Spunk ~ Signature Theatre

Jordan Wright
May 14, 2019 

Zora Neale Hurston’s exuberant play-with-music, Spunk, takes us into the African-American experience of America’s Deep South.  It’s like gaining admission to a private club, not just to witness, but to experience full-on a sense of place that no longer exists.  It doesn’t hinge on racism nor rely on oppression to tell its stories, though Hurston makes clear the characters have suffered from their legacy.  Three distinctly different tales provide a glimpse into the colorful characters that peppered the African American communities of the 1930’s and 40’s.  Part celebration and part revelation, part history and part Black culture, Spunk  is the spinning of tales that claim a deep appreciation of a particular time and place.

KenYatta Rogers (Folk Man 1) in Spunk at Signature Theatre. Photo by Christopher Mueller.

“Blues, grits, spit, spunk and pain” describe the colorful activities and lively characters who weave in and out of one another’s lives.  In Tale Number One: “Sweat”, there’s Delia, a washerwoman married to Sykes, a cruel drunkard whom she supports through “blood, sweat and tears” while he’s out messin’ with another woman.  You can almost feel the steamy Florida summer heat when Delia sings “Dirty Water” as she exacts her revenge.

Ines Nassara (Folk Woman) in Spunk at Signature Theatre. Photo by Christopher Mueller.

In Tale Number Two: “Story in Harlem Slang”, we find Slang Talk Man and his cronies, Jelly and Sweet Back – zoot-suited men, called “Harlem pimps” whose only thoughts were of money, the lack of it, the allure of it, and how to get the domestics who bring their paychecks home on a Friday night to give it to them.  Sweet Back, who’s always broke and “bug-a-booin’” while looking to score a fine lady, struts around in his finery with his pal, Jelly.  The two are like a couple of banty roosters sizing up the barnyard.

Tale Number Three: “The Gilded Six-Bits” is a love story and by then we’re ready for it.  Set in Chicago Missy May and Joe have their differences, but when a fast-talking grifter comes to town he turns Missy May’s head with the promise of riches, and the two lovers have to decide if they’ll stay together.  “If you burn me down, you won’t get nothin’ but a pile of ashes,” Missy May warns him.

Marty Austin Lamar (Folk Man 2) in Spunk at Signature Theatre. Photo by Christopher Mueller.

Hip expressions and street corner colloquialisms keep the humor moving at a rapid clip.  And between all the movin’ and groovin’, struttin’ and slipslidin’, there is music, wonderful bluesy music played by Guitar Man and sung by the players.  Written by Chic Street Man a musician and Psychology grad who runs his own youth center and scored the music to this Broadway sensation, it uses some classic tunes as well as stylistically apropos music to reflect the period.

Iyona Blake (Blues Speak Woman) in Spunk at Signature Theatre. Photo by Christopher Mueller.

In granting these characters ethnically correct vernacular, Hurston gifts them with the unique personalities she knew and cherished – though if any writer but an African-American writer had told these stories, they would be tarred and feathered and run out of town on a rail.  Hurston endured criticisms of these Black “caricatures”, even though she was steadfast in her belief that this time and place should not be forgotten.  In the end, she chronicled a period in American folklore that is both historic and universal.

Sweet as cane sugar, sassy and funny with a polished and perfect cast.

With Iyona Blake as Blues Speak Woman, Jonathan Mosley-Perry as Guitar Man, KenYatta Rogers as Folk Man One and Fight Choreographer, Marty Austin Lamar as Folk Man Two, Drew Drake as Folk Man Three, and Ines Nassara as Folk Woman – all playing multiple roles.

Adapted & Originally Directed by George C. Wolfe.  Current direction under Timothy Douglas with Musical Direction by Mark Meadows, Choreography by Dane Figueroa Edidi, Costume Design by Kendra Rae, Lighting Design by Sherrice Mojgani, Scenic Design by Luciana Stecconi, and Sound Design by Ryan Hickey.

Through June 23rd in the ARK 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.

Grand Hotel ~ The Musical ~ Signature Theatre

Jordan Wright
April 11, 2019 

The ensemble of Grand Hotelat Signature Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman

Dapper men in dinner jackets and ladies luxuriously swathed in furs and jewels has a certain mysterious fascination for us all.  In Playwright Ayad Akhtar’s Grand Hotel, guests of this deluxe Berlin hotel reveal that there is more to glamour than meets the eye.  In the hotel’s opulent Art Deco era lobby we meet aging prima ballerina Madame Elizaveta Grushinskaya arriving for her final grand tour with her faithful companion, Raffaela; Flaemmchen, a pretty down-at-the-heels ingénue; Baron Felix von Gaigern, a handsome grifter; Colonel-Doctor Otternschlag, a world-weary doctor; General Director Preysing, a corporate tycoon with an uncertain future; and Otto Kringelein, a big-hearted Jewish accountant with a terminal illness.  For these peripatetic travelers, it’s all about money – keeping it or finding it – and enjoying the luxe life.  What they all have in common is the need to be loved.

Solomon Parker III (Jimmy 2), NickiElledge (Flaemmchen), Ian Anthony Coleman (Jimmy 1) and the ensemble of Grand Hotelat Signature Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman

Twenty-one musical numbers backdrop both their amours and their tragedies as they find themselves in ever-threatening financial circumstances.  Will Otto live to find happiness, will Elizabeta revive her career, will the Baron find deeper meaning, and will Flaemmchen find stardom?  How they evolve as people is the real story behind this glamorous idyll.

Natascia Diaz (Elizaveta Grushinskaya) in Grand Hotelat Signature Theatre. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Director Eric Schaeffer pulls out all the stops with a fabulous set graced with two winding staircases, top-notch dancers and character actors with Broadway-worthy voices that fulfill his vision of transporting us to the age of the Roaring 20’s in a city well known for sophistication and decadent excess.

Nicki Elledge (Flaemmchen) and Nkrumah Gatling (Baron Felix von Gaigern). Photo by C. Stanley Photography

Some of the most memorable musical scenes come during moments of truthfulness and tenderness as between Elizaveta and the Baron in the number “Love Can’t Happen” and her solo dance in “Bonjour Amour”.  And, not to be understated, is the sensational dancing of the two Jimmys in Act One’s “Maybe My Baby Loves Me” with Flaemmchen, and Act Two’s “The Grand Charleston” with the ensemble and “We’ll Take a Glass Together” performed alongside Kringelein, the Baron and the ensemble.

Bobby Smith (Otto Kringelein) and Nicholas McDonough (Erik) in Grand Hotelat Signature Theatre. Photo by C. Stanley Photography

The darker side of working at this posh hotel is not left out but circumscribed by the gritty reality of below stairs workers engulfed in steam heat rising from on-stage grates, and by the precarious job security of Erik, a young concierge forbidden from leaving his post as he awaits the birth of his son.

It’s a big story with multi-dimensional characters who surprise us at every turn.  See it for the music, the dancing and the glitz.

Starring Bobby Smith as Otto Kringelein; Natascia Diaz as Elizaveta Grushinskaya; Kevin McAllister as General Director Preysing; Nkrumah Gatling as Baron Felix von Gaigern; Lawrence Redmond as Colonel-Doctor Otternschlag; Crystal Mosser as Raffaela; Nicki Elledge as Flaemmchen; Ian Anthony Coleman as Jimmy 1 and Zinnowitz; Solomon Parker III as Jimmy 2; Ben Gunderson as Erik; Victor Kempski as Rohna and Witt; Marie Rizzo as Trude and Tootsie 1; Gregory Matheu as Sandor; and ensemble.

Book by Luther Davis; Music and Lyrics by Robert Wright & George Forrest; Based on Vicki Baum’s Grand Hotel; Additional Music & Lyrics by Maury Yeston; Scenic Design by Paul Tate DePoo III; Costume Design by Robert Perdziola; Lighting Design by Colin K. Bills; Sound Design by Ryan Hickey; Choreography by Kelly Crandall D’Amboise.  Conducted by Evan Rees.

Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity ~ Signature Theatre

Jordan Wright
March 12, 2019 

Plunged into anarchy in an apocalyptic scenario in an unnamed Middle Eastern country, Layla struggles to make sense of what appears to be the end of her life.  As a world-famous art conservationist, she had been spending her days in an art museum cataloguing the most important things in the world – statues, relics, books, paintings, music, photos and more – in case of just such a catastrophe.

Holly Twyford in Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity ~ Photo credit C Stanley Photography

Now rubble and ruin lie all around her and she is trapped in this museum-turned-prison in a city under constant barrage.  Layla is despondent over the destruction of the precious and intangible heritage of our humanity by an enemy who seeks to build a new world order.

Felicia Curry, Yesenia Iglesias, and Holly Twyford in Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity ~  Photo credit C Stanley Photographer

Crippled with injuries inflicted by her ruthless guard, Mitra, she shares her chamber with a young Muslim woman, Nadia, who silently tends to her wounds.  Mitra demands Layla restore a damaged Rembrandt painting.  She refuses, pondering what is left of her life without her father and daughter and what in the world is worth saving.  Each woman has seen their loved ones slaughtered and each is tethered to one another by the commonality of deep loss.  Incongruously, they are united by the brutality of war and its aftermath.  Will the women escape the fate imposed on them by the soldiers’ bloodthirsty struggle for power? Will art? And if so, how?

DC playwright Heather McDonald’s world premiere Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity asks of us where the world would be without beauty, without art or music, and without nations who hold culture and civilization in high esteem.  How did we get here, and why, are the questions posed by this dystopian drama.

Set to the haunting strains of opera and against the constant volley of bullets and explosives, Zachary G. Borovay’s projections offer a realistic sense of being front and center on the battlefield.  Synched to James Bigbee Garver’s sounds of war, and James Kronzer’s scenic design of broken statues and crumbling buildings, it gives us a bird’s eye view of the confusion and misery experienced by those who suffer the consequences.

Holly Twyford and Yesenia Iglesias in Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity ~ Photo credit C Stanley Photographer

Fierce performances by two beloved Helen Hayes Award-winning actors, Holly Twyford as Layla and Felicia Curry as Mitra, and Yesenia Iglesias as Nadia.  This is a thinking person’s play – edgy, dark and important – a play I’d expect to see produced by the more politically-minded Mosaic Theater, though I am more than excited to see Artistic Director Eric Schaefer tackle such profound subject matter with the brilliant and internationally-respected director, Nadia Tass.

Costume Design by Kathleen Geldard, Lighting Design by Sherrice Mojgani, Sound Design & Original Music by James Bigbee Garver, and Fight Choreography by Robb Hunter.

Highly recommended.

Through April 7th 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.

Ain’t Misbehavin’: The Fats Waller Musical Show ~ Signature Theatre

Jordan Wright
February 10, 2019
Special to The Alexandria Times

Solomon Parker III, Iyona Blake, Nova Y. Payton, Korinn Walfall and Kevin McAllister. Photo by Christopher Mueller.

Ain’t Misbehavin’, the show that opened on Broadway in 1978 starring Nell Carter is a revue of the compositions of the period, most notably Fats Waller’s.  Performed by five super-talented singers, all well-known to Signature fans, who deliver thirty-nine numbers, some in short form.  The music reveals the scope of Waller’s extensive repertoire and his mastery of the Harlem slide piano.  Many of the songs may be unfamiliar, but some are surprisingly well-known – “Honeysuckle Rose”, “The Joint is Jumpin’”, “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love, Baby”, “It’s a Sin to Tell a Lie”, and “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter”, recorded by everyone from Frank Sinatra to Nat King Cole and Paul McCartney.

The show is a musical anthology rather than a story-driven theatrical production.  Its format is a singers’ showcase performed by a quintuple of song stylists who interpret the melodies in a range of styles through dance, mood and motion.  There are duets to revel in and sexy, sultry ballads that sizzle.  There is jitterbug and jazz, blues and boogie-woogie, and even a glee club-styled dirge in the number “Black and Blue” which was Waller’s response to the racism he experienced.  A particularly hot and rarely heard number, “The Viper’s Drag”, sung by Solomon Parker III, wows with a slinky dance and hep cat jam referencing his pipe dream of “a reefer five-feet long”.  Iyona Blake, Kevin McAllister, Korinn Walfall and Nova Y. Payton round out the cast of top-notch singers.

Solomon Parker III and Korinn Walfall. Photo by Christopher Mueller

Marquee lights, Art Deco pendant lamps hung from the ceiling and small shaded lamps affording a honeyed glow rest on cocktail tables positioned in front of the stage to transform the MAX Theatre into a Harlem nightclub – one with a seven-piece onstage band led by Mark G. Meadows as Fats Waller.  Glamourous costumes of the period – ladies dripping with fur and rhinestones and gents sporting crisply tailored chesterfields and spiffy black tie as conceived by Costume Designer Sarita P. Fellows.

Mark G. Meadows. Photo by Christopher Mueller

Thomas “Fats” Waller was a brilliant musician and fascinating character.  An accomplished classical pianist who found too many doors shut to him until he arrived in Harlem to become one of the greatest and most prolific composers of early jazz and syncopated rhythms as well as a stylish performer in his own right.  I tell you this up front, since, unlike other productions like Beautiful: The Carole King Story or the Gloria and Emilio Estefan musical On Your Feet! designed around the lives and works of the composers or the stars, this is a revue without a back story.

Iyona Blake and Solomon Parker III. Photo by Christopher Mueller

Perfect for date night!

Written by Richard Maltby, Jr. and Murray Horowitz and Directed by Joe Calarco.  Additional cast members Da’von T. Moody and Kanysha Williams.  Scenic Design by Paige Hathaway; Lighting Design by Sherrice Mojgani; Sound Design by Ryan Hickey; Choreography by Jared Grimes.  Musicians: Mark G. Meadows on piano; Michael Bowie on bass; Carroll “CV” Dashiel III on drums; Ed Walters and Grant Langford on reeds; Kieron Irvine on trumpet: and Christopher Steele on trombone.

Through March 10th 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.


Billy Elliot the Musical ~ Signature Theatre

Jordan Wright
November 10, 2018
Special to The Alexandria Times

The ensemble of Billy Elliot. Photo by Margot Schulman.

The story of Billy Elliot is a tender tale of a boy who dreams of becoming a dancer while growing up in a working-class mining town in Ireland.  But it’s so much more.  It’s a universal story of hope, identity and overcoming the odds when everything seems stacked against you.  Battling against a macho culture dictated by generations of miners who believe a boy’s education requires boxing lessons (all the better to defend themselves in a drunken pub fight, I suppose), young Billy shows indomitable grit in overcoming the rigidly proscribed barriers to self-fulfillment.

Liam Redford (Billy Elliot) and Jacob Thomas Anderson (Michael McCaffrey) in Billy Elliot. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Backdropped against a year-long miners’ strike brought on by the repressive politics of Margaret Thatcher and her Conservative Government, the town rallies in a show of solidarity by vowing not to cross the picket lines.  Billy’s dad and big brother Tony picket daily, battling a phalanx of police who crack heads and terrorize the protesters.  “It’s about our history.  It’s about our rights,” Billy’s dad proclaims.

Owen Tabaka (Billy Elliot), Chris Genebach (Dad) and the ensemble of Billy Elliot. Photo by Christopher Mueller.

Megastar Sir Elton John wrote the music in collaboration with Lee Hall, who wrote the book and lyrics for the film and the musical, as well as the screenplay for Steven Spielberg’s War Horse.  Making its Broadway debut in 2008, this electrifying musical won Tony, Grammy and Academy Awards for “Best Musical”.

Director/Choreographer Matthew Gardiner gifts us with an astonishing cast led by Liam Redford and Owen Tabaka alternating as Billy; the spectacular Nancy Anderson as Billy’s gutsy dance instructor, Mrs. Wilkinson; Chris Genebach as Billy’s widowed dad, Jackie; Dan Manning as George, the boxing coach; the incomparable Catherine Flye as Billy’s Grandma; and a remarkable young actor/tap dancer/singer, Jacob Thomas Anderson, as Billy’s comic, crossdressing playmate, Michael.

As expected in a coal mining town, the language is salty – magnificently salty with f-bombs tempered by that particularly appealing, hilariously dry, Irish-accented wit.  Not suitable to quote those in a family newspaper, I offer this somewhat restrained line.  “It’s not a bloody tea dance,” George chastising a reluctant Billy to bash his pal in boxing class, “Whack him in the head!”

Simone Warren (Keeley Gibson), Sissy Sheridan (Susan Parks), Nancy Anderson (Mrs. Wilkinson), Noelle Robinson (Angela Robinson) and Annie Dodson (Alison Summers) in Billy Elliot. Photo by Margot Schulman.

But let’s talk about the dancing.  Press night gave us the mind-blowing talents of Liam Redford, a kid you couldn’t take your eyes off of.  Highly accomplished in ballet, tap, modern dance, aerial acrobatics (move over Peter Pan wannabes) and singing too, of course, Redford mesmerizes the audience with his elfin charm and precise moves – also notable is his seemingly effortless ease and emotional depth in connecting with the other cast members.  More than two dozen kids and adults are also dancers in this production giving us enough hoofing, boogieing and pirouettes for two shows plus – all to the sounds of a nine-piece orchestra led by Tom Vendafreddo.

Heartwarming, electrifying and highly recommended.

With Sean Watkinson as Tony, Jamie Ecker as Billy’s late mother, Olivia McMahon/Vivian Poe as Debbie, Stephawn P. Stephens as Big Davey, Harrison Smith as Mr. Braithwaite, Grant Richards as Older Billy, and Solomon Parker III as London Dancer.

Scenic Design by Jason Sherwood, Costume Design by Kathleen Geldard, Lighting Design by Amanda Zieve, Sound Design by Ryan Hickey with Assistant Director and Dialect Coach Rex Daugherty.

Through January 6th 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.