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Dear Evan Hansen ~ The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

Jordan Wright
August 11, 2019 

Four years ago, Dear Evan Hansen premiered at Arena Stage under the direction and guidance of Molly Smith and Edgar Dobie.  The angsty teen musical starred Ben Platt who subsequently became a huge star when the show went to Broadway where it won six Tony Awards in 2017 plus a Grammy for “Best Musical Theater Album” in 2018.  Before seeing this national touring company production, I reread my original review, which surprisingly, was quite specific as to the pros and cons.

Ben Levi Ross as ‘Evan Hansen’ and the Company of the First North American Tour of Dear Evan Hansen. Photo by Matthew Murphy

Although a fresh, new concept in musical theater, I noted the production seemed overly cloying and needed work with some of the songs.  More specifically, I was eager to see the show get some much-needed, strategic editing and a sharper focus.  From my August 2015 review:  “The show loses momentum as the characters’ roles are overly fleshed out and side stories stretch into distractions.  Another bump is the annoying repetition of lyrics and all too frequent use of falsetto called for in the songs.”  Thankfully the overuse of falsetto is gone.  Gone too is the annoying repetition of some lyrics, and the story now is now focused on a universal, multi-generational message that truly resonates.

Ben Levi Ross as ‘Evan Hansen,’ Aaron Lazar as ‘Larry Murphy,’ Christiane Noll as ‘Cynthia Murphy’ and Maggie McKenna as ‘Zoe Murphy’. Photo by Matthew Murphy

I give huge credit to producers Stacey Mindich, Wendy Orshan and Jeffrey M. Wilson who hung on tight and cherished the vision of Steven Levenson’s book, and the music and lyrics of Benj Pasek & Justin Paul by taking the musical to the next level – a more polished, fully developed, gorgeous musical that provides the audience with the humanity and humor it craves.

Ben Levi Ross as ‘Evan Hansen’ and Jessica Phillips as ‘Heidi Hansen’ in the First North American Tour of Dear Evan Hansen. Photo by Matthew Murphy

The coming-of-age story of Evan Hansen centers around a tormented teen raised by a single mother in the fraught age of social media.  Insecure and an outcast at school, Evan’s psychologist asks him to self-examine by writing letters to himself.  That alone doesn’t curb the bullying or bring him closer to his teen crush Zoe until the day Connor Murphy, a fellow outcast, takes his own life and a series of unconnected events offer Evan purpose to his lonely life, recognition from his peers, and a made-up tale for his broken arm.  “You play who you have to play,” his pal Jared advises him as he, Evan and Alana concoct a social media scheme to capitalize on Connor’s untimely death.  Unfortunately, the result proves how devastating Twitter and Facebook can be when used to promote a false narrative.  On a larger scale it can be socially and politically devastating as we have witnessed in our national political system.

Christiane Noll as ‘Cynthia Murphy’ and Jessica Phillips as ‘Heidi Hansen’ in the First North American Tour of Dear Evan Hansen. Photo by Matthew Murphy

Fans will thrill to Ben Levi Ross’ (Evan Hansen) galvanic voice in hits like “Waving Though a Window”, “For Forever”, “You Will be Found” and “Words Fail” which brings the house down.  Another high point is the beautiful and lyrical intensity actor Jessica Phillips (as Evans’ mother, Heidi) brings to the number, “So Big/So Small” which is when you wish you’d brought a handkerchief.

Highly recommended.  Moving and relatable, Dear Evan Hansen calls out to both parents and teens with truth and humor.

Also starring Jared Goldsmith as Jared Kleinman; Phoebe Koyabe as Alana Beck; Maggie McKenna as Zoe Murphy; Christiane Noll as Cynthia Murphy; Aaron Lazar as Larry Murphy and Marrick Smith as Connor Murphy.

Directed by Michael Greif; with Orchestrations & Original Arrangements by Alex Lacamoire; Costume Design by Emily Rebholz; Choreography by Danny Mefford; Scenic Design by David Korins; Projection Design by Peter Nigrini; Lighting Design by Japhy Weideman and Sound Design by Nevin Steinberg with the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra. 

Through September 8th 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 Producers ~ A New Mel Brooks Musical ~ The Little Theatre of Alexandria

Jordan Wright
July 28, 2019
Special to The Alexandria Times

The ProducersThe Little Theatre of Alexandria didn’t seem so little last night with its super-sized production of The Producers, the Mel Brooks/Thomas Meehan musical comedy.  The tremendous cast is led by four stellar comic actors – Steve Cairns in the role of the flamboyant producer Max Bialystock, newcomer and up-and-comer Ryan Phillips as the hapless co-producer Leo Bloom, Sirena Dib as the Ulla, the adorable Swedish cream puff, and WATCH Award-winning actor Brian Lyons-Burke as the drag queen Broadway director, Roger DeBris.

Max (Steve Cairns), Ulla (Sirena Dib), Leo (Ryan Phillips) ~ Photographer: Matthew Randall

Famed Broadway producer Max is down on his luck and his dough, when Leo, an accountant comes to his office to do his books.  Leo tells Max he’d make more money if he produced a flop, so Max hatches a plan to tap his coterie of little-old-lady backers for a coupla mil and abscond to Rio with Leo and the cash.

Leo (Ryan Phillips), Max (Steve Cairns) ~ Photographer: Matthew Randall

The pair set about to find the worst director, Roger DeBris, the worst actors, and the worst playwright discovering Franz Liebkind, a Bavarian loony and pigeon fanatic who has written a dreadful play called “Springtime for Hitler”, that features the Nazi SS and their minions.

Thinking it will be their ticket to salvation they assemble the worst crew in showbiz to execute their convoluted plan.  But when the reviews come in calling it “a satirical masterpiece”, they can hardly believe it.  The musical is a hit.  In the tune “Where Did We Go Wrong?” sung by Max and Leo, they bemoan their fate.  When Max gets arrested for scamming his backers, lovebirds, Leo and Ulla, hightail it to Rio with all the dough.  Of course, that’s not the half of the hijinks nor of the big numbers backed by an exceptional 22-piece orchestra.

Ulla (Sirena Dib), Leo (Ryan Phillips), Judge (Brandon Steele), Ensemble (Courtney Caliendo), Max (Steve Cairns) and Ensemble ~ Photographer: Matthew Randall

The big budget production features sixteen amazing costume changes that go from glitz-and-glam to lederhosen-and-dirndls.  Throw in a stage-ful of Nazi uniforms, sequined prison stripes and over-the-top drag courtesy of Roger’s assistant, Sabu (Brandon Steele).  The 15-member ensemble of hoofers and songsters belts and taps to nineteen numbers that had the audience roaring with approval on opening night.  Even the props were funny, including a rooftop scene with a cage filled with nodding pigeons.

Highly recommended.  Kudos to all for a terrific night of hilarity, crazy wild theatrics and a standing ovation.

Produced by David Correia and Mary Beth Smith-Toomey, directed by Kristina Friedgin with original direction and choreography by Susan Stroman, Set Design by Dan Remmers, Lighting Design by Ken and Patti Crowley, Costumes by Jean Schlicting and Kit Sibley, Choreographer by Stefan SittigProperty Design by Kirstin Apker, with Colin Taylor conducting.

Through August 17that 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

Volta ~ Cirque du Soleil

Jordan Wright
July 28, 2019 

When Cirque du Soleil comes to town the excitement level soars as high as the big top that holds the exhilarating spectacle.  Just watching the white tents go up in Tysons Corner II foretells of acrobats and contortionists with feats of extreme agility, grace and power.  Volta tells the story of WAZ, an unusual blue-hued, feather-haired boy who seeks his place in the world.  His journey of self-discovery and ultimate transformation is backgrounded by video projections of his youth, a fondly remembered red bicycle, and dreams of his mother on their rural farm.

Mr Wow3 ~ Credit Matt Beard Costumes Zaldy

Guided by the roller-skating urchin, Ela, WAZ soon finds friends who live life to the fullest in an urban landscape fueled by street sports. When they encourage him to participate in their activities, he discovers all the adventures and fun a boy can have. Riding flatland tricks on BMX bicycles at high speed on ramps, tumbling through ever-higher hoops, skipping ropes double-dutch at warp speed and flying through the air on trapeze and high wire. Another thriller is the three-story tumbling competition on the ‘trampowall’.  In between the extraordinary feats on ladders, BMX and unicycle, there’s plenty of humor for children and adults, in particular a wonderfully silly scene portrayed in pantomime of a fraught day at the beach.  One of the most talked about feats may be Brazilian acrobat, Vanesa Ferreira Calado’s performance of hair suspension.  Yes, she flies through the air with the greatest of ease – held on solely by her hair!

VOLTA Mr Wow 011 Photo credit BenoitZ.Lero…customes Zaldy

The show is three hours of fascinating, ever-electrifying wow with moments of sweetness and visual storytelling set to an original score by Anthony Gonzalez, of the French electronic music project M83.  As described by the company, “Ultimate freedom comes with self-acceptance and liberation from the judgement of others.” In other words, let your freak flag fly high!

Unicycle ~ Credit Matt Beard ~ Costumes Zaldy

Costumes by Emmy Award designer Zaldy Goco, famed for his work with Lady Gaga, Michael Jackson, Gwen Stefani and RuPaul’s Drag Racerange from the subtle streetwear to candy-colored, rainbow-hued leotards for the acrobats, shiny golden capes, fur for Mr. WOW and delicate chiffons for the ballet dancer and electric violin player.

For those of us trying to remember when Cirque first came to town, their first local production was in 1988 with Cirque Réinventé.  The brand new Volta is the 21stproduction to visit the DC Metro area.

Through September 29that the Lerner Town Center at Tysons II, VA.  For tickets and information visit www.cirquedusoleil.com  or call 1-877-924-7783.

Treasure Island ~ Synetic Theater

Jordan Wright
July 23, 2019
Special to The Alexandria Times 

“Fifteen men on the dead man’s chest.  Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum!  Drink and the devil had done for the rest, yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum!

Set sail for adventure with Synetic Theater’s lively production of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic tale, Treasure Island, where the peg-legged pirate Long John Silver and his scurrilous band of buccaneers go in search of hidden riches on Skeleton Island.  Hired by Captain Smollet, Dr. Livesey, and Squire Trelawney who commissions the voyage, Silver, protégé of the notorious Captain Flint who hid the treasure, pretends to be a lowly cook.  Once aboard, Silver convinces the motley crew of scalliwags to switch allegiance, promising them riches beyond their wildest imaginings.  At first Silver befriends the beautiful orphan girl Jane Hawkins who has been gifted Flint’s treasure map by the late Billy Bones.  Fans of the late 19thcentury adventure novel will note that Jim Hawkins’ role in this production is a female character who develops the ferocity and fearlessness of any seafaring pirate.

Photo credit Brittnay Diliberto

Saving her from a life of servitude at the Admiral Benbow Inn, Silver promises Jane he will watch over her if she will give him the map, but once aboard the Hispaniola, she learns his scheme to keep the treasure for himself. Oh, he’s a wily one.  “Treasure is like a disease.  It infects the noblest of minds,” he cautions her.

Photo credit Brittnay Diliberto

Plotting to outfox our heroes, as well as the brave Jane Hawkins, Silver must figure out how to get the map that Hawkins has given to Dr. Livesey for safekeeping.  But nothing goes as planned for either side as it’s criss-cross and double-cross, foul treachery and maritime mutiny, framed by dangerous storms at sea.  Jane comes out the hero by turning on Silver one last time even though Silver saves her life from the clutches of his blood-thirsty crew who have locked up the Captain and Trelawney in the stockade.

Photo credit Brittnay Diliberto

Chris Daileader, a mashup of Leonardo DiCaprio and Johnny Depp, gives a fantastic performance replete with a British pirate’s accent as the crafty pirate Long John Silver.  And Anne Flowers’ portrayal of Jane Hawkins makes us believe that a girl can do anything against all odds if she sets her cap to it.  Seven more actors, each playing multiple roles, create the illusion that there is a huge cast.  Scenes of rum-swilling pirates dancing to Irish jigs will dispel any and all evil spirits of the deep.

Director Tori Tolentino, Set Designer Phil Charlwood, Movement Director Dallas Tolentino, and Sound Designer Thomas Sowers have taken this beloved pirate’s tale into the abstract with fantastical imagery and sheer athleticism, and made the pages of the book come alive with swashbuckling swordfights and fearless swagger.  Here, prophesy and foul play transform into a rollicking adventure tailor made for children and as well as their grownup captors!

Photo credit Brittnay Diliberto

With Karina Hilleard as Squire Trelawney; Da’Von T. Moody as Dr. Levesey; Billie Krishawn as Captain Smollett; Lee Liebeskind as Billy Bones/Israel Hands/Ensemble; Scott Whalen as Ben Gunn/Clem/Ensemble; Anna Lynch as Innkeeper/Morgan/Ensemble; Raven Lorraine as Pew/Merry/Ensemble; Irene Hamilton as Black Dog/Tommie/Ensemble; Conor Donahue as Flint/Gates/Ensemble; and Darius Johnson as Abraham Grey/Tarth/Ensemble.

Adapted by Tori & Dallas Tolentino; Resident Composer Konstantine Lortkipanidze; Costumes by Jeannette Christensen; and Lighting Design by Paul Callahan.

Highly recommended – especially coupled with a visit to Alexandria’s 18thcentury, replica tall ship ‘Providence’ permanently docked at the base of King Street where kids can indulge their own seafaring fantasies.

Through August 18that Synetic Theater, 1800 South Bell Street, Arlington, VA in Crystal City.  For tickets and information call 1-866-811-4111 or visit www.synetictheater.org.

Aladdin ~ The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

Jordan Wright
July 22, 2019 

For those of you who love fantasy and adventure with royalty and villains, Disney’s Aladdin sits at the pinnacle of Broadway extravaganzas.  I doubt there’s ever been any production with more glitter, more sequins, more light-reflecting crystal beads, fields of chiffon, sky-high feathered turbans and all-around glitz and glamour on one stage since Florence Ziegfeld’s Follies.  The pyrotechnics and projections alone make this a must-see.

Friend Like Me ~ Aladdin North American Tour. Photo by Deen van Meer

Everything you might expect from an Arabian spectacle is all here in eye-popping splendor, thanks to multiple Tony Award-winning Set Designer Bob Crowley.  If only desert life was this colorful.  Moorish minarets loom over sword swallowers, belly dancers and whirling dervishes as the handsome, oh so impoverished, Aladdin tries to woo the beautiful Princess Jasmine to save her and her kingdom from the clutches of the Sultan’s Grand Vizier, Jafar, and his vertically-challenged sidekick, Iago.  Poor Aladdin, our hero is trapped in poverty, while Jasmine is trapped in a gilded cage.  Nothing is simple in the kingdom of Agraba, but there’s a lot that’s hilarious.  As Genie (played absolutely gloriously by Major Attaway) explains in his usual wry tone, “Everyone here has 0% body fat.”… except for Genie, who is a full-figured, jive-talking bundle of high-stepping, street-smart exuberance who can nail a medley of Disney show tunes as easily as he can grant three wishes.

Friend Like Me ~ Major Attaway (Genie) & Ensemble Aladdin North American Tour ~ Photo by Deen van Meer

There’s drama and frolic, and frolicsome drama as Aladdin finds himself in the aurelian ‘Cave of Wonders’ having been sent by the wicked Jafar to fetch the Genie’s golden lamp.  Predictably, it’s a set up as Jafar plans to do away with our hero and grab the lamp for his own nefarious machinations.

Arabian Nights Men ~ Photo by Deen van Meer

But wait.  Did I mention the magic carpet? Where would we be without a magic carpet ride to underscore Aladdin and Jasmine’s amorous vows to wed despite all odds?  Traveling through the starry sky the pair soar above the stage in a flight of fantasy and wonder professing their love with the musical’s most memorable number, “A Whole New World”.

Major Attaway (Genie). Aladdin North American Tour. Photo by Matthew Murphy

The score by Alan Menken (Little Shop of Horrors, Beauty and the Beast, Newsies) with lyrics by Tim Rice (Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita with Andrew Lloyd Webber), Howard Ashman (The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast) and Chad Beguelin (The Prom, The Wedding Singer, Elf), is orchestrally wonderful, fulfilling a wide range of musical styles – some you might expect with an Arabian influence and others that trend rock/pop/rap – boosted by a sizzling horn section.  The huge sound is from the Aladdin Touring Orchestra joined by the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra.

Kaena Kekoa (Jasmine) & Clinton Greenspan (Aladdin). Aladdin North American Tour. Photo by Deen van Meer

Highly recommended.  This one should be high on your wish list.  Go before you run out of wishes.

With Major Attaway as Genie; Clinton Greenspan as Aladdin; Kaenāonalani Kekoa as Princess Jasmine; Jonathan Weir as Jafar; Jerald Vincent as Sultan; Reggie De Leon as Iago; Zach Bencal as Babkak; Ben Chavez as Omar; Colt Prattes as Kassim; and over 20 performers in the ensemble cast.

Kaena Kekoa (Jasmine). Aladdin North American Tour. Photo by Deen van Meer

Directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw; Costume Design Gregg Barnes; Orchestrations by Danny Troob; Music Director/Conductor Faith Seeto; and Lighting Design Natasha Katz.

Through September 7th 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.