Titanic ~ Signature Theatre

Jordan Wright
December 22, 2016
Special to The Alexandria Times

Florence Lacey (Ida Straus) and John Leslie Wolfe (Isidor Straus) in Titanic at Signature Theatre through January 29. Photo by Christopher Mueller

Florence Lacey (Ida Straus) and John Leslie Wolfe (Isidor Straus) in Titanic at Signature Theatre through January 29. Photo by Christopher Mueller

Titanic is a story of man’s inability to predict the ramifications, and limitations, of state-of-the-art technology.  It is a tale of an ocean liner made of 46,000 tons of steel, measuring eleven stories high and one thousand feet long, that went down in the North Atlantic Ocean in 1912 carrying some of the wealthiest families in America who were aboard her maiden voyage.  That there were young men and women of Irish and English descent seeking their fortunes in the New World, and others who believed they and the ship were invincible, is an equal part of this historic maritime tragedy.

Referred to as “a ship of dreams” and a “human metropolis” the Titanic is nowhere to be seen in Director Eric Shaeffer’s version of the musical by Writer Peter Stone and Composer/Lyricist Maury Yeston.  But that doesn’t keep us from sensing its vast power and scale and immersing ourselves in the drama that played out on the high seas.

Christopher Bloch (Captain E.J. Smith), Nick Lehan (Harold Bride), Lawrence Redmond (J. Bruce Ismay), and Bobby Smith (Thomas Andrews) in Titanic at Signature Theatre through January 29. Photo by Christopher Mueller

Christopher Bloch (Captain E.J. Smith), Nick Lehan (Harold Bride), Lawrence Redmond (J. Bruce Ismay), and Bobby Smith (Thomas Andrews) in Titanic at Signature Theatre through January 29. Photo by Christopher Mueller

Re-imagining the Tony Award-winning musical, Schaeffer and Set Designer, Paul Tate dePoo III, give us a theatre-in-the-round that utilizes five steel gangways that reflect the massive scale of the multi-level luxury liner.  This creates a more intimate experience for the audience.  It also allows many of the 38 performers to remain in clear sight and in equal hearing range producing a magnificent harmonic convergence of vocal heft.  We have Choreographer Matthew Gardiner to thank for that too, as the players climb the ramps and position themselves at different heights to sing their numbers.  It is the most effective use of a theatre-in-the-round stage I’ve ever seen.

Particularly haunting is the 17-piece band perched on a separate elevated catwalk in full view of the audience.  Led brilliantly by Conductor James Moore, their constant presence is reminiscent of how they sacrificed their lives to play for the remaining passengers as the behemoth was devoured by the sea.

Sam Ludwig (Frederick Barrett) and Stephen Gregory Smith (Stoker) in Titanic at Signature Theatre through January 29. Photo by Christopher Mueller.

Sam Ludwig (Frederick Barrett) and Stephen Gregory Smith (Stoker) in Titanic at Signature Theatre through January 29. Photo by Christopher Mueller.

The story delves into not just one love story but many – the John Jacob Astors played by Matt Connor and Jamie Eaker and a touching story of romance below decks played by the exceptional Katie McManus (as Kate McGowan) and Hassani Allen (as Jim Farrell).  Other couples are revealed to have secrets – Lady Caroline Neville’s (Iyona Blake) illicit love affair with Charles Clarke (Chris Sizemore) and Alice Beane’s (Tracy Lynn Olivera) disappointment in her husband’s inferior social standing.

Ryan Hickey’s sound design keeps us in mind of traveling on a ship through the atmospheric use of fog horns, bells, and the slamming of the coal stokers’ fiery oven doors.  Another effective touch is Frank Labowitz’s turn of the century navy blue gowns, feathered picture hats and simple frocks, and Amanda Zieve’s suspended Edison lightbulbs and understage blue lights, keeping us in mind of a ship sailing over the sea.

Stephen Gregory Smith, Katie McManus and the cast in Titanic at Signature Theatre through January 29. Photo by Colin Hovde

Stephen Gregory Smith, Katie McManus and the cast in Titanic at Signature Theatre through January 29. Photo by Colin Hovde

But what keeps us in a state of high anxiety is the blame game and what-ifs between the Captain (Christopher Bloch), the ship’s owner J. Bruce Ismay (Lawrence Redmond), the ship’s master William Murdoch (Kevin McAllister) and the ship’s architect Thomas Andrews played spectacularly by Bobby Smith, as they wonder what they could have done differently and who’s at fault.

Ultimately as the ship goes down, and we knew it would, the drama is no less palpable, and we are drawn hook, line and sinker into the tragedy of despair and dashed dreams of the hundreds of lives lost.  It’s a visceral experience and Yeston’s heart-stopping score rises up to meet it. 

Highly recommended.  A triumph!

Through January 29th 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.

The cast of Titanic at Signature Theatre through January 29. Photo by Paul Tate DePoo III

The cast of Titanic at Signature Theatre through January 29. Photo by Paul Tate DePoo III

Silver Belles ~ Signature Theatre

Jordan Wright
November 29, 2016
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

Naomi Jacobson (Bo Jack) and Dan Manning (Earl). Photo by Christopher Mueller

Naomi Jacobson (Bo Jack) and Dan Manning (Earl). Photo by Christopher Mueller

Composer and lyricist, Matt Conner (past Sig shows include Crossing, The Hollow, Nevermore, and Partial Eclipse) in collaboration with lyricist, Stephen Gregory Smith gets us in the Christmas spirit with the world premiere of Silver Belles.  Set in Silver Ridge, Tennessee this rollicking musical (book by Allyson Currin) begins with a funeral.  But don’t let that get you down. The death of Southern diva and Cherry Apple moonshiner, Oralene (Donna Migliaccio, but think Dolly Parton’s tongue-in-cheek Southern charm), sets in motion a crazy, countrified mission to continue their bestie’s legacy – writing and staging the fundraising Christmas pageant for the local orphans at the River of Life Church.

Determined the show must go on, three of her gal pals, Berneice (Ilona Dulaski) owner of Berneice’s Taxidermy Emporium, Gloria (Nova Y. Payton) a four-time divorcee, and Ruth Ann (Peggy Yates) a former beauty queen with mad baton-twirling skills, take up the reins.  Unfortunately, Oralene’s husband, Earl (Dan Manning), still in mourning, was her guitar strumming musical composer and he’s got writer’s block.  That is until Oralene gives him the inspiration and the show’s theme, “Take what you can.  Give what you should, while the gettin’ is good.”

Meanwhile Earl’s best friend, Bo Jack (Naomi Jacobson), the show’s stage manager and local radio personality for the call-in show, “Swap Meet”, is under pressure from the community to deliver the news that the pageant Oralene calls “serious Christmas for serious Christians”, is still on.

Donna Migliaccio (Oralene). Photo by Christopher Mueller.

Donna Migliaccio (Oralene). Photo by Christopher Mueller.

The ladies are all aflutter until Oralene’s ghost returns as their as muse and they begin to see the light.  Think Golden Girls meets The Andy Griffith Show for hilarious plot twists.  I couldn’t help thinking this could be a terrific TV series.

Ilona Dulaski (Berneice). Photo by Christopher Mueller.

Ilona Dulaski (Berneice). Photo by Christopher Mueller.

It’s hard to say who gets the most laughs, Migliaccio is absolutely magical, but Dulaski is an endearing scene stealer.  Berneice’s suggestion that they save production costs by using her Nativity-outfitted stuffed animals in the crèche scene, “The Friendly Beasts” is classic.

Naomi Jacobson (Bo Jack), Nova Y. Payton (Gloria), Donna Migliaccio (Oralene), Dan Manning (Earl), Peggy Yates (Ruth Ann) and Ilona Dulaski (Berneice). Photo by Christopher Mueller

Naomi Jacobson (Bo Jack), Nova Y. Payton (Gloria), Donna Migliaccio (Oralene), Dan Manning (Earl), Peggy Yates (Ruth Ann) and Ilona Dulaski (Berneice). Photo by Christopher Mueller

Credit goes to Karma Camp for the lively choreography, Kelly Rudolph for some clever lighting surprises, and solo pianist Jacob Kidder who keeps the spirit with a few Christmas standards interwoven with thirteen original numbers.  And keep in mind these are some of Sig’s finest voices.  For Sig insiders, Payton riffs off of “And I am Telling You”, from her big show Dreamgirls.  Watch for it.

Highly recommended for a boatload of Christmas cheer!

Through December 31st 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.

Freaky Friday ~ Signature Theatre

Jordan Wright
October 28, 2016
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

Heidi Blickenstaff (Katherine Blake) and the cast of Disney’s Freaky Friday. Photo by Jim Saah.

Heidi Blickenstaff (Katherine Blake) and the cast of Disney’s Freaky Friday. Photo by Jim Saah.

It was a major coup for Disney Theatrical Productions to select Signature as the off-off Broadway theater to debut Freaky Fridayits latest film-to-stage production.  We all know how well Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King and High School Musical fared.  And need I mention Newsies?  Just a few of the wildly successful shows Disney has produced for Broadway.

And now there’s Disney’s Freaky Friday from the film of the same name.  You might recall the first film version in 1976.  Based on the novel by Mary Rodgers, it starred the adorable Jody Foster as the daughter and Barbara Harris as her mother.  A later version in 2003 had the ever-talented Jaimie Lee Curtis and then-charming Lindsay Lohan (pre-scandal) as the mother/daughter duo.  It opened with the bubble gum tune “So Happy Together” by The Turtles, that morphed into a heavy metal version as the credits started to roll.

Heidi Blickenstaff (Katherine Blake) and Emma Hunton (Ellie Blake). Photo by Jim Saah

Heidi Blickenstaff (Katherine Blake) and Emma Hunton (Ellie Blake). Photo by Jim Saah

The success of these earlier films based on an overworked mother and her teen daughter that magically switch roles, must have been on the minds of Bridget Carpenter (Friday Night Lights), who wrote the book for this musical comedy, Lyricist Brian Yorkey and Composer Tom Kitt, who believed the material could translate into a major musical.  Because it does, and we are treated to an engaging and heartwarming musical that was just waiting in the wings to be launched to stardom.

Christopher Ashley (Memphis, Xanadu, Rocky Horror Show) directs this smashing world premiere production that is already scheduled for theaters around the country.  What’s not to like about a Broadway-alum studded cast and production team, slickly engineered choreography by Sergio Trujillo (2016 Tony Award nominee for Broadway’s On Your Feet), and a Kitt/Yorkey (Tony Award-winners for Next To Normal) score that will have you humming the tunes before you exit the theatre?  This show has smash hit written all over it.

If you remember the quirky premise, single-mom-with-issues Katherine (Heidi Blickenstaff) and her feisty daughter Ellie (Emma Hunton) magically switch roles for a day.  Katherine, who is about to marry the adoring Mike (Alan H Green) wants to shed the day-to-day responsibilities of parenting an angst-filled teen, and Ellie has had it with the restrictions and emotional upheavals of being a high schooler with a helicopter mom.  When the roles are switched and Katherine takes Ellie’s place, she experiences the day-to-day bullying and body shaming her daughter endures and Ellie sees the daily grind of raising kids without a father.

Jason Gotay (Adam) with Robert Walters, Tanisha Moore, Thaddeus McCants, Julian Ramos, Katie Ladner, and Shayna Blass in Disney’s Freaky Friday. Photo by Jim Saah.

Jason Gotay (Adam) with Robert Walters, Tanisha Moore, Thaddeus McCants, Julian Ramos, Katie Ladner, and Shayna Blass in Disney’s Freaky Friday. Photo by Jim Saah.

It’s nearly impossible to single out one or two cast members for recognition, as this ensemble is seamless.  But aside from the above mentioned leads, J.Elaine Marcos as Torrey, Katherine’s long-suffering assistant, Storm Lever as Savannah the bully, Jason Gotay as Ellie’s boyfriend, Adam, and Jake Heston Miller (who we raved about in this year’s Oliver at Arena Stage) as her brother Fletcher, are outstanding.  Fans of Signature will be delighted to see stage veterans, Sherri L. Edelen and Bobby Smith, each with a trio of roles.

Eighteen glorious numbers, backed by Conductor Bryan Perri’s nine-piece band, fill the two acts, giving us a diverse score of touching ballads, 50’s rock styles and Latin beats sung by a cast whose voices are beyond flawless.  And a huge nod to noted Costume Designer, Emily Rebholtz, who perfectly captures and blends the funky-cool energy of teen styles.

Highly recommended.  Run to the box office for this one and be sure to bring the kids.  You can say you saw it before it hit the big time.

Through November 20th 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.

The Gulf ~ Signature Theatre

Jordan Wright
September 29, 2016
Special to The Alexandria Times

(l-r) Kendra (Maria Rizzo) ~ Betty (Rachel Zampelli) - Photo Credit: Margot Schulman

(l-r) Kendra (Maria Rizzo) ~ Betty (Rachel Zampelli) – Photo Credit: Margot Schulman

Signature Theatre’s The Ark offers the perfect frame for DC playwright Audrey Cefaly’s world premiere of The Gulf, directed by the theatre’s Director of New Works, Joe Calarco.

A revealing existentialist exercise in the power and destruction of love, this intimate play is set in the Alabama Delta and features two lovers, Betty and Kendra, who become stranded in their small motorboat in the shallows of Alabama’s Dog River.

Kendra (Maria Rizzo) has separation issues.  Her father was her mentor and since his death she suffers from fear of desertion.  She cannot admit she is hopelessly in love for fear of loss.  Her lover Betty (Rachel Zampelli) wants commitment defined as a career, marriage to Kendra, a home, and eventually children.  She tries to get Kendra interested in fulfilling her potential by reading her “What Color is Your Parachute”, a self-help book on careers.  But Kendra, a fatalist, has no such ambitions.  She is content to fish on her off hours and work at the local sewage plant, ignoring Betty’s lofty aspirations and punishing her by withholding sex.  “I want you to stop thinking,” she tells Betty.  “Cuz when you’re thinking, I’m miserable!”

(l-r) Betty (Rachel Zampelli) ~ Kendra (Maria Rizzo) - Photo Credit: Margot Schulman

(l-r) Betty (Rachel Zampelli) ~ Kendra (Maria Rizzo) – Photo Credit: Margot Schulman

The couple alternately argue and reconcile in a macabre merry-go-round, accepting that they will never agree on just about anything, but are too emotionally tied to each other to part ways.  Passions and jealousies ignite accusations and retribution with dialogue as vitriolic and vicious as George and Martha in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf”.  “Nothing’s good enough for you,” says Kendra.  “You just want to rearrange my life.”

The humor is part deadpan, part caustic with massive doses of wry, Southern zingers.  Rizzo and Zampelli offer up flawless and funny performances coupled with skillful pacing and brisk patter.

Sound Designer Kenny Neal chooses Delta Blues to set the tone and Aretha Franklin as background to the lovers’ Mardi Gras reminiscences of meeting at a honky-tonk bar, while Scenic Designer Paige Hathaway provides a slow-turning, skeletal motor boat as metaphor for the couple’s maneuvering along the rocky coast of love.

Funny, cerebral and edgy.

Through November 6th at Signature Theatre (Shirlington Village), 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, VA 22206.  For tickets and information call 703 820-9771 or visit www.sigtheatre.org.

Jelly’s Last Jam ~ At Signature Theatre

Jordan Wright
August 13, 2016
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

(l-r) Cleavant Derricks (Chimney Man) with Kara-Tameika Watkins, Eben K. Logan and Nova Y. Paton inJelly’s. Photo by Christopher Mueller.

(l-r) Cleavant Derricks (Chimney Man) with Kara-Tameika Watkins, Eben K. Logan and Nova Y. Patons. Photo by Christopher Mueller.

Right off the bat, Mark G. Meadows, who plays Jelly Roll Morton in this musical, is sensational.  I’ll admit I’d had my doubts when word went out how he turned down Director Matthew Gardiner’s initial offer to play the iconic and controversial jazzman.  Meadows, who is an internationally known pianist and performer in his own right, had never before acted.  Gardiner persisted until Meadows agreed.  But would he add “Actor” to his resume?  Thanks to Gardiner’s superb coaching and stroke of brilliance casting, Meadows gifts us with his personality and extraordinary talent – a natural-born actor/singer/musician/dancer whose portrayal of Jelly is vulnerable, multi-dimensional and eminently appealing.  Did I mention his voice has a certain John Legend-like quality?

Mark G Meadows (Jelly Roll Morton) with the cast of Jelly’s Last Jam. Photo by Christopher Mueller.

Mark G Meadows (Jelly Roll Morton) with the cast of Jelly’s Last Jam. Photo by Christopher Mueller.

Jelly’s Last Jam is a knockout of a show.  Thanks to Daniel Conway’s swank design, we are transported to the golden palm trees of the Jungle Inn, a nightclub straight out of the 1920’s era where the visible seven-piece orchestra plays behind a gilded railing high above the stage and Art Deco movie-house chandeliers light the ceiling.  Cafe tables positioned mere feet from the stage, umbilically connect the performers to the audience, lending the performances instantaneous intimacy.  Every shuffle, every two-step, every tap of shoe-to-floor is palpable.  The stage fairly pulsates with electricity.

Christopher Broughton, DeWitt Fleming Jr, DeMoya Watson Brown, Joseph Monroe Webb, Olivia Russell. Photo by Christopher Mueller

Christopher Broughton, DeWitt Fleming Jr, DeMoya Watson Brown, Joseph Monroe Webb, Olivia Russell. Photo by Christopher Mueller

Choreographer Jared Grimes has taken some of the best dancers and singers from here to Broadway, corralled them onto a set of circles and squares, steps and ramps, and turned it into a mind-blowing tapping, singing, syncopated rhythm of early jazz music.  Credit hoofers DeMoya Brown, Joseph Monroe Webb, DeWitt Fleming, Jr., Christopher Broughton and Olivia Russell for the tap bonanza.  It’s the stuff dreams are made of.  The stuff Morton invented before there was jazz as we know it.

Morton’s backstory is a familiar one.  Huge star, freakishly talented and egotistical goes to the top of the showbiz world only to undermine his success by blowing off his friends and supporters.  Cleavant Derricks plays the Chimney Man from Cadaver Avenue.  You wouldn’t want to run into him on a dark night.  He’s the reckoner – the one who keeps track of how you messed up your life.  Derricks, who garnered a Tony Award for his role on Broadway in Dreamgirls, has got the evil eye down pat.  He swaggers and threatens, coaxes and demeans, as smooth as the silk topper he wears.

Kara-Tameika Watkins, Nova Y. Payton, Eben K. Logan. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Kara-Tameika Watkins, Nova Y. Payton, Eben K. Logan. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Outstanding too, are the vocally gifted Felicia Boswell who plays Jelly’s sometime lover Anita; the riveting Guy Lockard, as his faithful friend and partner; and the promising talent of Elijah Mayo as young Jelly.

Guy Lockard (Jack the Bear) and Mark G Meadows (Jelly Roll Morton) in Jelly’s Last Jam. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Guy Lockard (Jack the Bear) and Mark G Meadows (Jelly Roll Morton) in Jelly’s Last Jam. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Born to a high-born Louisiana Creole family from N’awlins, “not a grit or a collard green”, Morton’s French roots afforded him certain privileges as a Black man in the South.  Thanks to his haughty Gran Mimi (Iyona Blake), the matriarch of the Morton family, it also worked against him.

Felicia Boswell (Anita) and Mark G Meadows (Jelly Roll Morton) in Jelly’s Last Jam. Photo by Margot Schulman

Felicia Boswell (Anita) and Mark G Meadows (Jelly Roll Morton) in Jelly’s Last Jam. Photo by Margot Schulman

Written by George C. Wolfe, Susan Birkhead and Luther Henderson, with Jelly Roll Morton’s original music, the show takes us from the juke joints of New Orleans to the dance halls of Chicago and the stages of New York laying out the highs and lows of Morton’s life and times.  Dede M. Ayite gives us the dazzling costumes along with the outstanding mood-capturing lighting design of the period by Grant Wilcoxen.

Highly recommended for the best that theater has to offer.

Through September 11th at Signature Theatre (Shirlington Village), 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, VA 22206.  For tickets and information call 703 820-9771 or visit www.sigtheatre.org.

http://Jelly’s B-Roll Trailer – FINAL.htm