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Byhalia, Mississippi ~ The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts


Jordan Wright
June 13, 2019 

Evan Linder’s play has all the elements of a hackneyed soap opera starring a young, broke, white couple with adultery issues and a bible-thumping mother in bitterly acrimonious conflict with her daughter and son-in-law, Jim.  If not for Linder’s uncompromising storytelling, an admirable and passionate cast, and superb directing, it would seem like a story we have heard all too many times with the exception that this one comes with sharp incisors and a propensity for equal doses of poignancy and hilarity.

(L-R) Caroline Neff, Jack Falahee, and Cecelia Wingate ~ Photo by Jeremy Daniel.jpg

Overdue and big as a watermelon, Laurel cuddles up with Jim who is excited about the prospect of a son, “Are you my stupid baby?” he asks sweetly, ear to Lauren’s swollen tummy.  Even Laurel’s mother, Celeste, whose late husband was a serial philanderer and doesn’t cotton to her out-of-work son-in-law, can’t wait to be a grandma.  “The only thing I care about is this baby.”

(L-R) Blake Morris and Jack Falahee ~ Photo by Jeremy Daniel.jpg

A few years before, Jim had a brief fling.  Laurel reluctantly forgave him, and, still very much in love, they recommitted themselves to their marriage.  But when the baby is born and is black, Jim loses his mind, blaming his best friend, Karl, who happens to be African American.  Celeste’s reaction is mortification about what the townspeople will think of her and her daughter, insisting Laurel “get rid of it”.

(L-R) Blake Morris and Aime Donna Kelly ~ Photo by Jeremy Daniel.jpg

There are so many spoilers that I won’t reveal any more of the plot as the story takes twists and turns so serpentine that it proves totally unpredictable as to where the characters’ paths take them.  Do we like them?  Not always, but we are kept in jocular hysterics by both their Southern-ness and their messy lives.  Celeste’s drawl and quirky backwoods metaphors alone are priceless.  To put a frame around it, Linder, who is white, references the ghost of civil rights activist, Skip Robinson, leader of a 1974 boycott of businesses in Byhalia after the shooting death by a local policeman of a young, unarmed black man named Butler Young, Jr.  Young’s memory was ignored by Byhalia, and still is.  Linder is determined to correct the town’s selective memory and provoke a conversation about race relations.  You will see that there is racism on both sides here, and emotional disconnects that are a mile wide.

(L-R) Jack Falahee, Blake Morris, and Aime Donna Kelly ~ Photo by Jeremy Daniel.jpg

Byhalia, Mississippi is a story about truth, forgiveness, commitment and racism – real or imagined.  It is also a  sweet, crazy tale of hope and redemption set in a blip of a provincial town caught up in a changing world.  As Laurel, who commits to raising her baby, tells her mother, “Nothing ever changes unless people like you watch it happen.”

Highly recommended.  A perfect cast beautifully directed by Kimberly Senior.  You will be glued to your seat, if you don’t keel over from laughter.

With Caroline Neff as Laurel, Cecelia Wingate as Celeste, Jim Falahee as Jim, Blake Morris as Karl, and Aimé Donna Kelly as the surprise character, Ayesha.

(L-R) Jack Falahee and Caroline Neff 2 ~ Photo by Jeremy Daniel.jpg

Scenic Design by Cameron Anderson, Costume Design by Jen Caprio, Lighting Design by Jennifer Reiser, and Sound Design by Mikhail Fiksel.

Through July 7th in the Terrace Theater 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.

A Fox on the Fairway ~ The Little Theatre of Alexandria

Jordan Wright
June 9, 2019 

“Golf and sex are the only things you can enjoy without being good at them,” announces Pamela, a sophisticated member and perennial sexpot of the Quail Valley Country Club.

: (L -R) Patricia Nicklin as Pamela Peabody, Ken Kemp as Henry Bingham and Cameron McBride as Justin Hicks ~ Photographer: Matt Liptak

When we meet Richard Bingham, the urbane manager of Quail Valley, it’s tournament weekend and the mood is dire.  Quail Valley has never won the annual golf tournament against their rival Crouching Squirrel.  And to make matters worse, their ace player has defected.  But the debonair club director, Bingham, has plans for a reversal of fortune with the entry of its newest member with a pro’s handicap.  Unfortunately, Bingham’s counterpart and nemesis from Crouching Squirrel, Dickie, has a surprise of his own and the old archenemies bet a king’s ransom, including Bingham’s wife Muriel’s antique shop, on the outcome.

(L-R) Cameron McBride as Justin Hicks and Raeanna Larson as Louise Heindbedder ~ Photographer: Matt Liptak

Dickie is a veritable Mr. Malaprop sporting garish golf attire and mixing his metaphors with clueless aplomb.  The champagne-swilling Pamela of the multiple spouses, claims, “I would drink water but there’s so much fish in it.”  She is sharp, witty and fiercely snide.  In a swipe at her ex-husband, Dickie, she snarks, “Never use box tops to buy wearing apparel.”

(L-R)  Raeanna Larson as Louise Heindbedder and Cameron McBride as Justin Hicks ~ Photographer: Matt Liptak

Our young romantics are the club’s emotionally fragile waitress Louise and her hapless beau Justin, the club’s latest hire and Bingham’s ringer.  Their on-again off-again engagement keeps them in a dither as their breakups mount and the club’s chances for the cup dwindle.

(L-R) Cameron McBride as Justin Hicks and Ken Kemp as Henry Bingham ~ Photographer: Matt Liptak

Enter Bingham’s wife Muriel, full of frustration at her husband’s extra-marital flirtations with Pamela, plus the potential loss of her shop.  Written by internationally-acclaimed playwright Ken Ludwig, this production is in line with his long-running Broadway play, “Lend Me a Tenor”, as a sophisticated farce full of high anxiety.

(L-R) Patricia Nicklin as Pamela Peabody and Raeanna Larson as Louise Heindbedder ~ Photographer: Matt Liptak ~ Photographer: Matt Liptak

Unfortunately, the pace and the funny bits are thwarted by uneven casting, proving even a terrific comedy can miss the mark when it’s not done right.

Still, kudos to Cameron McBride, a newcomer to acting, whose timing and physical comedy is expert and Ken Kemp, who is a pearl among the pebbles.

Directed by Scott J. Strasbaugh, Set Design by Marian Holmes, Lighting Design by Jeffrey Auerbach and Kimberly Crago, Costume Design by Ceci Albert and Lisa Brownsword.

With Raeanna Nicole Larson as Louise, Patricia Nicklin as Pamela, Brendan Chaney as Dickie and Lorraine Bouchard as Muriel.

Through June 29th at 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

Hello, Dolly! ~ The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

Jordan Wright
June 8, 2019 

There’s nothing like a rip-roaring, old school, Broadway musical to get the heart pumping and the toes tapping.  In Hello, Dolly! the music and lyrics of  Jerry Herman, one of the greatest composers of the Great White Way, will do just that.  You just have to refrain from singing along… out loud.

Betty Buckley in Hello, Dolly! National Tour ~ Photographer Julieta Cervantes 2108

Dolly Gallagher Levi (Betty Buckley), a Jill-of-all-trades and matchmaker extraordinaire, was the supreme marketeer and an independent working woman in the 1880’s, well before Women’s Liberation.  Handing out different business cards like peppermints, she became whatever the situation called for.  You need silhouettes, a dozen eggs, ear piercing, a husband or a wife?  Dolly will provide.  “I arrange things,” this savvy yenta explains.

Betty Buckley and Lewis J. Stadlen in Hello, Dolly! National Tour – 2018, Photographer Julieta Cervantes

When she sets her cap on Horace Vandergelder (Lewis J. Stadlen), a well-to-do hay and feed shop owner, this clever lady uses all her trump cards.  Now you may think that catching a husband using feminine wiles, is sexist, and there is that to consider, but Dolly’s glamour, craftiness and kindness, is what makes her a believable character trying to survive as a down-at-the-heels widow.  She’s got gumption, chutzpah and charm all wrapped up in one swell package.

Analisa Leaming in the Hello Dolly National Tour2018 -Photographer Julieta-Cervantes

If there’s any sexism here, it’s from the gents.  Mr. V.’s tune, “It Takes a Woman”, sung with the Instant Glee Club, insists only a fragile woman can care for home and husband, rhyming femininity with “work till infinity”.  Oh heck.  All’s fair in love and war.

Situational comedy is at its best when Dolly foils Vandergelder’s meeting with the lovely Irene Molloy, a milliner who has different ideas of the perfect man.  Irene and her assistant Millie fall for Mr. V.’s clerks, Cornelius and Barnaby, who have convinced the ladies they’re tycoons, when in fact they are counting their dimes.  In the scene at the tony Harmonia Gardens Restaurant where the couples sup to pheasant and paté in private booths, Buckley shows off her indelible comedic skills in a silent solo dinner while Vandergelder fumes and the handsomest waiters on any stage perform a highly choreographed, frenetic dance to the “The Waiters’ Gallop” replete with flaming dishes, bottles of champagne, silver cloches and dinner plates piled to the rafters, all cleverly conducted by Rudolph the Maître d’.

Hello, Dolly! National Tour Company – 2018 – Photographer Julieta Cervantes

Betty Buckley, one of Broadway’s legendary leading ladies, stars as Dolly to Lewis J. Stadlen’s Vandergelder.  Stadlen is another award-winning veteran of stage and screen who does schtick to perfection.  You’ll relish the jokes, the colorful Victorian costumes, the catchy tunes (you probably know most of them), and the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra backing it all up.

Hello, Dolly! National Tour Company – 2018 – Photographer Julieta Cervantes

With Colin LeMoine as Ambrose Kemper, Morgan Kirner as Ermengarde, Nic Rouleau as Cornelius Hackl, Sean Burns as Barnaby Tucker, Kristen Hahn as Minnie Fay, Analisa Leaming as Irene Molloy, Jessica Sheridan as Ernestina, Beth Kirkpatrick as Mrs. Rose, Wally Dunn as Rudolph, Scott Shedenhelm as Stanley, Timothy Shew as Judge, Daniel Beeman as Court Clerk.

Directed by Jerry Zaks, Choreographed by Warren Carlyle, Conducted by Robert Billig, Book by Michael Stewart, Music and Lyrics by Jerry Herman, Scenic and Costume Design by Santo Loquasto, Sound Design by Scott Lehrer, Lighting by Natasha Katz, and Orchestrations by Larry Hochman.

Highly recommended.  This is classic, old school Broadway razzamatazz.

A Misanthrope ~ WSC Avant Bard ~ Theatre on the Edge ~ Gunston Arts Center

Jordan Wright
June 6, 2019 

Warning: Extremely high doses of wacky irreverence could result in uncontrollable hilarity.

Playwright Matt Minnicino’s adaptation, he calls it a new “distillation”, of Molière’s classic The Misanthrope tore the house down at its world premiere last night.  A re-interpretation of the 17th century farce skewering French aristocracy, Minnicino delivers in spades with a band of frivolous, self-centered snobs, oblivious to the hoi polloi (Tag yourselves, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kim Kardashian, James Franco, Russell Crowe, Tom Cruise, et alia).  This booze-swilling brat pack speaks in rhyming couplets, mixing formal dialogue and philosophical musings with modern American slang.  Set in the posh environs of the South of France, it is fall-down-dead hilarious and monumentally clever.

(l-r) Hannah Sweet (Basque), Elliott Kashner (Alceste), Thais Menendez (Celimene). CREDIT: DJ Corey Photography

Alceste is a cynical, smitten preppie whose target is the alluring, and self-adoring Celimene.  He hates deceit yet craves the company of the most deceitful of them all.  Swanning luxuriantly around the pool deck in luxuriantly revealing garb, she teases and taunts the men while insulting her female competition, especially the prudish Arsinoe, a woman of a certain age who’s got the hots for Alceste.  “I’ve been programmed to pussyfoot around,” she admits.

(l-r)Patrick Joy (Clitandre), Thais Menendez (Celimene), Jenna Berk (Philinte), Chloe Mikala (Eliante) ~ Photo credit JD Corey

Unfortunately, Miss C. prefers her trendy pals and glam lifestyle far more than an angst-ridden, lovesick dweeb and pits him against Oronte, a sophomoronic wannabe poet who’s got plenty of dough to satisfy Miss C. and is suing Alceste for slander.  For those wondering if Alceste will get his comeuppance (although we secretly cheer his irreverence) there is Philinte, Alceste’s gal pal and reality check, who challenges his insincerity at every turn.  “We are living in a society of vacuity, fatuousness and folly,” she admonishes.

Sara Barker (Arsinoe), Elliott Kashner (Alceste). Photo credit DJ Corey

Minnicino’s earlier forays into classical adaptations have included Chekhov, Strindberg, Shakespeare, Homer, and Sophocles (no mean feat).  But you needn’t have read any one of these literary titans to enjoy this snarky funfest.

(l-r) Matthew Sparacino (Oronte), Thais Menendez (Celimene), Patrick Joy (Clitandre), Tendo Nsubuga (Acaste), Elliott Kashner (Alceste). Photo credit DJ Corey

Director Megan Behm expertly wrangles this fierce cast led by Elliott Kashner as Alceste, Thais Menendez as Celimene, Jenna Berk as Philinte, Matthew Sparacino as Oronte, Sara Barker as Arsinoe and Patrick Joy as Clitandre. with Tendo Nsubuga as Acaste, Chloe Mikala as Eliante and Hannah Sweet as Basque/DuBois.

Costumes by Alison Samantha Johnson, Set Design by Megan Holden, Lighting Design by Elizabeth Roth, Properties Design by Liz Long.

A veritable verbal slugfest with a mountain of the funniest zingers since the Marx Brothers took on high society in “A Night at the Opera”.

Highly recommended.

Through June 30th at Gunston Arts Center, 2700 South Lang Street, Arlington, VA 22206.

Avant Bard tickets are $40.00, and available online at avantbard.org/ticketsor by calling 703-418-4808. For every Avant Bard performance, a limited number of tickets are Pay What You Will, which means you can name your price. You can reserve PWYW tickets online the Monday before each performance for a small service minimum, or at the door with no minimum. All Avant Bard tickets including PWYW are General Admission; seating is first-come first-served.

Saturday matinees are followed by Unscripted Afterchats with members of the creative team.

Jubilee ~ Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
May 21, 2019 

Jubilee harkens back to the American Reconstruction era when White audiences were beginning to listen to Negro spirituals in concert settings.  Songs sung on plantations, in Black churches and on chain gangs – spiritual songs, work songs, songs of the underground railroad and traditional folk tunes – became more widely heard.  These were not minstrel shows.  They were African American choirs who sang the songs that told of escape, redemption, struggle, and faith, and that later became the foundation for American Jazz, R&B and Blues.

(L to R) Simone Paulwell (America Robinson), V. Savoy McIlwain (Thomas Rutling), Sean-Maurice Lynch (Frederick Loudin), Jaysen Wright (Edmund Watkins), Lisa Arrindell (Ella Sheppard) and Greg Watkins (Benjamin Holmes) in Jubilee running April 26 through June 2, 2019 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Photo by Margot Schulman.

In the hands of veteran director and playwright, Tazewell Thompson, that period comes alive with the musical strains of a thirteen-person a capella choir, like the one that had its origins at a historically Black college.  The story of Fisk University (HBCU), founded in Nashville, Tennessee for the education of freemen and women after the Civil War, could be the story of many Black universities that have struggled financially, except in its early years Fisk formed a student choir with the sole purpose of raising funds to keep the school from financial disaster.  Led by a stern choir director, the group of young former farmworkers was able to achieve international recognition with their widely sought-after performances.

(L to R) Lisa Arrindell (Ella Sheppard), Jaysen Wright (Edmund Watkins), Katherine Alexis Thomas (Minnie Tate), Zonya Love (Georgia Gordon), Greg Watkins (Benjamin Holmes) and Shaleah Adkisson (Mabel Lewis) in Jubilee running April 26 through June 2, 2019 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Soaring operatic solos by Lisa Arrindell in multiple roles including Ella Sheppard, one of the students, coloratura soprano, Zonya Love as Georgia Gordon, and Aundi Marie Moore as diva Maggie Porter will give you goosebumps.  Evoking visions of the 19th-century rural revival camp meetings of The First Great Awakening, male baritones, tenors and basses seem to blend effortlessly on popular spirituals like “Dem Bones (Gonna Rise Again)”.   Costume Designer Merrily Murray-Walsh dresses the singers in beautiful Victorian-era fashions – the ladies in elegant wide-skirted silk dresses, the gentlemen in frock coats and cutaways – all in shades of black and grey.

(L to R) Shaleah Adkisson (Mabel Lewis), Joy Jones (Jennie Jackson), Katherine Alexis Thomas (Minnie Tate), Lisa Arrindell (Ella Sheppard), Bueka Uwemedimo (Greene Evans), Travis Pratt (Isaac Dickerson) and Aundi Marie Moore (Maggie Porter) in Jubilee running April 26 through June 2, 2019 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Jubilee is a beautiful story of perseverance and self-determination – of surviving racism, both internal and external, violence, and poverty – told in exquisite harmonies.  Soul-stirring, traditional songs – “Wade in the Water” (sung in Gregorian unison), “Thou Art Great”, “Go Down Moses”, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”, and “There Is A Balm in Gilead”lend meaning and gravitas to this stellar production that weaves thirty-six mellifluous songs into this inspiring musical.

(L to R) V. Savoy McIlwain (Thomas Rutling), Sean-Maurice Lynch (Frederick Loudin), Simone Paulwell (America Robinson), Aundi Marie Moore (Maggie Porter) and Joy Jones (Jennie Jackson) in Jubilee running April 26 through June 2, 2019 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Gorgeously sung and deeply inspirational.

Written and directed by Tazewell Thompson with Vocal Direction and Music Direction by Dianna Adams McDowell, Set Design by Donald Eastman, Lighting Design by Robert Wierzel and Sound Design by Fabian Obispo.

The cast of Jubilee running April 26 through June 2, 2019 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Photo by Margot Schulman.

With Shaleah Adkisson as Mabel Lewis, Joy Jones as Jennie Jackson, Sean-Maurice Lynch as Frederick Loudin, V. Savoy McIlwain as Thomas Rutling, Aundi Marie Moore as Maggie Porter, Simone Paulwell as America Robinson, Travis Pratt as Isaac Dickerson, Katherine Alexis Thomas as Minnie Tate, Bueka Uwemedimo as Greene Evans/Fight Captain, Greg Watkins as Benjamin Holmes and Jaysen Wright as Edmund Watkins.

Through June 9th at Arena Stage 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information call 202 488-3300 or visit www.ArenaStage.org.

For further study of Fisk University and its distinguished alumni who include Congressman John Lewis, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, NAACP co-founder W.E. B. Du Bois, Poet Nikki Giovanni, Educator and Presidential advisor Booker T. Washington, and Civil Rights activist Ida B. Wells, visit www.Fisk.edu