Sweeney Todd – The Demon of Fleet Street Provides Murder, Mayhem and Brit Wit at Signature Theatre

 Sweeney Todd – The Demon of Fleet Street Provides Murder, Mayhem and Brit Wit at Signature Theatre

Sweeney Todd – The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Signature Theatre
Jordan Wright
May 26, 2023
Special to The Zebra

Nathaniel Stampley (Sweeney Todd) and Ian McEuen (Pirelli) in Sweeney Todd at Signature Theatre. (Photo/Margot Schulman)

Set in the darkest environs of London we find Sweeney Todd just released from prison and plunged into a life of murder and mayhem, a topic popular with virtuous Victorians and their high-minded devotion to morality and manners. Sweeney Todd – The Demon Barber of Fleet Street provides us with a singularly depraved and vengeful killer, a man “who would blink and rats would scuttle” as he “served a dark and vengeful god”, underpinned by the intelligent beauty of Stephen Sondheim’s brilliant score with book by Hugh Wheeler.

Columns of screeching steam announce the opening scene as the characters enter from the aisles. We hear the plaintively beautiful operatic voice of the Beggar Woman (Rayanne Gonzalez) as she portends the evils that await and we meet handsome, young Anthony Hope (note the surname) (Paul Scanlan), a sailor who saved Sweeney’s life in a shipwreck and who arrives in London to find Todd and ask for a favor in return.

Katie Mariko Murray (Johanna) and Paul Scanlan (Anthony Hope) in Sweeney Todd at Signature Theatre. (Photo/Christopher Mueller)

Mrs. Lovett (Bryonha Marie), an ambitious and wily widow with a failing meat pie shop and soon to become the lover and murderous accomplice of Sweeney (Nathaniel Stampley), appears in her establishment bemoaning the high price of meat while noting how all the neighbor’s cats have disappeared. They soon strike up an unusual and diabolical alliance and, in a stroke of business genius, Mrs. Lovett (note the surname) provides Todd with a tonsorial parlor above her shop where they gleefully combine the two disparate businesses. “Think of it as thrift,” she chirps ominously.

The musical is a tale of love, loss and revenge merrily served up in all its carnivorous glory with a spot of tea and a stiff upper lip. A grisly horror story dripping with blood and British humor and some of the most notably creative of Sondheim’s music and lyrics. And, not to worry, my pet, it’s also gifts us with an acerbic side-eye and biting gallows humor.

Bryonha Marie (Mrs. Lovett) and Nathaniel Stampley (Sweeney Todd) in Sweeney Todd at Signature Theatre. (Photo/Christopher Mueller)

As for our leads, Marie and Stampley, there could not be a more perfect casting of these two actors who both support and contrast each other. Stampley, portrays a gloomy figure of a man who stalks and broods in tenor splendor and who conveys all the evil in the wider world. He is matched only by the broad expressiveness, charm, and magical vocals of Bryonha Marie. They are superb together.

Scenic Designer Mikiko Suzuki Macadams reflects London’s gritty underbelly with the dark and dirty greys of its 19th century warehouse district complementing Costume Designer Robert Perdziola’s vision of ladies in muted grey dresses – save for our heroine Johanna who is a vision in white linen. Director Sarna Lapine creates a scene of constantly swirling dramatic intrigue and a clever concept to mimic the appearance of blood (of which there is much) using thin, red streamers to palatably capture the mendacity afoot.

Of particular note are performances by Katie Mariko Murray who plays sweet, innocent Johanna, Todd’s long-lost daughter; Harrison Smith as Tobias Ragg, the couple’s wide-eyed hapless assistant; John Leslie Wolfe as the libidinous Judge Turpin who keeps Joanna in an actual birdcage; Christopher Michael Richardson as The Beadle; and Ian McEuen as Pirelli, Todd’s Italian challenger to the title of best barber.

Choreographed by Alison Solomon and conducted by Jon Kabfleisch commanding a 15-piece orchestra for the full-on experience.

Highly recommended.

With an ensemble to include Benjamin Lurye, Jimmy Mavrikes, Bob McDonald, Adelina Mitchell (doubling as Dance Captain), Crystal Mosser, Lawrence Redmond (doubling as Fight Captain), Katherine Riddle, Sarah Anne Sillers and Chani Wereley.

Through July 9th at Signature Theatre in Shirlington Village, 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, VA 22206. For tickets and information visit www.SigTheatre.org or call the box office at 703 820-9771.

Jagged Little Pill Explodes with Alanis Morissette’s Pop Musical at National Theatre

Jagged Little Pill Explodes with Alanis Morissette’s Pop Musical at National Theatre

Jagged Little Pill
Broadway at The National
Jordan Wright
March 15, 2023
Special To The Zebra

(L to R) Heidi Blickenstaff, Allison Sheppard and Jena VanElslander (Photo/Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade, 2022)

 Inspired by the seminal rock album of the same name by seven-time Grammy Award winner Alanis Morissette, Jagged Little Pill, the Tony and Grammy Award-winning bio-musical, opened in DC at the National Theatre this week. It stars one of my favorite Broadway actresses, Heidi Blickenstaff (as Mary Jane Healey) who played the lead when it reopened on Broadway last fall. You may remember her in the role of Katherine in Disney’s Freaky Friday when it debuted at Signature Theatre before moving on to Broadway.

Broadway legend Chris Hoch plays the dad, Steve Healy. But even without such heavy hitters, this company is on fire. For these power singers (thirteen are in the chorus!) and gifted dancers, it’s the perfect showcase for these young and talented unknowns. Twenty-three iconic numbers give the cast a chance to shine. And, shine, they do! The show is packed with high energy, romance, and real-life drama, addressing issues of drug addiction and teen angst in a relatable way.

Jena VanElslander and Company of JAGGED LITTLE PILL (Photo by Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade, 2022)

Mary Jane lives in the shadow of her two kids, Nick and Frankie, hiding her addiction to opioids from everyone. A pill-popping, hot yoga and spin-cycle-loving suburban mom, her gal pals think she’s the perfect mother (“Smiling” by Mary Jane and Company) when underneath the smooth veneer she’s scoring pills in a dark alley. Adopted daughter Frankie (Lauren Chanel) is Black, thinks she’s gay and doesn’t know where she fits in. To help her cope (“Ironic” sung by Frankie and Jo) girlfriend, Jo (Jade McLeod) tells her, “Your mom is one salad away from a psychotic break.”

When Nick (Dillon Lena) gets into Harvard, praise from friends and family rains down on the prodigal son until he experiences a wild night at a friend’s party and he is called upon to be a witness to date rape. Will he say he didn’t see anything, or will he step up despite his mom’s begging him to stay silent? There are powerful life lessons drawn from the differing perspectives of both parents and teens.

Dillon Klena and company (Photo/Matthew Murphy, Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade, 2022)

Watch for McLeod’s huge number in Act II “You Oughta Know” that brought the house down, Chanel’s big number in “Unprodigal Daughter”, the slo-mo dance in “Uninvited” when Mary Jane reflects on her younger self and Allison Sheppard as Bella singing “Predator”, reminiscent of a particular Senate confirmation hearing.

A terrific score by Morissette and Glen Ballard showcases some fantastic new and veteran voices with exciting choreography by Movement Director Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui to send this musical into orbit.

Highly recommended for teens and adults.

Heidi Blickenstaff and the company of JAGGED LITTLE PILL (Photo/Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade, 2022)

With Jason Goldston as Andrew; Rishi Golani as Phoenix; Jordan Leigh McCaskill as Pharmacist/Therapist; Camella Taitt as Barista; Bligh Voth as Jill/Teacher; Delaney Brown as Denise; Jena VanElslander as Courtney; Daniel Thimm as Drug Dealer; and Lee H. Alexander as Doctor. Cydney Kutcipal, Lee H. Alexander, Justin Scott Brown and Kei Tsuruharatani fill out a thirteen-person chorus.

Director Diane Paulus; Book by Diablo Cody; additional music by Michael Farrell & Guy Sigsworth; Scenic Design by Riccardo Hernández; Costume Design by Emily Rebholz; Lighting design by Justin Townsend; Sound Design by Jonathan Deans.

Through March 26th at the National Theatre 1321 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, DC 20004. For tickets and information visit www.BroadwayAtTheNational.com or in person at the box office.

Blue Man Group

Blue Man Group

The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
Jordan Wright
July 22, 2022
Special to The Zebra 

Blue Man Group Drumbone, Courtesy of Blue Man Productions

As you enter the Eisenhower Theater to take your seats for the Blue Man Group the red velvet curtains have already been pulled back to reveal the set. A massive five-story scaffolding chock-a-block with a myriad of lights and computer technology fills the stage. Waiting for the show to begin, we played a game of Let’s See If We Can Identify These Throwback Screens. Together we spied the winged blades of a LEO-SAT (low earth orbiting satellite), an Atari ping pong screen, an MS-DOS operating system – busy coding, a sound oscilloscope, asteroids, search engines, a geometric screen saver and a colorful goldfish screensaver. Wires and dials and switches are tucked into every nook and cranny. The single-page program reads, “The People here are mailing codes to space. They are receiving letters from space, in the form of codes. The codes are being delivered all around us, on paths, making an invisible architecture.” Hmmm… We remind ourselves that over 35 million people around the world love the Blue Man experience.

Blue Man Group (Photo/Evan Zimmerman)

When the three blue men plus a two-piece band emerge on stage, we thought we were prepared. The drummer had over a dozen clear plexiglass drums in his kit and the guitarist occasionally removed his guitar to join him on a smaller kit. What we didn’t predict was how highly orchestrated the lighting and sound effects would be and that the blue men would play their own array of cobbled-together instrumentation and how silly and clever their antics – absurdity coupled with unrestrained creativity. Wow!

Blue Man New Tour (Photo/Evan Zimmerman)

The level of electronika, phosphorescence, lights and percussion is mind-blowing. It’s a paradise for techies and those of us who are in total wonder at the wizardry of it all. Are they space aliens or computer nerds left alone to play in a giant warehouse filled with stuff? I couldn’t help but wonder. Whatever your conclusion the show is a non-stop sensory explosion of gizmos, gadgets and goofy gags. Their innocent antics befuddle the blue men themselves while keeping the audience in both wonder and hysterics. Rubber chickens cross paths with virtual reality headsets and one wild scene has a man tossing dozens of marshmallows into another’s mouth from the opposite side of the stage. Yes, he catches every last one and mushes them into his mouth!

Blue Man New Tour, (Photo/Evan Zimmerman)

Dressed in camouflage suits, the creatures step off the stage and into the audience half a dozen times to bring a member up to the stage to engage them in some nutty skit. In one of these, they woo two women with gifts and a ring, engineer a mock wedding between them, handcuff them, lose the key, then politely ask them to play Twister. All in pantomime. The women found it as hilarious as the rest of us.

As a frequent theatergoer, I particularly loved their response from the stage when a couple arrived after the show had begun. With mics turned up, they trained a spotlight on the couple as they made their way down the aisle singing this little ditty repeatedly, “You’re late! You’re late!”. You’ll be thrilled to learn that the audience roared and applauded until the beleaguered duo found their seats. The Takeaway: Don’t ever be late to a Blue Man Group show!

Highly recommended. Perfect for the whole family.

Through July 31st at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 2700 F Street, NW, Washington, DC 20566. For tickets and information visit www.Kennedy-Center.org or call the box office at 202 467-4600.

Jersey Boys

Jersey Boys

The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
June 17, 2022
Jordan Wright

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 most of them wound up serving time. After their release, they re-formed, playing local dives and bowling alleys – an arduous route followed by many bands back in the day. 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.

Valli’s powerhouse falsetto and the group’s sweet harmonies, set them apart from other groups, but success didn’t come easily. After years as unknown studio backup singers for big recording artists, 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 Gaudio, who became the newest member of the group. Under Producer/Hitmaker, Bob Crewe they subsequently churned out megahits and apart from their personal troubles he kept them on the road and on the charts.

Jersey Boys

Thanks to Murray the K, a popular New York City radio disc jockey, the group got airplay of their first release “Sherry” which went straight to the top of Billboard’s pop charts selling one million records. Soon after, the hits and the fans kept coming – “Big Girls Don’t Cry”, “Walk Like a Man”, “Dawn” and dozens more.

Based on their fortunes and misfortunes and the vagaries of their love lives, the plot is 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 pitch perfect match to the originals, it comes off as a Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons live concert.

Photo/Joan Marcus

Former original Broadway cast member Jon Hacker plays Frankie. On press night his understudy the fabulous Justin Albinder filled in showing 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. As Tommy puts it, “We put Jersey on the map.”

A high energy concert-style musical set in the retro 60’s and 70’s music scene, it features their greatest hits.

Highly recommended.

(Note: This show is appropriate for ages 12+ only due to strong language throughout.)

Photo/Joan Marcus

Directed by Tony Award-winner Des McAnuff; Book 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 Oric, Scenic Design by Klara Zieglerova; Sound Design by Steve Canyon Kennedy. The Jersey Boys Orchestra is directed by Noah Turner and Anthony Brindisi.

Starring Sean McGee as Bob Crewe/Donnie/Accountant/Finney/and others; Matt Faucher as Nick Massi; Eric Chambliss as Bob Gaudio; Devon Goffman as Tommy DeVito; Katie Goffman as Mary Delgado/Angel. The rest of the cast play multiple roles.

Through June 26th at The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 2700 F Street, NW, Washington, DC 20566. For tickets and information call 202 467-4600 or visit www.Kennedy-Center.org

Blue Stockings

Blue Stockings
The Little Theatre of Alexandria
Jordan Wright
February 2022

 Special to the Alexandria Times

Ilyana Rose-Dávila (Maeve Sullivan), Melissa Dunlap (Celia Willbond), Elizabeth Replogle (Miss Blake), Tegan Cohen (Carolyn Addison), Madeline Byrd (Tess Moffat)

Blue Stockings harkens back to the late 19th century at Cambridge University at a time when women wore bloomers, didn’t have the right to vote, nor could they earn graduate degrees from the college. The term ‘blue stockings’ was a derogatory reference to a woman with literary or intellectual interests. No wonder the popularity of writers like Virginia Woolf and the Jazz Age were a thing a mere two decades later, though it should be noted that King’s College in London had a ‘Ladies Department’ in 1897 when Woolf attended.

Jessica Swale’s play is based on the true story of Elizabeth Welsh, the mistress of Girton College and Dr. Maudsley, the renowned male psychiatrist, (other characters in the play are fictitious) are at sixes and nines. Welsh is leading the charge to graduate a small, but brilliant, incoming class of young women of differing socio-economic backgrounds and fields of study. Dr. Maudsley espouses cock-eyed Victorian notions of women’s unsuitability to the rigors of higher learning attributing hysteria to the female body (he calls it the “wandering womb”), the destruction of natural maternal instincts, their inability to land a future husband and other antiquated notions. “Degrees for women are a dangerous idea,” he proposes. Hiss! Boo!

(Back row) Tegan Cohen (Carolyn Addison), Melissa Dunlap (Celia Willbond), Madeline Byrd (Tess Moffat), Ilyana Rose-Dávila (Maeve Sullivan)
(Front row) Robert Heinly (Dr. Maudsley/Professor Collins), Anne Hilleary (Miss Bott/Mrs. Lindley), Michael King (Holmes), Ali Cheraghpour (Edwards), James Blacker (Lloyd),
Paul Donahoe (Mr. Banks)

Under this aggressive male pressure, the ladies are subjugated at every turn. Treated as a curiosity they are chaperoned, cosseted, and degraded by the male students until they join forces in solidarity with the women’s movement to gain the vote. Oh, activism! Funny how assertiveness works to the women’s advantage!

Director Marzanne Claiborne pulls together a brilliant cast who really click affording us a tightly woven production that encompasses both drama and relevance. Urged by the sympathetic professor Mr. Banks (splendidly portrayed by Paul Donahoe) for the men to explore their passions, the flirtatious Ralph Mayhew (Michael Townsend) gives a hilarious delivery of an Italian love poem to aspiring student Tess Moffat (Madeline Byrd). Byrd is the glue that drives this play ever forward. Both her comedic timing and her intensity are spot on and she is tremendously engaging as the striving student whose character is flawed but brave, whose heart is broken but rallies in her ardent quest for education.

Other notable performances are crafted by Robert Heinly as Dr. Maudsley whose evil intentions are reminiscent of Snidely Whiplash; John Paul Odle as Will Bennett, the well-intentioned brother of Tess; Melissa Dunlap as fellow student Celia Willbound; Tegan Cohen as sophisticate Carolyn Addison; and Ilyana Rose-Dávila as Maeve Sullivan, a girl from a poor family who struggles to keep her spot at the school when summoned home to care for her orphaned brothers and sisters.

Paul Donahoe (Mr. Banks), Will Cooke (Professor Radleigh), Robert Heinly (Dr. Maudsley/Professor Collins), Joel Durgavich (Librarian/Professor Anderson/Man in Tea Parlor)

There are 13 scenes in Act I alone – 12 in Act II. It seems like an improbable challenge to pull off, but pull it off they do with smooth transitions, musical interstices and a variety of set changes that place the characters in a typical dorm room, a classroom, the outdoors, the headmistress’s office and other settings typical of campus life with the backdrop of the college’s ivied towers.

Produced by Lloyd BittingerMargaret Chapman and Christine Farrell. Assistant Director Hilary Adams; Period Costume Design Joan Davis; Italian Dialog Coach Dominica Marchetti; Lighting by Franklin Coleman; Set Design by Charles Dragonette.

Additional cast members: Liz LeBoo as Elizabeth Welsh; Ali Cheraghpour as Mr. Banks; James Blacker as Lloyd; Michael King as Holmes; Elizabeth Repogle as Miss Blake; Anne Hilleary as Miss Bott/Mrs. Lindley; Joel Durgavich as Librarian/Professor Anderson; Hilary Adams as/Khalia Muhammad as Minnie; Michael Rufo as Billy Sullivan; Will Cooke as Professor Radleigh; Robert Heinly as Dr. Maudsley/Professor Collins; Manus Nunan as Mr. Peck/Waiter.

This is a fine piece of theater from LTA and one I can most assuredly state, is worthy of appreciation. Highly recommended.

Through March 19th at The Little Theatre of Alexandria, 600 Wolfe Street, Alexandria, VA 22314. For tickets and information call 703 683-5778 or visit www.TheLittleTheatre.com.

Suddenly Last Summer ~ Avant Bard Theatre

Jordan Wright
March 4, 2020 

There’s something rather quaint about Tennessee Williams now.  His sultry Southern romances no longer seem shocking, though the stories are like listening to a fine storyteller spinning a yarn on the veranda of an old house on a steamy summer night.  They’re always captivating and, though we know it will not turn out well for the characters, we wait breathlessly to hear how they navigated turgid waters.

Erik Harrison as George Holly and Megan Morgan as Mrs. Holly in Avant Bard’s ‘Suddenly Last Summer.’ Photo by DJ Corey.

Set in New Orleans in 1935, Suddenly Last Summer reflects a time when electroshock therapy and lobotomies were still in style, when women got the vapors and took laudanum or cocaine and could be committed to an asylum by their husbands for postpartum depression.  Were they crazy or just “handled” in order to be disposed of?

In this story the beautiful and captivating Catherine Holly is holding up the dispersal of a large family inheritance with the telling of a shocking tale about how Mrs. Violet Venable’s son died in a rural Mexican beach town.  The problem is no one wants to hear it.  They hold a high position in society and, if the family doesn’t squelch her story, their reputations will be forever tarnished.  Nowadays there’s not so much attention paid to a few black sheep in a family.  But in that time, and in that place, one’s entire social standing in a community rested on their good name.

Sara Barker as Catherine Holly. Photo by DJ Corey.

Violet fancies her son, Sebastian, an aesthete – a poet and gardening enthusiast with little time for carnal pleasures.  They travel the world together and she becomes accustomed to the attention he garners for his looks and charm.  When Catherine replaces the sickly woman on his stylish adventures, Violet becomes enraged.  Catherine reveals to the others, the Sebastian’s dark side that Violet knew about, and even indulged, but was not willing to acknowledge.  Tragically, Catherine’s future as a free woman is at stake if she reveals the truth of the horrific way he died.  Jealousy and greed drive William’s extraordinary characters and remind us of how brilliant a playwright he was.

Under the fine direction of Christopher Henley, the play crackles with a terrific cast, most especially Cam Magee and Sara Barker who we loved in Avant Bard’s production of Emilie: La Marquise du Chatelet Defends Her Life Tonight.

The play is preceded by a little-known, twenty-minute, two-person production also written by Tennessee Williams and called Talk to Me Like the Rain and Let Me Listen. 

With Cam Magee as Mrs. Violet Venable; Matt Sparacino as Doctor Cukrowicz; Miss Kitty as Miss Foxhill; Erik Harrison as George Holly; Megan Morgan as Mrs. Holly; Sara Barker as Catherine Holly; and Christine Hirrel as Sister Felicity.

Scenic Design by David Ghatan; Lighting Design by Ian Claar; Costume Design by Anna Marquardt; and Sound Design by Clay Tuenis.

Through April 5th at Avant Bard Theatre, Gunston Hall Arts Center, Theatre Two, 2700 South Lang Street, Arlington, VA 22206.  For tickets and information visit www.AvantBard.org/tickets or call the box office at 703.418.4808.