January 19, 2016
Special to The Alexandria Times
Nicky McDonnell as Little Edie – Photos by Matt Liptak
For those of you who saw the 1976 Maysles brothers’ documentary of the two Bouvier family women – – mother, Edith Bouvier Beale, and her daughter, Little Edie, who lived in squalor in a decaying 25-room mansion in Easthampton, NY, this story will be familiar. Aunt and cousin to former First Lady Jaqueline Kennedy Onassis, the two society women grew up with Jackie, but took distinctly separate paths. Their shocking story and the decaying of Grey Gardens was chronicled in New York Magazine in the early 1970’s while I was living in a nearby town and I remember it well.
Composer Scott Frankel and Lyricist Michael Korie have turned Doug Wright’s book into a riveting musical, bringing to life the tragic tale of a mother, who kept her daughter from leaving home and a debutante daughter, whose guilt-ridden dreams of fame kept her at her eccentric mother’s side. It’s a tale with a dark side, told by two recluses whose artistic leanings lead them down a rocky road to despair.
Penelope Gallagher (Lee Bouvier), Kate Brown (Little Edie), Dick Reed (Major Bouvier), and Cassie Cope (Jaqueline Bouvier) – Photos by Matt Liptak
There is a certain fascination with the privileged and glamorous who have lost their fortune and are forced to live in reduced circumstances. And this tale does not disappoint. But it is also a fateful story of a mother’s jealousy of her daughter’s youthful beauty and eligible suitors, and her fear of living, and dying, alone.
Director Christopher Dykton has assembled a talented cast, taking us from 1941 with Little Edie played by Kate Collins Brown, and the elder Edith portrayed brilliantly by Nicky McDonnell who segues into the role of the daughter when Act 2 takes us to 1973 and Jennifer Strand becomes Big Edie. Having seen the documentary, it’s clear the three actresses nailed the characters, and their New York upper class accents, perfectly. Costume Designer Grant Kevin Lane completes the portrait by recreating the quirky clothing that Little Edie designed for herself.
Jennifer Strand as Big Edie – Photos by Matt Liptak
In the forties, when Big Edie was married to “Major” Bouvier (Dick Reed), Grey Gardens was the setting for many lavish parties where she entertained her guests with popular songs of the day. Accompanied by her companion, pianist George Gould Strong (Blakeman Brophy), Jackie, Little Edie and Jackie’s sister Lee Bouvier (Penelope Gallagher) sang along. It was what the Major called “a madhouse, that bohemia”. Abandoning his family on the night of Edie’s announcement of her marriage to Joseph Kennedy Jr. (Marshall Cesena) and destroying Edie’s chances at love and a hopeful escape from her mother’s clutches, he flees to Mexico for a divorce. Meanwhile her mother had already been undermining her by regaling young Joe with tales of her daughter’s wild adventures at the local country club. “I’m not your daughter. I’m just your shadow,” Edie realizes.
When the women’s dire circumstances are revealed in Act 2, “The money tree came down with Dutch Elm disease,” Big Edie quips, Little Edie is now 56, her beauty fading fast. When she realizes she is forever tethered to her mother and their 52 felines, it is then she turns a gimlet eye to her mother’s trap. “Nobody except a cat gets out,” she laments.
Cast Photo of Grey Gardens – Photos by Matt Liptak
Grey Gardens has sophisticated humor, witty Cole Porteresque lyrics, fine dramatic performances and all the schadenfreude of a prominent family’s personal debacle. It’s tough to handle, but so is the truth.
Through February 6th at The Little Theatre of Alexandria, 600 Wolfe Street. For tickets and information call the box office at 703 683-0496 or visit www.thelittletheatre.com
(L to R) John Ahlin as Mr. Dangle, Robert Dorfman as Mr. Sneer, and Robert Stanton as Mr. Puff in The Critic – Photo by Scott Suchman.
Director Michael Kahn presents a rollicking game of “skewer the critic” when he rolls these two irreverent comedies into one fast-paced production. In the immortal words of Mr. Puff, “Anyone can be a critic. All you need is a paper, a pen and a well of resentment.” Ouch!
Sandra Struthers as Actress 1, John Catron as Actor, and Charity Jones as Actress 2 in The Critic – Photo by Scott Suchman.
That an 18th-century British farce could pair so seamlessly with an American existentialist whodunit, might not seem so surprising a task. But that a singular cast could take on and exquisitely conquer such disparate settings and characters proves that humor is as delectable to Britain’s upper crust as to the American playgoer – notwithstanding a mere two hundred-year span.
(L to R) Charity Jones as Signora Decollete, John Ahlin as Mr. Dangle and Robert Dorfman
as Mr. Sneer in The Critic – Photo by Scott Suchman.
Adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher (The Turn of the Screw, Tuesdays with Morrie and A Confederacy of Dunces), The Critic is a tale of two self-important theatre critics, who pull a fast one on their frivolous colleague, aptly named Mr. Puff (Robert Stanton), by conning him into thinking an important producer will attend the rehearsal of his new drama, “The Spanish Armada”. The two snarks, Mr. Dangle (John Ahlin), an imperious lady’s man, and his equally conceited cohort Mr. Sneer (Robert Dorfman), devise a plan to make a fool of Mr. Puff and therefore tank his play.
Charity Jones as Actress 2 in The Critic. – Photo by Scott Suchman.
At the rehearsal they tell Puff that the influential Mr. Sheridan tolerates neither foreign terminology nor Shakespeare. Hobbled by these and other last minute concocted restraints, Mr. Puff complies by making ridiculously inappropriate revisions while the performance is ongoing. Actors are flummoxed, ham-handed mishaps revealed and props misfire to the delight of the conniving critics. Meanwhile we are treated to uproarious comedy, eye-popping costumes by Murell Horton and towering pompadours by a crew of wig builders led by Kelly Anne Johns. Lavish period sets are courtesy of Scenic Designer James Noone.
(L to R) Robert Stanton as Moon and John Ahlin as Birdboot in The Real Inspector Hound – Photo by Scott Suchman.
At first glance The Real Inspector Hound appears to be a light-hearted comedy cum murder mystery replete with mishaps and misrepresentations. But it is so much more. Tom Stoppard’s play-within-a-play treats us to a pair of bloviated theatre critics who hash out their reviews and boast about their past successes. “Did you see my review in neon?” asks Birdboot (John Ahlin), an over-the-hill roué whose predilection for actresses has him salivating after the play’s leading ladies. His cohort, Moon (Robert Stanton), is more concerned with the play’s analytics and his fellow competitors. “Élan without éclat” he insists describing a play he reviewed after which Birdboot trumps Moon by whipping out a viewfinder stocked with transparencies of his quote in all its marqueed glory. As they sit there wallowing in their professional triumphs and chomping on chocolates, we note a body on stage half-hidden beneath the Victorian settee. It’s been there all along, though only we seem to be aware of it.
Foregroud: Robert Stanton as Moon and Naomi Jacobson as Mrs Drudge; background: Robert Dorfman as Inspector Hound and John Catron as Simon Gascoyne
in The Real Inspector Hound – Photo by Scott Suchman.
The action takes place at Muldoon Manor in the foggy marshes of Essex, England where Lady Cynthia Muldoon (Charity Jones) is entertaining her guests. A murder has been committed in the nearby hamlet and the police are hard on the heels of the perp. The parallel whodunit involves a dashing cad, Simon Gascoyne (John Catron); the incapacitated Major Magnus (Hugh Nees); an adorable ingénue, Felicity Cunningham (Sandra Struthers); a haunted parlor maid, Mrs. Drudge (Naomi Jacobson); and of course, the natty Inspector Hound (Robert Dorfman).
The cast of the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of The Real Inspector Hound directed by Michael Kahn. Photo by Scott Suchman
Could it be Magnus, “I think I’ll go and oil my guns”, or Simon, paranoid his past loves are catching up with him? Perhaps Felicity has revenge on her pretty little mind? The tittle-tattle of the critics becomes the backdrop to the unfolding mystery as they try to discern the killer while critiquing the play and musing on their middle-aged fantasies until the otherworldly moment when they are drawn into the reviewer’s no-fly zone…the ongoing play.
Thanks to a crack cast this two-fer is so fast-paced you’ll want to secure your bowler before entering the theatre lest it blow off in a storm of bon mots.
At the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre through February 14th at 450 7th Street, NW Washington, DC 20004. For tickets and information call 202 547-1122 or visit Shakespeare Theatre.
January 10, 2016
Special to The Alexandria Times
Costume design by Amy Andrews Harrell
In our October interview with Mercy Street Co-Producer Lisa Wolfinger, we examined the story behind the new PBS Masterpiece Theatre’s Civil War era miniseries. Set in Alexandria, VA the plot is based on the true story of the Green family of Carlyle House and their hotel, Mansion House, which was commandeered by Union troops to serve as a hospital for both Union and Confederate soldiers. Part I of six episodes was screened at the Alexandria Film Festival on November 5th and I’m thrilled to report that Alexandria is repeatedly mentioned. The first installment premieres January 17th.
In exclusive interviews with Mercy Street Costume Designer and Richmond, VA resident Amy Andrews Harrell, and the show’s hat designer and Petersburg, VA resident, Ignatius Creegan, I gleaned some interesting facts about the creation of the show’s beautiful period costumes.
Costume design by Amy Andrews Harrell
Harrell’s professional career started when she became Set Costumer on Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Soon after she graduated to Costume Supervisor on HBO’s TV miniseries, John Adams, the winner of four Golden Globes and thirteen Emmys, earning more than any miniseries in history. In 2012 she was Key Costumer for Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, winner of two Academy Awards. By 2013 she was designing costumes for National Geographic Channel’s docudramas, Killing Lincoln and Killing Kennedy. Most recently she was Costume Designer on the yet-to-be-released thriller Imperium. Filmed in Richmond, VA the feature film stars Daniel Ratcliffe and Toni Colette. Harrell has a Master’s Degree in Costume Design from Southern Methodist University.
Costume design by Amy Andrews Harrell
What was your primary resource for research on the period?
For inspiration I used the book by John Guntzelman, “The Civil War in Color: A Photographic Reenactment of the War Between the States” as a guide.
Did you use any fabrics from the era?
I discovered a bolt of ten yards of original cotton from 1860 on eBay that I used in Jane Green’s dress. Also I had good luck with an antiques store in Mechanicsville that had pieces of dresses of the period. The silks were shattered, as old silk will do, but we were able to use parts of things. We used a lot of things from there as well as from a vintage store in Richmond called Halcyon, owned by Connie Carroll. She found some wonderful pieces of embroidery, lace and net that I could add onto Jane Green’s dress. I loved that it came from an estate in Richmond and is of the period.
Costume design by Amy Andrews Harrell
How many multiples did you need to make to hold up to the mud and blood?
Only in one instance. The first dress that Hannah wears gets ripped, so we had to make two of those. We had very limited resources to work with, but still it was very exciting. Whenever I looked out a window I could see one person doing three people’s jobs. We didn’t have the breathing room I’ve been accustomed to. We really worked without a net.
How did you keep them clean?
We knew beforehand which characters would get bloody or hurt and we had extra things for them. While stage blood has detergent built in to it, it can wash out if it’s on too light of a fabric. It’s unpredictable. It can turn a garment pink when you least expect it.
What’s a costume disaster from the filming?
We had really good luck, even though at night I would sometimes have dreams that there were things I forgot – – like someone without a costume!
Photo credit: Antony Platt/PBS
Milliners Ignatius Creegan and partner Rod Givens who live and work in their 7,000 square foot Civil War era mansion in Petersburg, VA, have worked with Harrell on many of the abovementioned films and were responsible for creating the historically accurate bonnets and caps. Creegan’s career goes back to 1987 when he started designing and making hats for theatre, movies and private clientele.
How did you decide what to design?
We worked with Amy’s designs and found a fair number of photographs of hats from the period. We also had designed historic era hats in the past. We have an antique straw sewing machine we used for some of the hats. These “straw machines” were the first commercial machines made for the industry. Notably the Civil War was the first time sewing machines were used.
Photo credit: Antony Platt/PBS
What was the process like?
It was interesting because I was able to use actual fabrics from the period. I cut them up to match the dresses. It was wonderful to be able to take a couple days to hand sew them. Hats were something that people made by hand then. It was an education for me to be able to work with those vintage styles and a luxury to incorporate those fabrics and trimmings including some wonderful old velvet ribbons that Amy had collected.
Photo credit: Antony Platt/PBS
What was it like to design hats for a period piece?
It’s interesting to consider what people were wearing in our neighborhood back then. A lot of the men’s designs are still wearable today and we are now starting a men’s collection based on what we did for Mercy Street. We plan to expand on those designs of hats and caps for our own clientele.
December 26, 2015
Special to DC Metro Theater Arts
Destination Del Ray for Cozy New Italian Spot – Bethesda Offers Theatre-goers and Cast Members Two Great Dining Options with Silver and Urban Heights – National Geographic Live! Presents “The Science of Delicious” – Zengo Celebrates Its 10th Anniversary with New Menu
Lena’s Wood-Fired Pizza & Tap
Alexandria locals have been eagerly anticipating the opening of Lena’s, the splashy new Neapolitan-style restaurant recently opened in the Del Ray neighborhood. All eyes have been trained on its build out, with area reports cheering the addition of large outdoor gas heaters, pretty landscaping and blazing fire pit for extended season dining. Situated near the Braddock Metro Station this spiffy spot is already abuzz with biz. A recent visit revealed its successful formula – reasonably priced chef-driven Italian dishes, handmade pasta, and a 4,800-pound wood-fired pizza oven in a large, yet smartly cozy, space. Featuring high ceilings and large windows facing the street, the main dining space and bar still manages to be cozy, even though it can easily accommodate 100 guests. For seasonal dining add another 68 to the spacious patio garden fronting the corner of Braddock Road and Mount Vernon Avenue.
Proud of their Italian heritage, the Yates, a well-known Alexandria family who are behind this effort, have named the restaurant after their late grandmother, Lena, a talented home cook whose ancestors hailed from Avellino and immigrated to our shores at the beginning of the 20th century. Early photographs of the matriarch and the De Gruttola and Forte families line the brick walls, bringing an air of intimacy to the space.
Chef Mauro Mollino of Lena’s with one of his Neapolitan wood-fired pizzas
On board as Executive Chef is Mauro Molino, a 22-year veteran of the restaurant and hospitality industry. Molino is an energetic ball of fire with an infectious smile and an eagerness to inform customers of the nuances of this southern Italian cuisine. Molino, who spent the early part of his culinary career in Torino and later at the historic Hilton Cincinnati Netherland Plaza in Ohio, is a veteran of Washington’s better known restaurants including Rustico Restaurant & Bar, The Hamilton, T.J Stones and Lia’s under Chef/Owner Geoff Tracy.
(L to R) Vegetable antipasto – Kale and Gorgonzola salad with poached pears – Bunt – a Piedmontese chocolate terrine
But it’s Lena’s time-tested recipes that prove the greatest tribute to her family’s Campania heritage – a legacy that is revealed in the restaurant’s menu – from gourmet pizzas, polenta fries, an impressive charcuterie board, sweet and spicy mussels, five types of paninis, and an array of fresh salads. Kale Salad with gorgonzola, poached pears, toasted almonds and buttermilk dressing is my favorite, as is a vegetable antipasto (who knew wood-grilled mushrooms were so irresistible?), grilled calamari and meltingly tender, fist-sized meatballs. Basic tomato “gravy”, as the cooked sauce is called, uses the sweet, lemony type of Roma tomatoes sourced exclusively from Lena’s region of San Marzano.
Desserts are totally unnecessary, but all in the name of research, don’t you know. Try the luscious Piedmontese chocolate terrine, called Bunt, and a Nutella pizza topped with white and dark chocolate chips and extra hazelnuts.
For more information visit www.lenaswoodfire.com
Rooftop Party in Urban Heights
A roof with a view at Urban Heights
That Robert Wiedmaier likes to party like a rock star, is no surprise to fans of Villain & Saint where the chef/owner of the popular rhythm-and-blues venue can hang with his like-minded music lovers and fellow biker mates. Lately he’s taken the party to the rooftop of Urban Heights, his other Bethesda hot spot, where a lively scene plays out under a pavilion-tented bar whose moniker is ‘The Lotus Lounge’. Heated for winter comfort, it offers a bird’s eye view of downtown Bethesda. The new restaurant features delectable Philippine-Southeast Asian influenced cuisine.
Urban Heights partiers
To celebrate the al fresco opening a whole baby pig was roasted in the roof’s open pit. Partiers enjoyed tasty nibbles – Spicy Tuna Tempura Roll, Braised Pork Belly, Bulgogi Steak Sliders, Lumpia – prepared by UH’s Chef Cliff Wharton (formerly of the late Ten Penh).
Island-influenced craft cocktails fired up the festivities while local musician Phil Kominski entertained the crowd with his fierce vocals and hot guitar licks.
Local musician Phil Kominski on the rooftop Lotus Lounge at Urban Heights
Silver – Upscale Brasserie Opens in Bethesda
It’s been a few years since we profiled Ype Von Hengst and his 180-degree lurch from the American style gut-busting dishes of his chain of Silver Diners to the lightened, seasonal, farm-to-table dishes he instituted at all his restaurants. Along with partner Robert Giaimo, the duo has since revolutionized what we think of as diner food to reflect a forward-thinking sensibility more in line with today’s calorie-conscious clientele. In addition to tweaking all aspects of American classic dishes – reducing the amount of salt and sugar and using healthier fats – they present a wealth of vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free choices.
The bar at Silver
Introducing Silver, a stunning French-inspired, Art Deco-designed restaurant with its black-and-white tiled floors, large banquettes, wood and stainless walls and columns reminiscent of New York’s Chrysler Building.
Tuna tartare with lime cilantro peanut dressing and crispy wontons – Wild caught scallops with feta and lemon garlic sauce
Breakfast here starts at 7am and extends till midnight with an all-day brunch to cover the in-between times. The flexitarian menu depends on local farms and suppliers – names familiar to those that shop at farmers’ markets and specialty gourmet stores. The passionate conceptualists are proud of their relationships with Firefly Farms for goat cheese, Parker Farms for produce and Richardson Farms for kale – all based in Maryland. Oysters come from the Chesapeake Bay, Black Angus steaks from nearby ranches. In Pennsylvania eggs come from Amish farmers at Martin’s Eggs, organic chicken from Bell & Evans Farms, blue cheese from Buck’s County and mushrooms from Basciani Farms. Edwards Virginia Smokehouse, maker of Surryano ham, a dry-cured, hickory-smoked, heritage breed pork that mimics prosciutto, provides the ham.
(L to R) 72 hour short rib with horseradish demi glace, cholula onions, garlic spinach, butternut squash and cauliflower parsnip mash – Chia banana pudding
It’s well nigh impossible to relate even a fraction of the dishes listed on the five distinct menus. I will, however, make mention of the fact that all sodas, fresh-pressed juices and cocktails are made from scratch, teas are organic, and coffee is fair trade certified. www.EatatSilver.com
NatGeo Live! Series Taps into “The Science of Delicious”
At National Geographic
Do your brain or your taste buds interpret what you’re eating? Maybe it’s your DNA. This and other nerdy questions were explained and debated at a lively dinner last month at the organization’s dining space on 17th Street where guests sipped heavenly cocktails paired with hors d’oeuvres – ‘Walking on Water’, a mix of pear and basil tea with Calvados brandy, Walnut bitters and pear eau de vie; and the ‘Dorian Grey’ jasmine mate tea with Irish whiskey, peach eau de vie, salty foam banana cream and mace dust. Todd James, Senior Photo Editor at National Geographic Magazine, moderated the presentation along with Dr. Julie Mennella, Biopsychologist at the Monnell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia where she conducts research on taste, smell and chemosensory irritation.
Together they guided us on a virtual tour to explain recent scientific developments in the biological mechanics of how we taste, why we taste things differently from one another, and how some scientists are trying to make insect larvae taste palatable. Hilarious photos of babies responding to new flavors accompanied some of the photographs. Dr. Mennella explained, “The foods you are eating when pregnant are probably what you are going to feed your child.”
Particularly intriguing was our virtual visit to NOMA, in Denmark. Known as “The World’s Finest Restaurant”, Chef/Owner Rene Redzepi has taken the foraging of Nordic plant life into the realm of haute cuisine. N. B. This should not be confused with your grandma’s dandelion salad. NOMA has three kitchens. The first is what they call the ‘Science Bunker’ where experiments are conducted to determine food’s reaction to an array of scientific applications. Then there’s a development kitchen for conceptualization, and future implementation if all goes well. Lastly, there’s the restaurant kitchen where food is prepared by highly regimented cooks for elegantly plated service in the dining room.
Cocktail progression menu
Another fascinating virtual visit was to British celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck restaurant to experience a fish course aptly named “Song of the Sea” which is served alongside a large Nautilus shell housing ear buds for listening to the sea.
Our two presenters were joined by Pam Caragol, Executive Producer of “EAT: The Story of Food” for National Geographic Studios/National Geographic Channel; Chef Myo Htun, Co-owner and Chef of Chaplin’s Restaurant, and Micah Wilder and his partner and brother Ari Wilder, Restaurateur and Co-owner of Chaplin’s who catered the event with an Asian inspired menu.
NatGeo Senior Photo Editor, Todd James, describes the “Science Bunker” at NOMA in Denmark
The carefully orchestrated dinner celebrated the Society’s December magazine’s feature story written by David Owen. The story is part of NatGeo’s Future of Food initiative, a special five-year project that seems to show how what we eat makes us who we are.
Zengo Maps Out an Asian Adventure
Zengo Chef de Cuisine Jason Streiff
World-renowned chef, Richard Sandoval, is celebrating his Latin-Asian restaurant Zengo’s 10th anniversary in Penn Quarter by rolling out a new menu based on his recent culinary exploration of Hong Kong, Tokyo and Thailand. Along with Chef de Cuisine Jason Streiff, they have seized on unique and delicious combinations of Asian-Latin flavors to dazzle the intrepid diner with bold, flavor-forward creations. Forewarned: Menu items marked with the Chinese character for new, are available now till the end of January and only available at dinner service after 5pm.
I lost track of how many plates were set in front of us, but there were easily over a dozen. Especially memorable from the Sushi & Crudo Bar was the Thai seafood ceviche and grouper ceviche with uni, leche de tigre, cilantro and sea beans, that crunchy, lemony seaweed that I adore. All of Sandoval’s restaurants make one version or another of ceviche and they are all outstanding.
Pork and foie gras shumai dumplings
The appetizer and dim sum portion of the menu lists 16 different selections from bulgogi ribeye tacos and pork and foie gras shumai dumplings to Thai chicken empanadas and duck confit-daikon tacos. Slow-cooked pork ribs with roast garlic chipotle glaze and spicy cucumber pickle are sweet and sticky, exactly as it should be.
(L to R) Thai seafood ceviche – Slow cooked pork ribs – Grouper ceviche with sea beans
For a main dish, especially fun for a group, you may want to try the tempura whole fish. Ask what the chef is preparing as it changes daily.
One section of the menu features exclusively wok-cooked dishes inclouding short rib udon noodle with XO, Thai basil and long bean in a drunken noodle broth; bibimbap with pork belly, soft egg, gochujang, pickled vegetables and sticky rice; as well as chili crab “Hong Kong” noodle accompanied by crispy noodles with sugar snap peas, asparagus, egg and spicy curry. An unusual entry is the chili crab “Hong Kong” noodle that adds Maryland blue crab as well as the hard-to-find roe. www.richardsandoval.com/zengodc.
Photo credit – Jordan Wright
December 21, 2015
Special to The Alexandria Times
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
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 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 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
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.