Remote Warfare Clashes with Humanity in Grounded at the Kennedy Center

Remote Warfare Clashes with Humanity in Grounded at the Kennedy Center

Washington National Opera
The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
Jordan Wright
October 31, 2023
Special to The Zebra

Mezzo-soprano Emily D’Angelo (center) plays Jess (Photo Credit/Scott Suchman)

When a young, female top gun returns to the Air Force after raising a child on her husband’s Wyoming ranch, she finds the war game has changed dramatically since her eight years of flying F-16s. Grounded soon finds Major Jess sitting indoors in an ersatz cockpit making life and death decisions with a joystick. In this setting, remote warfare is conducted by the “chair force” – a couple of young gamers who are better suited to playing video games on the sofa. Although she dearly misses her days of dodging aircraft volleys from 36,000 feet in the sky, her husband, Eric (Joseph Dennis), is thrilled she’ll be at home each night after 12-hour shifts trailing convoys and suspicious vehicles in Iraq from the safety of a Las Vegas military base. Split screens in real time follow and target who the crew call “the guilty”.

Willa Cook (left) plays Sam; tenor Joseph Dennis (right) plays Eric (Photo Credit/Scott Suchman)

This phenomenal opera is like nothing you have ever witnessed. It combines 3-D rock concert-level visual projections with a story about computerized modern warfare. The set is made up entirely of LED panels to emphasize how the world of Grounded is inundated with digital images. The libretto is unique and contemporary – melodic and often atonal in an alluring way. And there is a romantic, and deeply human element in Jess (Emily D’Angelo) and Eric’s love story – a dichotomy against the backdrop of decisions made by proxy.  If you’ve ever seen the brilliant movie Eye in the Sky starring Helen Mirren, you’ll understand how these drones, flying 10,000 feet above enemy planes, have the advantage of superseding all other aircraft. The digital technology of the production equals the story of how this detached type of warfare has replaced all human interconnectivity.

As Jess romanticizes the power her uniform gives her, the chorus, also in flight suits, stands at attention on an angled stage that is spilt horizontally. Her small apartment is revealed beneath where she lives with Eric and child, Sam (Willa Cook). That cozy set switches out to become a local bar where the flyboys carouse. In an ironic twist, where death and destruction reign, Jess finds her inability to leave warfare and its accompanying stress with the “Kill Chain” drone operators, overlapping into her home life.

A scene from Grounded in the Kennedy Center Opera House (Photo Credit/Scott Suchman)

Author of over 30 plays and musicals, George Brant, created this piece as a play before joining forces with two-time Tony Award-winning Composer Jeanine Tesori. Commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera, it is a radical departure from classical opera – in a good way. The audience was mostly young with some avid military folks. As I was walking up the aisle to the lobby at intermission, I heard an older gentleman turn to an audience member and say, “I only go to classical opera, but this is fantastic!” That seemed to be the reaction of the entire audience at this extraordinary world premiere.

Joined by the Washington National Opera Orchestra conducted by Daniela Candillari and the Washington National Opera Chorus, this thoroughly mind-and-musical immersive production will rock your world. If opera continues to source from new composers and new playwrights to tell a contemporary story that is both highly visual and deeply moving, I truly believe that opera will extend its reach to a younger audience… and it must do exactly that to survive into the next generation of audiences.

Highly recommended!!! This production is the talk of the town! I am flinging rating stars around like candy on Halloween.

A scene from Grounded in the Kennedy Center Opera House (Photo Credit/Scott Suchman)

Composer Jeanine Tesori; Librettist George Brant; Director Michael Mayer; Choreographer David Neumann; Set Designer Mimi Lien; Costume Designer Tom Broecker; Lighting Designer Kevin Adams; Projection Designers Kaitlyn Pietras and Jason H. Thompson; Sound Designer Palmer Hefferan; and Dramaturg Paul Cremo.

With Morris Robinson as Commander; Frederick Ballentine as Trainer; Kyle Miller as Sensor; Teresa Perrotta as Also Jess; Michael Butler as Kill Chain: Mission Coordinator; Joshua Dennis as Kill Chain: Ground Control; Rob McGinness as Kill Chain: Joint Terminal Attack Controller; Jonathan Patton as Kill Chain: Safety Observer; and Sergio Martínez as Kill Chain: Judge Advocate General.

Through November 13th at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F Street, NW, Washington, DC 20566. For tickets and information call the box office at 202 467-4600 or visit

A Farmer’s Wife Finds Passion and Purpose in America’s Heartland in The Bridges of Madison County at Signature Theatre

A Farmer’s Wife Finds Passion and Purpose in America’s Heartland in The Bridges of Madison County at Signature Theatre

The Bridges of Madison County
August 20, 2023
Signature Theatre
Jordan Wright
Special to The Zebra 

Mark Evans (Robert Kincaid) and Erin Davie (Francesca Johnson) (Photo by Daniel Rader)

Readers will remember Robert James Waller’s wildly successful 1992 best-selling novel on which Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Marsha Norman bases this 2013 musical adaptation and followed the eponymous 1995 film starring Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood. With music and lyrics by the brilliant composer, Jason Roberts Brown, it garnered two Tony Awards for Best Score and Best Orchestrations in 2014.

Coming off his recent success with Pacific Overtures, Signature Theatre’s recently appointed Associate Artistic Director Ethan Heard directs this sweeping love story focusing on the indelible integrity of the score performed by its two leads, Erin Davie as the beautiful Francesca Johnson and Mark Evans as her lover, Robert Kincaid.

Rayanne Gonzales (Marge) and Christopher Bloch (Charlie)  (Photo by Daniel Rader)

The story is set in America’s heartland where iconic covered bridges can still be found and where Robert’s National Geographic assignment leads him to Winterset, Iowa to find and photograph all six of them. Francesca, a post-war Neapolitan transplant to America is married to “Bud” Johnson (Cullen R. Titmas) and the farming couple have two children, Michael (Nolan Montgomery) and Carolyn (Julia Wheeler Lennon). When Francesca begs off a family trip to Davenport for the Iowa State Fair, she revels in her solitude and friendship with neighbors, Marge (Rayanne Gonzalez) and Charlie (Christopher Bloch) in “You’re Never Alone”. Soon she is very much not alone when hot and hunky Robert turns into her driveway to ask directions to one of the covered bridges. In “What Do You Call a Man Like That?” she reveals stirrings of a fire she had tamped down after 18 years of marriage. Their subsequent 4-day forbidden love affair is a story of intense passion and the sexual reawakening of a woman who sacrificed her emotional needs to devote herself to farm and family.

Marina Pires (State Fair Singer) and the cast of The Bridges of Madison County at Signature Theatre. (Photo by Daniel Rader)

Davie’s and Evans’ perfectly complementing voices prove irresistible in Brown’s lush score. Their duets on “Get Closer/Falling Into You” and “Before and After You/A Million Miles” are magical. And I was pleasantly delighted by Marina Pires who holds multiple roles as Marian, Chiara, State Fair Singer, Ginny and Waitress. Her delivery of “Another Life” is outstanding.

 Between the rapturous love scenes on a quilt-covered brass bed, neighbors Marge and Charlie provide the levity as they examine their own marriage and their indelible connection to each other. Yes, marriage takes a healthy dose of humor!

Backed by Conductor William Yanesh’s 12-piece orchestra, this moving musical will steal your heart.

Music Directed by Laura Berquist; Choreography by Kelly Crandall d’Amboise; Scenic Design by Lee Savage; Costume Design by Kathleen Geldard; Lighting Design by Jesse Belsky; Sound Design by Eric Norris.

Highly recommended.

Mark Evans (Robert Kincaid) and Erin Davie (Francesca Johnson) (Photo by Daniel Rader)

Through September 18th at Signature Theatre in Shirlington Village, 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, VA 22206. For tickets and information call the box office at 703 820-9771 or visit

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 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 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 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