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

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.