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

La Cage Aux Folles ~ Signature Theatre

Jordan Wright
June 14, 2016
Special to The Alexandria Times

Brent Barrett (Georges) with Sam Brackley, Jay Westin, Isaiah Young, Ethan Kasnett, Darius Delk, Phil Young. Photo by Christopher Mueller.

Brent Barrett (Georges) with Sam Brackley, Jay Westin, Isaiah Young, Ethan Kasnett, Darius Delk, Phil Young. Photo by Christopher Mueller.

 A marabou boa-filled extravaganza blew into town with Matthew Gardiner’s La Cage Aux Folles.  As glitzy as Vegas, as chi-chi as its French Riviera setting, and as campy and flamboyant as Jerry Herman and Harvey Fierstein intended, this six-time Tony Award-winning musical comedy hits all the right notes.  Director Gardiner doing double duty as choreographer, takes on the story of two gay men with a nightclub in Saint-Tropez, where, as we all know, anything goes.  At least that’s what Cole Porter taught us.

Georges, the straight-looking one (Is there an app for that?) and the club’s emcee, is played by Brent Barrett, who looks and sings like a young Robert Goulet.  His paramour and right-hand man/gal is Albin, stage name Zaza, whom actor Bobby Smith portrays like the metamorphic stages of a caterpillar to a butterfly and the killer instincts of a shark.

DJ Petrosino (Jacob) and Paul Scanlan (Jean-Michel). Photo by Christopher Mueller.

DJ Petrosino (Jacob) and Paul Scanlan (Jean-Michel). Photo by Christopher Mueller.

Georges has a son, Jean-Michel (Paul Scanlan), the result of a quickie with a showgirl in a one-night-only heterosexual fling.  The problem is the dear boy wants to introduce his dewy-eyed fiancée, Anne (Jessica Lauren Ball) and her ultra-conservative parents to his father and jet-setting mother.  What ensues is a sort of gay version of Meet the Parents, with Georges, Albin and their snippy maid Jacob (DJ Petrosino).  “I thought I hired a butler!” quips Georges.  Keep your eyes on the hilarious Petrosino who is a first class scene stealer.

Bobby Smith (Albin). Photo by Christopher Mueller.

Bobby Smith (Albin). Photo by Christopher Mueller.

It takes place within the confines of their first floor nightclub and second floor home, with an occasional stroll along the shore to reminisce.  Scenic Designer Lee Savage has upped the wow factor by giving us an insider’s view of the drag club’s green room.  Two dressing rooms bracket the stage and we become voyeurs to the cross-dressing performers, primping and preening in various stages of undress.

Ethan Kasnett (Chantal). Photo by Christopher Mueller.

Ethan Kasnett (Chantal). Photo by Christopher Mueller.

But this show is not all show.  There are no lip-synching Diana Ross lookalikes in this line up of gender-bending chorines.  This is the real deal.  Hey, even Jesus makes an appearance, but I’ll keep the surprise.  No one here is, to borrow a phrase, ‘resting on pretty’.  Gardiner has cast some extraordinary performers with pipes that can go from alto to soprano in a New York minute, fantastic dance skills (Did he really? OMG to the full splits and high kicks) and GQ-worthy bodies too.  Big applause to the supporting cast of Les Cagelles: Sam Brackley, Darius R. Delk, Ethan Kasnett, Jay Westin, Isaiah W. Young and Phil Young.  How they transform themselves into glam divas is alone worth the price of admission!  Extra ‘chicken cutlets’ (gel inserts) all around.  And an additional hats off to Frank Labovitz’s over-the-top, ab fab, feathered and sequined costumes, and Anne Nesmith’s endless assortment of towering wigs.

But there’s a plot here too and notwithstanding the lights (kudos to Jason Lyons) and sound (hats off to Lane Elms) we are treated to one of the year-to-date’s best performances by Bobby Smith, in a tour de force portrayal of Albin, the headlining drag performer whose boundless love and sacrifice teaches us the ultimate truth of what “family” really means.

Highly recommended for its tender love story and comic relief in the midst of our turbulent times.

Through July 10th 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 MYSTERY OF LOVE AND SEX ~ SIGNATURE THEATRE

Jordan Wright
April 19, 2016
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

As a former BBC comedy writer, award-winning playwright and graduate of Showtime’s Masters of Sex, Bathsheba Doran can turn a phrase as merrily as she can turn the screw – so it’s no surprise that her tightly crafted dramedy gifts an audience with two plus hours of solid laughs.  Director Stella Powell-Jones, a veteran of numerous, stellar Off-Broadway productions, knows precisely where and how to take us on this bumpy ride, affectionately described in the playbill as a “love story”.

Shayna Blass (Charlotte) and Xavier Scott Evans (Jonny) in The Mystery of Love and Sexat Signature Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Shayna Blass (Charlotte) and Xavier Scott Evans (Jonny) in The Mystery of Love and Sex. Photo by Margot Schulman.

In The Mystery of Love and Sex Doran offers up four angst-riddled characters for comedic dissection.  Charlotte and Jonny are recent college grads on the cusp of nowhere.  That they are besties since childhood is revealed, but what they struggle with is if a lifelong friendship translates to marriage.  Lucinda (Emily Townley) and Howard (Jeff Still), Charlotte’s parents, hope so, and though their own marriage is on the rocks they have buckets of encouragement for the young couple who share everything but a bed.

Jeff Still (Howard), Xavier Scott Evans (Jonny), Emily Townley (Lucinda) and Shayna Blass (Charlotte) in The Mystery of Love and Sex at Signature Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Jeff Still (Howard), Xavier Scott Evans (Jonny), Emily Townley (Lucinda) and Shayna Blass (Charlotte) in The Mystery of Love and Sex. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Jones takes us on a journey led by stereotypes, a liberal New York Jewish intellectual writer father, Howard, and his genteel southern Christian wife, Lucinda, fondly called ‘Lulabelle’.  As mundane as that seems on the surface, it provides the anchor to a story that takes us far beneath what may be superficially assumed.

Jonny (Xavier Scott Evans), an English Lit major, and Charlotte (Shayna Blass) are not your average young couple beaming with the promise of the future and following a predictable path to parenthood.  They have issues.  Tons, as we soon see.  Those involve, but are not limited to, race, sexuality, religion and jealousy.  Hot topics and even hotter wellsprings for situational comedy.  And in this age of torturous self-examination and serial introspection, they are in no way assured a shared future.

Xavier Scott Evans (Jonny) and Shayna Blass (Charlotte) in The Mystery of Love and Sexat Signature Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Xavier Scott Evans (Jonny) and Shayna Blass (Charlotte) in The Mystery of Love and Sex. Photo by Margot Schulman.

In their exploration of an honest relationship, the pair alternately mock and comfort each other, seeking a scapegoat for their insecurities.  There’s a moment when Charlotte strips naked and offers herself up to the virginal Jonny.  “We are in love, Jonny.  We should get married,” she implores.  But Jonny has secrets, and Charlotte is still trying to puzzle out her own.  Confessing his newly discovered sexuality to Charlotte, Jonny reveals his dilemma. “It’s like ear wax. It’s in so deep you don’t know it’s there, but it makes everything fuzzy.”

Emily Townley (Lucinda) and Shayna Blass (Charlotte) in The Mystery of Love and Sex at Signature Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Emily Townley (Lucinda) and Shayna Blass (Charlotte) in The Mystery of Love and Sex. Photo by Margot Schulman.

It could prove maudlin, but assuredly it is not, especially as other people’s neuroses are a sure passage to the funny bone, and dysfunctional families have become comedic fodder for tweaking millennials.

Xavier Scott Evans (Jonny) and Shayna Blass (Charlotte) in The Mystery of Love and Sex. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Xavier Scott Evans (Jonny) and Shayna Blass (Charlotte) in The Mystery of Love and Sex. Photo by Margot Schulman.

When Howard tries to keep them together despite their differences he explains to Jonny, “Life is weird.  Look at a fish.”  Lucinda has her own issues.  In trying to combat the stress of her family and quit smoking at the same time, she she snaps her fingers and blows into the air – an oft-repeated response delivered in delicious deadpan by Townley.  There are scads of scathing one-liners and enough personality quirks to sentence the lot of them to a lifetime on a psychiatrist’s couch.  But those are the funny bits, skillfully delivered by a fantastically confident, gleefully quirky, utterly lovable cast.

Emily Townley (Lucinda) and Xavier Scott Evans (Jonny) in The Mystery of Love and Sex. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Emily Townley (Lucinda) and Xavier Scott Evans (Jonny) in The Mystery of Love and Sex. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Highly recommended with a caveat.  Wear loose clothing, lest you burst your buttons.

Through May 8th 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 Flick ~ Signature Theatre

Jordan Wright
March 15, 2016
Special to The Alexandria Times

Thaddeus McCants (Avery) and Evan Casey (Sam) in The Flick. Photo by Margot Schulman

Thaddeus McCants (Avery) and Evan Casey (Sam) in The Flick. Photo by Margot Schulman

Playwright Annie Baker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play is a series of conversations between three movie theater workers.  You know, the silent, near invisible youth who sweep up the spilled popcorn and sticky candy wrappers between showings.  In Baker’s imagining two 20-something young men, Sam played by Evan Casey, and the new hire Avery by Thaddeus McCants form an unlikely friendship.  The third member of this incongruous wheel is Rose (Laura C. Harris), the projectionist, a green-haired, self-absorbed, utterly conflicted lost child who changes the reels in this repertory cinema.  The trio form bonds, sometimes strong, sometimes tenuous, as do most people who work together.  Maybe they’re light-hearted connections and maybe a romance blossoms, as it does here – but they’re just as complex and bittersweet as any other in the known world.

In this absurdist comic drama James Kronzer gives us a simple set – rows of red theater seats and a projection booth facing us, the audience, all the better to focus on the evolving relationships.  As the men push their brooms and mops through the aisles, perfecting their technique, they begin to form a friendship of shared labor and mutual loathing of the theater’s owner, Steve, interrupted only by Rose, who Sam is obsessed with.  To keep Avery at bay he tells him Rose is a lesbian and introduces him to their scam of robbing the till for “dinner money”.  “It’s a tradition,” they insist.

Laura C. Harris (Rose) and Thaddeus McCants (Avery) in The Flick. Photo by Margot Schulman

Laura C. Harris (Rose) and Thaddeus McCants (Avery) in The Flick. Photo by Margot Schulman

Avery, a terminally shy college student between semesters, is a film geek with relationship issues.  Little by little Sam begins to pull him out of his shell, by playing to his strengths – primarily his ability to connect movie stars through the game of six degrees of separation to which Avery is a near autistic savant.  The young men bond over their love of 35mm film and their loathing of digital film.  “I think the phrase digital film is an oxymoron,” Avery contends, drawing on Steven Spielberg’s continued use of 35mm film to make his argument.

Ultimately Steve sells the theater to a hard-nosed businessman who plans to go digital.  At this point the new owner believes Avery (who is black) has been robbing the till, a scam Sam and Rose instituted and insisted Avery go along with.  When they turn on him as a college elite to take the fall, Avery goes ballistic.

Director Joe Calarco divides the vignettes with sweeping sound track endings of the greatest known classic flicks – putting punctuation to each scene and affording us the time to reflect on the nuances of the unfolding relationships.  It takes riveting performances by an excellent cast to pull off three hours of conversation.  So settle in, sans popcorn, for an honest depiction of the curious art of the mundane.

Through April 24th at Signature Theatre (Shirlington Village), 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, VA 22206.  For tickets and information call 703 820-9771 or visit www.sigtheatre.org.

Road Show ~ Signature Theatre

Jordan Wright
February 23, 2016
Special to The Alexandria Times

Josh Lamon (Addison Mizner) and Noah Racey (Wilson Mizner) in Road Show at Signature Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Josh Lamon (Addison Mizner) and Noah Racey (Wilson Mizner) in Road Show at Signature Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman.

The many reincarnations of Stephen Sondheim’s Road Show that began with a workshop in 1999 called Wise Guys, then opened in Chicago in 2003 as Bounce, and later in New York in 2008 as Road Show, might reveal a story of the vagaries of business in and of itself.   But it wouldn’t be half as juicy, nor nearly as fun as the tale of Addison (played by the rivetingly hilarious Josh Lamon) and Wilson Mizner (played by the captivatingly suave Noah Racey), the musical’s main characters.  Determined to see his show get the attention it deserved after four scripts, three titles and two out of town tryouts, Sondheim thought he’d finally gotten it right.  Now it’s up to us.

But what’s not to like? Those who adore Sondheim will find his familiar chord changes and emotionally sophisticated lyrics in these eighteen numbers that take us from the brothers’ ordinary upbringing in California to a glamorous world of fame and fortune with all the trappings and pitfalls.  Taking to heart their father’s dying words in the tune “It’s in Your Hands Now”, they set out to make their fortune – – at first in Alaska during the gold rush of the early 20th century – – where the brothers have the first of their many fallings out in a hilarious sleeping bag dust up and an emotional, and financial, parting of the ways.

Noah Racey (Wilson Mizner), Josh Lamon (Addison Mizner) and Sherri Edelen (Mama Mizner) in Road Show at Signature Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Noah Racey (Wilson Mizner), Josh Lamon (Addison Mizner) and Sherri Edelen (Mama Mizner) in Road Show at Signature Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman.

It’s a tale as old as Cain and Abel, here sprinkled with the glitz of Palm Beach and the high stakes world of real estate, driven by two ambitious brothers who co-opted Barnum’s hucksterism and Ziegfeld’s showmanship to craft an empire along Florida’s Gold Coast.

Noah Racey (Wilson Mizner) in Road Show at Signature Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Noah Racey (Wilson Mizner) in Road Show at Signature Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Director Gary Griffin sticks to a bland stage set of wooden planks, a ramp, and an underutilized second story flanked by winding staircases, its plainness redeemed by an excellent cast, hilariously quirky souvenirs from Addison’s risky ventures in far-flung outposts – – from Hawaii where he buys a share in a pineapple plantation that promptly burns down to India where his gem emporium succumbs to a hurricane, and Hong Kong where his fireworks factory blows up to a Guatemalan coffee plantation upended by a revolution – – and a story with a rib-sticking plot.

When, after all his failed businesses, Addison returns home to his mother, played beautifully by Sherri L. Edelen, he is greeted by her immortalizing his ne’er-do-well brother in the song “Isn’t He Something”, which she sings to Addison from her death bed.  Here’s a mother who clearly knows how to play two ends against the middle.

Stefan Alexander Kempski (Ensemble), Angela Miller (Ensemble), Noah Racey (Wilson Mizner), Jacob Kidder (Pianist), Bobby Smith (Ensemble), Matthew Schleigh (Ensemble) and Erin Driscoll (Ensemble) in Road Show at Signature Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Stefan Alexander Kempski (Ensemble), Angela Miller (Ensemble), Noah Racey (Wilson Mizner), Jacob Kidder (Pianist), Bobby Smith (Ensemble), Matthew Schleigh (Ensemble) and Erin Driscoll (Ensemble) in Road Show at Signature Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Eight other actors handily play a slew of roles – – Erin Driscoll, Dan Manning, Bobby Smith, Stefan Alexander Kempski, Jason J. Labrador, Jake Mahler, Matthew Schleigh, and Angela Miller with Jacob Kidder on upright piano onstage for the duration of the show.

See it for Sondheim’s music, tons of laughs and a rollicking good tale of fame and fortune won and lost in the quest for the American dream.

Through March 13th in the MAX at Signature Theatre (Shirlington Village), 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, VA 22206.  For tickets and information call 703 820-9771 or visit www.sigtheatre.org.