Next to Normal ~ The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

Jordan Wright
February 3, 2020 

How do you make a story about a woman having a nervous breakdown palatable to musical theatre audiences?  First, you make the characters poignantly identifiable – Dan, a loving husband and father devoted to keeping his family intact; Natalie, a teenage daughter living in the shadow of her dead baby brother and fighting her own demons; Henry, her boyfriend committed to seeing her through her pain; and Gabe, the ghost of the dead child who haunts Diana in her darkest moments.  Such a deeply emotional story might seem highly unlikely to resonate with theatregoers, but it does.  Thanks in large part to the unforgettably beautiful score by Composer Tom Kitt with Book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey, the show is impossible to resist.

Brandon Victor Dixon, Rachel Bay Jones, and Michael Park – Photo by Jeremy Daniel

Ignoring the needs of her family, Diana is prescribed more and more pills to dull the memory of her loss and heal her break with reality.  Her struggle to keep it all together for the sake of her family, is thwarted by Gabe’s constant demands to be remembered.  In the song, “I’m Alive”, he tells his mother he must never be forgotten.

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Khamary Rose, Rachel Bay Jones, and Brandon Victor Dixon – Photo by Jeremy Danie

As she slowly descends into a manic state, Diana begins to question the pills, the therapy, and even her psychiatrist, whom she once pictured as a rock star.  “What happens if the break was not in my mind or my blood, but in my soul,” she asks Dan after another “visit” by Gabe.  While Dan wonders, “Why would you want to remember the things that hurt you?” In her manic state questions like these are impossible to contemplate, even more difficult to explain.

Maia Reficco and Ben Levi Ross – Photo by Jeremy Daniel

Thirty-six numbers turbo-charge this sing-through with joy and pathos, passion and pain performed by some of Broadway’s biggest Tony, Grammy and Emmy-Award-winning stars.  I would see it again and again.

Starring the extraordinary Rachel Bay Jones (Original Heidi Hansen in B’way’s Dear Evan Hansen) as Diana; Brandon Victor Dixon (Emmy and Grammy nominated Judas in NBC’s Jesus Christ Superstar Live) as Dan; fierce vocalist and newcomer Khamary Rose as Gabe; Maia Reficco as Natalie; Michael Park (Broadway’s Dear Evan Hansen) as Dr. Madden/Dr. Fine; and Ben Levi Ross (National Tour of Dear Evan Hansen) as Henry.

Rachel Bay Jones and Michael Park – Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

Highly recommended.  Five stars!

Directed by Michael Greif (Broadway’s Dear Evan Hansen, Rent, Grey Gardens, If/Then and War Paint); Choreography by Sergio Trujillo; Music Direction by Charlie Alterman; Scenic Design by Mark Wendland; Scenic Design Adaption by Paul Tate dePoo III; Costume Design by Jeff Mahshie; Lighting Design by Cory Pattak.  Part of Kennedy Center’s Broadway Center Stage with the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra conducted by Charlie Alterman.

Through February 3rd 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

Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake ~ The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

Jordan Wright
January 26, 2020 

Sadly, the last performance of Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake came on the night before press night, put off till the second to the last performance.  So, though you won’t be able to see this ballet in Washington, DC, it’s worth a trip to New York’s City Center where it will be performed through February 9th.

Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures ~ Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake – Photo by Johan Persson

Like many others familiar with Sir Matthew Bourne’s company, New Adventures, and his modern adaptations of classical ballets, I have become a rabid fan.  (Don’t tell him I used his title.  He’s very modest.)  Last year at the Kennedy Center I went totally gaga over his interpretation of Cinderella set in racy London in the 1920’s. http://whiskandquill.com/cinderella-a-new-adventures-production-the-kennedy-center-for-the-performing-arts 

In Bourne’s reimagined Swan Lake, The Swans and many of the other dancers are male.  Females include the Queen, the Moth Maiden, Princesses at the Royal Ball, a smattering of nightclub participants, and The Girlfriend.  As the consummate Brit, Bourne uses wonderfully opulently British symbolism – sometimes with reverence, though ofttimes tongue-in-cheek as in his nod to the current Queen’s infatuation with Corgis (a mechanical dog prances behind her), the elegantly dressed servants, in tailored black uniforms, and a massive bed with royal crest where we first encounter the Prince.

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For balletomanes who swoon at Bourne’s dazzling productions – here we enjoy the eye-popping elegance of his sets, the 1950’s-1960’s era costumes from sweeping silk dresses with cinched-in waists to Mod period minis and baby doll dresses – these aspects of his highly styled productions are excitement enough.  Against the plot of the Prince’s descent into madness and his ultimate rebirth as a fully-fledged swan, they continue to be revolutionary.

Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures ~ Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake – Photo by Johan Persson

As dramatic as this story is, there are some lighter moments including The Butterfly Dance, led by a buffoon in lederhosen who chases after the enchanted butterflies with a net while creepy wood nymphs break up their fluttering fancy, and a hilarious scene in the Royal Box when the Prince brings a young floozie as his guest.  The Queen is appalled when the girl’s cell phone goes off during the performance as she tries to cozy up with the Queen with chocolates and utterly inappropriate conversation.

When ultimately the Prince is ostracized, he plans his suicide by pasting his note on a streetlamp.  There he encounters the lead swan who both lures him and later sadistically rejects him.  It is a dance both tender and feral.  In one of the most dramatic encounters of the ballet, the swan engages in a ferocious battle with the other swans to win his love.

Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures ~ Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake – Photo by Johan Persson

This 2018 revival of the 1995 original production features new designs, new lighting design and revised choreography.  It is one of the most spectacular ballets you will ever witness – one barely recognizable as the Swan Lake of tutus and feathered headdresses.  In this magnificent incarnation, the power and force of the dances achieved through male swans is a mind-blowing game-changer.

Highly recommended.

Director and Choreographer, Matthew Bourne; Music composed by Tchaikovsky; Set and Costume Design by Lez Brotherston; Lighting Design by Paule Constable; Sound Design by Ken Hampton.

Seen while on tour at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts www.KennedyCenter.org , this production now heads to New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street, New York, New York 10019.  For tickets and information visit www.NYCityCenter.org.

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.