Jesus Christ Superstar ~ Signature Theatre

Jordan Wright
May 21, 2017
Special to The Alexandria Times 

Nicholas Edwards (Jesus) with the cast of Jesus Christ Superstar. Photo by Margot Schulman

Nicholas Edwards (Jesus) with the cast of Jesus Christ Superstar. Photo by Margot Schulman

Signature Theatre’s Artistic Director, Eric Schaeffer, has been upping the ante with big, bold Broadway shows.  His latest mega production is Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s hyper hit Jesus Christ Superstar.  Casting some madly impressive voices in this blockbuster rock musical signals Schaeffer’s emphasis on the compelling music and lyrics, and drawing the theatre-goer’s attention to the story’s similarities to current culture.

Ari McKay Wilford (Judas) with Sam Ludwig (Annas), Thomas Adrian Simpson (Caiaphas) and Kara-Tameika Watkins (Priest) in Jesus Christ Superstar. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Ari McKay Wilford (Judas) with Sam Ludwig (Annas), Thomas Adrian Simpson (Caiaphas) and Kara-Tameika Watkins (Priest) in Jesus Christ Superstar. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

And that’s a good thing, because Director Joe Calarco strips away all semblance of a period piece.  Early versions, you may recall, stage it in biblical times.  But you’ll see none of that sentimentality here with Luciana Stecconi’s stripped-bare set of nine movable white platforms reconfigured throughout to represent the table at The Last Supper, or put to use as a soapbox for Jesus or Pontius Pilate to utter proclamations to their indecisive followers.  Again attention is focused on the music directed by Conductor William Yanesh, and not predominantly on costumes by Frank Labovitz who gives us monochromatic teen streetwear for Jesus’ apostles, sharkskin suits for Pontius Pilate, and sequined satin gospel dresses for the Soul Sisters.  No flowing robes here.  And an odd choice of using bibles as props, neglects the tiny detail that they hadn’t been written yet.  I’ll take it as a reference to “bible-toting” fanatics and give it a pass.

Look instead to Nicholas Edwards (as Jesus of Nazareth) who reprises the role made famous by actor Ted Neely.  Edwards is spellbinding, delivering a viscerally transformative performance that is a game changer for this role.  With his remarkable voice and ripped body, he exudes both passion and raw sexuality.  Another powerhouse performance comes from the very versatile Bobby Smith who plays Jesus’ evil nemesis Pontius Pilate as effortlessly as I’ve seen him play comedy.  Lean into his delivery of “Trial Before Pilate” to witness his nuanced performance.

Nicholas Edwards (Jesus) and Natascia Diaz (Mary) in Jesus Christ Superstar. Photo by C. Stanley Photography

Nicholas Edwards (Jesus) and Natascia Diaz (Mary) in Jesus Christ Superstar. Photo by C. Stanley Photography

Natascia Diaz as Mary Magdalene also offers a different interpretation of her role – one very different from the fiery female roles we’re accustomed to seeing her play.  Her strong voice seems tamer and often aimless with a surfeit of trills and superfluous flourishes in the ballads.  Though her believability in her affection for and defense of Jesus is where she shines.

Nicholas Edwards (Jesus) and Ari McKay Wilford (Judas) with the cast of Jesus Christ Superstar. Photo by C. Stanley Photography

Nicholas Edwards (Jesus) and Ari McKay Wilford (Judas) with the cast of Jesus Christ Superstar. Photo by C. Stanley Photography

Karma Camp’s choreography, seamlessly weaving 18 performers through complicated dance and fight scenes, is impressive and Zachary G. Borovay’s video projections of Hitler and the Nazis, 9-11, Syria and an assortment of social extremists to background the number “The Crucifixion”, reveal an eerie resemblance to racial violence and religious terrorism in modern society.

As a side note, I couldn’t help but wonder if my seat which was close to the stage was the reason the singers seemed to frequently be drowned out by the seven-piece orchestra.  I hope it was merely the sound levels which may be straightened out by now.  In any case I’d choose the upper level for this show since watching the actors at waist level is not the best perspective.

Through July 2nd at Signature Theatre (Shirlington Village), 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, VA 22206.  For tickets and information call 703 820-9771 or visit www.sigtheatre.org.

Midwestern Gothic ~ Signature Theatre

Jordan Wright
April 2, 2017 

Morgan Keene (Stina) with Jp Sisneros, Evan Casey, Chris Sizemore and Stephen Gregory Smith (Hired Boys). Photo by Margot Schulman

Morgan Keene (Stina) with Jp Sisneros, Evan Casey, Chris Sizemore and Stephen Gregory Smith (Hired Boys). Photo by Margot Schulman

Midwestern Gothic is an unexpected palate cleanser – a sharp-as-knives psychological thriller reminiscent of Fargo – the Coen Brothers brilliant cinematic drama of crime and revenge in America’s heartland.

In this twisted tale of jealousy, seduction and sexual domination, our focus falls on Stina (Morgan Keene), a honey blonde nymphette whose movie star dreams of James Dean and Natalie Wood lay far beyond the farmhouse she shares with her lascivious stepfather, Red (Timothy J. Alex) and four hired hands who form a harmonious Greek chorus of unfulfilled desire.  But this creamy-thighed siren has set her sights on Anderson (Sam Ludwig), a love-struck greenhorn who does her bidding – some of which involves neighborhood thieving, putting him squarely at odds with Sheriff Dwayne (Bobby Smith) who urges him to walk the “Straight and Narrow”.

Timothy J Alex (Red) and Rachel Zampelli (LuAnn) . Photo by Margot Schulman.

Timothy J Alex (Red) and Rachel Zampelli (LuAnn) . Photo by Margot Schulman.

Meanwhile Stina’s mother, Deb (Sherri L. Edelen), runs a shot-and-beer bar where she finds the attention she has been missing from Red.  In the number “Whiskey Courage” she works her boozy magic on Rodney (Evan Casey) spiking Red’s anger.  To get revenge he runs off with the town tramp, LuAnn (Rachel Zampelli), to put a hurtin’, as they say, on Deb.  But his revenge is not so sweet after all when Stina catches them back at the house in flagrante delicto.

Writer and Co-Lyricist Royce Vavrek and Composer Josh Schmidt set a complex balance in this World Premiere production adding quaint references to curling, cows, rednecks and Jesus while splicing in Stina’s dizzyingly cruel imagination and her powers of emasculation.

Sherri L Edelen (Deb) and Timothy J Alex (Red). Photo by Margot Schulman.

Sherri L Edelen (Deb) and Timothy J Alex (Red). Photo by Margot Schulman.

Keene, using a haunting flat-accented vibrato voice, is wonderfully cast as the beautiful and voracious sex kitten who lures, then punishes, every man within her small sphere.  A supporting cast, cleverly directed and choreographed under Matthew Gardiner, fairly flies through seventeen musical numbers encompassing a range of emotions, from Stina’s love song to a spring flower in “Tell Me a Story, Crocus” to “Saint Sebastian” with Stina, Anderson and the burly hired hands (Evan Casey as Rodney, Jp Sisneros as Evodio, Chris Sizemore as DJ and Stephen Gregory Smith as Brett), in a song that backgrounds a bizarre scene of crucifixion.

Timothy J Alex (Red), Sam Ludwig (Anderson) and Bobby Smith (Dwayne). Photo by Margot Schulman.

Timothy J Alex (Red), Sam Ludwig (Anderson) and Bobby Smith (Dwayne). Photo by Margot Schulman.

As the latest installment in Signature’s American Musical Voices Project, the musical is spellbindingly dark, think Truman Capote’s classic “In Cold Blood” and Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita”, and yet utterly riveting.  An audience member likened it to TV’s Criminal Minds.

Highly recommended for adults only.

Through April 30th at Signature Theatre (Shirlington Village), 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, VA 22206.  For tickets and information call 703 820-9771 or visit www.sigtheatre.org

Mrs. Miller Does Her Thing ~ Signature Theatre

Jordan Wright
March 9, 2017
Special to The Alexandria Times 

: Debra Monk as Mrs. Elva Miller ~ Photo Credit is Margot Schulman

James Lapine’s latest opus, a story about the housewife with the caterwauling voice who becomes an overnight success, may be a metaphor to showcase how everyone’s wildest dreams can come true…or not.  With this latest work, Lapine, best known for Sunday in the Park with George and Into the Woods, both co-written with composer Stephen Sondheim, has given us an undistinguished anomaly to his earlier masterpieces.  His world premiere musical based on the life of Mrs. Elva Miller (Debra Monk), centers around a church lady who was “discovered” by a record producer who pegged her for a comedic diversion.  This was in the mid-1960’s when comedians like Allan Sherman and Victor Borge were wittily parodying or satirizing familiar songs and the record-buying public was easily amused during an unpopular war.  But Mrs. Miller, as she preferred to be called, was unaware the joke was on her.  Or so she is portrayed. “I might have been off on one or two notes,” she allows.

The story begs comparison to this year’s Oscar-nominated film, Florence Foster Jenkins, that features a delusional New York heiress with an equally appalling voice.  The movie stars the brilliant Meryl Streep as Foster Jenkins and the eternally soigné Hugh Grant as her adoring gentleman and enabler.  Grant plays a winning charmer in a film set a few decades earlier in 1940’s New York, whereas Miller’s husband is a wheelchair-bound, crotchety old gent who resents Mrs. M’s success.  Lapine sets his piece in small town Claremont, a bedroom community outside of Los Angeles.  Similarly, both women are clueless about their lack of vocal abilities.

Boyd Gaines as Mr. John Miller, Debra Monk as Mrs. Elva Miller ~ Photo Credit is Margot Schulman

The plot takes us through a three-year span of Miller’s short-lived yet meteoric career against the backdrop of her niece Joelle (Rebekah Brockman) and Joelle’s romance with Miller’s accompanist Simon Bock (Corey Mach) and, later, Simon’s looming draft service.  Unfortunately, there is not enough heft to carry an hour and forty-five minutes of pop music covers sung in a screeching voice with a trio of backup singers drawn from predictable stereotypes – one groovy African American gal, Denise (Kimberly Marable, who pulls off arguably the best scene in the show), one fluffy blonde, Carol Sue (Kaitlyn Davidson), and one gay guy, Bobby (Jacob ben Widmar doubling as Tiny Tim) who runs off to Greenwich Village in search of sexual diversion.  I won’t fault the actors.  They did a fine job given the material.

Photo Credit is Margot Schulman ~ Photo Credit is Margot Schulman

Monk is superb in the role of Elva Miller.  Despite the thin plot and hackneyed script, she’s totally believable as the ditsy, maniacally cheery Miller with her ingratiating manners and off-key, nails-on-a-blackboard howling.  There’s even a bit of toggling back and forth to her actual singing voice in a few dream sequences.  And character actor Will LeBow is exceptional in all seven roles – among them a stoner record producer, Ed Sullivan, Mr. Miller’s Jewish doctor and a snooty salesman at Tiffany’s.

Those under fifty may be clueless as to the obscure references to Tiny Tim, Ed Sullivan and Topo Gigio as well as many of the songs of that era.  Millennials won’t fare any better.  But if the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s are in your wheelhouse, you’ll feel right at home.

Through March 26th at Signature Theatre (Shirlington Village), 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, VA 22206.  For tickets and information call 703 820-9771 or visit www.sigtheatre.org.

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.