NSO Pops: Diana Ross – Music Book 2020 ~ The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

Jordan Wright
January 9, 2020

Backed by the 25-member The Joyce Garrett Singers, a DC-based gospel choir, the iconic National Symphony Orchestra, and four back-up vocalists, Diana Ross strode onstage to the tune “I’m Coming Out”, her signature walk-on entrance.  Swathed in a tangerine-hued, ruffled silk cape and molten orange floor-length gown, the magnificent pop diva claimed the night with her beauty, musicality and charm.

Diana Ross

Tossing her ebony ringlets, she enraptured a full house of fans in the Concert Hall.  Shimmying and shaking to the beat and shouting out “We love you. Diana!” from their seats, fans were thrilled to hear a selection from many of her biggest hits.  Twenty-two numbers formed her wide-ranging repertoire Friday night.  “Your Love”, from a rare box set recorded over two decades ago, “He Lives in You”, and “Voice of the Heart”, all rarely heard in concert, were well received.  More familiar songs were “You Can’t Hurry Love”, “Touch Me in the Morning”, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”, “Love Hangover”, “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?” (the Frankie Lyman hit), and “I Will Survive” that had the orchestra temporarily flat-footed, until she asked them to crank up the beat.

Easily segueing from pop and R&B to jazz, ballads and disco, the legendary diva offered up a few of her greatest film score hits – “Home” and “Ease on Down the Road from The Wiz; “If We Hold On Together” from A Land Before Time;  “Do You Know Where You’re Going To” from Mahogany; and a personal favorite in which she shows off her silken jazz voice, “The Man I Love” from Lady Sings the Blues.  A 1996 memorable performance from Super Bowl XXX brought knowing applause with “Take Me Higher”, a song that culminated in her being whisked away by helicopter.

It’s pointless to review a Diana Ross concert without mentioning her fabulous ensembles.  Four glamorous gown changes showed off her svelte figure, most surprising was the final gown – a steel blue, full-skirted satin gown with exposed strapless bodice that she had once worn to a pre-inaugural concert for President Clinton.

Miss Ross spoke excitedly of her upcoming tour that takes her throughout the American South before heading to Las Vegas.  This June she will appear at the UK’s famed Glastonbury Festival 2020 playing the fabled “legends” slot, before heading to Ireland and returning to England for several more dates.  Miss Ross has not toured the continent in many years and said she was eager to return.

As one of the most successful singers of her generation, she enjoys a performing arts career spanning over 50 years.  An award-winning singer and actress, Miss Ross is known for leading The Supremes, as well as her chart-topping solo career.  She has received the Guinness World Record for her international success of having more hits than any other female artist on the charts, inductions into both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame, a Kennedy Center Honor in 2007, a Grammy® Lifetime Achievement Award, and countless other accolades and awards.

Conducted by Emil De Cou.

Final Washington, DC concert date is Saturday, January 11th at 8pm at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 2700 F St., NW, Washington, DC.  For tickets and information call 202 467-4600 or visit www.Kennedy-Center.org.

My Fair Lady ~ The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

Jordan Wright
December 21, 2019 

The story of Eliza Doolittle, a street waif transformed into a high society lady by the over-achieving phoneticist, Professor Henry Higgins, has recently been adapted to reflect the #MeToo movement.  Love it or leave it (I overheard a dismayed audience member kvetch about the changes), Director Bartlett Sher has fashioned Eliza into a girl from the wrong side of town yet with a street-wise sense of self.  My Fair Lady, the classic musical that made its Broadway debut in 1956, at the height of Lerner and Loewe’s musical partnership, echoes George Bernard Shaw’s 1913 play Pygmalion, itself derived from Ovid’s poem, Metamorphoses, the myth of the sculptor who fell in love with a statue of a woman.

Shavey Brown, Mark Aldrich, Shereen Ahmed (center), William MichalsandColin Anderson. Photo credit Joan Marcus

As you can imagine, the challenge of passing off an uneducated flower girl with a cockney accent into a lady who could move undetected among high society, is fraught with all manner of potential social faux pas.  “In six months, I could pass her off as a duchess at the Embassy Ball,” he boasts.  Men are always trying to fix things.  Right?  Higgins’ collegial cohort, Colonel Pickering, bets him it can’t be done.

Laird Mackintoshas Professor Henry Higginsand Shereen Ahmedas Eliza Doolittle. Photo credit Joan Marcus

In this glorious redo, Eliza Doolittle’s role has been upgraded to a scrappy, independent-minded and totally liberated woman, though it takes some doing to achieve self-evolution.  No matter that the premise has been modernized a bit, the music is as tuneful and glorious as you remember, and with a full orchestra filling the Opera House to the rafters, it is positively rapturous.  I promise you will thrill to “The Rain in Spain”, “With a Little Bit of Luck”, “I Could Have Danced All Night”, “On the Street Where You live”, and another dozen or more tunes that are an indelible part of Broadway legend.

Leslie Alexanderas Mrs. Higgins, Shereen Ahmedas Eliza Doolittle and Kevin Pariseauas Colonel Pickering. Photo credit Joan Marcus

Spectacular costumes dazzle in the scene at the posh Royal Ascot gavotte where Eliza is first introduced to the grand dames in their lavish pastel gowns and sky-skimming feathered hats and dapper gentlemen in their top hats and morning dress.  There her gaffes among the Old Guard are almost her undoing.  Yet her inherent charm and comic phrasing is welcomed as refreshing, and she fools most of them. The only ones not deceived are the Hungarian poseur, Professor Zoltan Karpathy, and Higgins’s own mother who takes to the girl recognizing her true heart and her love for her son and mentor.  Expect a novel twist at the denouement, as Eliza keeps us in suspense as to her future and who she will choose to share it with.

Sam Simahkas Freddy Eynsford-Hill, Shereen Ahmedas Eliza Doolittle, Kevin Pariseauas Colonel Pickering and Leslie Alexanderas Mrs. Higgins. Photo credit Joan Marcus

Highly recommended.  It’s ab-so-bloomin’-lutely fantastic!

Directed by Bartlett Sher; Choreography by Christopher Gattelli; Sets by Michael Yeargan; Costumes by Catherine Zuber; Lighting by Donald Holder; and Sound by Marc Salzberg.

Starring Shereen Ahmed as Eliza Doolittle; Laird Mackintosh as Professor Henry Higgins; Kevin Pariseau as Colonel Pickering, Adam Grupper as Alfred P. Doolittle; Sam Simahk as Freddy Eynsford-Hill; Gayton Scott as Mrs. Pearce; and Leslie Alexander as Mrs. Higgins.

Through January 19, 2020 at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 2700 F St., NW, Washington, DC.  For tickets and information call 202 467-4600 or visit www.Kennedy-Center.org.

Come From Away ~ The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

Jordan Wright
December 13, 2019 

Come From Away is the heartwarming true story of the residents of Gander, Newfoundland who took in over 7,000 passengers when their flights were diverted during 9/11.  It is not a maudlin retelling of that terrifying moment in time when all U. S. airspace shut down.  Nor is it an historical or political exposé, but it is a testament to how extraordinarily kind and generous these small-town residents were when faced with a disaster of epic proportions.

The North American Tour of Come From Away Photo Credit Matthew Murphy

It’s a normal workday when news comes in that 38 international aircraft have been diverted to their local airport.  The bus drivers are on strike.  The local news reporter is on her first day on the job. The mayor is under siege and the SPCA lady is running late to the animal shelter.  Passengers on the aircraft have no idea why they are not headed to their destinations.  Forced to remain in their crowded planes on the tarmac for 28 hours with zip to do, they get rip-roaring drunk.  Who wouldn’t?

The North American Tour of Come From Away Photo Credit Matthew Murphy

Based on a true story, the musical parallels the strained emotions of the stranded passengers with the herculean efforts of the townspeople who struggled to provide food and supplies for adults, kids, babies, dogs, cats and a pair of bonobo chimpanzees.  Everything about this sweet, sweet, musical reaffirms one’s belief in the kindness and generosity of strangers in the face of adversity.  Remember how everyone pulled together in New York during that terrifying time?  Well, it feels just like that, only with a great deal of situational humor as the passengers settle into town life, struggle to adjust, and hit the local bars.

The North American Tour of Come From Away Photo Credit Matthew Murphy

Of particular charm are the townspeople’s Irish accents and Irish music, a result of the region’s Celtics roots.  Add to that the passengers’ diversity of ethnicities, religions, and predilections, to form an ad hoc United Nations.  Yet there is still fear amongst some of the passengers.  A gay couple worries they will be scorned.  A Muslim has to hide his prayer time.  A mixed-race couple is unsure if it’s realistic to fall in love under such superficial circumstances.

The staging is a brilliant achievement of complex choreography as the actors assume many roles and the simple sets toggle between scenes on the planes, the local watering hole, the SPCA and the mayor’s office.

The First North American Tour Company of COME FROM AWAY, Photo by Matthew Murphy,

Uplifting and exuberant with a gorgeous score and phenomenal singing to boot.  I loved every minute of it!

Book, Music and Lyrics by Irene Sankoff and David Hein.  Directed by Christopher Ashley with Lighting Design by Howell Binkley; Costumes by Toni-Leslie James; Scenic Design by Beowolf Boritt; Sound Design by Gareth Owen; Orchestrations by August Eriksmoen; and Arrangements by Ian Eisendrath.

Featuring Sharone Sayegh as Bonnie; Harter Clingman as Oz and others; Marika Aubrey as Beverly/Annette and others; Julia Knitel as Janice and others; James Earl Jones II as Bob and others; Kevin Carolan as Claude and others; Chamblee Ferguson as Nick/Doug and others; Nick Duckart as Kevin J./Ali and others; Danielle K. Thomas as Hannah and others; Julie Johnson as Beulah and others; and Christine Toy Johnson as Diane and others.

Through January 5th at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 2700 F St., NW, Washington, DC.  For tickets and information call 202 467-4600 or visit www.Kennedy-Center.org.

Mark Morris Dance Group ~ Pepperland ~ The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

Jordan Wright
November 16, 2019 

Mark Morris Dance Group_Pepperland – Noah Vinson (forwground) and Dallas McMurray (background) ~ Photo by Mat Hayward

“It was 50 years ago today.  Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play.  They’ve been going in and out of style, but they’re guaranteed to make you smile.” – – lyrics by Paul McCartney.  And smile we did with this joyfully exuberant reinterpretation by the Mark Morris Dance Group.  With no formulaic restrictions on movement and a choreography as light and unfettered as a butterfly on the wing, the dances flow as freely as the original music cleverly deconstructed by Composer Ethan Iverson.  It’s bouncy, angular and humor-inducing, shouldered by the gravitas of George Harrison’s lyrics in the Indian-inspired raga, “Within You and Without You”, that is mesmerizing, timely and deeply mystical.

Mark Morris Dance Group – Pepperland~ Photo by Mat Hayward

The performance begins with an intro of the initial characters – Billy Shears (whom we expected), then Marilyn Monroe, Marlene Dietrich, Shirley Temple, Sonny Liston!, Oscar Wilde, Albert Einstein, and other intriguing celebrities who later morph into miming, interpretive dancers that echo flight and fantasy interpreting the myriad of styles reflected in the album – from Jazz and Vaudeville to the strains of Music Hall, the avant-garde, and top of the pops.

Crayon-colored costumes by Elizabeth Kurtzman recall the aesthetics of artist Peter Max and author Tom Wolfe’s psychedelic-inspired, counter-culture celebration novel, “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” as well as the fashions of André Courrèges and London’s Carnaby Street of the same 60’s dynamic.

Mark Morris Dance Group – Pepperland ~ Photo by Mat Hayward

Accompanied by vocalist Clinton Curtis and a five-piece band that includes a soprano sax, trombone, keyboard and percussionist, the sound is further heightened by Ethan Iverson on the piano and the lilting strains of the avant-garde electronic instrument called a theremin played by Rob Schwimmer.  This fantasy-like reinterpretation of the original Beatles music (Yes, the songs are still recognizable) draws from both the minimalist stylings of composer Phillip Glass and 60’s dances.  Frug, anyone?

Seven Beatles compositions from the album are augmented by ‘Magna Carta’, ‘Adagio’, ‘Allegro’ and ‘Scherzo’.  One of the dances is a riff on Ringo’s song, “When I’m 64”.  It places the dancers shoulder-to-shoulder, chorus line style, all doing a different dance. So original!

Highly recommended.

Additional musicians – Sam Newsome on soprano saxophone; Jacob Garchik on trombone; Colin Fowler on keyboard; and Vinnie Sperrazza on percussion.

Mark Morris Dance Group – Pepperland ~ Photo by Mat Hayward

Dancers – Mica Bernas, Karlie Budge, Brandon Cournay, John Eirich, Domingo Estrada, Jr., Lesley Garrison, Lauren Grant, Sarah Haarmann, Deepa Liegel, Aaron Loux, Laurel Lynch, Matthew McLaughlin, Dallas McMurray, Minga Prather, Brandon Randolph, Nicole Sabella, Christina Sahaida, Billy Smith, Noah Vinson, and Jammie Walker.

At the Kennedy Center through November 16th .

Mark Morris will be in conversation with Wesley Stace, co-author of his new book, “Out Loud: A Memoir” on Sunday, November 17th between 5-6pm at Politics and Prose Bookstore – 5015 Connecticut Ave., NW, Washington, DC 20008

The Magic Flute ~ The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

Jordan Wright
November 4, 2019 

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote his final opera, The Magic Flute, in his later years after he had joined the Rationalist faction of the Freemasons known as the Illuminati who held differing views on society’s rank.  In this romantic tale, a dragon must be slain – this one’s a fire-breathing, glowing-eyed monster – a princess with a heartless mother must be rescued from the evil clutches of a sexual predator, and harmony shall reign through the brotherhood of man.  This humanist theme reflects the particular Masonic ethos which holds that nobility of the spirit was not defined by noble rank.  Very democratic.

(l-r) Alexandria Shiner (1st Lady), Deborah Nansteel (2nd Lady), Meredith Arwady (3rd Lady),Michael Adams (Papageno), David Portillo (Tamino) in WNO’s The Magic Flute. Photo credit by ScottSuchman

Incorporating vibrant themes of exotic Egyptian iconography with Freemasonry symbolism, the opera depicts a universal lesson in morality, unity and kindness.  And if all that sounds unusually weighty Emanuel Schikaneder’s libretto is the stuff of classic fairy tales.

Kathryn Lewek (Queen of the Night), David Portillo (Tamino)in the WNO’s The Magic Flute. Photo credit by Scott Suchman

The eye candy comes from the genius of children’s book writer and illustrator Maurice Sendak who designed both costumes and scenery.  Using a layered construction of fourteen entirely different sets involving wings, borders, flats and colored cloths that draw the eye into an ever-deeper perspective, the scenery is wonderfully whimsical and darkly haunting – think children’s pop up books which, according to Sendak’s friend and collaborator, Neil Peter Jampolis, is exactly the look Sendak was aiming for.

Michael Adams (Papageno), Alexandra Nowakowski (Papagena) in The WNO’s The Magic Flute. Photo credit by Scot tSuchman

It was discovered that the original sets had deteriorated.  So, how would these old sets be replicated?  Enter veteran set designer Jampolis who digitized the designs from Sendak’s original drawings.  What a treat for new audiences! since it affords us the thrill of imagining we are time-warped to 1980 when the Houston Grand Opera initially commissioned Sendak.  Fusing the neo-classical of the 18th century with pure folly, Sendak gives us a mashup of temples and palm trees coexisting with wild animals, Corinthian columns and sphinxes.

The Washington National Opera presents The Magic Flute. Photo credit by Scott Suchman

Masonic elements are everywhere.  Look for the clues.  From the Golden Mean compass half-hidden behind a massive rock, to the aprons and blindfolds used in Masonic rituals.   Sendak didn’t miss a single beat.  The splendid costumes range from dreamy fairy tale to British Colonials in perukes and britches meeting in secret ceremonies with blindfolded acolytes.  It’s pure science fiction, if you think about it.

Wei Wu (Sarastro), Alexander McKissick (1st Armed Man), Samuel J. Weiser (2nd Armed Man) in WNO’s The Magic Flute. Photo credit by Scott Suchman

A collection of magnificent voices brings this can’t-miss production to a crescendo.  The golden genies – three local youngsters whose harmonies are positively angelic, the breathtaking diva Kathryn Lewek who proves that three-plus octaves in her second act aria is no sweat, and the good looks and athleticism of Michael Adams as Papageno and tenor David Portillo as Tamino, are the icing on this delicious multi-tiered cake.  David Cangelosi as Monostatos shows his comic timing and brazen silliness is spot on, most especially in a scene with a bare-breasted statue and I was taken by surprise by the lovely voiced Alexandra Nowakowski as Papagena.

Don’t miss this full-throttle two-acter singspiel.  It’s epic!

Also featuring Sydney Mancasola as Pamina, Kathryn Lewek as Queen of the Night and the powerful bass, Wei Wu, who reminded me of Bert Lahr in The Wizard of Oz, as the evil Sarastro.

Conducted by Eun Sun Kim, directed by Christopher Mattaliano, Set Design and Lighting by Neil Peter Jampolis with the Washington National Opera Orchestra and the Washington National Opera Chorus.

Performances are as follows: November 6, 9, 12, 15, 17 (matinee only) & 23.

At the at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 2700 F St., NW, Washington, DC.  For tickets and information call 202 467-4600 or visit www.Kennedy-Center.org.