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Jersey Boys ~ The Story of Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons ~ National Theatre

Jordan Wright
December 17, 2019 

(l to r) Corey Greenan, Eric Chambliss, Jon Hacker and Michael Milton – Photo: Joan Marcus

In an era when Motown was delivering hit after hit and Black singing groups ruled the charts, a quartet of Italian kids from the blue-collar town of Belleville, NJ began their journey to stardom.  Most of them were small-time crooks who knew a hot hustle when they saw it.  Tommy, one of the original members, was street smart enough to keep the others out of the worst kind of trouble, though all of them wound up serving time in the pen.  After they all got out, they re-formed, playing local dives and bowling alleys – an arduous route followed by many bands.  Only a handful of these white quartets made it big.  How Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons achieved the pinnacle of success and were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame defines this Tony, Grammy and Olivier-award winning musical.

Bob Crewe’s Apartment ~ (l to r) Michael Milton, Corey Greenan, Jon Hacker, Justin Albinder, Sean McGee and Eric Chambliss – Photo: Joan Marcus

Valli’s powerhouse falsetto and the group’s sweet harmonies, set them apart from other groups, but success didn’t come easily.  After years of struggle as unknown studio backup singers for big recording artists and a sleazy group member who put them over $1M in debt, the group finally found their identity when a young Joe Pesci (Yes! That Joe Pesci.) introduced them to a little-known singer/songwriter named Bob Crewe.  Crewe subsequently churned out mountains of hits for the group and apart from their personal troubles managed to keep them on the road and on the charts.  Of particular interest for me, was learning about Crewe, the most grounded, educated and philosophical of the band members.

Thanks to Murray the K, a popular New York City radio disc jockey, the group got airplay of their first release, “Sherry”.  It went straight to the top of Billboard’s pop charts selling one million records.  After that the hits, and the fans, kept coming – “Big Girls Don’t Cry”, “Walk Like a Man”, “Dawn” and dozens more.

Snowflake Ladies ~ (l to r) Katie Goffman, Connor Lyon, Amy Wagner and Ashley Bruce – Photo: Joan Marcus

The plot, though somewhat predictable and thin as a minute, is based on their fortunes and misfortunes.  Think of it as the glue that supports the musical numbers.  Fans will hear over two dozen of their biggest hits plus a few of their earliest song stylings.  Sung by a quartet whose voices are a near perfect match to the originals, think of it as a Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons concert.  The harmonies are pitch perfect.

(l to r) Ashley Bruce, Amy Wagner and Connor Lyon – Photo: Joan Marcus

Former original Broadway cast member Jon Hacker as Frankie shows off an astonishing falsetto range accompanied by slick dance moves.  Expect James Brown-style splits and spins executed in retro sharkskin suits.  All the band’s songs are choreographed as are those for a sexy mini-skirted girl group that accompanies the boys on tour.

A high energy concert-styled musical set in a retro 60’s music scene, it features all their greatest hits.

Highly entertaining.  (Note: This show is appropriate for ages 12+ only due to strong language throughout.)

Directed by Des McAnuff; Written by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice; Choreographed by Sergio Trujillo; Music by Bob Gaudio; Lyrics by Bob Crewe; Lighting by Howell Binkley; Costume Design by Jess Goldstein; Orchestrations by Steve Orich.

Starring Sean McGee as Bob Crewe; Michael Milton as Nick Massi; Eric Chambliss as Bob Gaudio; Corey Greenan as Tommy DeVito; Ashley Bruce as Mary Delgado/Angel. The rest of the cast all play multiple roles.

Through January 5th at the National Theatre – Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington, DC.  For tickets and information visit www.TheNationalDC.com or call 1.800.514-3849.

Peter Pan and Wendy ~ Shakespeare Theatre Company at Sidney Harmon Hall

Jordan Wright
December 18, 2019 

Though Peter gets top billing in Lauren Gunderson’s world premiere, make no mistake about it, her interpretation of J. M. Barrie’s classic tale elevates the female roles to star status.  As the most produced playwright in America, Gunderson’s imprimatur is writing plays about accomplished women in science and the arts who have become mere footnotes in history.  First performed in 1904, Barrie’s play was a product of its time, insensitive to sexism, racism and Colonialism and decidedly not politically correct.  In Gunderson’s adept hands we find the same level of excitement in Peter Pan’s fantasy world, but with a greater sensitivity to the female roles, an ethnically diverse cast, and a greater awareness in portraying indigenously correct characters.

Sinclair Daniel as Wendy, Chauncey Chestnut as Michael, Derek Smith as Mr. Darling. Bailey as Nana, Christopher Flaim as John, and Jenni Barber as Mrs. Darling Photo credit Teresa Castracane.

Here Wendy, Tinkerbell and Tiger Lily have been reframed to reflect stronger female identities.  Wendy, inspired by Marie Curie’s recent notoriety, pooh-poohs her father’s suggestion that she attend a posh finishing school, instead pleading for a science academy where she can pursue her love of the stars and mathematics.  Oh, yes!  Our Wendy is still a compassionate girl and protector of brothers Michael and John, but she’s now portrayed as a serious-minded student of cosmology.  Tinkerbell becomes a Valley Girl-voiced fireball, glammed to the max, and more in sync with the women of Wakanda.  “I’d probably go less Colonial genocide,” she warns Hook.  And Tiger Lily, performed by a member of the Dakota Nation, who becomes a heroine defending the peace and sanctity of her native lands.  “I’m here to avenge my people,” she tells Peter who, before he gets woke, comes off as a self-centered, anti-hero eager to fight his nemesis on a daily basis.

Sinclair Daniel as Wendy and Justin Mark as Peter Pan. Photo credit Teresa Castracane.

Gunderson’s Peter Pan and Wendy is a fantasy-filled production directed by the legendary Alan Paul with costumes by Loren Shaw, and Scenic Design by Jason Sherwood.  A perfect antidote to our times, it’s a technical marvel with a backstage crew of 66 designers, from animal trainers and animators to musicians and backstage crew.  Together they keep on Tinkerbell’s lights in flight and five of the actors (out of a cast of 19 plus one adorable live dog) soaring high above the stage.  I couldn’t keep track of how many pulse-quickening, pirate fights there were, nor the audience’s uncontrolled laughter watching the scenes between the vainglorious Captain Hook, his first mate the sycophantic Smee, and their batty crew of bungling pirates.  My only critique is that I wanted to see more of the dazzling mermaid floating on clouds of bubbles.

Tendo Nsubuga and Darren Alford as Twins, Joriah Kwame as Slightly, Francisco Gonzalez as Tootles, and Ronen Lewis as Curly. Photo credit Scott Suchman.

So, look to the starry skies to find Neverland, the Lost Boys, and Peter assisted by a very large tick-tocking crocodile and buttressed by girl power – Wendy, as strategic governor, Tinkerbelle, as a fierce defender, and Tiger Lily, as mediator.  And always remember who the land belongs to. “My people will always be here,” Tiger Lily reminds us.

Jenni Barber as Tinkerbell. Photo credit Scott Suchman.

Highly recommended.

Starring Derek Smith as John Darling/Captain Hook; Justin Mark as Peter Pan; Sinclair Daniel as Wendy; Jenni Barber or Megan Huynh as Mrs. Darling/Tinkerbell; Isabella Star LaBlanc as Tiger Lily; Tom Story as Smee; Christopher Flaim as John Darling; Chauncey Chestnut as Michael Darling; Bailey as Nana the dog.  With Francisco González as Tootles; Ronen Lewis as Curly; Joriah Kwame as Slightly; Darren Alford as Twin; Tendo Nsubuga as Twin; Michael Glenn as Jukes, Calvin McCullough as Noodler; and Gregory Wooddell as Starkey.

Composer Jenny Giering; Lighting Design by Isabella Byrd; Sound Design by John Gromada; Projection Design by Jared Mezzocchi; Puppet Design by James Ortiz; Flying Scenes choreographed by Paul Rubin; Choreographer Katie Spellman; Speical Effects by Jeremy Chernick.

Through January 12, 2020 from the Shakespeare Theatre Company at the Sidney Harmon Hall in the Michael R. Klein Theatre at 610 F Street, NW, Washington, DC 20004.  For tickets and information visit www.ShakespeareTheatre.org or call the box office at 202.547.1122.

Eureka Day ~ Mosaic Theater Company of DC at the Atlas Center for the Performing Arts

Jordan Wright
December 12, 2019 

Jonathan Spector’s comedy about a private, liberal grade school in Berkeley, California brings tons of laughs when its politically correct committee of five educators is faced with an outbreak of the mumps.  Among the school’s decision-makers are Meiko, a shy Asian woman in an affair with Eli who is also married; Eli, the eternal organizer, “I think this might be a good moment for a community-activated discussion.”; Carina, an African American mom new to the committee and unafraid to speak out; Suzanne, the deeply passive-aggressive head of the committee, “We have a lot of neuro-diversity here.”; and Don, a Birkenstock-sporting, flow-chart specialist subservient to Suzanne, “I am only here to facilitate,” he defers.  As a group, they are a hot mess – more concerned with heritage designations on enrollment forms and gender-optional pronouns.

Eureka Day Ensemble – Photo credit Christopher Banks

Needing universal consensus to institute an action plan, they vote to Skype in the parents.  But all hell breaks loose when the parents’ divergent views devolve into a virtual live Tweet, scream-fest and medical facts become as disposable as eco-friendly bamboo plates.  Yes, there’s a discussion about that too, when clueless Carina serves snacks on plastic plates.

Eureka Day Ensemble – Photo Credit Christopher Banks

The hot-button issue between those who believe in vaccinating their kids and the anti-vaxxers is utterly hilarious as the video-projected, live feed convos become a caustic maelstrom of name-calling, Pharma-blaming, climate change tirades, Creationism battles, and religious disagreements.  No, wait.  “Disagreement” is too soft a word to describe how the parents go into full-on, personal attack mode.  Sound familiar?  All too familiar in this issue-charged political climate.  Played for laughs we can watch the turmoil from a safe distance while acknowledging how polarizing these issues have become.  Artistic Director, Ari Roth, defines it as, “Progressives Behaving Badly.”

Eureka Day Ensemble – Photo Credit Christopher Banks

Not too long ago this was in the news when it was left to a court to decide.  Should you protect children who are already vaccinated from attending school with those whose parents decide not to vaccinate?  Do you place a quarantine on the school?  For how long, and who decides?  In this clever comedy, and as in real life, some don’t survive these irresponsible decisions.

Andrew Cohen’s set design is purposely innocent – a brightly-lit, colorful classroom lined bookshelves and children’s art – a perfectly neutral spot for adult mayhem especially in the hands of this wildly expressive ensemble.

Eleanor Holmes Norton – Photo credit Christopher Banks

On the night I saw it Eleanor Holmes Norton played a cameo role.  More local notables are on schedule to appear during the run.  Check the schedule.

Highly recommended.  As soon as I left the theatre, I wanted to see it again.

Directed by Serge Seiden with Lighting Design by Brittany Shemuga; Original Projections by Teddy Hulsker; and Projections by Dylan Uremovich.  Originally commissioned and produced by Aurora Theatre Company, Berkeley, CA.

With Regina Aquino as Meiko; Lise Bruneau as Suzanne; Erica Chamblee as Carina; Sam Lunay as Don; Elan Zafir as Eli; and Mar Cox/Thomas Nagata as Winter.

Through January 5th at The Atlas Center for the Performing Arts – 1333 H Street, NE, Washington, DC 20002.  For tickets and information call 202 399-7993 ext. 2 or visit www.MosaicTheater.org.

Come From Away ~ The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

Jordan Wright
December 13, 2019 

Come From Away is the heartwarming true story of the residents of Gander, Newfoundland who took in over 7,000 passengers when their flights were diverted during 9/11.  It is not a maudlin retelling of that terrifying moment in time when all U. S. airspace shut down.  Nor is it an historical or political exposé, but it is a testament to how extraordinarily kind and generous these small-town residents were when faced with a disaster of epic proportions.

The North American Tour of Come From Away Photo Credit Matthew Murphy

It’s a normal workday when news comes in that 38 international aircraft have been diverted to their local airport.  The bus drivers are on strike.  The local news reporter is on her first day on the job. The mayor is under siege and the SPCA lady is running late to the animal shelter.  Passengers on the aircraft have no idea why they are not headed to their destinations.  Forced to remain in their crowded planes on the tarmac for 28 hours with zip to do, they get rip-roaring drunk.  Who wouldn’t?

The North American Tour of Come From Away Photo Credit Matthew Murphy

Based on a true story, the musical parallels the strained emotions of the stranded passengers with the herculean efforts of the townspeople who struggled to provide food and supplies for adults, kids, babies, dogs, cats and a pair of bonobo chimpanzees.  Everything about this sweet, sweet, musical reaffirms one’s belief in the kindness and generosity of strangers in the face of adversity.  Remember how everyone pulled together in New York during that terrifying time?  Well, it feels just like that, only with a great deal of situational humor as the passengers settle into town life, struggle to adjust, and hit the local bars.

The North American Tour of Come From Away Photo Credit Matthew Murphy

Of particular charm are the townspeople’s Irish accents and Irish music, a result of the region’s Celtics roots.  Add to that the passengers’ diversity of ethnicities, religions, and predilections, to form an ad hoc United Nations.  Yet there is still fear amongst some of the passengers.  A gay couple worries they will be scorned.  A Muslim has to hide his prayer time.  A mixed-race couple is unsure if it’s realistic to fall in love under such superficial circumstances.

The staging is a brilliant achievement of complex choreography as the actors assume many roles and the simple sets toggle between scenes on the planes, the local watering hole, the SPCA and the mayor’s office.

The First North American Tour Company of COME FROM AWAY, Photo by Matthew Murphy,

Uplifting and exuberant with a gorgeous score and phenomenal singing to boot.  I loved every minute of it!

Book, Music and Lyrics by Irene Sankoff and David Hein.  Directed by Christopher Ashley with Lighting Design by Howell Binkley; Costumes by Toni-Leslie James; Scenic Design by Beowolf Boritt; Sound Design by Gareth Owen; Orchestrations by August Eriksmoen; and Arrangements by Ian Eisendrath.

Featuring Sharone Sayegh as Bonnie; Harter Clingman as Oz and others; Marika Aubrey as Beverly/Annette and others; Julia Knitel as Janice and others; James Earl Jones II as Bob and others; Kevin Carolan as Claude and others; Chamblee Ferguson as Nick/Doug and others; Nick Duckart as Kevin J./Ali and others; Danielle K. Thomas as Hannah and others; Julie Johnson as Beulah and others; and Christine Toy Johnson as Diane and others.

Through January 5th at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 2700 F St., NW, Washington, DC.  For tickets and information call 202 467-4600 or visit www.Kennedy-Center.org.

The Woman in Black ~ Shakespeare Theatre Company

Jordan Wright
December 9, 2019 

Attention all Brits and Anglophiles!  The festive tradition of vying for the evilest stories during the Christmas season is very much intact.  Based on Susan Hull’s 1983 neo-Gothic novel came the play, the second-longest running production in London’s West End.  It puts us in mind of Dicken’s “A Christmas Carol” featuring the spooky ghosts of Christmases Past, Present and Future.  This tale of “truth being quite other”, as it’s described, attempts to be a story of haunting and fear.  And the premise that, “It must be told,” becomes the basis for delivering this tale.

Daniel Easton, left, and Robert Goodale star in “The Woman in Black” at the Shakespeare Theatre Company. Photo credit Tristram Kenton

In this atmospherically set two-hander, promoted as “spine-tingling”, the actors trade parts using different accents, subtle costume changes, and a few props, counting on the audience’s imagination to envision the characters’ motives and identities, rather than seeing it all played out.  Eerie sound effects – howling winds, thudding steps, screams, and things that go bump in the night – are the raison d’être for attempting to terrorize the audience.

In it, scenes toggle back and forth between an old man’s spooky story and a young solicitor (who also acts as acting coach to the old man) with the two men trading roles and adopting new ones at the drop of a bowler hat.  I must confess I found it rather sillier, and utterly predictable, than scary, though several audience members did squeal a few times.

Robert Goodale, left, and Daniel Easton in “The Woman in Black.” Photo credit Tristram Kenton

It’s easy to intuit the plot as well as the outcome when the described setting is the dark salt marshes surrounding an isolated house in England’s barren countryside.  Factor in the Nine Lives Bridge that sinks with the tides, further enisling the property and add in a fog-filled graveyard that features prominently as a location for a visiting ghost.  I’m not entirely certain there weren’t baying hounds, but there could have been, so seamlessly would they have figured into this well-acted but clichéd story.

Ah well, you can’t win them all – ghosts notwithstanding.

Adapted by Stephen Mallatratt and directed by Robin Herford.  Set and Costume Design by Michael Holt, Lighting Design by Kevin Sleep.  Starring Robert Goodale as Arthur Kipps and Daniel Easton as The Actor.

Through December 22nd at the Michael R. Klein Theatre (formerly known as the Lansburgh Theatre) at 450 7th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20007.  For tickets and information visit  www.ShakespeareTheatre.org/events or call the box office at 202.547.1122.