Chess ~ Kennedy Center

Jordan Wright
February 16, 2018

Bryce Pinkham and Ensemble in CHESS_Photo by Teresa Wood.jpg

Kennedy Center theatregoers were treated to an all-star inaugural production of Chess on Thursday night.  Heading for its Broadway run, this latest treatment of the original 1986 rock opera is chockful of enough extraordinary singers to make any producer green with envy – Raúl Esparaza, Ramin Karimloo, Ruthie Ann Miles, Karen Olivo, Bradley Dean, Sean Allan Krill and Bryce Pinkham.

With a rich score by Björn Ulvaeus (ABBA songwriter) and Benny Andersson (ABBA bandmember), and lyrics by Tim Rice (collaborator on Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, The Lion King, Alladin, Beauty and the Beast), Broadway Center Stage expects this new version to achieve supersonic stature.  Tony Award-winning director Michael Mayer, who is top-loaded with stage and screen credits, has been charged with pulling it all together.  In this five-day only musical concert, all performers remain on stage reading their lines and singing their numbers from script books which, unfortunately, renders most of their words unintelligible.

Ramin Karimloo and Raul Esparza in CHESS_Photo by Teresa Wood.jpg

For pill-popper and American grandmaster Freddie Trumper (the oddest choice of names), it’s a mental duel with himself – and he’s losing.  His paranoia (though it turns out the Russians were spying on him and trying to psyche him out) threatens to undermine his chances for success.  It all goes down against the backdrop of the historic SALT II Treaty talks, the success of which hinges on convincing Freddie to lose the tournament so the Soviets can regain their pride.

Raul Esparza and Karen Olivo in CHESS_Photo by Teresa Wood.jpg

Freddie (Raúl Esparaza Company, Sunday in the Park with George) and Anatoly (Ramin Karimloo Anastasia) are both in love with Florence (Karen Olivo West Side Story, In the Heights), a Hungarian national forced to work for the CIA, but Anatoly is still wed to Svetlana (Ruthie Ann Miles The King and I, Here Lies Love) who lives apart from him in Moscow with their two children.  Alex Molokov (Bradley Dean Dear Evan Hansen) is Anatoly’s KGB handler and Walter de Courcey (Sean Allan Krill Honeymoon in Vegas) is Freddie’s CIA handler.  The Arbiter (Bryce Pinkham A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder) relates the backstory while the tournaments are held in different countries.  It’s a fairly basic love story brightened by international cloak-and-dagger schemes backgrounded by the Cold War.

Video projections by Darrell Maloney reflect history-making moments and Lorin Latarro (Waitress) choreographs the dance sequences (one of which is super erotic) in this human chess game where winning is the only goal despite the threat of a looming nuclear war.

Through February 18th in the Eisenhower Theatre at The Kennedy Center, 2700 F St., NW, Washington, DC.  For tickets and information call 202 467-4600 or visit online.

Noura ~ Shakespeare Theatre Company

Jordan Wright
February 15, 2018 

Nabil Elouahabi as Tareq and Heather Raffo as Noura ~ Photo credit by Scott Suchman

Can any of us really know what it’s like to be a refugee in America from a war-torn country? Can we understand the heartbreak of leaving family and loved ones to starve or perish?  Playwright and actor Heather Raffo delves into the terrifying world of refugees with her tragedy Noura, a story of an Iraqi father, wife, and son Yazen (Gabriel Brumberg) struggling to assimilate into American life after fleeing the only country they have ever known.

Matthew David as Rafa’a, Gabriel Brumberg as Yazen and Nabil Elouahabi as Tareq ~ Photo credit by Scott Suchman.

Noura (Heather Raffo in an unforgettable performance) has forsaken her work as an architect in Mosul to keep a traditional household in New York City where husband Tareq (Nabil Elouahabi) works as a doctor alongside his longtime friend and fellow doctor Rafa’a (Matthew David).  Scenic Designer Andrew Lieberman lets us know they are fairly well off with his stylish mid-century modern set dominated by a large Christmas tree.  And although it’s clear they are Christians, they suffer many of the same prejudices in America as their Muslim friends.

Noura is excited because Maryam (Dahlia Azama), an orphan she has supported and sponsored to become an American citizen, is coming to visit them for the holidays for a Christmas Eve feast.  But when she arrives from her studies at Stanford, six months pregnant and without a husband, or use for one, Noura slut-shames her, only to regret it when Maryam runs off in disgust.

Dahlia Azama as Maryam and Heather Raffo as Noura ~ Photo credit by Scott Suchman.

We see a couple in constant turmoil, striving to stay together while battling their own inner demons.  This emotional roller coaster of dueling cultural identities becomes more intense as the walls seem to close in on their personal problems.  Should they sacrifice their deeply held traditional roots or let love prevail?  Tareq, too, is confused about his role as a man in modern American society.  Is Noura too independent?  Was she too bold and outspoken during their courtship so many years ago in Iraq?  Were they complicit in ignoring the pleas for help from their Muslim friends’ during the war?  “I am not a victim,” Noura cries out.  I am a coward.”  And, though they feel “safe” from ISIS in America, will guilt and fear destroy their ability feel compassion as surely as any war could?

Heather Raffo as Noura and Matthew David by Rafa’a ~ Photo credit by Scott Suchman.

Directed by Joanna Settle, Raffo’s intelligent and brilliantly crafted drama brings us into this fraught scenario cautiously, tenderly, and without judgment, making absolutely certain we recognize the universality of our foibles and frailties.  It is a deep dive into the human conscience and an examination of the degree to which empathy and forgiveness can bring us to a greater understanding of all of humankind.

Destined to be a classic, this play is highly recommended.

At the Lansburgh Theatre through March 14th 2018, 450 7th Street NW, Washington, DC 20003.  For tickets and information contact the Box Office at 202.547.1122 or visit for additional info on post-show playwright discussions.

This production is part of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival.  For more information on the festival visit online.

The Great Society ~ Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
February 12, 2018 

(L to R) Jack Willis (President Lyndon Baines Johnson) and Susan Rome (Lady Bird Johnson) in The Great Society. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

In The Great Society, Robert Schenkkan’s 2016 sequel to his Tony Award-winning All the Way based on Lyndon Johnson’s early presidency and the Civil Rights movement, the playwright continues with the final years of LBJ’s administration between January 1965 till December 1968.  Those of us who lived through these turbulent times will remember how desperately divided the country was during the Vietnam War and the bloody struggle to achieve the Voting Rights Act for African Americans.  I couldn’t help but reflect on our current state – voting machines compromised, Russians interfering with our elections, gerrymandering and trumped-up demands for personal identity keeping legitimate voters from the polls.  The fight continues…

(L to R) Tom Wiggin (Robert McNamara and others) and Jack Willis (President Lyndon Baines Johnson) in The Great Society. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

This second term portrays a president who fell under the deceitful influence of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and F. B. I. Director J. Edgar Hoover.  At the same time, Johnson was sacrificing American lives in the war, he was also pushing a raft of social programs including Medicaid, Medicare and the expansion of immigration.  He was a complicated man during difficult times.

(L to R) Deonna Bouye (Coretta Scott King and others) and Bowman Wright (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.) in The Great Society. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Icons in the Civil Rights movement feature prominently – Martin Luther King, Jr., Ralph Abernathy, Stokely Carmichael, Bob Moses and others whose relationships with Johnson were often stymied by Johnson’s need to pacify his Southern base.  “There’s no issue of state’s rights.  It’s only human rights,” Johnson insists.

There are plenty of dramatic moments depicted here, including a brutal attack on African American marchers crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in George Wallace’s Alabama and another that reflects the savage tactics against the nation’s anti-war protesters.

(L to R) Jack Willis (President Lyndon Baines Johnson) and Cameron Folmar (Governor George Wallace and others) in The Great Society. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Directed by Kyle Donnelly, the play moves back and forth between the escalation of the Vietnam war and the accompanying anti-war protests to Johnson’s tireless efforts to achieve real social change while arm-twisting members of his own party.  A powerful and compelling drama, it reveals much of the rough-and-tumble backroom dealings that later came to light.  LBJ made it his business to exploit his adversaries and capitalize on their weaknesses, even if it took threats to achieve his ends.  Jack Willis offers up a formidable LBJ, strident, bullying, foul-mouthed and oftimes terrifying, yet an indelibly effective, larger-than-life politician armed with buckets of Southern colloquialisms.

(L to R) Lawrence Redmond (Vice President Hubert Humphrey) and Jack Willis (President Lyndon Baines Johnson) in The Great Society. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Many of the original actors from All the Way return in this tour de force including Jack Willis as LBJ, Richmond Hoxie as J. Edgar Hoover, Desmond Bing as Bob Moses, Craig Wallace as Ralph Abernathy, Tom Wiggin as McNamara, Bowman Wright as Dr. King, Jaben Early as Stokely Carmichael, John Scherer as Bobby Kennedy, Stephen F. Schmidt as Senator Dirksen, Susan Rome as Lady Bird Johnson, and Cameron Folmar as Governor George Wallace.  Lawrence Redmond returns in a different role, this time as Hubert Humphrey. Set Designer Kate Edmunds adds rising flames to a rotating presidential seal to remind us of the riots in Watts.

Highly recommended.  Be sure to bring your teens.

Through March 11th, 2018 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information call 202 488-3300 or visit online.

Jack Willis as President Lyndon Baines Johnson in The Great Society. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Something Rotten! ~ National Theatre

Jordan Wright
February 8, 2018

Photo Credit ~ © Jeremy Daniel

Loaded with top Broadway stars, Something Rotten! has got it all including actors who can sing, tap, rap and rock out up to the rafters.  Welcome to the Renaissance from the team of composers/lyricists Wayne Kirkpatrick and Karey Kirkpatrick, directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw with book by Karey Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell.  It’s utterly delicious.

From L: Blake Hammond and Rob McClure. ~ © Jeremy Daniel

Down-on-their-luck brothers Nick (Rob McClure) and Nigel (Josh Grisetti) Bottom are eager to one-up Shakespeare (rock star actor Adam Pascal) with a show-stopper of their own creation.  Nigel’s the writer and sensitive one falling for poetry-loving Portia (Autumn Hurlbert).  Nick and his feminist wife Bea (Maggie Lakis) support Nigel’s aspirations.  Pilfering from his wife’s savings, Nick seeks out Nostradamus (the marvelous Blake Hammond) to divine a fresh idea for a play.  The seer predicts it will be musicals.  “Song and dance and sweet romance.  No talking.  All of the dialogue is sung,” he assures.  Convinced the idea will trump anything the Sultan of Sonnet could pen, Nick imagines a troupe of Rockettes-in-codpieces-with-giant-ostrich feathers song and dance.  The show’s backer, Shylock, wonders if “Ham Omelette: The Musical” will sell to the masses.  Notwithstanding Shylock’s doubts, critics agreed when this hilarious musical comedy opened on Broadway nominating it no less than 34 times to garner two wins.

Autumn Hurlbert and Josh Grisetti. ~ © Jeremy Daniel

Groan-worthy wordplay, over-the-top pastiches, and silly costumes abound.  Eggs make an appearance.  Naturally.  It’s a mash-up of Shakespeare’s greatest quips meet the best of Broadway musical numbers in a crazy ass plot that fills the stage with ye olde rock and roll and vaudeville razzmatazz.  Broadway babies will recognize snippets from Cats, The Sound of Music, Music Man, West Side Story, Fiddler on the Roof and more (even Mary Poppins makes the cut) all sung and danced by a terrific cast.

Adam Pascal and the cast of the Something Rotten! ~ Photo credit © Jeremy Daniel

We need this. You need this.  Go!

Highly recommended.

Through February 18th, 2018 at The National Theatre, 1321 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington, DC.  For tickets call 202.628.6161 or visit online.

Jefferson’s Garden ~ Ford’s Theatre

Jordan Wright
ebruary 1, 2018 

It’s a curious thing that American Playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker is more famous in Great Britain where she is the Resident Writer at the Royal Court Theatre and has lately been awarded a commission to write a new play for the Royal Shakespeare Company.  That’s heady stuff.

Christopher Dinolfo as Christan and Felica Curry as Susannah. Photo by Carol Rosegg

In Jefferson’s Garden, part of the exciting Women’s Voices Theater Festival,  Wertenbaker’s focus is on the American Revolution and how we got there, revealing the contradictions between our founding father’s ideals and both the realities and precarious nature of freedom.  It reminds us the it was considered either a revolution or an insurgency depending on who was doing the talking.

Director Nataki Garrett opens the drama on a boat sailing from England to America, where Carl (Michael Halling), a bourgeois German aristocrat, meets a Quaker family who promise to take him to their farm if he learns practical skills.  He does.  Though the family are pacifists, their young son Christian (Christopher Dinolfo) defies his family to go to war, ultimately breaking a promise to his sister Louisa (Maggie Wilder) that he will never fight.

The Company of Timberlake Wertenbaker. Photo by Carol Rosegg

Nine actors, in different roles through dizzying wardrobe changes, introduce us to many of the founding fathers – Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, George Mason, Ben Franklin, George Washington – as well as the soldiers affected by the cost of war on their lives and loved ones.  The character of the freed slave Susannah (Felicia Curry) and her love story with a white man lend insight into the struggles both sides faced.

It is not until Act Two, that we come to Jefferson’s noted Monticello garden where the men have come to hash out the Bill of Rights and express their considered opinions.  There under a gazebo, we meet bossy Southern belle, Nelly Rose, played hilariously to the hilt by Kimberly Gilbert.

It is a high gear everything-but-the-kitchen-sink telling of the American Revolution – at times funny, at others emotional or flat-out educational.  Who knew there were four million Americans and only 160,000 Brits at the time of the revolution?  And who knew the King offered freedom to slaves who fought for England?  Okay, you did.  Seems I’d better brush up on my American history!Thoroughly enjoyable.

Additional cast members – Christopher Bloch, Thomas Keegan, Michael Kevin Darnall and Kathryn Tkel.

Through February 8th at Ford’s Theatre, 511 Tenth Street, NW, Washington, DC 20004.  For tickets and information call 888 616-0270 or visit online.

For more info on the Women’s Voices Theater Festival visit online.