra and the Washington National Opera Chorus.

Performances are as follows: November 6, 9, 12, 15, 17 (matinee only) & 23.

At the at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 2700 F St., NW, Washington, DC.  For tickets and information call 202 467-4600 or visit www.Kennedy-Center.org.

Right to be Forgotten ~ Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
October 27, 2019 

In Sharyn Rothstein’s clever play, Right to be Forgotten, the dilemma of the right to privacy in the digital age versus free speech gets a full-throttle examination.  Is the internet our friend or is it our undoing?  As a starry-eyed teen, Derril, followed his crush, Eve, around town until, feeling fearful of his unwanted attention. she reported him for stalking.  A blog called the ‘High School Girl Blog’ was created and outed him by name.  From that moment on Derril became the personification of a stalker.  As the blog went viral it encouraged any woman who had ever been stalked to post their experience.

(L to R) John Austin (Derril Lark) and Shubhangi Kuchibhotla (Sarita Imari) in Right to be Forgotten. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Now Derril is trying to get his PHD, have a career, and woo Sarita, a quirky girl, who likes him but is afraid to continue the relationship.  When she googled him up, she saw the damning comments that were still online.  The tricky bit is Derril refuses to change his name – a part of the plot that is hard to understand.  He chooses instead a privacy rights attorney hoping he can sue to have the posts removed and clear his name.  “Always there is this other me online,” he tells Marta who finally agrees to take his case.

Marta’s plan is to have him go public and to that end she takes him to a conference, “The Future of a Free Internet”, where he bursts onto a stage, tells his story and gets unceremoniously tossed out. Because everyone wants a free internet.  Right?  Or, well, not until it threatens their entire future.

John Austin (Derril Lark) in Right to be Forgotten running. Photo by Margot Schulman.

There are twists and turns when Marta tries to get her former colleague, Annie, to see it her way.  Now a bigwig corporate attorney representing internet companies, Annie plays hardball undermining Marta and planning a secret strategy involving a certain politician currently running for office.  Will the two women broker a deal to get the web links removed or will Marta resort to blackmail?  And will Eve find feel remorse for subjecting Derril to a lifetime of hateful trolling?  Alas, we are the ones left to ponder if free speech trumps hate speech and if privacy laws are archaic in the face of technology’s multi-faceted reach.  We are reminded that in 2014 the EU required search engines to create a “right to be forgotten” procedure.  We have no such protocols in the U. S.

Guadalupe Campos (Eve Selinsky) in Right to be Forgotten. Photo by Margot Schulman.

If you liked Dear Evan Hansen and remember how young Evan’s relationship with the internet nearly destroyed his life, you will love how this play turns out.  Did I mention that there’s a ton of comic relief?  Thanks to Marta’s character who is hilariously conniving and played brilliantly by Melody Butiu, there is a lot to love in this cautionary tale performed by a flawless cast and set against a techie’s dream of a set design by Paige Hathaway.

Highly recommended.

With John Austin as Derril Lark; Guadalupe Campos as Eve Selinsky; Rachel Felstein as Annie Zahirovic; Shubhangi Kuchibhotla as Sarita Imari; and Edward O’Blenis as Alvaro Santos.

Directed by Seema Sueko; Costume Design by Ivania Stack; Lighting Design by Adam Honoré; Sound Design by Andre Pluess; and Projection Design by Shawn Duan.

Through November 10th at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information call 202 488-3300 or visit www.ArenaStage.org.

Everybody ~ Shakespeare Theatre Company

Jordan Wright
October 23, 2019 

Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ galvanic drama Everybody starts off innocently enough.  A roving narrator walks on and off stage instructing the audience on proper theater etiquette.  It’s a pleasant, meaningfully comedic, warm-up, yet it’s the sort of thing that throws you off your game before this existential exercise in Life and Death gets underway.

Elan Zafir as Beauty, Alina Collins Maldonado as Five Senses, Ayana Workman as Strength, Nancy Robinette as Death, Avi Roque as Mind, and Kelli Simpkins as Everybody. ~ Photo credit DJ Corey.

The play was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.  And that says a lot.  But what’s just as interesting is the historical background from whence it is based.  Discovered as a 15th century medieval play, it was later adapted into a Dutch play that was influenced on a Buddhist fable.  As a morality play referencing sin, death and hell, it presents a universality that is palpable.

Nancy Robinette as Death, Clare Carys O’Connell as Time, and Yonatan Gebeyehu as Understanding ~ Photo credit by DJ Corey.

We meet God – a self-absorbed, arrogant, egotistical God who is snide and sarcastic and reveling in his omnipotence.  He’s actually very funny and so are the mortals, called ‘Somebodies’, because, well, they’re us warts and all.  When Death arrives, having been summoned by God to round up the unsuspecting Somebodies for their last ticket on earth, you’d be right on the money if you thought there’d be hell to pay.  “No one living gets away,” says Death ironically.

The cast of Everybody ~ Photo credit by DJ Corey

But oh, the angst and guilt when they are called to account.  Were they worthy of this life? Were they charitable? Can they be spared?  Everything devolves into utter chaos when God appears with a lottery wheel symbolizing the randomness of death.  “Is it all lies, delusions, nothingness?” the narrator wonders.  The sense one gets is an out-of-body experience, a wholesale questioning of life’s purpose.

Yonatan Gebeyehu as Usher and Nancy Robinette as God ~ Photo credit by DJ Corey.

Everyman wants to know if his death sentence is a dream or reality and we follow along as he desperately recounts his fears and insecurities, his faults and his beliefs.  Death has told him he can take someone with him, so he won’t feel so alone when his time is up.  Unsurprisingly, neither friend nor family will oblige him yet in those heartless rejections are some of the funniest bits of the dramedy.  There, and with ‘Stuff’.  The character represents the concept of all our precious stuff, how it controls our lives and how you can’t take it with you, not even a single treasured possession.  “I’m just a collector of inanimate objects,” one of the Somebodies grimly admits.

Alina Collins Maldonado as Stuff and Kellli Simpkins as Everybody ~ Photo credit by DJ Corey.

The part of Everyman is played by a rotating cast of actors with each performance… the randomness factor.  They are pulled from the group of five Somebodies and never know when they will be playing that particular role.  That, in and of itself, creates 120 possible cast combinations.  But Everyman is the most powerful role.  On Monday night Everyman was played by the Trans/Non-Binary actor, Avi Roque, who lent a powerfully cool street vibe to the character.

Avi Roque as Cousinship ~ Photo credit by DJ Corey.

I’d be utterly remiss if I didn’t offer up huge kudos to Director Will Davis who sums it up this way, “What does all of this, Life, possibly mean? What do we do if it means nothing?  And if it means nothing, how can I prepare myself for my own death – not to mention the death of others? How do I conceive of where my loved ones go – is ‘go’ even the right verb in this context?”  I’m sure that by the end of this deeply probative, wildly dramatic, visually stunning production you’ll be asking yourselves the same question.

A brilliant cast!  Highly recommended.

With Yonatan Gebeyehu as Usher/God/Understanding and Nancy Robinette as Death; the Somebodies are played by Alina Collins Maldonado, Avi Roque, Kelli Simpkins, Ayana Workman and Elan Zafir; Clare Carys O’Connell as Girl/Time; and Ahmad Kamal as Love.

Scenic Design by Arnulfo Maldonado, Costume Design by Melissa Ng, Lighting Design by Barbara Samuels, Sound Designer and Composer, Brendan Aanes, and Fight and Intimacy Choreographer, Cliff Williams III.

Through November 17th at the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre 450 7th Street NW, Washington, DC 20004.  For tickets and information contact the box office at 202 547.1122 or visit www.ShakespeareTheatre.org.