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Ride the Cyclone Is a Dizzying, Hilarious, Catchy, Super-fun, High-Energy Escapade

Ride the Cyclone Is a Dizzying, Hilarious, Catchy, Super-fun, High-Energy Escapade

Ride the Cyclone
Arena Stage
Jordan Wright
January 23, 2023
Special to The Zebra

(l to r) Matthew Boyd Snyder (Ricky Potts), Nick Martinez (Noel Gruber), Gabrielle Dominique (Constance Blackwood), Eli Mayer (Mischa Bachinski), Ashlyn Maddox (Jane Doe), and Shinah Hey (Ocean O’Connell Rosenberg) (Photo/Margot Schulman)

When the St. Cassian teen chamber choir falls to their deaths in a freak accident while riding a roller coaster at The Wonderville Traveling Fair, they enter the distant future and we do too. It is here they encounter The Amazing Karnak (Marc Geller), a “pre-cognition machine” who recalls the turban-crowned fortune tellers of yesteryear. Encased in his gilded booth, Karnak gives the five teens an ultimatum – plus a lot of shtick.  They must unanimously select the one among them who will be brought back to life. No small feat. He creates a contest with crazy prizes and in their zeal to present themselves as the most accomplished, or unfailingly sympathetic candidate, they each act out their personal stories with remarkable honesty hoping to be the chosen one. However, a mystery teen appears among them – a beautiful, anonymous girl who could not be identified due to her injuries. She is called Jane Doe (Ashlyn Maddox on the night I went – then Katie Mariko Murray) and she is as ethereal and haunting as a wraith.

Despite the six spinning through the air to their death, a grim premise indeed, the story quickly does a one-eighty becoming a captivating charmer with all the thrills and chills (and spills!) of a festive night at a carnival. We easily find ourselves transported to the future along with the teens as they weave their personal stories to win a second chance at life. Is it a game? Or is it just a ride? Fourteen cleverly written songs with lyrics that are easy to understand hold this wild ride together.

Nick Martinez (Noel Gruber), Shinah Hey (Ocean O’Connell Rosenberg), Matthew Boyd Snyder (Ricky Potts), Gabrielle Dominique (Constance Blackwood), Eli Mayer (Mischa Bachinski), and Marc Geller (The Amazing Karnak) (Photo/Margot Schulman)

Ocean O’Connell Rosenberg (Shinah Hey) is an over-achiever (reminiscent of Elle in Legally Blonde) who presents herself as the perfect high school princess. Ocean’s bestie is Constance Blackwood (Gabrielle Dominique), a weight-challenged nerd, and self-proclaimed “nice girl” who appears to cave to Ocean’s bossiness… until she doesn’t.

Noel Gruber (Nick Martinez), who appears shy, then bursts out of his shell to reveal his secret life (Sorry, no spoilers here.). Suffice it to say there is a sultry tango, a personality change-up and a seedy French nightclub. Mischa Bachinski (Eli Mayer) is anything but shy. He is a Ukrainian hip-hopper and beat-box fan who’s in love with a peasant girl from the Old Country. He loves to sing, as long as he’s backed by Auto-Tune. And then there’s Ricky Potts (Matthew Boyd Snyder) who lives in an imaginary world of sexy space kittens and extra-terrestrials. They are all hilarious in their own individual ways.

Eli Mayer (Mischa Bachinski) and Nick Martinez (Noel Gruber) (Photo/Margot Schulman)

Set in a dilapidated warehouse in Uranium City, Saskatchewan, Canada, this quirky, captivating, hilarious, rock musical chock-a-block with vintage carnival artifacts has been making the cult circuit for 15 years. Premiering at Princeton’s McCarter Theatre Center, Ride the Cyclone is a dizzying, hilarious, catchy, super-fun, high-energy escapade.

Music, Book and Lyrics by Jacob Richmond and Brooke Maxwell; Directed by Sarah Rasmussen; Original Choreography by Jim Lichtscheidl with Additional Choreography by Tiger Brown; Set Design by Scott Davis; Costume Design by Trevor Bowen; Lighting Design by Jiyoun Chang; Sound Design by André Pluess.

Gabrielle Dominique (Constance Blackwood), Matthew Boyd Snyder (Ricky Potts), Shinah Hey (Ocean O’Connell Rosenberg), Nick Martinez (Noel Gruber), Eli Mayer (Mischa Bachinski), and Marc Geller (The Amazing Karnak) (Photo/Margot Schulman)

Through February 19th at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth Street, SW, Washington, DC 20024. For tickets and information visit www.ArenaStage.org or call the box office at 202 488-3300.    

Sister Act Wows ‘Em at The Little Theatre of Alexandria

Sister Act Wows ‘Em at The Little Theatre of Alexandria

Sister Act
The Little Theatre of Alexandria
Jordan Wright
January 18, 2023
Special to The Zebra

Nun ensemble and Deloris (Ashley Williams)
Deloris inspires the nuns to raise their voices (Photo/Matthew Randall)

When a club singer witnesses a murder committed by her gangster boyfriend, she is forced to go on the run rather than be murdered herself. Deloris Van Cartier (Ashley Williams) is a bougie-cool, flashy diva, used to struttin’ her stuff and havin’ her way… but not this time. Through videos, Director Mike J. Baker Jr. (more on him later) shows her racing through familiar Old Town locales, including dodging out the iconic wrought iron gates of this very theater, until she is delivered to the doors of the Queen of Angels convent in South Philly and into the reluctant arms of its strict Mother Superior (Christine Maxted).

When I saw 25 scenes listed in the program, I was floored. How will they achieve so many scene changes? It can’t be done. Yet, through the use of a full-stage scrim with a 4Wall rear projector, combined with Switcher and VMIX technology, the miracle of transporting the audience from the cloisters of the cathedral (actually both interior and exterior stills of Alexandria’s St. Mary’s Church) to street scenes, a seedy bar, a police station and animated backgrounds to reflect a disco, all converge seamlessly to achieve what one would think utterly impossible. This sophisticated, mixed media technology is down to director Baker, whose background at Bravo and productions with the National Arts affords him the experience and knowhow to pull it off. “Everything I know about TV and theater went into Sister Act,” he told me.

Mother Superior (Christine Maxted), Monsignor (Peter Fannon), Deloris (Ashley Williams) Confessions for Mother Superior and Deloris (Photo/Matthew Randall)

Equally as exciting is Broadway-caliber Ashley Williams in the lead. Where has this actor/singer been, I wondered, wishing I were a theatrical agent. “Sign here, please!” I heard myself thinking. With an extraordinary, soulful and powerful voice that could be heard as far as King Street, and with acting chops to match, she had the entire audience in her thrall from the get-go. Williams’ voice was well matched by Maxted whose vocals were as pure and dulcet as Julie Andrews’. I would gladly have followed her across the Alps.

To say these two fabulous women were the biggest draw in this musical, would be to give short shrift to a tremendous cast who sang, danced and showed off their comic timing to a tee. Imagine 14 nuns, one Mother Superior, a Monsignor and Deloris all on stage at the same time and all in sync, then you’ll pretty much have the picture of a powerhouse show that will have you jumping out of your seat with the rest of the audience. Add a 20-piece orchestra conducted by Colin Taylor and cached behind the scrim to provide an exhilarating sound to back up this wonderful cast.

Deloris (Ashley Williams), Eddie (Alonzo Cook) Eddie explains there is no better protection than the Philadelphia police department (Photo/Matthew Randall)

The morning after opening night I received notice of this year’s WATCH Award nominations. LTA received 52 noms for their last season far more than any other community theater. Their eagerness to stage these big shows, their ability to seek out and find superb talent, as well as their professional production capabilities are reflected in not only this tremendous show, but also in their entire season to date.

Highly recommended. If I gave out stars, which I do not, they’d have five stars in a neat row.

Mother Superior (Christine Maxted) contemplating why her prayers go unaswered (Photo/Matthew Randall)

With Odette Gutierrez del Arroyo as Michelle and Paola; Jenni Philp as Tina; Paul Caffrey as Curtis; Luke Martin as Ernie; Evan Zimmerman as Joey; Alonzo Cook as Eddie; Allison Meyer as Sister Mary Robert; Gina Tune as Sister Mary Patrick; Jennifer Reynolds as Sister Mary Lazarus; Margaret McGarry as Sister Mary Martin-of-Tours; Jennifer Levy as Sister Mary Theresa; Peter Fannon as Monsignor O’Hara; and Sandy Kozel as News Reporter.

Including an ensemble with Gifty Amponsem, Claire Aziza, Maria Ciarrocchi, Aja Goode, Julianna Laseter, James Miller, Josie Morgan, Bob Thompson, Lourdes Turnblom and David Valderrama.

Produced by Kadira Coley and Alan Wray; Set Design by Julie Fischer, Lighting Design by Ken and Patti Crowley; Sound Design by David Correia; Costume Design by Jean Schlicting and Kit Sibley.

Jane Anger is Comedic Gold Starring Michael Urie and Amelia Workman

Jane Anger is Comedic Gold Starring Michael Urie and Amelia Workman

Jane Anger
Shakespeare Theatre Company
Jordan Wright
December 29, 2022
Special to The Zebra

 

Amelia Workman in Jane Anger (Photo/DJ Corey Photography)

Jane Anger (Amelia Workman) steps out onto center stage to address the audience. She is fierce and determined to prove herself. And though she makes excuses for her past – lack of education, undesirable gender for a Jacobean Period playwright, oh, right, and a former prostitute – she has a lot to say about what she wants and in no uncertain terms. She’s a woman on a mission and we love her already. Did I mention she’s a bit of a sorceress?

*Program notes tell us Jane Anger was a real person who wrote Defense of Women in 1589. She was a pioneer of the earliest of the women’s movements and an outspoken advocate of women’s rights.

Jane wants her due as a writer and she’s figured out how she’s going to get it. Buckle up, friends. In this zany, campy, off-the-wall hilarious sendup of Shakespeare (Michael Urie) stuck in a near fatal (okay, fatalistic) case of writer’s block, it’s Jane who has the final word. When she sneaks into his quarters by dressing up as a man, she presents him with a deal. Publish her play in exchange for a sex act. This upsets Shakespeare’s plan to write King Leir, despite the fact that she tells him it has already been written ten years before by Thomas Kidd. He is nonplussed, desperate for sex and agrees to her proposal.

Ryan Spahn, Michael Urie, and Talene Monahon (Photo/DJ Corey Photography)

But The Plague has put a crimp in his style. He is quarantined with a newly hired, (by default) magnificently incompetent assistant, Francis (Ryan Spahn). As the delivery boy he was the only one available. They are confined to quarters and the Bard is going stir crazy. “They say it’s a new variant,” Shakespeare quips. And away we go with Shakespeare in full vaudevillian style and Francis his hapless sidekick. Think Laurel and Hardy.

Enter Anne Hathaway (Talene Monahon) who sneaks into the studio and befriends Jane. “Sometimes I wonder if my husband is dead, but then I read a review of one of his plays,” she deadpans. When Anne finds out the Dark Lady sonnets are not about her but about Jane, the two ladies conspire to get Jane’s play published.

By now everyone is rolling in the aisles with the wit and wisdom of playwright Talene Monahon who also plays Anne. Very well I might add. There are puns and pratfalls and how do I say it, but anything Michael Urie is cast in is one for the books. We last saw him in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying in 2018 then the same year in the role of Hamlet – both at STC. Buckets of blood in Hamlet and a fair share here, but now a bloody scene is played for laughs. Urie is brilliant. His acting chops, ranging widely from tragedy to comedy, are magnificent.

Highly recommended.  Comedic gold!

Amelia Workman and Talene Monahon (Photo/DJ Corey Photography)

With Geoffrey Besser as Plague Screecher/Peasant Woman.

Directed by Jessica Chayes; Scenic Design by Kristen Robinson; Costume Design by Andrea Hood; Lighting Design by Stacey Derosier.

Through January 8, 2023 at Shakespeare Theatre Company Klein Theatre, 450 7th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20004. For tickets and information contact the box office at 202 547-1122 or visit www.ShakespeareTheatre.org.

At KenCen the Tony Award-Winning “A Soldier’s Play” Stars Broadway Greats Norm Lewis and Eugene Lee

At KenCen the Tony Award-Winning “A Soldier’s Play” Stars Broadway Greats Norm Lewis and Eugene Lee

A Soldier’s Play
The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
Jordan Wright
December 17, 2023
Special to The Zebra

Norm Lewis as ‘Captain Richard Davenport’ (Photo/ Joan Marcus)

Originally premiering in 1981 and winning a Tony Award for Best Revival in 2020, Charles Fuller’s A Soldier’s Play is as powerful and insightful today as it ever was. Set on a fictional Army base in Louisiana amid the Jim Crow era of 1944 it reflects a time when Negro soldiers were training on U. S. bases before being shipped overseas. Called up to fight the Nazis, the men were insulted, brutally attacked and often murdered by Klansmen and White Supremacists when they returned to their hometowns. In many instances the racism began on base sometimes meted out by Black commanders. In this story the men are living and training on a Southern Army base that had never seen a high-ranking Black officer – that is until Captain (and lawyer) Richard Davenport (Norm Lewis) arrives on base to investigate the murder of Sergeant Vernon C. Waters (Eugene Lee) and a power struggle ensues between Davenport and Captain Charles Taylor (William Connell), the White base commander.

The mystery of a suspicious death on the racially segregated Fort Neal base opens with the men singing in the monotonal work chants of early prison chain gangs and drumming against the wooden floorboards. It’s as haunting as it is mournful with shades of things to come.

The Company of the National Tour of A Soldier’s Play. (Photo/ Joan Marcus)

Sergeant Waters is a reverse racist – angry at the military for refusing to respect him and degrading to his “Colored” troops for not trying hard enough to elevate themselves in society – he demeans his young recruits with racist insults then flatters them to ingratiate himself. Deep inside he is tormented by his own fear and self-loathing. One of his men, Private C. J. Memphis, is a sensitive young man given to playing the Blues on his guitar. Waters tells him, “You bring us down, boy.” And when C.J. hangs himself after being falsely accused of murder by Waters (who scapegoats him), Waters announces, “One less fool for the race to be ashamed of.”

Norm Lewis is of course the main draw. His name features prominently on the cover of the Playbill. So commanding is his presence and stature that the audience simultaneously gasped and burst into applause as he made his entrance on opening night. Lewis is well bracketed by another veteran actor and award-winning playwright, Eugene Lee, whose portrayal of Sgt. Waters is indelible. And, as so often happens when veteran Broadway actors rule the stage, the rest of the cast rises up brilliantly alongside them.

(From L) Sheldon D. Brown, Branden Davon Lindsay, Will Adams (Photo/ Joan Marcus)

It’s a snapshot of the worst of America and the best of men who strive for justice regardless of the outcome. And though it’s painful and visceral to witness, we need to revisit our history in order to not repeat it. In some places throughout the country, race relations haven’t changed much since the play received numerous accolades over forty years ago. A Soldier’s Play teaches us the importance of “seeing” each other and continuing the conversation to seek the truth.

Highly recommended.

Co-starring Will Adams as Corporal Bernard Cobb; Tarik Lowe as Private First Class Melvin Peterson; Alex Michael Givens as Corporal Ellis; Branden Davon Lindsay as Private Louis Henson; Howard Overshown as Private James Wilkie; Malik Esoj Childs as Private Tony Smalls; Sheldon D. Brown as Private C. J. Memphis; Chattan Mayes Johnson as Lieutenant Byrd; and Matthew Goodrich as Captain Wilcox.

Directed by Kenny Leon; Set Design by Derek McLane; Costume Design by Dede Ayite; Lighting Design by Allen Lee Hughes; Sound Design by Dan Moses Schreier.

Through January 8, 2023 at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. 2700 F Street, NW, Washington DC. For tickets and information call the box office at 202 467-4600 or visit www.Kennedy-Center.org.

A Wintery Fable Enchants All Ages at Synetic Theater

 A Wintery Fable Enchants All Ages at Synetic Theater

Synetic Theater
Jordan Wright
December 2, 2022
Special to The Zebra

Drawing on a centuries-old fable, Director and Helen Hayes Award-winning Choreographer, Irina Tsikurishvili, channels the troupe’s earliest performance experiences in America when they worked strictly in the grand tradition of mime. The Snow Maiden harkens back to those times with a wordless and original interpretation of the classic tale which inspired Danish author, Hans Christian Andersen to write “The Little Match Girl”. Thankfully, this newly minted version is a charming story that leaves out the darker themes of earlier versions. This enchanting two-hander features a boy who lives by himself in a tiny cottage in the woods and a little girl with magical powers who represents the traditional granddaughter of Grandfather Frost.

Set to a background of Christmas carols (I heard “O Tannenbaum”, “Noël” and “We Wish You a Merry Christmas”) and classical music, the boy (played by Vato Tsikurishvili) builds a snow maiden (Maryam Najafzada – a leading light in the Azerbaijan Ballet Theater) who amid a forest of towering, snow-covered pine trees, springs to life. Together they explore the frozen forest making snow angels, having snowball fights, and playing hide and seek.

Maryam Najafzada as Snow Maiden and Vato Tsikurishvili as The Boy (Photo/Michael Butcher)

In a particularly beautiful scene, the little girl teaches the boy how to ice skate. Their gliding motions, enhanced with spectacular over the shoulder lifts, spins and flips put me in mind of Olympic skaters Torvill and Dean who revolutionized ice dance. But they were on ice! not on a wooden stage. It boggles the mind how these two performers convince us they are skating on ice. Glittering stars in a dark blue night sky lead us to dream of the holidays in snow-laden forests and the possibilities that wishes can come true if we believe.

A wintery jewel box of a production that springs to life just when we need it most. Ideally suited for children and the grownups who take them.

Highly recommended.

Maryam Najafzada as Snow Maiden and Vato Tsikurishvili as The Boy (Photo/Michael Butcher)

Resident Composer Koki Lortkipanidze; Production Designer Aleksandr Shiriaev; Costume Designer Kasey Brown; Lighting Designer Peter Leibold VI; Technical Director Phil Charlwood; Sound Engineer Matthew Datcher.

Through December 23rd at Synetic Theatre, 1800 S. Bell Street, Arlington, VA 22202. For tickets and information contact the box office at 703 824-8060 x 117 or visit www.SyneticTheater.org

A Perfect Production of Sondheim’s “Into the Woods” at Signature Theatre

A Perfect Production of Sondheim’s “Into the Woods” at Signature Theatre

Into the Woods
Signature Theatre
Jordan Wright
November 23, 2022
Special to The Zebra

The cast of Into The Woods (Photo/Daniel Rader)

Smack dab in the heart of the holiday season comes Into the Woods. For fans of the legendary collaboration of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, this is the ultimate delight. This semi-autobiographical musical has brilliant lyrics, a stunning score and all-around silliness wrapped up neatly in a big red bow. It’s part farce and part tragedy – a metaphor for the vagaries of life played to the hilt by a formidable cast. I’ve seen it before on a grand stage and I have to say it didn’t feel as moving as this intimate staging by Director and Choreographer, Matthew Gardiner, who never ceases to amaze me with his brilliant reinventions of classic musicals.

Jake Loewenthal and Erin Weaver (Photo/Christopher Mueller)

Remember the Disney film version with Meryl Streep and a cast of Hollywood stars that debuted a few years ago? Okay, try not to. It was godawful. Well, this is nothing like that. It’s imaginative and intimate thanks to Lee Savage’s wonderful set design that features unique entrances and exits. It’s a sing-through and mash-up of Jack (the hilarious David Merino) and the Beanstalk, Cinderella (Katie Mariko Murray), Little Red Riding Hood (Alex De Bard) and Rapunzel (Simone Brown) and her Prince (Paul Scanlan),a giant (voiced by Phylicia Rashad), Cinderella’s mother (Maria Rizzo) and wicked stepsisters, Florinda (Adelina Mitchell) and Lucinda (Chani Wereley), and the Baker (Jake Loewenthal) and his Wife (Erin Weaver) whose despair at childlessness introduces us to all the storybook characters. There is a brief reference to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, but they don’t make an appearance. We do meet Cinderella’s Mother (Crystal Freeman), Jack’s Mother the incomparable (Sherri L. Edelen) who also plays the Granny), Cinderella’s Father (Lawrence Redmond), the Wolf (Vincent Kempski who also plays Cinderella’s Prince) and Steward (Kurt Boehm). All thanks to the Narrator (Christopher Bloch who also plays Mysterious Man).

And though we despair of the plight of the baker and his barren wife we laugh wholeheartedly at the Witch’s demands that they deliver to her Jack’s beloved milky white cow, Red Riding Hood’s blood red cape, Rapunzel’s yellow-as-corn hair and the golden slipper from Cinderella – quite the tall order to ensure the wife’s fertility. As for keeping it light-heartedly silly, Sondheim gifts us with the three campy stepsisters and an enchantress Witch, who morphs into a sexy temptress. For those of you already familiar with Nova Y. Payton who plays the Witch you will swoon at her delivery of “Children Will Listen” and “Stay with Me”. I wanted to press ‘Repeat’, but alas.

Alex De Bard (Photo/Daniel Rader)

Meanwhile, amid all the wishes and fears of the characters, cue romance – as when the prince has an extramarital sylvan tryst with the baker’s wife and explains it away by asserting, “Foolishness can happen in the woods.” In fact, all the ills of the world are allegorically represented by the characters encountered in the woods where we find heroes and villains and those whom we imagine to be, but even they protest their typecasting. Why? Because as the Narrator tells us, “People make mistakes” and others have ulterior motives. Flaws are us, it seems to say. Deal with it.

Highly recommended.

Costume Design by David I. Reynoso; Lighting Design by Amanda Zieve; Sound Design by Eric Norris; with a fifteen-piece orchestra led by Jon Kalbfleisch,

The cast of Into The Woods (Photo/Daniel Rader)

Through January 29th in Shirlington Village at 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, VA 22206. For tickets and information visit www.SigTheatre.org or call the box office at 703 820-9771.