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.

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.