Robinette Shines in Horton Foote’s The Trip to Bountiful – A Heartwarming Family Drama

Robinette Shines in Horton Foote’s The Trip to Bountiful – A Heartwarming Family Drama

Ford’s Theatre
Jordan Wright
October 3, 2022
Special to The Zebra

(L-R) Nancy Robinette as Mrs. Carrie Watts and Emily Kester as Thelma
(Photo/Scott Suchman)

Set in Houston, Texas in 1953, The Trip to Bountiful is a nostalgic family drama that was made into an award-winning film starring Geraldine Page whose performance garnered her an Oscar for “Best Actress in a Leading Role” and then remade with Cicely Tyson who won the Tony for “Best Actress in a Play”. In Ford’s Theatre’s season opener, Pulitzer Prize-winning American playwright Horton Foote couldn’t ask for a better actor to play the part of Mrs. Carrie Watts than Nancy Robinette. As DC theater royalty Robinette has been seen at Ford’s Theatre in Driving Miss Daisy, Carpetbagger’s Children and State of the Union – three plays that draw on her extraordinary ability to morph into a variety of leading roles. She has appeared at all the major theaters both here and around the country and, proof that she is one of the most beloved actors we have, she has received the Helen Hayes Lifetime Achievement Award and is still a force of nature. Going in I knew I would be in for a treat, and the lady didn’t disappoint. Her portrayal of a determined retiree whose only wish is to revisit her childhood home in Bountiful in her dotage, demonstrates her immense talent for inhabiting a character.

(L-R) Kimberly Gilbert as Jessie Mae Watts, Joe Mallon as Ludie Watts and Nancy Robinette as Mrs. Carrie Watts
(Photo/Scott Suchman)

There is some fine casting in this play most especially in scenes with Carrie and Thelma (Emily Kester), a poised young woman Carrie meets at a bus stop after she’s escaped from the clutches of her son Ludie (Joe Mallon) and his abusive, neurotic shrew of a wife Jessie Mae (Kimberly Gilbert) whose single-mindedness of purpose is getting her hands on Carrie’s pension check. The play’s tension comes in the form of Carrie’s desire to find the right time to run away from her oafish son and daughter-in-law without getting caught and dragged back to a life of sameness and city living in a one-bedroom apartment. Her loss of dignity is the driving force of her need to return to a life of open fields, birds on the wing and the Texas coast where she seeks the solace and sense of self that has been denied her. Gilbert and Robinette are a beautifully balanced pair of opposite ages and their conversations at the bus stop are by far the most heartwarming part of the play as Thelma and Carrie comfort each other by swapping tales and singing hymns.

Nancy Robinette as Mrs. Carrie Watts (Photo/Scott Suchman)

Choosing Michael Wilson to direct the production is quite the coup. Wilson directed the premieres of Foote’s The Carpetbaggers Children, The Death of Papa and The Orphans’ Home Cycle for which he won both the Drama Desk Award as well as the Outer Critics Circle Award and he is currently collaborating with Foote’s daughter, Daisy Foote (who was in the audience on opening night), on a new musical based on Foote’s Oscar-winning film, Tender Mercies.  

All this goes to say that the production was at the highest level for fans of Foote’s work, although, if he were still alive, I would urge him to rewrite the ending so that Carrie would find the boyfriend of her youth waiting for her return to Bountiful.

Additional Cast: Marty Lodge as Houston Ticket Agent/Sheriff; Michael Glenn as Second Houston Ticket Agent/Voice; Christopher Bloch as Roy/Voice; with Will Cooke, Nicola Daval, Drake Leach and Mary Myers as Townspeople and Travelers.

Scenic Design by Tim Mackabee; Costume Design by Ivania Stack; Lighting Design by Rui Rita.

Through October 16th at Ford’s Theatre, 511 10th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20004. For tickets and information call the box office at 202 347-4833 or visit www.Fords.org.

Action-Packed Host & Guest Draws on Epic Battles to Deliver a Powerful Message About War

Action-Packed Host & Guest Draws on Epic Battles to Deliver a Powerful Message About War

Synetic Theater
Jordan Wright
September 2022
 Special to The Zebra

Dan Istrate as Joqola (Photo/Johnny Shryock)

In one of the most exhilarating productions Synetic Theater has ever mounted Host & Guest transports the audience into a world of epic wars and hand-to-hand fighting so explosive and exciting I felt I was watching a 3-D action-packed, superhero movie loaded with special effects. The musical score by Vato Kakhidze and with Resident Composer Koki Lortkipanidze was as dramatic as one you’d expect from Oscar-winning composer Hans Zimmer. Using a combination of spoken word and mime to express the conflicts arising from warring factions, numerous battles rage against a backdrop of tribal politics, ancient laws and religious differences. The parallels to the war in Ukraine cannot be overlooked.

Vato Tsikurishvili as Zviadauri and Dan Istrate as Joqola (Photo/Johnny Shryock)

The story takes place in a remote mountain locale beside a gorge. Joqola (Dan Istrate) finds himself wounded and battle-weary at the home of Zviadauri (Vato Tsikurishvili) who welcomes him in as his guest. Neither Zviadauri nor his wife Agaza (Irina Tsikurishvili) are aware he is the enemy. Soon Musa (Irakli Kavsadze), the village leader discovers he has let the “infidel” into their midst and organizes the villagers to assault Joqola and murder his guest.

There is a ninja-like quality to the battles and a sense of geometry in the choreography by Synetic Co-Founder, Irina Tsikurishvili. In one epic scene the women prepare the men for battle. In unison and in mime they gird the warriors with their weaponry, helmets and shields. Their militaristic movements are precise and the sounds of their lances hitting the floor with staccato-like echoes are indeed haunting.

Ensemble (Photo/Johnny Shryock)

When empathy for the enemy is punished and humanity is ignored, we see how forces unite under a charismatic leader. With an extraordinary cast to underpin its deepest meaning Roland L. Reed’s play based on Vazha Pshavela’s poem by the same name reveals itself to be an existentialist exercise in the futility of war and Shakespearean in its broadest scope.

Director and Co-Founder Paata Tsikurishvili names Synetic’s 20th anniversary season, “Stranger in a Strange Land” and dedicates this production “to the brave people of Ukraine.” His Director’s Note remarks are a powerful warning and a poignant remembrance.

“For more than six months, the civilized world has watched in horror as true tyranny, the Evil Empire, rocks the European continent as they have time and time again for nearly 80 years. The brutal and unprovoked attack on the peaceful nation of Ukraine is cut from the same bloody cloth as the murderous campaigns of Hitler and Stalin, and has the same basic source: A small, petty man ruled by the small, petty need to feed his own warped ego and megalomania. It is a continuation of the endless, cyclical violence portrayed in Vazha Pshavela’s original poem, on which this production is based, and many of our cast and company have seen this violence with their own eyes. Like many of history’s atrocities, the war crimes we are witness to began with someone small and insignificant, but, left unchecked, they have, as we now see every day, spiraled into global disaster.”

Highly recommended.

Ensemble (Photo/Johnny Shryock)

With Philip Fletcher as Mula; Nutsa Tediashvili as Zviadauri’s Wife; Maryam Najafzada as Deer. Villagers are portrayed by Irene Hamilton, Josh Cole Lucas, Justin Bell, Natan-Maël Gray, Robert Bowen Smith, Lev Belolipetski, and Sebastian Newman. Emma Ruckh plays Daughter.

Scenic Design by Phil Charlwood; Costume Design by Carolan Corcoran; Set Design and Costumes in the Original Production by Gogi Alexi Meskhishvili; Lighting Design by Brian Allard; Sound Design by Irakli Kavsadze.

Through October 2nd at Synetic Theater, 1800 South Bell Street, Arlington, VA 22202. For tickets and information call the box office at 703 824-8060 or visit www.SyneticTheater.org.

Local Veteran Song-and-Dance Man Bobby Smith Hits All the Right Notes in No Place to Go

Local Veteran Song-and-Dance Man Bobby Smith Hits All the Right Notes in No Place to Go

Signature Theatre
Jordan Wright
September 10, 2022
Special to The Zebra

Grant Langford (Sal) and Bobby Smith (George) (Photo by Christopher Mueller)

In an off-beat musical with shades of existentialism, veteran song-and-dance man Bobby Smith channels the travails of the working man. Woman would fit here too. In fact, anyone who has ever had a job they loved or hated. Smith, who has appeared in 28 Sig productions, is tailor made for the role. His singular ability to perform while drawing upon a wide range of emotions has always been his stock-in-trade. Winner of two Helen Hayes acting awards, Smith is a local crowd favorite and this is the perfect vehicle for him to prove why.

No Place to Go tells the story of George, married with children and living in a small company town in upstate New York. We like George because he is a thinking man with views on everything from politics to the Arts. George is an “information refiner”, a job that turns facts into information. We don’t need to understand what that means, we only need to recognize that George is content with his work and nestled in an office environment with co-workers he enjoys. What he’s not entirely comfortable with is his twelve-year employment as a part-timer – no benefits, no paid holidays and especially no job security. When the company decides to move its headquarters to “Mars” as George refers to the new location, he must decide whether to relocate. “I’m standing on the slenderest thread of magical thinking.”

As with many stories of companies down-sizing and moving to far-flung towns to slash salaries and force out employees, the thought of a drastic transition is bitter for him. “They’re the ones who are breaking up with me.” As he weighs the pros and cons of moving to a new town, he imagines several scenarios. Will his in-laws move in and help with expenses, should he self-incorporate (Oh, the benefits!)? At 50 years old, his options are limited and his blueprint for change looks bleak. We want to see George resolve his very relatable personal dilemma, maintain his dignity and come out on top.

Grant Langford (Sal), Bobby Smith (George), Tom Lagana (Jonah), and Ian Riggs (Duke) (Photo by Christopher Mueller)

Moments of dark humor and silly schticks – a forlorn sandwich awaits – temper the seriousness of the subject matter and Smith manages to swing from cheery to somber in a heartbeat. Three accomplished musicians accompany Smith and set the mood for each number. It’s a mix of philosophy and humor bracketed by 12 original songs featuring Blues, Cool Jazz, Merengue, Beatbox, Country Rock, Folk and Mambo. Some numbers are fast paced and Smith’s ability to move like Jagger is impressive. Others, especially the ballads, speak to George’s anxiety about change and longing and here’s where Smith’s talent at emotional candor and his chameleon-like style shine through.

Having seen this staged ten years ago in Manhattan’s Joe’s Pub, a cabaret club and live showcase venue in New York, Artistic Director Matthew Gardiner waited for the right moment and the right performer. It was worth the wait.

Written by Ethan Lipton with music composed by Ethan Lipton, Eben Levy, Ian M. Riggs and Vito Dieterle. Directed by Matthew Gardiner with Scenic Design by Paige Hathaway; Costume Design by Frederick P. Deeben; Sound Design by Matt Rowe; and Arrangements by Ian M. Riggs. Musicians: Tom Lagana as Jonah, Grant Langford as Sal and Ian M. Riggs as Duke.

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

Dear Evan Hansen – A Glorious and Deeply Moving Score Calls Out to Parents and Teens with Truth, Humanity and Humor

Dear Evan Hansen
A Glorious and Deeply Moving Score Calls Out to Parents and Teens with Truth, Humanity and Humor

John F. Kennedy Theatre for the Performing Arts
Jordan Wright
September 7, 2022
Special to the Zebra

Anthony Norman, John Hemphill, Lili Thomas, Alaina Anderson (Photo by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade)

In this multi-Tony Award winning, coming-of-age musical written by Steven Levenson and directed by Michael Greif with music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, we meet high school senior Evan Hansen (Anthony Norman) whose angst-ridden teen life has him downing anti-anxiety meds. Fearful of social interaction and his inability to make friends, he finds himself in a complicated position when school bully and fellow outcast Connor Murphy (Nikhil Saboo) signs his cast one day before committing suicide. Evan’s mother, Heidi (Coleen Sexton), encourages him to make friends, but it is that chance run-in with Connor that gives Evan a made-up story for his broken arm and a series of unconnected events gives Evan purpose and recognition from his entire school.

Anthony Norman (Evan Hansen), Alaina Anderson (Zoe Murphy) (Photo by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade)

To back up the lies, super-techie Jared (Pablo David Laucerica) organizes a fake, back dated email account with friendly messages purporting to be from Connor to Evan. Using those as proof of their friendship Jared and Alana (Micaela Lamas) concoct a social media scheme to capitalize on Connor’s suicide. Enjoying the notoriety and encouraged by Ilona and Jared, Evan goes along with the scheme. Texts, Emails and Facebook posts soon fill in the blanks and Evan’s popularity soars.

When Ilona starts a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for “The Connor Project”, things quickly get out of hand. Texts, some kindly, some nasty, flood the internet and Evan is forced to keep up the lie to Connor’s parents, Cynthia (Lili Thomas) and Larry Murphy (John Hemphill), and his love interest, Connor’s sister Zoe (Alaina Anderson).

Anthony Norman as Evan Hansen

Unfortunately, the result proves how devastating Twitter and Facebook can be when used to promote a false narrative. In the fraught age of social media, it’s a warning to all parents and their children about the dangers and falsehoods within social media. On a larger scale it can be socially and politically devastating as we have witnessed in our national political system.

Fans will thrill to Anthony Norman’s beautiful voice in hits like “Waving Though a Window”, “For Forever”, “You Will be Found” and “Words Fail” which brings the house down. Another high point is the beautiful and lyrical intensity actor Coleen Sexton brings to the number, “So Big/So Small” which is when you wish you’d brought a handkerchief. Veteran actor John Hemphill brings sincerity and humanity to the role of Larry Murphy as does relative newcomer Nikhil Saboo, a gifted performer.

Anthony Norman (Evan Hansen), Coleen Sexton (Heidi Hansen) (Photo by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade)

I was recently asked by a mother if she should bring her 11-year-old daughter to see the show. And because I had just seen an in-depth piece in the news about how doctors are asking very young children if they’ve ever had suicidal thoughts, I said yes, emphatically yes. This is a serious and recognized issue affecting young children as well as teens. So, although this musical made its debut seven years ago it continues to be relatable in today’s climate of bullying, social pressure and an increase in teen suicides.

Highly recommended with a memorable score both glorious and deeply moving. Dear Evan Hansen calls out to both parents and teens with truth, humanity and humor.

Music Supervision, Orchestrations & Additional Arrangements by Alex Lacamoire; Choreography by Danny Mefford; Scenic Design by David Korins; Projection Design by Peter Nigrini; Costumes by Emily Rebholz; Lighting Design by Japhy Weideman; and Sound Design by Nevin Steinberg; with the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra.

Through September 25th at The John F. Kennedy Theatre 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.

The Color Purple – Emotional and Brave with a Story and Music That Will Grab Your Heartstrings

The Color Purple  – Emotional and Brave with a Story and Music That Will Grab Your Heartstrings

Signature Theatre
Jordan Wright
August 26, 2022
Special to The Zebra

Nova Y. Payton (Celie) and the cast of The Color Purple at Signature Theatre. (Photo by
Christopher Mueller)

The power of The Color Purple is its deeply poignant story of a woman who suffers both abuse and triumph hidden deep inside a culture rife with racism, sexism and poverty. Based on Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name this searing musical drama etched its spot in the pantheon of great Broadway musicals by earning a Tony Award in 2016 and again in 2017 when it garnered a Grammy for “Best Musical Album”. Its soaring gospel sounds and sweet, emotionally laden ballads grasp at our heartstrings. The story of a child bride fighting for survival in an abusive marriage in the Deep South, speak to us about where we can find love and how we seek truth in the face of adversity. Although set in 1909 we can still recognize these -isms through the rise of #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter.

Kaiyla Gross (Nettie) and Nova Y. Payton (Celie). Photo by Margot Schulman.

The story of 14-year-old Celie, whose only close relationship is with her sister Nettie, unveils a tortured child without agency who has been given in marriage to a cruel man who belittles and abuses her, a repeat of her relationship with her father. Played beautifully by noted actress and singer Nova Y. Payton who clones a girl locked in a world without love or self-worth until Shug Avery a jive club singer comes to stay. Shug, an independent woman whose steamy sexuality reflects her independence has a hold on Celie’s husband Mister and right smack dab under Celie’s nose Shug moves in and renews her relationship with him. What Mister doesn’t bargain for is Shug’s amorous feelings for Celie.

Directed by Timothy Douglas this crack cast includes two Nigerian actors, three actors hot off the recent smash hit Grace and a strong supporting cast who inhabit their roles like buds on a tree. (A simile that will have relevance in the final act.) The strength of their performances – wonderfully in synch – reflect mightily on Douglas’s direction and his passion for the story.

Nova Y. Payton (Celie). Photo by Christopher Mueller.

Tony Cisek’s stark set design resembles a weathered wooden cabin replete with barn boards that operate like the slats of a window blind to reveal when opened the characters in silhouette or in bright light situated on two levels. Peter Maradudin’s lighting enhances the dramatic moments in cool blues and fiery reds as when Celie’s sister, son and daughter return from Africa and there is a magical African drumming and dancing scene that adds to Dane Figueroa Eddi’s fabulous choreography. Solomon Parker III, as Mister’s son Harpo, does double duty as the Dance Captain and you can’t help but thrill to his cool style of laidback crossed with hopped up, jumpin’ and jivin’ moves.

The cast of The Color Purple at Signature Theatre. Photo by Christopher Mueller

The show’s memorable songs by Allee WillisStephen Bray and Brenda Russell are sung by an excellent ensemble who present this complex crystallization of life-on-the-edge-of-nothing with Blues, Gospel and ballads intricately woven into this tender tapestry.  “I’m Here” Celie’s redemptive ballad is the moment where Payton shows the power of her singular voice, Shug’s notable red hot mama number “Push Da Button”, Mister’s “Mister’s Song” (Torrey Linder kills it!) and “Hell No!” by Sofia and the Women are guaranteed to thrill audiences.

With Danielle J. Summons as Shug Avery; Temídayo Amay as Squeak; Kaiyla Gross as Nettie; Jalisa Williams as Jarene; Gabrielle Rice as Doris; Nia Savoy-Dock as Darlene; Keenan McCarter as Pa; Stephawn P. Stephens as Preacher/Ol’ Mister; Torrey Linder as Mister; Frenchie Davis as Sofia; Tobias A. Young as Buster; Sean-Maurice Lynch as Adam; Raquel Jennings as Olivia; Ian Anthony Coleman as Guard/Bobby and Fight Captain.

Book by Marsha Norman; Costume Design by Kara Harman; Sound Design by Ryan Hickey; Musical Direction by Mark G. Meadows; Conducted by Angie Benson.

Highly recommended!

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

Kurios – A Magical Mystery Tour for the Dreamer at Heart

Kurios
Cabinet of Curiosities

Cirque du Soleil
Jordan Wright
August 6, 2022
Special to The Zebra

(Photo/Mathew Tsang)

The tale of Kurios takes us on an odyssey into a deeper realm neatly hidden inside the curio cabinet of the Seeker. Like Dr. Caligari he discovers a hidden world where bizarre curiosities come to life at a time when electricity was bringing the world together.

Steam Punk – as in Victoriana science fiction meets techno wizardry – is the style of Cirque de Soleil’s show, Kurios – Cabinet of Curiosities. The story, set in an alternate universe, features a voyage Jules Verne would have envied. Think leather goggles, top hats, bathing costumes, a giant bathysphere, a steam locomotive, a spectacular array of mechanical contrivances and astounding acrobats. With a wink and a nod to Toulouse Lautrec and early French film director and illusionist Georges Méliès, this decidedly French-inspired circus holds you in its thrall in an inventor’s fantasy zone that lies somewhere between outright silliness and gravity-defying feats of physical strength and beauty. One of my favorites of all the Cirque productions, I am beyond excited to see it return to our area.

(Photo/Mathew Tsang)

Unlocking this Pandora’s box unleashes a collection of extraordinary characters who step into the Seeker’s fantasy world. The outlandish creatures turn his world upside down with a touch of poetry and buckets of hilarity in an attempt to ignite his imagination and achieve a parallel universe. Heart-stopping and brilliantly imagined, it’s a magical, mystery tour for the dreamer at heart. It was hard to puzzle out if the adults or the children in the audience were more wowed by the jaw-dropping feats of acrobatics, the special effects, the over 400 props in the show or the 49 performance artists.

(Photo/Mathew Tsang)

There are new bits and bobs that you’ve never seen before in previous productions of Kurios. At least I don’t remember them. Notable skits feature a pantomimist woos a young lady brought to the stage from the audience. He appeals to her by behaving like a cat. It’s totally endearing. An elaborately choreographed group of hand-dancers project shadow puppets on a hot air balloon and clowns in fishtails race around like lunatics.

Written and directed by Michel LapriseKurios leads us into the birth of technology during the late 19th century and on a journey into the fantastical minds of the inventors of the great Industrial Age. Laprise, a former actor, director and artistic director, who started his own theatre company in Montreal and trained at the National Theatre School of Canada, has been with Cirque for two decades.

Highly recommended. An amazing show for young and old alike!

Through September 25th. Under the Big Top at Lerner Town Square at Tysons II – 8025 Galleria Drive, Tysons, VA 22102. For tickets call 877 924-7783 or visit www.cirquedusoleil.com/kuriosshow.