Indecent ~ Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
December 1, 2018 

Paula Vogel’s Indecent is not your typical holiday entertainment.  It’s dark and foreboding.  Opening during the season of  Hanukkah, it strikes one as an unusual period to put on a tale about the travails of a group of Polish Jewish actors who meet a terrible end in Nazi Poland.  Vogel’s play arose out of her interest in the misinterpretation of Sholem Asch’s play God of Vengeance written in 1907.  It attempts to revisit that play and its impact and separate the two from Asch’s original intent – what he truly meant to express and how devastated he was when critics and rabbis disapproved of it.  As a period, Yiddish play, written during the heyday of Yiddish theater, Asch was devasted when his play augured the demise of that beloved form of entertainment.

(L-R) Susan Lynskey (The Middle: Halina/Ensemble) and Emily Shackelford (The Ingenue: Chana/Ensemble), with Ben Cherry (Lemml) in background. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

We meet the young Sholem and his wife in their bedroom.  She is reading his first play and encourages him to produce it.  “It’s wonderful!  It’s so sad,” she tells him.  He presents it in a private salon for playwrights at the home of a producer who agrees to stage it.  Others in attendance see it as degrading to Jews because it has racy scenes.  It was later to become a play so reviled by American Jews because it dared to present them as human with all its messy faults and foibles.

Nonetheless, one man, Lemml, a modest tailor, endorses Asch’s craft and becomes the play’s stage manager.  Over the years God of Vengeance is performed throughout Europe and Russia to great acclaim, though the unusual story of a Jewish brothel owner, the trashing of the Torah and a romance between two women, portrays Jews as less than holy.  When the actors go to America in 1921, the play is censored.  The original Asch play opened on Broadway in 1923 and featured the first kiss by two women on the Broadway stage.  This innocent and playful scene has the women dancing in the rain as they celebrate their love.  The upshot was that the entire troupe was arrested for obscenity, later resulting in an investigation of the playwright by the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Ben Cherry (Lemml) and the cast of Indecent. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Violin, clarinet, accordion, and what appeared to be a balalaika, serve as a mournful background to the destruction of the socialists’ high ideals.  Well-acted, it reflects a turbulent time during the days of politically-motivated censorship of those in the arts.

With Ben Cherry as The Stage Manager: Lemml; Susan Lynskey as The Middle: Halina/Ensemble; John Milosich as Moriz Godowsky/Musician/Ensemble; Victor Raider-Wexler as The Elder: Otto/Ensemble; Susan Rome as The Elder: Vera/Ensemble; Emily Shackelford as The Ingénue: Chana/Ensemble/Dance Captain; Maryn Shaw as Nelly Friedman/Musician/Ensemble; Alexander Sovronsky as Mayer Balsam/Musician/Ensemble; Ethan Watermaier as The Middle: Mendel/Ensemble; and Max Wolkowitz as The Ingénue: Avram/Ensemble.

(L-R) Emily Shackelford (The Ingenue: Chana/Ensemble) and Max Wolkowitz (The Ingenue: Avram/Ensemble) in Indecent. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Diercted by Eric Rosen; Choreography by Erika Chong Shuch; Music Direction and Original Music by Alexander Sovronsky; Set Design by Jack Magaw; Costume Design by Linda Roethke; and Lighting Design by Josh Epstein.

Through December 30th at Arena Stage - 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information call 202 488-3300 or visit www.ArenaStage.org.

Anything Goes ~ Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
November 10, 2018 

A feel-good, razzamatazz, hotsy-totsy lollapalooza musical just blew into town like a tornado.  And if you’ll pardon my saying so, it’s the Tower of Pisa, the Louvre Museum, it’s the Top (with apologies to Cole Porter).  You won’t have to head to Broadway to take in fabulous hoofing, gorgeous singing and shtick.  Director Molly Smith’s Anything Goes is the show to see right here and right now!  In the pantheon of American musicals, it’s one of the finest ever written, and fair warning: I expect it will be sold out, so grab your tickets STAT!

(L to R) Soara-Joye Ross (Reno Sweeney) and Corbin Bleu (Billy Crocker) in Anything Goes. Photo by Maria Baranova.

When Cole Porter wrote the music and lyrics in 1934 with humorist P. G. Wodehouse, who penned the sophisticated bon mots of Bertie Wooster and Jeeves the Butler, & Guy Bolton, the musical comedy writer, plus Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, it was a different era.  Some ideas were not as politically or socially correct as we would like.  Securing permission from the composer’s estate, Artistic Director Molly Smith received permission to update the musical.  The story remains intact – a boy and girl experience unrequited love on an ocean liner joined by an evangelist and her “angels”, a covey of crooks, a slew of sailors and a soupçon of society’s upper crust.  What’s fresh is the new book by Timothy Crouse & John Weidman and the diversity of the cast, a thoughtful interpretation of the action, sensational choreography and comic throwaway lines directed at the audience.  “C’mon it’s opening night,” Reno Sweeney calls out to the audience getting us pumped and prepped for what’s to come.  And just like that we’re off, crossing the Atlantic on the U. S. America ocean liner, pulling for them and yukking it up with every cliché, mishap and malapropism.

(L to R) Nicholas Yenson (Ensemble/Quartet), Maria Rizzo (Erma/Ensemble) and Mickey Orange (Ensemble/Quartet) in Anything Goes. Photo by Maria Baranova.

Here is a cast that surprises at every turn.  Soara-Joye Ross (Reno Sweeney) showcases her tremendous diva voice with heaps of attention-getting vibrato, captivating from the get-go with the immensely talented Corbin Bleu (Billy Crocker) and scene stealers Maria Rizzo as Erma, Thomas Adrian Simpson as Elisha Whitney, Jimmy Ray Bennett as Lord Evelyn Oakleigh, and Stephen DeRosa as Moonface Martin.

Thanks to award-winning choreographer Parker Esse, there’s soft shoe, modern dance, waltz and eye-popping tap which gratefully is making a strong resurgence.  Think Gower Champion, Jerome Robbins and Tommy Tune all rolled into one.  It’s that good with heaps of singing and dancing up close and personal in the Fichandler’s theater-in-the-round.  Factor in the talents of Conductor/Musical Director Paul Sportelli whose orchestra outdoes itself with orchestration that soars on some of the musical’s most memorable numbers – “I Get a Kick Out of You”, “You’re the Top”, “Easy to Love”, Anything Goes”, “It’s De-lovely” – and many more.

(L to R) Mickey Orange (Ensemble/Quartet), Ben Gunderson (Purser/Ensemble/Quartet), Soara-Joye Ross (Reno Sweeney), Brent McBeth (Ensemble/Quartet/Fred/Photographer) and Nicholas Yenson (Ensemble/Quartet) in Anything Goes . Photo by Maria Baranova.

With Lisa Helmi Johanson as Hope Harcourt, Lisa Tejero as Evangeline Harcourt, Jonathan Holmes as Captain, Ben Gunderson as Purser, Christopher Shin as Luke, Julio Catano-Yee as John, DeMoya Watson Brown as Purity, Kristyn Pope as Chastity, Andrea Weinzierl as Charity, and Maximillian Moonshine/Olly as “Cheeky” the dog.

Soara-Joye Ross (Reno Sweeney) and the cast of Anything Goe. Photo by Maria Baranova.

Set Design by Ken Macdonald, Costumes by Alejo Vietti, Lighting Design by Kimberly Purtell, Hair and Wig Design by Charles G. Lapointe.

Spunk, pizazz and sumptuous buffoonery in spades.  You’ll want to see this one over and over again.

Through December 23rd at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information call 202 488-3300 or visit www.ArenaStage.org.

Turn Me Loose ~ A Play About Comic Genius Dick Gregory ~ Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
September 17, 2018

Playwright Gretchen Law’s political, darkly comic drama is a starkly drawn love letter to comedian activist, Dick Gregory.  It reminds us of Gregory’s take-no-prisoners battle against racism and America’s dark past and its current treatment of indigent African-Americans.  I use the term ‘African-American’ though you won’t hear Gregory use it.  It was not yet in fashion in Gregory’s day, folks were still saying ‘Negro’ or the newly coined term, ‘Black’.  In this monologue, Gregory liberally slings what we now refer to as the ‘N’ word.  It’s sickening to hear it used today – though rappers frequently do.  The audience squirms.  It’s exactly what Law wants us to feel.  We know it’s a word for Blacks’ usage only.  Gregory used the word to shock and to defuse its dehumanizing effect.  If you’re White, don’t even think about using it. You are not that cool and probably never will be.

Edwin Lee Gibson (Dick Gregory) in Turn Me Loose. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Director John Gould Rubin puts Gregory (played compellingly by Edwin Lee Gibson) center stage in Christopher Barreca’s simple set design, to focus on Gregory’s impact on and dedication to the Civil Rights movement.  Using humor to promote change, Gregory endeavored to heighten awareness of such issues as income disparity, corporate greed, capitalism, consumerism, drug companies and Wall Street.

Growing up in poverty in St. Louis, he was acutely aware of its demonic grip.  “Poverty is what threatens Democracy,” he foretold. And comedy was his salvation.  As a young man he started out performing standup in small local nightclubs catching the eye of Playboy magazine publisher, Hugh Hefner, who invited him to perform a one-night only gig at the Mansion where Gregory quickly offended a congress of rednecks.  As the first black comedian on the nightclub scene, his popularity led to gigs in Vegas and national TV appearances.  Soon after he became close friends with Civil Rights activist Medgar Evans and began performing for the NAACP.  To say he was a hero to the movement, is an understatement.

Edwin Lee Gibson (Dick Gregory) in Turn Me Loose. Photo by Margot Schulman.

The play toggles between the 60’s when Gregory became radicalized - even running for President during the Nixon-era - and the 2017 post-Obama era when he was able to witness a modicum of change.  John Carlin reprises his roles as Stand-up Comic/Emcee/Interviewer/Heckler and Cabbie in this riveting presentation.

Gregory died last summer after more than half a century of activism and before witnessing the growth of the #BlackLivesMatter movement and the nation’s conflicted response to pro football player Colin Kaepernick’s taking a knee to draw attention to young men killed in record numbers by police. In later years, Gregory made DC his home.  You have to wonder what he would say if he were still here.

Edwin Lee Gibson (Dick Gregory) in Turn Me Loose. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Highly recommended.

In association with John Legend, Get Lifted Film Company and the Will and Jada Smith Family Foundation.  Costume Design by Susan Hilferty, Lighting Design by Stephen Strawbridge and Sound Design by Leon Rothenberg.

Through October 21st at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information call 202 488-3300 or visit www.ArenaStage.org.

Dave ~ Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
July 29, 2018 

Frustrated with the current administration’s wackadoodle politics and its daily grind of mean-spirited tweets?  Then let Dave be your panacea.  This uplifting story is drawn from the 1993 eponymous movie written by Gary Ross and starring Kevin Kline and Sigourney Weaver.  Remember that?  Well, it’s now a musical written by Tony Award-winning composer Tom Kitt (Next to Normal, If/Then, Bring it On: The Musical, Freaky Friday and SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical) and book writer/lyricist Nell Benjamin (co-writer with her husband Laurence O’Keefe of Legally Blonde, Mean Girls, Life of the Party, Huzzah!).  We need this.  We really, really need this!

Drew Gehling (Dave Kovic/President Bill Mitchell) in Dave, running July 18-August 19, 2018 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Director Tina Landau (SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical and many more) has achieved an astonishing assemblage of A-Plus experienced cast, crew and creators to produce a musical that soars in every category – choreography, sets, actors, musical numbers and lighting.  Set Designer Dane Laffrey and Projection Designer Peter Nigrini have conceived a sensational, floor-to-the-rafters cyclorama embedded with LED projections that changes scenes at the proverbial drop of a hat.  It’s not just cleverly conceived, it’s mind-blowing.

Set in Washington, DC, our hero, Dave Kovic (Drew Gehling) is a recently fired liberal-leaning, Abraham Lincoln-loving high school teacher who decides to take up posting YouTube videos of himself doing impressions of the current President, Bill Mitchell (also Gehling).  When POTUS suffers a stroke whilst in flagrante delicto with his girlfriend, Randi (Rachel Flynn), Dave is summoned to act as his secret stand-in.  He’s so convincing that FLOTUS, Ellen (Mamie Parris) and VP Nance (sounds like… oh, never mind… played by Jonathan Rayson), can’t tell it’s not Mitchell.  The only ones in on the ruse are the Secret Service, his Director of Communications, Susan Lee (Bryonha Marie Parham), and his devious Chief of Staff, Bob Alexander (Douglas Sills).

(L-R) Drew Gehling (Dave Kovic/President Bill Mitchell), Bryonha Marie Parham (Susan Lee) and Douglas Sills (Bob Alexander) in Dave, running July 18-August 19, 2018 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Up till the switcheroo, Lee and Alexander had been serving a President who was a self-consumed, self-aggrandizing idiot, demeaning to his wife while unceremoniously wrecking the country.  Sound familiar?  Meanwhile, Dave becomes more and more irreplaceable as his poll numbers continue to soar and the country (along with the audience!) cheers on his progressive agenda.  While POTUS is still in a coma, Dave feels guilty continuing the subterfuge until the ghosts of former Presidents – Buchanan, Taft, Harding, Harrison, Johnson, Hayes and John Quincy Adams – appear to him in the Lincoln Bedroom to convince him otherwise in one of the show’s most hilarious scenes.  Imagine the Secret Service as an armed-and-dangerous chorus line fronted by the President’s Chief of Staff.  Now, you’ve got the picture.

It’s a feel good, validating, change-the-world, political comedy musical with a flawless cast that will have you cheering all the way home.

Highly recommended.  A total hoot from beginning to end.

Drew Gehling (Dave Kovic/President Bill Mitchell) and the cast, in Dave, running July 18-August 19, 2018 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Photo by Margot Schulman.

With Jenny Ashman (Reporter, Ensemble), Jared Bradshaw (Reporter, Harding, Ensemble), Josh Breckenridge (Duane Bolden), Dana Costello (Reporter, Montana Jefferson, Ensemble), Trista Dollison (Reporter, Harrison, Ensemble), Sherri L. Edelen (Tour Guide, Mrs. Smit, Taft, Ensemble), Kevin R. Free (Murray Stein, Adams, Ensemble), Adam J. Levy (Mr. Wheeler, Ensemble), Erin Quill (Reporter, Hayes, Ensemble), Jonathan Rayson (Gary Nance, Johnson, Ensemble) and Vishal Vaidya (Paul, Ensemble)

Book by Thomas Meehan and Nell Benjamin, Set Design by Dane Laffrey, Choreography by Sam Pinkleton, Orchestrator Michael Starobin, Music Director Rob Berman, Costume Design by Toni-Leslie James, Lighting by Japhy Weideman, Sound Design by Walter Trarbach, Projection Design by Peter Nigrini.

In the Kreeger Theater through August 19, 2018 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information call 202 488-3300 or visit www.ArenaStage.org.

Snow Child ~ Arena Stage Produced with Perseverance Theatre

Jordan Wright
April 27, 2018 

Out of the darkness of a frigid Alaskan winter, comes a sweet story of an enchanted, forest-dwelling wild child and her effect on a childless couple making their way in the forbidding landscape.  Molly Smith directs this premiere – the last of the season’s ‘Power Plays’ series at Arena Stage.  Smith’s connection to Alaska runs as deep as the snow drifts.  She began her theatre career opening Perseverance Theatre in Juneau in 1979 and was Founding Artistic Director there before coming to Arena twenty years ago.  To put it mildly, this is personal.

As Arena’s Artistic Director her influence is felt in all of her theatrical choices.  Smith’s commitment to this particular project is reflected in the length of time it took for it to go from page to stage – four years from the time the decision was made for John Strand to write the book based on Eowyn Ivey’s children’s story based on a Russian fairy tale.

L to R) Alex Alferov (Garrett) and Christiane Noll (Mabel) in Snow Child. Photo by Maria Baranova.

Set in pre-statehood Alaska of the 1920’s, a young suburban couple, Jack (Matt Bogart) and Mabel (Christiane Noll), makes the brave (reckless?) decision to homestead a 167-acre parcel in a wilderness where their nearest neighbors are an hour’s trek away.  The prerequisites to ownership are to farm the land for at least five years.  They seem determined.  But can they survive the brutal winters and the loss of their child so unbearable it will break them apart?

(L to R) Matt Bogart (Jack), Fina Strazza (Faina) and Dorothy James (Ensemble/Fox) in Snow Child. Photo by Maria Baranova.

In a brilliant feat of casting Fina Strazza plays the illusive snow child, Faina.  Strazza is utterly captivating as are the puppets – a giant Dapple Grey horse, a Tundra swan and Faina’s ‘familiar’, a curious white fox – designed by Emily Decola.  They are the perfect foil for the couple’s rough-hewn neighbors, George (Dan Manning) who makes moonshine, his wife Esther (Natalie Toro) and their son, Garrett (Alex Alferov) who vacillate between being good neighbors (who doesn’t like moose meat stew?) and imagining they will take over the homestead when Jack and Mabel quit trying.

(L to R) Dan Manning (George), Alex Alferov (Garrett), Natalie Toro (Esther), Christiane Noll (Mabel) and Matt Bogart (Jack) in Snow Child. Photo by Maria Baranova

Bob Banghart and Georgia Stitt composed 24 numbers for this heartfelt musical ranging from tender, melancholy ballads to upbeat songs (porch clogging, anyone?) – all to the tune of bluegrass accompaniment.  Expect to enjoy a score filled with mandolin, fiddle, banjo, piano, spoons and guitar led by conductor/percussionist/keyboardist William YaneshShawn Duan creates the spectacular stage-wide projections evoking the aurora borealis as well as the alpenglow against Alaskan mountain vistas. Cue the snow! Lots of it.

Pack your bags.  We’re going to Alaska!  Highly recommended.

With lighting by Kimberly Purtell, sound by Roc Lee, set designs by Todd Rosenthal, costumes by Joseph P. Salasovich, and musical supervision and orchestrations by Lynne Shankel.

Through May 20th 2018 in the Kreeger Theater at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information call 202 488.3300 or visit www.ArenaStage.org.