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.

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.

The 12th Annual Alexandria Film Festival Comes to Old Town This Weekend

Jordan Wright
November 7, 2018

The 12th Annual Alexandria Film Festival will bring over 70 films to area film enthusiasts from November 8-11.  For followers of this festival, it just gets better every year.  Expect to see shorts, documentaries and indie films that may never hit mainstream theaters, but may have debuted at film festivals around the country.  Talk with hot new filmmakers who are enjoying media buzz.

The celebration begins Thursday, Nov. 8 with a free program of six short films, screening outdoors at Waterfront Park in Old Town.  The Free Flowing Musical Experience will kick things off at 6:30pm, with shorts beginning at 7pm with free popcorn for the first 100 guests.

AMC Hoffman 22 Theater on Eisenhower Avenue and Beatley Central Library on Duke Street will serve as the principal venues.  More than 60 filmmakers will be in attendance presenting their films over the festival weekend.  See full program details at www.AlexFilmFest.com

Ticketed shows can be found at www.AlexFilmFest.Eventbrite.com for $12. or $15. at the door.  An All-Fest Pass is also available for $50. at www.AlexFilmFest.Eventbrite.com or for $70. at the door.

With more than 50 premieres of short and feature-length films, the festival features films from around the world including Canada, France, India, Lebanon, Spain, South Africa, United Arab Emirates, the U.K., and the U.S.  Local filmmakers will screen new work and several directors, producers, actors and crew members will take questions from the audience after each screening. We love talkbacks!

Free screenings at Beatley Central Library are on Friday, November, 10th from 10:30am - 5:30pm at 5005 Duke Street, Alexandria.

Ticketed screenings at AMC Hoffman Theater 22 are on Saturday and Sunday, November 10th and 11th at 206 Swamp Fox Road, Alexandria.  Tickets are available at www.AlexFilmFest.Eventbrite.com.

Highlights include:

  • Burke and Herbert Bank Family Showcase - Features five premieres for, by, or about younger viewers and their families, presented by nine filmmakers including the grand prizewinner in the national video contest “Lights, Camera, Save.”
  • Salute to Service Members Showcase - Features four films, including three premieres on Veterans Day Weekend. Veterans and active service members will be honored with free admittance plus one guest to this showcase.  First come, first served. Guaranteed seating must be made through advance purchase online.
  • Two “Film Noir” Showcases - Extend the season’s Halloween chills with these thrillers.
  • Meant to be Broken” is a clever “dramedy” about a mild-mannered guy who has never broken a rule, while he tries to cope with some very bad news by breaking them all. Q&A following with D.C. filmmaker Jonathan Zuck.
  • The Makeover” is about a conservative policy wonk who learns to embrace his feminine, alter ego, Giselle. Q&A with Alexandria Filmmaker Jane Pittman and Giselle Donnelly.  World premiere.
  • Hunting Lands” is a story about a veteran-turned-recluse who witnesses the aftermath of a heinous crime and takes justice into his own hands. A Virginia premiere that will keep you guessing!
  • Trickster” - A man’s life is forever changed when he meets a beautiful young woman who needs help. A ‘Twilight Zone’ meets ‘Inception’ thriller.  East coast premiere.  Q&A with filmmaker Jamie Paolinetti.
  • American Exploitation: The Slaves Among Us” – Investigates sex trafficking in suburban America.  Q&A with filmmakers Benjamin Brothers and John Carter.  World premiere.
  • American Relapse” – An inside look at the heroin epidemic in Southern Florida and the corrupt underground “rehabilitation” industry that sprung up, not to combat but to profit. Q&A with filmmaker Pat McGee.
  • Iron Orchard” - Virginia Premiere of an epic rise and fall of a Texas oilman torn between love and ambition. Q&A with filmmaker Camille Chambers.

The festival concludes with an awards ceremony and closing reception on Sunday, November 18th.

The Agitators ~ Mosaic Theater Company

Jordan Wright
October 30, 2018 

People may forget who America’s early activists were, but in their day, women’s rights suffragist and Quaker, Susan B. Anthony, and African American abolitionist, Frederik Douglass, changed the course of history in this nation.  What do we know of their personal lives, their 45-year friendship, or their struggles to assure the freedom to vote for all Americans regardless of race or gender?  Through the lens of Mat Smart’s historically topical play I learned of the constant threats to their lives, the beatings, the shootings and the riots that ensued when they spoke about social justice and equality.  They were The Agitators and speaking out about injustice was their inspiration.  To this day, we hear the echoes of their struggle for justice.

Marni Penning as Susan B Anthony and Ro Boddie as Frederik Douglass - Photo credit Mosaics Stock.

Smart follows their friendship as they crisscross the country, often speaking at lecture halls on the same program.  Anthony, who fought fiercely for women’s rights to vote, and Douglass, who emerged from a life of slavery as one of the nation’s foremost abolitionists securing the right to vote for African-Americans.  Today, with the closure of numerous polling places in predominantly African-American districts and the discounting of their votes in Georgia and other states, it is clear that the fight for equality at the voting booth is far from over.

The play opens in 1849 at the Anthony family farm in Rochester, NY where the Anthony family welcomes Douglass into their sphere of influence.  The farm was a haven for abolitionists to share ideas and strategies for the movement and it’s where Douglass and Anthony solidified their friendship and their goals and where their collegial competition begins.  Over the decades they shared ideas and strategies, but the play’s drama is in the who will get to the finish line first.  Will it be Douglass in his struggle to end slavery and get Blacks the vote? Or Anthony, working with other suffragists to secure the vote for women?  Despite their victories, we are still fighting these same issues.

Marni Penning as Anthony and Ro Boddie as Douglass ~ Adanna Paul and Josh Adams ~ Photo credit Mosaic Stock

Director KenYatta Rogers takes us on their fraught journey with moments of raw tension juxtaposed with the power of faith guided by the ghosts of past injustices.  But it is the outstanding performances by Marni Penning as Anthony and Ro Boddie as Douglass as both allies and agitators that carry us borne aloft through a half-century of friendship based on mutual admiration and respect.

Costume Designer, Amy MacDonald, dresses Anthony in her signature red shawl (See the original at the National Museum of American History) with her iconic alligator handbag, and Douglass in his top hat is seen not far from his precious violin which gave him solace.  These important historical elements employed in both props and costumes are crucial emblems lending gravitas to every scene.

Timely and highly recommended.

With ensemble members Adanna Paul and Josh Adams.

Lighting by Alberto Segarra, Sound Design by David Lamont Wilson, Projections Design by James Morrison and Property Design by Emily Boisseau.

Through November 25th at the Atlas Center for the Performing Arts - 1333 H Street, NE, Washington, DC 20002.  For tickets info on post show discussions, special rates and discounts visit www.MosaicTheater.org or call the box office at 202.399.7993 ext. 2.  Valet parking at 1360 H Street, NE.