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Anything Goes ~ Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
November 10, 2018 

A feel-good, razzamatazz, hotsy-totsy lollapalooza musical just blew into town like a tornado.  And if you’ll pardon my saying so, it’s the Tower of Pisa, the Louvre Museum, it’s the Top (with apologies to Cole Porter).  You won’t have to head to Broadway to take in fabulous hoofing, gorgeous singing and shtick.  Director Molly Smith’s Anything Goes is the show to see right here and right now!  In the pantheon of American musicals, it’s one of the finest ever written, and fair warning: I expect it will be sold out, so grab your tickets STAT!

(L to R) Soara-Joye Ross (Reno Sweeney) and Corbin Bleu (Billy Crocker) in Anything Goes. Photo by Maria Baranova.

When Cole Porter wrote the music and lyrics in 1934 with humorist P. G. Wodehouse, who penned the sophisticated bon mots of Bertie Wooster and Jeeves the Butler, & Guy Bolton, the musical comedy writer, plus Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, it was a different era.  Some ideas were not as politically or socially correct as we would like.  Securing permission from the composer’s estate, Artistic Director Molly Smith received permission to update the musical.  The story remains intact – a boy and girl experience unrequited love on an ocean liner joined by an evangelist and her “angels”, a covey of crooks, a slew of sailors and a soupçon of society’s upper crust.  What’s fresh is the new book by Timothy Crouse & John Weidman and the diversity of the cast, a thoughtful interpretation of the action, sensational choreography and comic throwaway lines directed at the audience.  “C’mon it’s opening night,” Reno Sweeney calls out to the audience getting us pumped and prepped for what’s to come.  And just like that we’re off, crossing the Atlantic on the U. S. America ocean liner, pulling for them and yukking it up with every cliché, mishap and malapropism.

(L to R) Nicholas Yenson (Ensemble/Quartet), Maria Rizzo (Erma/Ensemble) and Mickey Orange (Ensemble/Quartet) in Anything Goes. Photo by Maria Baranova.

Here is a cast that surprises at every turn.  Soara-Joye Ross (Reno Sweeney) showcases her tremendous diva voice with heaps of attention-getting vibrato, captivating from the get-go with the immensely talented Corbin Bleu (Billy Crocker) and scene stealers Maria Rizzo as Erma, Thomas Adrian Simpson as Elisha Whitney, Jimmy Ray Bennett as Lord Evelyn Oakleigh, and Stephen DeRosa as Moonface Martin.

Thanks to award-winning choreographer Parker Esse, there’s soft shoe, modern dance, waltz and eye-popping tap which gratefully is making a strong resurgence.  Think Gower Champion, Jerome Robbins and Tommy Tune all rolled into one.  It’s that good with heaps of singing and dancing up close and personal in the Fichandler’s theater-in-the-round.  Factor in the talents of Conductor/Musical Director Paul Sportelli whose orchestra outdoes itself with orchestration that soars on some of the musical’s most memorable numbers – “I Get a Kick Out of You”, “You’re the Top”, “Easy to Love”, Anything Goes”, “It’s De-lovely” – and many more.

(L to R) Mickey Orange (Ensemble/Quartet), Ben Gunderson (Purser/Ensemble/Quartet), Soara-Joye Ross (Reno Sweeney), Brent McBeth (Ensemble/Quartet/Fred/Photographer) and Nicholas Yenson (Ensemble/Quartet) in Anything Goes . Photo by Maria Baranova.

With Lisa Helmi Johanson as Hope Harcourt, Lisa Tejero as Evangeline Harcourt, Jonathan Holmes as Captain, Ben Gunderson as Purser, Christopher Shin as Luke, Julio Catano-Yee as John, DeMoya Watson Brown as Purity, Kristyn Pope as Chastity, Andrea Weinzierl as Charity, and Maximillian Moonshine/Olly as “Cheeky” the dog.

Soara-Joye Ross (Reno Sweeney) and the cast of Anything Goe. Photo by Maria Baranova.

Set Design by Ken Macdonald, Costumes by Alejo Vietti, Lighting Design by Kimberly Purtell, Hair and Wig Design by Charles G. Lapointe.

Spunk, pizazz and sumptuous buffoonery in spades.  You’ll want to see this one over and over again.

Through December 23rd at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information call 202 488-3300 or visit www.ArenaStage.org.

Silent Night ~ At The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

Jordan Wright
November 12, 2018 

Guns fell silent on Christmas Eve 1914 on the Belgian Front during World War I.  Due to a peculiar string of events, this cease fire is one of the strangest tales to ever occur during this war – or any war for that matter.  It’s a story that was kept under wraps for decades, until it wasn’t.  Composer Kevin Puts and Librettist Mark Campbell put us deep in the heart of the fierce battles between the French, German and British (and Scottish) forces and the night they put aside their guns to embrace their humanity, find commonality and discover compassion.

Audebert (Michael Adams), Horstmayer (Aleksey Bogdanov) and Gordon (Norman Garrett) agree to a truce in WNO's Silent Night. Photo credit Teresa Wood

Based on the 2005 film, Joyeux Noël, Silent Night was commissioned by the Minnesota Opera and co-produced by the Opera Company of Philadelphia.  It was first performed in 2011 in Minnesota, going on to be one of the most performed contemporary operas in the U. S. in the past half-century and earning the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for music.  The significance of this current production marks the eve of the 100th anniversary of the armistice that ended the war.

Father Palmer (bass Kenneth Kellogg) leads Mass during the WWI ceasefire in WNO's Silent Night ~ Photo credit Teresa Wood

The reasons for going to war are universal, but at the heart of it all is the killing and the chaos.  The soldiers speak of the glory of battle and their future careers, as well as the familiar themes of justice, honor, family, victory and pride of country.  It is crushingly familiar.  “War is not sustainable  when you come to know your enemy as a person.  When you see that the person you might be shooting has a child or a wife or has this life at home and they’re just not the enemy, then it becomes very difficult, if not impossible, to sustain  war,” said Campbell.

German Lt Horstmayer laments the end of the truce in WNO's Silent Night ~ Photo credit Teresa Wood

Since, surprisingly, I had never seen this masterpiece before, I do not know if it is typically staged in the same way as it is here – on a three-tiered stage with the different countries occupying a different tier – but it is massively impressive and intensely colorful.  Striking tableaus like illustrations in a book and soldiers captured in silhouette mark the concatenation of the battles through endless days and fearful nights.  But the story is more than battles.  It is about the camaraderie of the soldiers, their quest for home and their interconnectedness despite well-defined borders.  We discover one of the German soldiers is married to a Frenchwoman and another has fond memories of spending time in the village of his enemy.

German, Scottish and French troops pose for pictures during a ceasefire in WNO's Silent Night ~ Photo credit Teresa Wood

Harmonics are an outstanding element in this unique opera as it is written polystylistically with influences of Baroque music and the inclusion of bagpipes (over 1,000 bagpipers died in WWI).

For this production, Artistic Director, Francesca Zambello, has chosen to showcase artists who have been a member of the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program, now in its 17th year.  Each cast member has benefitted from this prestigious program and there’s no use in singling out one or two performers out of a 26-member cast who were flawless.  Oh okay, just a few of the principals – Raquel González as Anna Sørensen for her a cappella aria of peace, Alexander McKissick as Nikolaus Sprink for his duet with Anna, and Aleksey Bogdanov as the German General who has a change of heart.

Nikolaus Sprink (Alexander McKissick) and Anna Sorensen (Raquel Gonzalez) refuse to separate in WNO's Silent Night ~ Photo credit Teresa Wood

Conducted by Nicole Paiement with the Washington National Opera Chorus and the Washington National Opera Orchestra and directed by Tomer Zvulun.  Set and Projection Design by Erhard Rom, Costume Design by Victoria (Vita) Tzykun, Lighting Design by Robert Wierzel, Sound Design by Kai Harada and Fight Master Joe Isenberg.

Highly recommended for its timely message and glorious production.

Through November 25th.  Check calendar for performances.  At The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 2700 F St., NW, Washington, DC.  For tickets and information for future shows call 202 467-4600 or visit www.Kennedy-Center.org.

Billy Elliot the Musical ~ Signature Theatre

Jordan Wright
November 10, 2018
Special to The Alexandria Times

The ensemble of Billy Elliot. Photo by Margot Schulman.

The story of Billy Elliot is a tender tale of a boy who dreams of becoming a dancer while growing up in a working-class mining town in Ireland.  But it’s so much more.  It’s a universal story of hope, identity and overcoming the odds when everything seems stacked against you.  Battling against a macho culture dictated by generations of miners who believe a boy’s education requires boxing lessons (all the better to defend themselves in a drunken pub fight, I suppose), young Billy shows indomitable grit in overcoming the rigidly proscribed barriers to self-fulfillment.

Liam Redford (Billy Elliot) and Jacob Thomas Anderson (Michael McCaffrey) in Billy Elliot. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Backdropped against a year-long miners’ strike brought on by the repressive politics of Margaret Thatcher and her Conservative Government, the town rallies in a show of solidarity by vowing not to cross the picket lines.  Billy’s dad and big brother Tony picket daily, battling a phalanx of police who crack heads and terrorize the protesters.  “It’s about our history.  It’s about our rights,” Billy’s dad proclaims.

Owen Tabaka (Billy Elliot), Chris Genebach (Dad) and the ensemble of Billy Elliot. Photo by Christopher Mueller.

Megastar Sir Elton John wrote the music in collaboration with Lee Hall, who wrote the book and lyrics for the film and the musical, as well as the screenplay for Steven Spielberg’s War Horse.  Making its Broadway debut in 2008, this electrifying musical won Tony, Grammy and Academy Awards for “Best Musical”.

Director/Choreographer Matthew Gardiner gifts us with an astonishing cast led by Liam Redford and Owen Tabaka alternating as Billy; the spectacular Nancy Anderson as Billy’s gutsy dance instructor, Mrs. Wilkinson; Chris Genebach as Billy’s widowed dad, Jackie; Dan Manning as George, the boxing coach; the incomparable Catherine Flye as Billy’s Grandma; and a remarkable young actor/tap dancer/singer, Jacob Thomas Anderson, as Billy’s comic, crossdressing playmate, Michael.

As expected in a coal mining town, the language is salty – magnificently salty with f-bombs tempered by that particularly appealing, hilariously dry, Irish-accented wit.  Not suitable to quote those in a family newspaper, I offer this somewhat restrained line.  “It’s not a bloody tea dance,” George chastising a reluctant Billy to bash his pal in boxing class, “Whack him in the head!”

Simone Warren (Keeley Gibson), Sissy Sheridan (Susan Parks), Nancy Anderson (Mrs. Wilkinson), Noelle Robinson (Angela Robinson) and Annie Dodson (Alison Summers) in Billy Elliot. Photo by Margot Schulman.

But let’s talk about the dancing.  Press night gave us the mind-blowing talents of Liam Redford, a kid you couldn’t take your eyes off of.  Highly accomplished in ballet, tap, modern dance, aerial acrobatics (move over Peter Pan wannabes) and singing too, of course, Redford mesmerizes the audience with his elfin charm and precise moves – also notable is his seemingly effortless ease and emotional depth in connecting with the other cast members.  More than two dozen kids and adults are also dancers in this production giving us enough hoofing, boogieing and pirouettes for two shows plus – all to the sounds of a nine-piece orchestra led by Tom Vendafreddo.

Heartwarming, electrifying and highly recommended.

With Sean Watkinson as Tony, Jamie Ecker as Billy’s late mother, Olivia McMahon/Vivian Poe as Debbie, Stephawn P. Stephens as Big Davey, Harrison Smith as Mr. Braithwaite, Grant Richards as Older Billy, and Solomon Parker III as London Dancer.

Scenic Design by Jason Sherwood, Costume Design by Kathleen Geldard, Lighting Design by Amanda Zieve, Sound Design by Ryan Hickey with Assistant Director and Dialect Coach Rex Daugherty.

Through January 6th at Signature Theatre (Shirlington Village), 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, VA 22206.  For tickets and information call 703 820-9771 or visit www.signature-theatre.org.

LightUp Fest, the Largest Holiday Lights Festival on the East Coast, Comes to Loudoun County

Jordan Wright
November 10, 2018

LightUPFest ~ Tunnel of Lights

Beginning November 8th LightUP Fest will be open every day from 5:30pm till 10:30pm through January 2, 2019 in Loudoun County.  Named a “Top 5 Holiday Light Show” in North America by USA TODAY, this spectacular light show hosts an exhibit combining traditional Chinese lanterns with modern lighting technology.  Spanning 20 acres, the eight-week long exhibition will be the largest light display on the East Coast, featuring a wondrous delight for the whole family.  Attendees will able to enjoy the displays, as well as partake in entertainment, food, interactive craft activities and much more.

LightUPFest ~ Panda

With 77 eye-popping themed installations made up of more than 1 million lights, LightUP Fest will be a magical experience.  The exhibit’s four major themes are “Tour of Fantasy”, “Freedom America”, “Mysterious East” and “Magical World”.  These dynamic displays will combine the latest in lighting technology with artisan-crafted lanterns showcasing the rich heritage, tradition and culture worldwide.

LightUPFest ~ Interactive Kids

In addition to the incredible artisan-crafted light show, LightUP Fest will also feature daily performances from acrobats, dancers and musicians.  An eclectic food court offering a variety of unique cuisines will also be on site.  Look to enjoy the interactive craft and art section to showcase the intricate culture and tradition of craftsmanship with hands-on activities such as sugar puppet making, calligraphy, portrait sketching and rice carving for all ages to participate in. 

LightUPFest ~ Ocean Scenes

One Loudoun www.OneLoudoun.com is an urban-inspired, mixed-use community located in the heart of Loudoun County at Rt. 7 and the Loudoun County Parkway, Easthampton Plaza, Ashburn, VA 20147. Admission to the event is $29.99 for an adult and $19.99 for kids ages 3 - 12. Children under 3 are FREE.  Discounted family packages and special rates for students and seniors.  Military, police and firefighters with proper identification are welcome to attend for free every Tuesday.  A portion of the proceeds will go to the non-profit Arc of Loudoun at Paxton Campus.

LightUPFest ~ Eiffel Tour

 LightUP Fest is designed by Zigong Lantern Festival and Trade Group, which has over 30 years of experience producing displays in more than 300 cities in China and over 30 countries worldwide. The Festival was first brought to the U.S. in 2014 in Atlanta and has since been held multiple times in Houston and Phoenix.  For more information, please visit www.thelightupfest.com

LightUPFest ~ Lights of the North

Anastasia ~ The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

Jordan Wright
November 6, 2018 

In Terrence McNally’s lavish musical Anastasia the luxe life of the dynasty that was the Romanovs collides head on with reality.  The Russian Revolution of 1917 proved to be the downfall of the gilded empire ruled by the Romanov family.  Collateral damage included the brutal murders of Tsar Nicholas, his wife, Tsarina Alexandra, and their five children.  But according to myth, one child was purported to have secretly escaped.  Or did she?  There hangs the tale.

Victoria Bingham (Little Anastasia) and Joy Franz (Dowager Empress) in the National Tour of ANASTASIA. Photo by Evan Zimmerman

It’s a fascinating legend and one that has captivated both scholars and modern society for decades.  Until her death in 1984, the woman who called herself Anastasia regularly regaled the media and anyone who would listen about her charmed life as a royal and her perilous escape to Paris and into the arms of her ex-patriot grandmother the Dowager Empress.  Was this child an imposter or the real deal?  “Somewhere down this road ? I know someone’s waiting. / Years of dreams just can’t be wrong! / Arms will open wide / I’ll be safe and wanted / Finally home where I belong.” – from “Journey to the Past” – Anastasia.

Lila Coogan (Anya) and Stephen Brower (Dmitry) in the National Tour of ANASTASIA. Photo by Evan Zimmerman.

Two grifters, one a royal familiar with the Russian court, find the child starving and sweeping the streets of St. Petersburg, alone and adrift and suffering from amnesia.  Together they teach her everything they know about the real Anastasia – her parents, her relatives and life at court – with the endgame to reap a huge reward by delivering her into the arms of her aging grandmother.  “We’re going to create a fairy tale,” Vlad tells Dmitry.  As her memory appears to return, the young girl surprises them by knowing of events only the real Anastasia would have known.

Lila Coogan (Anya) and Stephen Brower (Dmitry) in the National Tour of ANASTASIA. Photo by Matthew Murphy

Evocative projections of the onion domes of St. Petersburg, snow swirling outside the grand palace, the bridges across the Neva River and the glory and glamour of Paris set the scene.  Most spectacular is a scene on a train as the trio, chased by Russian authorities, escape to Paris, a city where Russian émigrés struggle to maintain their dignity and former grandeur in the City of Lights.

Edward Staudenmayer (Vlad), Tari Kelly (Countless Lily) and the company of the National Tour of ANASTASIA. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

By now it is 1927 the height of the Roaring 20’s when they finally arrive in search of an audience with the Dowager Empress.  There they are stopped in their tracks by Countess Lily, a gatekeeper who attempts to keep the old woman from the stream of pretenders.  Look to enjoy grand waltzes and Cossack dances to the Charleston and snippets of ballet in Swan Lake from Choreographer Peggy Hickey to the accompaniment of the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra conducted by Lawrence Goldberg.

Composer Stephen Flaherty and Lyricist Lynn Ahrens afford us a lush score that evokes the grandeur of the period with waltzes and folk ballads, comic ditties and heart-stopping solo numbers in a production that will wow the most jaded theatregoer.

Highly recommended.  This is a huge show with gorgeous, unforgettable production values and memorable casting.

Edward Staudenmayer (Vlad), Lila Coogan (Anya), Stephen Brower (Dmitry) and the company of the National Tour of ANASTASIA ~ Photo credit Mathew Murphy

In order of appearance – Victoria Bingham as Little Anastasia/Alexei Romanov, Joy Franz as Dowager Empress, Lucy Horton as Tsarina Alexandra, Michael McCorry Rose as Tsar Nicholas II/Count Ipolitov/Count Gregory, Fred Inkley as Count Leopold/Gorlinsky, Taylor Quick as Young Anastasia/Paulina, Brianna Abruzzo as Maria Romanov/Marfa, Claire Rathbun as Olga Romanov, Kourtney Keitt as Tatiana Romanov/Dunya, Tari Kelly as Countess Lily, Jason Michael Evans as Gleg, Stephen Brower as Dmitry, Edward Staudenmayer as Vlad, and Lila Coogan as Anya.

Directed by Darko Tresnjak with Scenic Design by Alexander Dodge, breathtaking Costume Design by Linda Cho, Lighting Design by Donald Holder, Projection Design by Aaron Rhyne, and Orchestrations by Doug Best.

Through November 25th at The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 2700 F St., NW, Washington, DC.  For tickets and information for future shows call 202 467-4600 or visit The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.