West Side Story at Signature Theatre

Jordan Wright
December 21, 2015
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

Jennifer Cordiner (Graziella) and Max Clayton (Riff). Photo by Christopher Mueller

Jennifer Cordiner (Graziella) and Max Clayton (Riff). Photo by Christopher Mueller

There’s a rumble going on at Signature Theatre as Director Matthew Gardiner reinterprets West Side Story in a production that breathes new energy into the story of two rival New York City gangs, the Sharks (Puerto Rican immigrants) and the Jets (a local white gang).  Based on Shakespeare’s classic, Romeo and Juliet, the modern version of the two star-crossed lovers, was written and created nearly 60 years ago by four members of theatre royalty with music by the legendary composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein, book by the highly esteemed writer Arthur Laurents and lyrics by Broadway great, Stephen Sondheim.  The original production, directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins, debuted on the Great White Way in 1957, but its relevancy to modern day racial conflicts cannot be ignored.

MaryJoanna Grisso (Maria) and Natascia Diaz (Anita). Photo by Christopher Mueller

MaryJoanna Grisso (Maria) and Natascia Diaz (Anita). Photo by Christopher Mueller

Parker Esse stays true to Robbins original choreography.  Yet in placing the action on a rectangular stage no more than 20 feet from any seat, we are rewarded with the bonus of visceral energy and muscle coming from the dance and fight sequences.  In this condensed setting it is easier to witness the intensity of the 30 dancers and singers who, surprisingly, share space with a 17-piece orchestra.  Such intimacy makes character interaction immediate and explosive and renders the tender,  forbidden romance between Maria (played winningly by the adorable Mary Joanna Grisso) and Tony (played by local actor Austin Colby), more heartfelt.  Juxtaposed with the gang fights, it is riveting to the core.  As Riff, the leader of the Jets, tells his gang founder Tony in their motto of solidarity, “Womb to tomb, worm to sperm.”  It’s that close.

J. Morgan White (Snow Boy), Joseph Tudor (Baby John), Tony

J. Morgan White (Snow Boy), Joseph Tudor (Baby John), Tony  Neidenbach (Big Deal), Ryan Fitzgerald (Action), Kurt Boehm (Diesel) and Ryan Kanfer (A-Rab). Photo by Christopher Mueller

In this hyper-physical production, all movement must be tightly executed and solidly synchronized to work well in such close quarters.  And it is.  To expand the real estate, Esse makes use of a second story steel catwalk as tenement fire escape.  Spanning three sides of the perimeter, the metal walkway clangs and clatters directly above the audience’s heads when the gangs are in hot pursuit.  It is a highly effective, heart-poundingly sensory experience aswirl with romance and conflict.

The cast of

The cast of  West Side Story. Photo by Christopher  Mueller

As an ensemble the cast is solid, though some gang members lack the credible machismo expected from street-hardened blood rivals.  Max Clayton as Riff, stands out, as does, Natascia Diaz, as Anita, the spitfire who is Maria’s protective older sibling.  Another captivating performer is dancer Shawna Walker in a secondary role as Pauline.  She’s the one with the short blonde hair who has the movements of a gazelle and the fierce tenacity of a leopard.  You can’t miss her.  And not to be overlooked is the charm of J. Morgan White as Snowboy, who has a scene stealing dance moment in Act Two in the number “Gee, Officer Krupke”, and Maria Rizzo as Anybodys, the androgynous Sharks’ gang groupie.  Notwithstanding the humor, the artistry of the dancers and the sweep of the memorable score, there is an important message here – one of tolerance, inclusion, and hope told through such classic songs as “Something’s Coming”, “Tonight”, “Somewhere” and “America”.

Austin Colby (Tony). Photo by

Austin Colby (Tony). Photo by
Christopher Mueller

Highly recommended.

Through January 31st, 2016 at Signature Theatre (Shirlington Village), 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, VA 22206.  For tickets and information call 703 820-9771 or visit www.sigtheatre.org.

Cake Off – Signature Theatre

Jordan Wright
October 10, 2015 

As part of this fall’s Women’s Voices Theater Festival, Director Joe Calarco commissioned American playwright Sheri Wilner and lyricists Julia Jordan and Adam Gwon to write Cake Off – – an original musical.  What they came up with is a musical comedy, so off-the-wall sidesplitting that I’m still trying to catch my breath.

Sherri L. Edelen (Rita Gaw) and Todd Buonopane (Paul Hubbard) in Cake Off at Signature Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman

Sherri L. Edelen (Rita Gaw) and Todd Buonopane (Paul Hubbard) in Cake Off at Signature Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman

The storyline derives from a nationally known baking competition which in 1996, when the prize money jumped to $1 million, was won by a man for the first time.  Sponsored by the ever so slightly altered company name of Millsbury, the plot centers around two competitors, Paul Hubbard (Todd Buonopane) and Rita Gaw (Sherri Edelen), and one emcee from hell, Jack DeVault (Jamie Smithson does triple duty as former contestants Lenora Nesbit and Nancy DeMarco).

Rita is a divorcee and three-time finalist whose talent derives from an unrequited career in chemistry.  A science nerd in the art of baking, she lives vicariously through her doctor-to-be daughter.

Todd Buonopane (Paul Hubbard) and Sherri L. Edelen (Rita Gaw) in Cake Off at Signature Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman

Todd Buonopane (Paul Hubbard) and Sherri L. Edelen (Rita Gaw) in Cake Off at Signature Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman

Newcomer Paul has chosen his 12-year old son Wyatt’s (Ian Berlin) favorite cake recipe, Chocolate Junior Mints Cake, but becomes tormented with beginner’s angst, “I’ve never been a winner, I’m in the ‘Average Hall of Fame’,” he tells Rita, hoping to convince her he’s a better man than the personal trainer his wife has run off with.  Rita just wants to prove to her five kids and deserter husband that she’s more than just a housewife and mother.  They bond after Rita ignores contest rules to bail out his baking faux pas, and together they rhapsodize about their perfect ingredients in the number “Round One”.

Things heat up, and not just the ovens, when Jack snubs Rita to shower Paul with plenty of live air commentary as the event becomes a battle of the sexes.  “This is a TV show,” Jack warns Rita.  “They can’t taste the cake!”  In “Be a Little Sweeter” veteran baker Lenore cautions Rita that the judges are looking for a telegenic personality something her legendary Roasted Apple Cake can’t overcome.  That, and the fact that she’s a woman.

(l to r) Jamie Smithson (Jack DeVault) and Todd Buonopane (Paul Hubbard) // Jamie Smithson (Jack DeVault) and Sherri L. Edelen (Rita Gaw). Photo by Margot Schulman

(l to r) Jamie Smithson (Jack DeVault) and Todd Buonopane (Paul Hubbard) // Jamie Smithson (Jack DeVault) and Sherri L. Edelen (Rita Gaw). Photo by Margot Schulman

Designer Jason Sherwood sets the stage with back-to-back stoves to mimic the layout of the famed bake-off as Rita and Paul measure and mix their delicious creations in a frantic rush to beat the clock.

Jordan and Gwon’s lyrics are catchy, quirky and even tender when it calls for it.  But the real winners are Edelen whose voice and comedic timing are reminiscent of Lucille Ball, Buonopane who bookends her seamlessly, and Smithson whose extensive vocabulary of facial expressions is mind-altering.

Mix in a few cups of Erma Bombeck’s feminist domesticity with Fannie Flagg’s heartland hilarity, add some candy sprinkles, chocolate frosting and fourteen catchy tunes, and, dare I say it, you’ve got a recipe for success.

Highly recommended if you want to laugh your buns off!

Through November 22nd 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 Fix – Let the Games Begin – Signature Theatre

Jordan Wright
August 25, 2015
Special to The Alexandria Times

Christine Sherrill (Violet Chandler), and Mark Evans (Cal Chandler). Photo by Christopher Mueller

Christine Sherrill (Violet Chandler), and Mark Evans (Cal Chandler). Photo by Christopher Mueller

Cal Chandler, son of successful politician, Senator Reed Chandler, is not exactly a model of statesmanship.  He’s your typical privileged Yale grad and pot-smoking, ex-Vietnam vet raised in a political family.  Sound familiar?  It’s just the first of many of the plot’s parallels to our real American political landscape.  When Cal’s father dies in flagrante delicto before re-election, his mother and uncle, the family’s political advisor, Grahame Chandler (Lawrence Redmond), plot a course to groom young Cal to take his place.  And do they ever plot!  Move over Shakespeare.  There’s a new Lady Macbeth in town and her name is Violet Chandler.  To give you some idea, the show’s intro is “Let the Games Begin” which trumpets, “These are the games, the tools and the tricks.”

As Violet and Grahame ply their considerable savvy to transform the reluctant scion into a model of respectability, we have a front row seat to the backroom wheeling and dealing of a political campaign including a nefarious mobster, Anthony Gliardi, played by Dan Manning with distinction.  The ever-watchful Grahame, making sure Cal won’t be caught up by reporters’ probing queries, warns the budding pol, “You must limit yourself to three topics – the economy, crime and taxes.”

The Fix is a scrumptious concoction of jealousy, scandal and infidelity (Will Gartshore, as Violet’s doomed lover, Bobby “Cracker” Barrel is terrific) served up with a side of moral depravity, deceit and the delightful pleasure of déjà vu and schadenfreude all in the same soup.  Oh, yes, we know what’s going to happen, and no, we still can’t turn away.

Mark Evans (Cal Chandler). Photo by Christopher Mueller.

Mark Evans (Cal Chandler). Photo by Christopher Mueller.

Mark Evans, as Cal, is spectacular – a super sexy, blindingly handsome, ripped-bodied (he strips to his skivvies in the first act), breathtaking dancer and jaw-dropping singer who earned his street cred in The Book of Mormon.  As the lead, Evans commands much of the attention in this pivotal role and he does not disappoint, nor does veteran performer Bobby Smith as Cal’s late father who returns from the grave to offer advice to his wayward son.  Act Two brings Smith and Redmond together as Harvard alums sporting satin-striped suits and doing a mean soft shoe in a hilarious vaudeville-style skit that incorporates crutches as props.  After all, isn’t politics just show business with money and a message?

Christine Sherrill lends an alluring villainy to Violet, a woman who thrives on perks and power.  In “Spin” a drunken self-examination solo at a symbolically chosen vanity table, she belts out a heart-stopping message that defines her years stumping with her husband on campaign trails, “It’s a rough ride on the back roads.  You give it spin.”

Bobby Smith (Senator Reed Chandler), Christine Sherrill (Violet Chandler), and Lawrence Redmond (Grahame Chandler). Photo by Christopher Mueller.

Bobby Smith (Senator Reed Chandler), Christine Sherrill (Violet Chandler), and Lawrence Redmond (Grahame Chandler). Photo by Christopher Mueller.

The Fix gives us all the elements of a smash hit with book & lyrics by John Dempsey, music by Dana P. Rowe and direction by Eric SchaefferMatthew Gardiner crafts the choreography and it is impressive, as is the eight-piece orchestra (sounds like eighteen) under Jon Kalbfleisch.  Setting the stage are the combined efforts of Misha Kachman’s scenic design and Hannah Marsh’s clever projection design of incorporating TV screens with news anchors that report on Cal’s soaring career from councilman to governor.

Highly recommended.

Through September 20th 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

Cabaret – Signature Theatre

Jordan Wright
May 20, 2015
Special to The Alexandria Times

Wesley Taylor (Emcee), Rachel Schur, Jamie Eacker, Colleen Hayes, Maria Rizzo, Jessica Thorne in Cabaret at Signature Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Wesley Taylor (Emcee), Rachel Schur, Jamie Eacker, Colleen Hayes, Maria Rizzo, Jessica Thorne in Cabaret at Signature Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Willkommen into The MAX for Signature Theatre’s production of Cabaret and you’ll be transported to post World War I Berlin in Set Designer Misha Kachman’s replica of the Kit Kat Klub where half the audience is seated on bentwood chairs at café tables lit with silk shaded lamps and set with vintage telephones – – all the better to see the slinky chorus girls in their red and black lingerie and gender-bending men in leather and lederhosen.   Close too, is a rotating stage rimmed in bare lightbulbs and backdropped by a Mylar curtain.  Kachman adds reflective industrial metal panels along the theatre walls and a two-story catwalk with a winding staircase for the show-within-a-show.  Off to one side two strapping bare-chested servers staff a wooden bar where patrons can belly up to German beer and Riesling at intermission.

As both Director and Choreographer, Matthew Gardiner doesn’t miss his cue when it comes to razzle-dazzle and flat-out sensationalism in this John Kander/Fred Ebb collaboration based on stories from Christopher Isherwood, that darling of Virginia Woolf’s Bloomsbury Group.  There are high kicks and undulating spines, reminiscent of Bob Fosse, and plenty of titillating duets and risqué ménages.  This may be the Kit Kat Klub, but there’s nothing kittenish about it.

Wesley Taylor (Emcee) in Cabaret at Signature Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman

Wesley Taylor (Emcee) in Cabaret at Signature Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman

Wesley Taylor plays the Emcee, a role that calls for major attitude.  His character is meant to be both alluring and dominating, and Taylor pulls it off with aplomb managing to affect a character of sadistic amorality and razor-sharp charm in an atmosphere so sexually charged a single match could set the whole theatre ablaze.

 Barrett Wilbert Weed (Sally) in Cabaret at Signature Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Barrett Wilbert Weed (Sally) in Cabaret at Signature Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Sally Bowles is played by the darling, doe-eyed Barrett Wilbert Weed – – a dizzyingly, captivating charmer with exquisite pipes that seems to have been recently sprung from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s imagination.  Her Sally is softer than most, more vulnerable and madly in love with Cliff, a Midwestern English teacher who has chosen a rather inopportune place and time, during the rise of the Nazi regime, to write a novel.  “I like this city,” he quips.  “It’s both tacky and terrible.”  Gregory Wooddell is masterful (and swoon-worthy) as Cliff – – managing to be both subtle and forceful in his interpretation of the lovesick innocent abroad.

Rick Foucheux (Herr Schultz) and Naomi Jacobson (Fraulein Schneider) in Cabaret at Signature Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Rick Foucheux (Herr Schultz) and Naomi Jacobson (Fraulein Schneider) in Cabaret at Signature Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman.

But it’s grim times for the couple and their new friends, landlady Fraulein Schneider (Naomi Jacobson), Ernst the smuggler and Nazi sympathizer (Bobby Smith), Fraulein Kost, the prostitute (Maria Rizzo), and Herr Schultz (Rick Foucheux), the fruit seller.  Jackboots and turncoats keep encroaching on their merry life.  For Sally, it’s her last chance for a life outside the cruel reality of a seedy nightclub in a rapidly changing world.  But she is afraid to take it.  “One must keep mobile,” she gaily tells Cliff before launching into a goosebump-worthy version of the ballad “Maybe This Time”.

Wesley Taylor (Emcee) and the Kit Kat Boys and Girls in Cabaret at Signature Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Wesley Taylor (Emcee) and the Kit Kat Boys and Girls in Cabaret at Signature Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Look for all your favorite numbers – – “The Money Song”, “Perfectly Marvelous”, “Cabaret” and “Willkommen” to thrill as expected, especially as backed by a fabulous 9-piece orchestra led by Conductor and Pianist, Jon Kalbfleisch.  Costumes by award-winning designer, Frank Labovitz run the gamut from sexy lingerie, beaded flapper dresses and 1930’s hausfrau frocks, to the sinister uniforms of the Third Reich.

Through June 28th 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.

Soon – Signature Theatre

Jordan Wright
March 30, 2015
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

Joshua Morgan (Steven), Natascia Diaz (Adrienne), Alex Brightman (Jonah), and Jessica Hershberg (Charlie) in Soon at Signature Theatre. Photo by Teresa Wood.

Joshua Morgan (Steven), Natascia Diaz (Adrienne), Alex Brightman (Jonah), and
Jessica Hershberg (Charlie) in Soon at Signature Theatre. Photo by Teresa Wood.

The world is ending and Charlie (Jessica Hershberg) is obsessed by the lurid headlines. Listening to broadcasts of the President’s speech declaring the planet’s demise, she becomes consumed by Wolf Blitzer. “His voice reminds me of my father’s,” she admits. Her dwindling stash of peanut butter explains her inability to rise up from the imagined safety of her sofa to venture out into the world to replenish it and she holes up in her tawdry East Village apartment while indulging in the schadenfreude of CNN’s apocalyptic reports of the devastating effects of climate change. Agoraphobic, depressive, defeatist and snide, she’s hardly anyone’s idea of a heroine.

Her sometime boyfriend, Jonah (Alex Brightman) can’t lure her outdoors and neither can her mother, Adrienne (Natascia Diaz), nor her roomie, Steven (Joshua Morgan). “I’m busy acknowledging the inevitable,” she moans, forgoing her dreams of starting a neighborhood bakery. And as she stays put in her apartment with her pet goldfish, Herschel, life goes on around her while the others appear and disappear both in the present and from the beyond.

Alex Brightman (Jonah) and Jessica Hershberg (Charlie) in Soon at Signature Theatre. Photo by Teresa Wood.

Alex Brightman (Jonah) and Jessica Hershberg (Charlie) in Soon at Signature
Theatre. Photo by Teresa Wood.

In Soon a compact musical with book, music and lyrics by Nick Blaemire, the four intersecting lives are highlighted through some pretty quirky tunes. “Peanut Butter” and “Bar Mitzvah for the First Jewish Fish” are two of the eleven numbers that express the mood of the characters.

Director Matthew Gardiner, who last year brought us the brilliant Sunday in the Park with George, has assembled a capable cast of top-drawer talent to push this musical to the next level. In particular Natascia Diaz, who we raved about in last year’s The Three Penny Opera, and Joshua Morgan, whose performance as the campy gay roommate electrifies the stage and provides necessary comic relief.

Also of note are the production values enhanced by the work of Projection Designer, Matthew Haber, who splashes across the walls the gloom-and-doom newsreels of the world’s natural disasters; and Dan Conway whose set design, replete with crime prevention bars on the apartment, reflect Charlie’s self-imposed, emotional prison.

 Jessica Hershberg (Charlie) in Soon at Signature Theatre. Photo by Teresa Wood

Jessica Hershberg (Charlie) in Soon at Signature Theatre. Photo by Teresa Wood

My only complaint is with the story. It is overly challenging to drum up empathy for Charlie, even when we discover that she has contracted a disease through her own mother. She is heartless and dismissive to Jonah, who begs for her affections. “Everything I ever wanted never happened,” she whines. Who puts up with that? Well, the long-suffering Jonah, the man who gives her a goldfish in hopes that it will bond him to her forever, does. Even in a particularly tender moment when he tells her that his parents have offered to pay for her medical care, she blows him off.

By the time we get to the fairytale ending and Charlie has caved to Jonah’s unfathomable love, it is of little satisfaction to watch them picnicking while the world ends to the strains of the number, “Make Love”. Think post-apocalyptic sci-fi romance. Millennials will thrill to the futility and despair.

Through April 26th in the ARK Theatre 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.