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Pipeline ~ Studio Theatre

Jordan Wright
January 9, 2020 

In Dominique Morisseau’s play Pipeline, a direct line is drawn from the consequences resulting from a broken school system to criminal punishment or expulsion for teenagers acting out.  That the system is broken, and kids are warehoused in these ever-larger institutions with no remedies for psychological attention, is well known.  But what are we doing about?  Schools aren’t getting smaller, nor are classrooms, teachers are overwhelmed, and counselors are in short supply – one counselor per 482 students is the national average.  That’s nearly half what is recommended by the National School Counselor Association to address the needs of kids in crisis.  The play is an indictment of the current American school system.

Andrea Harris Smith as Nya and Justin Weaks as Omari in Pipeline. Photo: C. Stanley Photography.

Morisseau’s powerful play presents us with African-American teens in a private school vs. those in a public school.  Given current laws and strict punishment guidelines to address punishment for students as well as teachers, the differences between the two types of schools in handling issues between teachers, students and parents, actually appear to be minimal.  Though Omari’s mother, Nya, teaches in a public school, she and his distant father, Xavier, afford him the advantages of a private school, hoping he will have access to a better education.  But Omari’s personal problems stem from outside the school – divorced parents and a complicated romance with Jasmine, a fellow student.  They are smart kids.  Nevertheless, as teens they are ruled by their emotions and insecurities, and their reactions are often wrong-headed and impulsive.

Pilar Witherspoon as Laurie and Andrea Harris Smith as Nya in Pipeline. Photo: C. Stanley Photography.

Omari’s rage quickly gets the better of him when he is confronted by a teacher who expects his participation at a time when the teen is feeling vulnerable.  His reckless response is to shove the teacher against the wall.  Classmates record the incident with their cell phones and the incident goes viral.  Does the teacher have a responsibility to deal with a troubled teen in an overcrowded classroom or intuit his personal crisis?  Probably, not.  But in consoling her child, Omari’s mother reminds him he is in school to learn and obey his teacher.

Justin Weaks as Omari and Monica Rae Summers Gonzalez as Jasmine in Pipeline. Photo: C. Stanley Photography

Nya’s colleague and veteran teacher, Laurie, has struggles of her own.  Unable to reach Dun, the school’s security guard, who’s off dealing with another crisis, she tries breaking up a vicious fight in her classroom with a broomstick.  She too, becomes at risk of expulsion.

Justin Weaks as Omari and Bjorn DuPaty as Xavier in Pipeline. Photo: C. Stanley Photography

The framework for the play draws on Richard Wright’s “Native Son” and the character Bigger Thomas who became a murderer due to his inability to control his rage.  Additionally, video projections of Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks’s poem, “We Real Cool”, in which young African American students skip school to go down a deadly path, are displayed onto the stage walls in a haunting forewarning of a fate that all fear could become Omari’s.

Andrea Harris Smith as Nya in Pipeline; background: live projection of Justin Weaks as Omari. Photo: C. Stanley Photography

As a former high school teacher in DC, Artistic Director David Muse notes, “Maybe most striking and recognizable to me about Pipeline is Dominique’s [Morisseau’s] treatment of the fatalism that takes hold of urban educators and parents as they struggle daily to deal with systems that seemed stacked against the young people in their charge.”

A powerful and haunting drama performed by an excellent cast.

Starring Andrea Harris Smith as Nya; Justin Weaks as Omari; Monica Rae Summers Gonzalez as Jasmine; Bjorn DuPaty as Xavier; Pilar Witherspoon as Laurie; and Ro Boddie as Dun.

Directed by Awoye Timpo; Set Design by Arnulfo Maldonado; Lighting Design by Jesse Belsky; Sound Design by Fan Zhang; Projection Design by Alexandra Kelly Colburn; Dramaturg Lauren Halvorsen.

Through February 16th at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th Street, NW, Washington, DC.  For tickets and information visit www.StudioTheatre.org or call 202.332.3300.

A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder ~ The Little Theatre of Alexandria

Jordan Wright
January 21, 2020
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

Sometimes the hardest reviews to write are the ones in which a show exceeds all expectations.  Shows that excel in all facets of production from onstage to backstage.  I had a clue it would be a must-see show when I heard that Frank D. Shutts II was directing.  But it wasn’t till I cracked open the playbill on opening night to reveal that Matt Liptak designed the sets, Stefan Sittig was the choreographer, Jean Schlichting and Kit Sibley designed the costumes and the crack team of Ken and Patti Crowley did the lighting.  This is a formidable crew of multi-award-winning pros whose productions consistently dominate the WATCH Awards.  Producer Mary Beth Smith-Toomey sure knows how to pick a winner.

Drew Goins as Monty and Katie Weigl as Sibella Hallward in ‘A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder’ at The Little Theatre of Alexandria. Photo by Matt Liptak.

What I wasn’t sure of was if the acting, singing (and some hoofing) would be up to snuff.  The musical has a lot of moving parts – 193 lighting cues, 40 scene changes, and scads of props.  A few of the actors were familiar to me from the LTA stage, but not many.  Most notably Chuck Dluhy whom we saw in last year’s award-winning production of The Nance and God of Carnage, Derek Marsh who was outstanding here recently in The Producers, and longtime LTA supporter and actor, Margie Remmers.  Leads were played by actors either new to the stage (apart from university stage work) or new to our area and several of them emerged as serious challengers to area actors with top notch vocal chops.

If you crossed author Edward Gorey, filmmaker Wes Anderson and composers Gilbert & Sullivan you might be able to describe this eccentrically charming musical set in the Victorian Era.  Based on Roy Horniman’s 1907 novel “Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal”, it’s a story of a down-on-his-heels clerk living with his mother who has been disinherited and forced to work as a charwoman.  At her funeral, an old family friend arrives with proof that Monty is related to the D’Ysquith family giving him claim to a title and a royal estate.  The only glitch is our lovable hero is eight times removed from becoming the Earl of D’Ysquith.  Hmmm…

Alexandra Chace as Phoebe D’Ysquith in ‘A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder’ at The Little Theatre of Alexandria. Photo by Matt Liptak.

This quirky tale of retribution opens with Monty already imprisoned for murder and writing his memoir.  It then toggles back and forth from the young man’s cell to explain how he got there – eight murders, a rising career in a tony brokerage house led by his D’Ysquith uncle, who has taken pity on him, plus two mad love affairs.  However, do not despair for this once painfully shy, now increasingly bold, chronically endearing, murderer.  He’s got more than few defenders who will happily take the fall to see him take his royal seat at High Hurst Castle.

Eleven actors, some in multiple roles, succeed mightily in bringing this fast-paced Tony Award-winning musical to a crescendo of laughter and sophisticated wit.  Credit everyone, but this reviewer was gobsmacked by lead actor Drew Goins as Monty Navarro, Alexandra Chace as Phoebe D’Ysquith, the hilarious Chuck Dluhy in NINE roles! and Katie Weigl as Sibella Hallward.

An eleven-piece orchestra, led by Conductor Christopher A. Tomasino with Concert Master Steve Natrella, perform 22 numbers ranging from comic operetta to love songs.

Book and Lyrics by Robert L. Freedman, Music and Lyrics by Steven Lutvak.  With Kristin Jepperson as Miss Shingle; Audrey Baker as Miss Barley; Jordan Peyer as Tom Copley; and ensemble members Devin Dietrich and Allison Meyer.

Dazzling and dastardly.  Race to the box office STAT!

Through February 8th at The Little Theatre of Alexandria, 600 Wolfe Street, Alexandria, VA 22314.  For tickets and information visit www.TheLittleTheatre.com or call the box office at 703.683.0496.

NSO Pops: Diana Ross – Music Book 2020 ~ The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

Jordan Wright
January 9, 2020

Backed by the 25-member The Joyce Garrett Singers, a DC-based gospel choir, the iconic National Symphony Orchestra, and four back-up vocalists, Diana Ross strode onstage to the tune “I’m Coming Out”, her signature walk-on entrance.  Swathed in a tangerine-hued, ruffled silk cape and molten orange floor-length gown, the magnificent pop diva claimed the night with her beauty, musicality and charm.

Diana Ross

Tossing her ebony ringlets, she enraptured a full house of fans in the Concert Hall.  Shimmying and shaking to the beat and shouting out “We love you. Diana!” from their seats, fans were thrilled to hear a selection from many of her biggest hits.  Twenty-two numbers formed her wide-ranging repertoire Friday night.  “Your Love”, from a rare box set recorded over two decades ago, “He Lives in You”, and “Voice of the Heart”, all rarely heard in concert, were well received.  More familiar songs were “You Can’t Hurry Love”, “Touch Me in the Morning”, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”, “Love Hangover”, “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?” (the Frankie Lyman hit), and “I Will Survive” that had the orchestra temporarily flat-footed, until she asked them to crank up the beat.

Easily segueing from pop and R&B to jazz, ballads and disco, the legendary diva offered up a few of her greatest film score hits – “Home” and “Ease on Down the Road from The Wiz; “If We Hold On Together” from A Land Before Time;  “Do You Know Where You’re Going To” from Mahogany; and a personal favorite in which she shows off her silken jazz voice, “The Man I Love” from Lady Sings the Blues.  A 1996 memorable performance from Super Bowl XXX brought knowing applause with “Take Me Higher”, a song that culminated in her being whisked away by helicopter.

It’s pointless to review a Diana Ross concert without mentioning her fabulous ensembles.  Four glamorous gown changes showed off her svelte figure, most surprising was the final gown – a steel blue, full-skirted satin gown with exposed strapless bodice that she had once worn to a pre-inaugural concert for President Clinton.

Miss Ross spoke excitedly of her upcoming tour that takes her throughout the American South before heading to Las Vegas.  This June she will appear at the UK’s famed Glastonbury Festival 2020 playing the fabled “legends” slot, before heading to Ireland and returning to England for several more dates.  Miss Ross has not toured the continent in many years and said she was eager to return.

As one of the most successful singers of her generation, she enjoys a performing arts career spanning over 50 years.  An award-winning singer and actress, Miss Ross is known for leading The Supremes, as well as her chart-topping solo career.  She has received the Guinness World Record for her international success of having more hits than any other female artist on the charts, inductions into both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame, a Kennedy Center Honor in 2007, a Grammy® Lifetime Achievement Award, and countless other accolades and awards.

Conducted by Emil De Cou.

Final Washington, DC concert date is Saturday, January 11th at 8pm 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.

My Fair Lady ~ The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

Jordan Wright
December 21, 2019 

The story of Eliza Doolittle, a street waif transformed into a high society lady by the over-achieving phoneticist, Professor Henry Higgins, has recently been adapted to reflect the #MeToo movement.  Love it or leave it (I overheard a dismayed audience member kvetch about the changes), Director Bartlett Sher has fashioned Eliza into a girl from the wrong side of town yet with a street-wise sense of self.  My Fair Lady, the classic musical that made its Broadway debut in 1956, at the height of Lerner and Loewe’s musical partnership, echoes George Bernard Shaw’s 1913 play Pygmalion, itself derived from Ovid’s poem, Metamorphoses, the myth of the sculptor who fell in love with a statue of a woman.

Shavey Brown, Mark Aldrich, Shereen Ahmed (center), William MichalsandColin Anderson. Photo credit Joan Marcus

As you can imagine, the challenge of passing off an uneducated flower girl with a cockney accent into a lady who could move undetected among high society, is fraught with all manner of potential social faux pas.  “In six months, I could pass her off as a duchess at the Embassy Ball,” he boasts.  Men are always trying to fix things.  Right?  Higgins’ collegial cohort, Colonel Pickering, bets him it can’t be done.

Laird Mackintoshas Professor Henry Higginsand Shereen Ahmedas Eliza Doolittle. Photo credit Joan Marcus

In this glorious redo, Eliza Doolittle’s role has been upgraded to a scrappy, independent-minded and totally liberated woman, though it takes some doing to achieve self-evolution.  No matter that the premise has been modernized a bit, the music is as tuneful and glorious as you remember, and with a full orchestra filling the Opera House to the rafters, it is positively rapturous.  I promise you will thrill to “The Rain in Spain”, “With a Little Bit of Luck”, “I Could Have Danced All Night”, “On the Street Where You live”, and another dozen or more tunes that are an indelible part of Broadway legend.

Leslie Alexanderas Mrs. Higgins, Shereen Ahmedas Eliza Doolittle and Kevin Pariseauas Colonel Pickering. Photo credit Joan Marcus

Spectacular costumes dazzle in the scene at the posh Royal Ascot gavotte where Eliza is first introduced to the grand dames in their lavish pastel gowns and sky-skimming feathered hats and dapper gentlemen in their top hats and morning dress.  There her gaffes among the Old Guard are almost her undoing.  Yet her inherent charm and comic phrasing is welcomed as refreshing, and she fools most of them. The only ones not deceived are the Hungarian poseur, Professor Zoltan Karpathy, and Higgins’s own mother who takes to the girl recognizing her true heart and her love for her son and mentor.  Expect a novel twist at the denouement, as Eliza keeps us in suspense as to her future and who she will choose to share it with.

Sam Simahkas Freddy Eynsford-Hill, Shereen Ahmedas Eliza Doolittle, Kevin Pariseauas Colonel Pickering and Leslie Alexanderas Mrs. Higgins. Photo credit Joan Marcus

Highly recommended.  It’s ab-so-bloomin’-lutely fantastic!

Directed by Bartlett Sher; Choreography by Christopher Gattelli; Sets by Michael Yeargan; Costumes by Catherine Zuber; Lighting by Donald Holder; and Sound by Marc Salzberg.

Starring Shereen Ahmed as Eliza Doolittle; Laird Mackintosh as Professor Henry Higgins; Kevin Pariseau as Colonel Pickering, Adam Grupper as Alfred P. Doolittle; Sam Simahk as Freddy Eynsford-Hill; Gayton Scott as Mrs. Pearce; and Leslie Alexander as Mrs. Higgins.

Through January 19, 2020 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.

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.