Broadway Center Stage presents – Footloose ~ The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

Jordan Wright
October 12, 2019 

Yet another show with a huge fan base culled from those who have seen, or performed in, countless high school productions around the country.  Having been both a movie and a Broadway show it tells the story of a student who organizes his classmates to fight an ordinance that outlaws dancing.  See, students? You can change the status quo.

J Quinton Johnson, Peter McPoland, and Company ~ Photo by Jeremy Daniel

High school senior Ren and his single mom Ethel leave the bright lights of Chicago for Beaumont, Texas where Ethel’s sister and brother-in-law live.  As they try to adjust to small town minds and small town politics, Ren soon discovers he’s seen as an outsider and the girl he likes, Ariel, has a vengeful boyfriend.  “Everything you do is suspicious,” he’s told.  To make matters worse, Ariel doesn’t make it easy for Ren to court her since her father, the town preacher, wants to keep a tight rein on his rebellious daughter.  Naturally, Ren comes out the hero when he stands up to the town elders and convinces Ariel’s conservative dad that it’s time to let the kids put on a dance.  It’s a thin, predictable plot on which loosely hangs the dancing and singing.

J Quinton Johnson and Isabelle McCalla ~ Photo by Jeremy Daniel

Although Spencer Liff’s choreography is an absolute wonder and the dancers are wildly talented, if it weren’t for the tight cast led by the mesmerizing J. Quinton Johnson as Ren, the huge vocal talents of Isabella McCalla as Ariel, and the adorable scene-stealing Peter McPoland as Willard, this show would be in the dust bin.

Lena Owens, Nicole Vanessa Ortiz, Isabelle McCalla, and Grace Slear ~ Photo by Jeremy Daniel

Nevertheless, the audience went wild for the major chart toppers – “Footloose”, of course, and “Holding Out for a Hero”, “Let’s Hear It for the Boy”, and “Almost Paradise” by rock composers Kenny Loggins, Dean Pitchford, Tom Snow, Jim Steinman, Eric Carmen, and Sammy Hagar – plus another fourteen numbers added to the mix.

Maximilian Sangerman and Company ~ Photo by Jeremy Daniel

Directed by Walter Bobbie with Judy Kuhn as Ethel McCormack, Michael Park as Reverend Shaw Moore, Rebecca Luker as Vi Moore, Michael X. Martin as Wes Warnicker, Michael Mulheren as Coach Roger Dunbar, Nicole Vanessa Ortiz as Rusty, Grace Slear as Urleen, Lena Owens as Wendy Jo, Joshua Logan Alexander as Chuck Cranston, Jess LeProtto as Lyle, J. Savage as Travis, Rema Webb as Lulu Warnaker, Eleanor Dunbar and Betty Blast, Jamar Williams as Jeter, Nick Martinez as Bickle, Gregory Liles as Garvin and Maximilian Sangerman as Cowboy Bob.

Through October 14th 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.

Cats ~ The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

Jordan Wright
September 21, 2019 

Cats!  Lots of cats!  Twenty-six, in fact.  Most especially Jellicle cats – the ones T. S. Elliot told of in “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats”.  Andrew Lloyd Webber’s classic blockbuster is in town for a short run, and this is the musical to see.  Full stop.

As the music’s eerily and compelling orchestration plays the intro, and just as you’re adjusting your eyes to pitch darkness, the cats slink down the aisles, their tails twitching and laser-eyes blinking, leaping and posing and creating the electrifying moments you won’t soon forget.  A silvery moon hangs high over a darkened alley as the cats prepare for the annual Jellicle Ball – a magical occasion whereby one cat is chosen to be reborn.  Keeping up with so many cats takes a bit of doing since they have three names: fanciful names, sensible names and naturally, as befits a cat of stature, an elegant name.  As explained in “The Naming of Cats”, “the cat himself knows his name, but will never confess.”

The North American Tour Company of CATS. Photo by Matthew Murphy

The sheer athleticism of the show is jaw-dropping – leaps, backover flips, cartwheels, tap dancing!!!, jazzy bits and ballet bits – all frenetically energetic and fiercely feline.  Some of the most spectacular choreography ever includes thigh-to-ear kicks that would make the Rockettes jealous.  I had to wonder how these actors/dancers/singers do it all, and all at the same time, in costume, with cat faces and long tails.

Brandon Michael Nase as ‘Old Deuteronomy’ and the North American Tour Company of CATS. Photo by Matthew Murphy

Old Deuteronomy appears in a massive fur suit, and the roly-poly tuxedo cat, Bustopher Jones, sports a fur suit of black tie when he’s out cattin’ around.  Well, of course, he’s from the posh side of St. James.

McGee Maddox as ‘Rum Tum Tugger’ and the North American Tour Company of CATS. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

McCavity, “The Mystery Cat” is a ginger cat and a monster of depravity, only outdone by the fabulous Rum Tum Tugger, played in spectacular fashion by 10-foot tall, legs-for-days (ah, well, it seems like it) McGee Maddox.  You are sure to pick your favorites, based on the particular quirks and quibbles of cats you have known.  But everyone will agree on the appeal of Grizabella, the tattered old tabby who is on her last paws.  Played by the amazing Keri René Fuller, whose sublimely soaring rendering of “Memory” will send goosebumps up your spine, it is transcendent.

Keri René Fuller as Grizabella in the North American Tour of CATS. Photo by Matthew Murphy

Orchestrations by Andrew Lloyd Webber & David Cullen with the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra and the Cats Orchestra.  With original scenic and costume design by John Napier (Les Misérables), all-new lighting design by Natasha Katz (Aladdin), all-new sound design by Mick Potter, new choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler (Hamilton) based on the original choreography by Gillian Lynne (The Phantom of the Opera), and direction by Trevor Nunn (Les Misérables), make this production of Cats the perfect show for a new generation.

With Phillip Deceus as Alonso, Emma Hearn as Bombalurina, Mariah Reives as Cassandra, Maurice Dawkins as Coricopat, Alexa Racioppi as Demeter, Kaitlyn Davidson as Jellylorum, Emily Jeanne Phillips as Jennyanydots, PJ DiGaetano as Mistoffelees, Tony d’Alelio as Mungojerrie, Dan Hoy as Munkustrap, Timothy Gulan as Peter/Bustopher Jones/Asparagus, Tyler John Logan as Plato/Macavity, Brett Michael Lockley as Pouncival, Rose Iannaccone as Rumpelteazer, Ahren Victory as Sillabub, Ethan Saviet as Skimbleshanks, Laura Katherine Kaufman as Tantomile, Devin Neilson as Tumblebrutus, Brandon Michael Nase as Victor/Deuteronomy, Caitlin Bond as Victoria, and Maria Failla, Adam Richardson, Zachary Tallman and Tricia Tanguy as The Cats Chorus.

Highly recommended.  It’s the cat’s meow and more!

Through October 6th 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.

What the Constitution Means to Me ~ The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

Jordan Wright
September 15, 2019 

I spoke with playwright and lead actor Heidi Schreck during her performance of What the Constitution Means to Me.  Though I did it silently, I wanted to jump out of my seat with fist raised and yell, “Right on, Sister!”  The audience seemed share the intensity of that emotion.  Schreck has tapped into a universal frustration with the American Constitution, its articles on immigration, slavery, legislating women’s bodies, the scourge of violence against women and, most especially, decisions made by the predominantly male members of the Supreme Court.

Heidi Schreck in WHAT THE CONSTITUTION MEANS TO ME at Broadway’s Helen Hayes Theater. Photo by Joan Marcus

The play opens with Schreck as a teenager and prize-winning debater of the Constitution’s intricate clauses and articles.  She puts forth her cogent and well-researched arguments about how this document was written – in a different day and age and by men who refused to give women, blacks and Native Americans the right to vote.  She tells of the women in her family who bore their husbands many children and who, under the laws of the day, were not granted any form of protection against the ongoing domestic violence they suffered.  By acting out these scenarios, sometimes hilariously, sometimes with a dead eye, she gives the history of how these inequities were allowed to flourish to protect men from being held responsible.  It’s a valuable history lesson for both sexes.

Heidi Schreck and Mike Iveson in WHAT THE CONSTITUTION MEANS TO ME at Broadway’s Helen Hayes Theater. Photo by Joan Marcus

Switching to her adult self, she chooses the word “penumbra” to put forth the argument that the constitution is stuck in a sort of limbo between darkness and light.  Citing Dred Scott v. Sanford, wherein African Americans could not become American citizens, she teases out the origins of these failed policies, and challenges the early notion of female “melancholia”, the diagnosis given to women with postpartum depression that saw them locked up in mental institutions by husbands who wanted to get rid of them.  This was before women had any legal protection whatsoever from their spouses, and, even so, it rarely takes into account the battered woman syndrome.

Using her own experience as a young woman facing an out-of-wedlock pregnancy, Schreck demonstrates how Roe v. Wade changed women’s lives freeing them up to make independent choices without the burden of unwanted pregnancies, and she examines the church-fueled history and current battles against this Supreme Court decision, explaining that at the time of its ratification, its basis was to sterilize black and Indian women so that white women could have more white babies.

Schreck vacillates between forthrightness and sheer, unadulterated charm by explaining, “I was raised to be psychotically polite.”  Women can heartily relate to this and men cannot help but acknowledge its truth.

Rosdely Ciprian, Mike Iveson and Heidi Schreck in WHAT THE CONSTITUTION MEANS TO ME at Broadway’s Helen Hayes Theater. Photo by Joan Marcus

In defending her position, she offers up unassailable historical facts and cites important legal cases to bolster her debate to an audience who responds with resounding cheers.  It’s no wonder this show was a finalist for the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Informative, funny and highly relatable.  Highly recommended.

Schreck appears with the original Broadway cast of Mike Iveson as The Moderator; Ben Beckley understudy; and Rosdely Ciprian as the young debater whose poise as a fierce debater proves to be a worthy competitor to Schreck’s skills as comedian and constitution ally.

Directed by Oliver Butler with Scenic Design by Rachel Hauck; Costume Design by Michael Krass; Lighting Design by Jen Schiever; and Sound Design by Sinan Refik Zafar.

Through September 22nd at the 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.

Dear Evan Hansen ~ The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

Jordan Wright
August 11, 2019 

Four years ago, Dear Evan Hansen premiered at Arena Stage under the direction and guidance of Molly Smith and Edgar Dobie.  The angsty teen musical starred Ben Platt who subsequently became a huge star when the show went to Broadway where it won six Tony Awards in 2017 plus a Grammy for “Best Musical Theater Album” in 2018.  Before seeing this national touring company production, I reread my original review, which surprisingly, was quite specific as to the pros and cons.

Ben Levi Ross as ‘Evan Hansen’ and the Company of the First North American Tour of Dear Evan Hansen. Photo by Matthew Murphy

Although a fresh, new concept in musical theater, I noted the production seemed overly cloying and needed work with some of the songs.  More specifically, I was eager to see the show get some much-needed, strategic editing and a sharper focus.  From my August 2015 review:  “The show loses momentum as the characters’ roles are overly fleshed out and side stories stretch into distractions.  Another bump is the annoying repetition of lyrics and all too frequent use of falsetto called for in the songs.”  Thankfully the overuse of falsetto is gone.  Gone too is the annoying repetition of some lyrics, and the story now is now focused on a universal, multi-generational message that truly resonates.

Ben Levi Ross as ‘Evan Hansen,’ Aaron Lazar as ‘Larry Murphy,’ Christiane Noll as ‘Cynthia Murphy’ and Maggie McKenna as ‘Zoe Murphy’. Photo by Matthew Murphy

I give huge credit to producers Stacey Mindich, Wendy Orshan and Jeffrey M. Wilson who hung on tight and cherished the vision of Steven Levenson’s book, and the music and lyrics of Benj Pasek & Justin Paul by taking the musical to the next level – a more polished, fully developed, gorgeous musical that provides the audience with the humanity and humor it craves.

Ben Levi Ross as ‘Evan Hansen’ and Jessica Phillips as ‘Heidi Hansen’ in the First North American Tour of Dear Evan Hansen. Photo by Matthew Murphy

The coming-of-age story of Evan Hansen centers around a tormented teen raised by a single mother in the fraught age of social media.  Insecure and an outcast at school, Evan’s psychologist asks him to self-examine by writing letters to himself.  That alone doesn’t curb the bullying or bring him closer to his teen crush Zoe until the day Connor Murphy, a fellow outcast, takes his own life and a series of unconnected events offer Evan purpose to his lonely life, recognition from his peers, and a made-up tale for his broken arm.  “You play who you have to play,” his pal Jared advises him as he, Evan and Alana concoct a social media scheme to capitalize on Connor’s untimely death.  Unfortunately, the result proves how devastating Twitter and Facebook can be when used to promote a false narrative.  On a larger scale it can be socially and politically devastating as we have witnessed in our national political system.

Christiane Noll as ‘Cynthia Murphy’ and Jessica Phillips as ‘Heidi Hansen’ in the First North American Tour of Dear Evan Hansen. Photo by Matthew Murphy

Fans will thrill to Ben Levi Ross’ (Evan Hansen) galvanic 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 Jessica Phillips (as Evans’ mother, Heidi) brings to the number, “So Big/So Small” which is when you wish you’d brought a handkerchief.

Highly recommended.  Moving and relatable, Dear Evan Hansen calls out to both parents and teens with truth and humor.

Also starring Jared Goldsmith as Jared Kleinman; Phoebe Koyabe as Alana Beck; Maggie McKenna as Zoe Murphy; Christiane Noll as Cynthia Murphy; Aaron Lazar as Larry Murphy and Marrick Smith as Connor Murphy.

Directed by Michael Greif; with Orchestrations & Original Arrangements by Alex Lacamoire; Costume Design by Emily Rebholz; Choreography by Danny Mefford; Scenic Design by David Korins; Projection Design by Peter Nigrini; Lighting Design by Japhy Weideman and Sound Design by Nevin Steinberg with the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra. 

Through September 8th 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.

Aladdin ~ The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

Jordan Wright
July 22, 2019 

For those of you who love fantasy and adventure with royalty and villains, Disney’s Aladdin sits at the pinnacle of Broadway extravaganzas.  I doubt there’s ever been any production with more glitter, more sequins, more light-reflecting crystal beads, fields of chiffon, sky-high feathered turbans and all-around glitz and glamour on one stage since Florence Ziegfeld’s Follies.  The pyrotechnics and projections alone make this a must-see.

Friend Like Me ~ Aladdin North American Tour. Photo by Deen van Meer

Everything you might expect from an Arabian spectacle is all here in eye-popping splendor, thanks to multiple Tony Award-winning Set Designer Bob Crowley.  If only desert life was this colorful.  Moorish minarets loom over sword swallowers, belly dancers and whirling dervishes as the handsome, oh so impoverished, Aladdin tries to woo the beautiful Princess Jasmine to save her and her kingdom from the clutches of the Sultan’s Grand Vizier, Jafar, and his vertically-challenged sidekick, Iago.  Poor Aladdin, our hero is trapped in poverty, while Jasmine is trapped in a gilded cage.  Nothing is simple in the kingdom of Agraba, but there’s a lot that’s hilarious.  As Genie (played absolutely gloriously by Major Attaway) explains in his usual wry tone, “Everyone here has 0% body fat.”… except for Genie, who is a full-figured, jive-talking bundle of high-stepping, street-smart exuberance who can nail a medley of Disney show tunes as easily as he can grant three wishes.

Friend Like Me ~ Major Attaway (Genie) & Ensemble Aladdin North American Tour ~ Photo by Deen van Meer

There’s drama and frolic, and frolicsome drama as Aladdin finds himself in the aurelian ‘Cave of Wonders’ having been sent by the wicked Jafar to fetch the Genie’s golden lamp.  Predictably, it’s a set up as Jafar plans to do away with our hero and grab the lamp for his own nefarious machinations.

Arabian Nights Men ~ Photo by Deen van Meer

But wait.  Did I mention the magic carpet? Where would we be without a magic carpet ride to underscore Aladdin and Jasmine’s amorous vows to wed despite all odds?  Traveling through the starry sky the pair soar above the stage in a flight of fantasy and wonder professing their love with the musical’s most memorable number, “A Whole New World”.

Major Attaway (Genie). Aladdin North American Tour. Photo by Matthew Murphy

The score by Alan Menken (Little Shop of Horrors, Beauty and the Beast, Newsies) with lyrics by Tim Rice (Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita with Andrew Lloyd Webber), Howard Ashman (The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast) and Chad Beguelin (The Prom, The Wedding Singer, Elf), is orchestrally wonderful, fulfilling a wide range of musical styles – some you might expect with an Arabian influence and others that trend rock/pop/rap – boosted by a sizzling horn section.  The huge sound is from the Aladdin Touring Orchestra joined by the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra.

Kaena Kekoa (Jasmine) & Clinton Greenspan (Aladdin). Aladdin North American Tour. Photo by Deen van Meer

Highly recommended.  This one should be high on your wish list.  Go before you run out of wishes.

With Major Attaway as Genie; Clinton Greenspan as Aladdin; Kaenāonalani Kekoa as Princess Jasmine; Jonathan Weir as Jafar; Jerald Vincent as Sultan; Reggie De Leon as Iago; Zach Bencal as Babkak; Ben Chavez as Omar; Colt Prattes as Kassim; and over 20 performers in the ensemble cast.

Kaena Kekoa (Jasmine). Aladdin North American Tour. Photo by Deen van Meer

Directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw; Costume Design Gregg Barnes; Orchestrations by Danny Troob; Music Director/Conductor Faith Seeto; and Lighting Design Natasha Katz.

Through September 7th 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.