Byhalia, Mississippi ~ The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts


Jordan Wright
June 13, 2019 

Evan Linder’s play has all the elements of a hackneyed soap opera starring a young, broke, white couple with adultery issues and a bible-thumping mother in bitterly acrimonious conflict with her daughter and son-in-law, Jim.  If not for Linder’s uncompromising storytelling, an admirable and passionate cast, and superb directing, it would seem like a story we have heard all too many times with the exception that this one comes with sharp incisors and a propensity for equal doses of poignancy and hilarity.

(L-R) Caroline Neff, Jack Falahee, and Cecelia Wingate ~ Photo by Jeremy Daniel.jpg

Overdue and big as a watermelon, Laurel cuddles up with Jim who is excited about the prospect of a son, “Are you my stupid baby?” he asks sweetly, ear to Lauren’s swollen tummy.  Even Laurel’s mother, Celeste, whose late husband was a serial philanderer and doesn’t cotton to her out-of-work son-in-law, can’t wait to be a grandma.  “The only thing I care about is this baby.”

(L-R) Blake Morris and Jack Falahee ~ Photo by Jeremy Daniel.jpg

A few years before, Jim had a brief fling.  Laurel reluctantly forgave him, and, still very much in love, they recommitted themselves to their marriage.  But when the baby is born and is black, Jim loses his mind, blaming his best friend, Karl, who happens to be African American.  Celeste’s reaction is mortification about what the townspeople will think of her and her daughter, insisting Laurel “get rid of it”.

(L-R) Blake Morris and Aime Donna Kelly ~ Photo by Jeremy Daniel.jpg

There are so many spoilers that I won’t reveal any more of the plot as the story takes twists and turns so serpentine that it proves totally unpredictable as to where the characters’ paths take them.  Do we like them?  Not always, but we are kept in jocular hysterics by both their Southern-ness and their messy lives.  Celeste’s drawl and quirky backwoods metaphors alone are priceless.  To put a frame around it, Linder, who is white, references the ghost of civil rights activist, Skip Robinson, leader of a 1974 boycott of businesses in Byhalia after the shooting death by a local policeman of a young, unarmed black man named Butler Young, Jr.  Young’s memory was ignored by Byhalia, and still is.  Linder is determined to correct the town’s selective memory and provoke a conversation about race relations.  You will see that there is racism on both sides here, and emotional disconnects that are a mile wide.

(L-R) Jack Falahee, Blake Morris, and Aime Donna Kelly ~ Photo by Jeremy Daniel.jpg

Byhalia, Mississippi is a story about truth, forgiveness, commitment and racism – real or imagined.  It is also a  sweet, crazy tale of hope and redemption set in a blip of a provincial town caught up in a changing world.  As Laurel, who commits to raising her baby, tells her mother, “Nothing ever changes unless people like you watch it happen.”

Highly recommended.  A perfect cast beautifully directed by Kimberly Senior.  You will be glued to your seat, if you don’t keel over from laughter.

With Caroline Neff as Laurel, Cecelia Wingate as Celeste, Jim Falahee as Jim, Blake Morris as Karl, and Aimé Donna Kelly as the surprise character, Ayesha.

(L-R) Jack Falahee and Caroline Neff 2 ~ Photo by Jeremy Daniel.jpg

Scenic Design by Cameron Anderson, Costume Design by Jen Caprio, Lighting Design by Jennifer Reiser, and Sound Design by Mikhail Fiksel.

Through July 7th in the Terrace Theater 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.

Hello, Dolly! ~ The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

Jordan Wright
June 8, 2019 

There’s nothing like a rip-roaring, old school, Broadway musical to get the heart pumping and the toes tapping.  In Hello, Dolly! the music and lyrics of  Jerry Herman, one of the greatest composers of the Great White Way, will do just that.  You just have to refrain from singing along… out loud.

Betty Buckley in Hello, Dolly! National Tour ~ Photographer Julieta Cervantes 2108

Dolly Gallagher Levi (Betty Buckley), a Jill-of-all-trades and matchmaker extraordinaire, was the supreme marketeer and an independent working woman in the 1880’s, well before Women’s Liberation.  Handing out different business cards like peppermints, she became whatever the situation called for.  You need silhouettes, a dozen eggs, ear piercing, a husband or a wife?  Dolly will provide.  “I arrange things,” this savvy yenta explains.

Betty Buckley and Lewis J. Stadlen in Hello, Dolly! National Tour – 2018, Photographer Julieta Cervantes

When she sets her cap on Horace Vandergelder (Lewis J. Stadlen), a well-to-do hay and feed shop owner, this clever lady uses all her trump cards.  Now you may think that catching a husband using feminine wiles, is sexist, and there is that to consider, but Dolly’s glamour, craftiness and kindness, is what makes her a believable character trying to survive as a down-at-the-heels widow.  She’s got gumption, chutzpah and charm all wrapped up in one swell package.

Analisa Leaming in the Hello Dolly National Tour2018 -Photographer Julieta-Cervantes

If there’s any sexism here, it’s from the gents.  Mr. V.’s tune, “It Takes a Woman”, sung with the Instant Glee Club, insists only a fragile woman can care for home and husband, rhyming femininity with “work till infinity”.  Oh heck.  All’s fair in love and war.

Situational comedy is at its best when Dolly foils Vandergelder’s meeting with the lovely Irene Molloy, a milliner who has different ideas of the perfect man.  Irene and her assistant Millie fall for Mr. V.’s clerks, Cornelius and Barnaby, who have convinced the ladies they’re tycoons, when in fact they are counting their dimes.  In the scene at the tony Harmonia Gardens Restaurant where the couples sup to pheasant and paté in private booths, Buckley shows off her indelible comedic skills in a silent solo dinner while Vandergelder fumes and the handsomest waiters on any stage perform a highly choreographed, frenetic dance to the “The Waiters’ Gallop” replete with flaming dishes, bottles of champagne, silver cloches and dinner plates piled to the rafters, all cleverly conducted by Rudolph the Maître d’.

Hello, Dolly! National Tour Company – 2018 – Photographer Julieta Cervantes

Betty Buckley, one of Broadway’s legendary leading ladies, stars as Dolly to Lewis J. Stadlen’s Vandergelder.  Stadlen is another award-winning veteran of stage and screen who does schtick to perfection.  You’ll relish the jokes, the colorful Victorian costumes, the catchy tunes (you probably know most of them), and the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra backing it all up.

Hello, Dolly! National Tour Company – 2018 – Photographer Julieta Cervantes

With Colin LeMoine as Ambrose Kemper, Morgan Kirner as Ermengarde, Nic Rouleau as Cornelius Hackl, Sean Burns as Barnaby Tucker, Kristen Hahn as Minnie Fay, Analisa Leaming as Irene Molloy, Jessica Sheridan as Ernestina, Beth Kirkpatrick as Mrs. Rose, Wally Dunn as Rudolph, Scott Shedenhelm as Stanley, Timothy Shew as Judge, Daniel Beeman as Court Clerk.

Directed by Jerry Zaks, Choreographed by Warren Carlyle, Conducted by Robert Billig, Book by Michael Stewart, Music and Lyrics by Jerry Herman, Scenic and Costume Design by Santo Loquasto, Sound Design by Scott Lehrer, Lighting by Natasha Katz, and Orchestrations by Larry Hochman.

Highly recommended.  This is classic, old school Broadway razzamatazz.

Tosca ~ Washington National Opera ~ The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

Jordan Wright
May 12, 2019 

The role of Tosca, known as “the infamous soprano killer” for its powerhouse arias, was duly tamed by Latonia Moore who made her spectacular Washington National Opera debut last Saturday.  Moore, who has played the title role of Aida at the Metropolitan Opera, the Royal Opera House in London and Buenos Aires’ Teatro Colón, as well as the title role in Madame Butterfly at the Metropolitan Opera, was in superb form and well-matched with tenor Robert Watson as Mario Cavaradossi.  Watson was also making his WNO debut, though he has already gained wide acclaim elsewhere for his leading roles in Tosca, Carmen, Rusalka, and Les Contes d’Hoffmann.

Riccardo Massi as Cavaradossi and Michael Hewitt as Angelotti (L) in WNO’s ‘Tosca.’ Photo by Scott Suchman

A bit of history about the opera sharpens our listening as we absorb the music, contextualize the story, and grok the composer and history behind the score.  Admittedly, my experience is gained not through decades of study as a musicologist, nor from hours of listening to operatic scores (although dutifully bolstered by a childhood spent at NYC’s Met), but by attending the pre-performance lectures provided to ticketholders by the Kennedy Center which I highly recommend.

In his day, Puccini was hugely popular, and, of all his operas, Tosca is the fifth most performed opera in the world, despite the sexual violence, suicide, murder and torture that color the lives of our hero and heroine.  (Not entirely different from our present TV crime dramas.)  Based on the history of Napoleon’s conquest and ultimate defeat in Rome in 1800, it is considered his most inventive score, and characterized as “cinematic music” for its sweeping structure and big numbers.

Keri Alkema as Tosca and Alan Held as Scarpia in WNO’s ‘Tosca.’ Photo by Scott Suchman.

Consumed by love and jealousy and manipulated by the sadistic machinations of the villainous Baron Scarpia (performed masterfully by baritone Alan Held), Floria Tosca is a deeply sympathetic character – one to whom Puccini afforded great compassion with her  octave-defying arias and heart-stopping duets.  Based on Victorien Sardou’s five-act play, “La Tosca”, it was first performed in Paris by the great Sarah Bernhardt in the title role.  It’s inescapable not to note that the star-crossed lovers are both artists – Mario, a painter, and Tosca, a famed singer.

The sets here are the original painted drops from the 1940’s and are provided by Seattle Opera.  They are breathtakingly beautiful and historically accurate as to the actual Roman locations.  Act One puts us in the Barberini chapel built between 1590 and 1650, while Act Two plays out in the Palazzo Farenese, currently the French Embassy in Rome.  Act Three is set in the Castel Sant’Angelo, the oldest of the three buildings, built in 139AD and where visions of St. Michael were reported.  Attention Tour Organizers: It would be fascinating to tour these Roman locales while listening to Puccini’s music on our smart phones.

Keri Alkema as Tosca and Alan Held as Scarpia in WNO’s ‘Tosca.’ Photo by Scott Suchman.

Highly recommended for its soaring score and five-star performances.

With Latonia Moore or Keri Alkema as Floria Tosca, Robert Watson or Ricardo Massi as Mario Cavaradossi, Michael Hewitt as Cesare Angelotti, Wei Wu as the Sacristan, David Cangelosi as Spoletta, Samson McCrary as Sciarrone, Holden Browne and/or Aidan Stanton-Brand as Shepherd Boy, and Samuel J. Weiser as Jailer.

With the Washington National Opera Orchestra exceptionally conducted by Speranza Scappucci with the WNO Chorus and the WNO Children’s Chorus.   

Directed by Ethan McSweeny with Costume Design by Lena Rivkina, and Lighting Design by Gary Marder.  In Italian with projected surtitles in English.

May 11th, 12th matinee, 14th, 17th, 19th matinee, 20th, 22nd, and 25th in the Opera House 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.

The New York City Ballet ~ The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

Jordan Wright
April 3, 2019 

Opening night for the New York City Ballet offered a delectable selection of music and dance backed by the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra. It was a thrill for the audience to see the  dancers bring to life original choreography from George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins and Gianna Reisen to the music of Lukas Foss, Paul Hindemuth, Sergei Prokofiev and George Bizet.

New York City Ballet in Gianna Reisen’s Composer’s Holiday. Photo Credit Paul Kolnik

The program, which will be repeated on April 3rd and April 7th, highlights many of the troupes’ most notable dancers – Mary Thomas MacKinnon, Emma Von Enck, Kennard Henson and Roman perform in “Composer’s Holiday”, a Reisen design that heralds modernism.  Abi Stafford, Teresa Reichlen, Joseph Gordon and Russell Janzen take the leads in “Kammermusik No. 2”, with Sterling Hyltin and Gonzalo Garcia taking leads in “Opus 19/The Dreamer.

New York City Ballet in George Balanchine’s KammermusikNo. 2. Photo Credit Paul Kolnik

The final piece “Symphony in C” by Bizet is on four movements and showcases the talents of Ashley Boulder, Tyler Angle in the 1st an Allegro Vivo; Sara Mearns and Jared Angle in the 2nd an Adagio; Baily Jones and Anthony Huxley in the 3rd movement an Allegro Vivace; and Erica Pereira and Andrew Scordato in the 4th movement an Allegro Vivace which took us back to classical ballet with original Balanchine choreography performed with over 50 dancers.  The costumes for this final piece were a contribution from SWAROVSKI and you could see the twinkling crystals adorning their tutus from the back row.

Sterling Hyltin and Gonzalo Garcia in Jerome Robbins’ Opus 19/The Dreamer. Photo Credit Paul Kolnik

Artistic Director of the NYCB, Jonathan Stafford reminded the audience that the NYCB has been performing at the Kennedy Center since 1974 and mentioned that Gianna Reisen wrote her first ballet last year when she was only 18 years old.

Sterling Hyltin and Gonzalo Garcia in Jerome Robbins’ Opus 19/The Dreamer. Photo Credit Paul Kolnik.

“Composer’s Holiday” uses precision and smooth movement to get its point across and there are a lot of heel-to-toe steps which seem like a country dance.  But it is the elegant fluidity and angularity of the motions that elevate it.  In “Kammermusik No. 2” we see many sections performed in delayed mirrored sequence as if the dancers are continuously unfolding.

Sara Mearns in George Balanchine’s Symphony in C. Photo Credit Paul Kolnik.

“Symphony in C” allows Tyler Angle to show off his magnificent form and gravity-defying leaps with Ashley Bouder.  His brother, Jared Angle, follows in an equally memorable performance with Sara Mearns, my favorite dancer of the night.

New York City Ballet in George Balanchine’s Symphony in C. Photo Credit Paul Kolnik.

The following, “New Works and New Productions” are scheduled to be performed on the evenings of April 4th, 5th, and 6th with a matinee added on the 6th.

“Easy” (Leonard Bernstein/Justin Peck)
“In the Night” (Frédérik Chopin/Jerome Robbins)
“The Runaway” (Nico Muhly, Kanye West, Jay-Z, James Blake/Kyle Abraham)

“Something to Dance About” Jerome Robbins, Broadway at the Ballet (Bernstein, Bock, Gould, Rodgers, Styne/Robbins, direction and musical staging by Carlyle)

Two Kennedy Center premieres, created for the centennial of Jerome Robbins, include Justin Peck’s “Easy” set to the music of Leonard Bernstein, and Tony Award-winning choreographer/director Warren Carlyle’s “Something to Dance About” featuring notable dance sequences from On the Town, West Side Story, and more.  Also by Robbins, “In the Night” features three couples of distinct personality set to four of Chopin’s elegant nocturnes.

Kyle Abraham’s “The Runaway”, another Kennedy Center premiere that fuses modern and classical technique with imaginative costumes by Giles Deacon, is set to an eclectic soundtrack that includes hip-hop giants Jay-Z, Kanye West, and others.

In the Opera House at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 2700 F St., NW, Washington, DC.  For tickets and information call 202 467-4600.

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

Jordan Wright
March 19, 2019 

Under the direction of Garnett Bruce, Faust becomes idyllically condensed.  You didn’t really expect the 21-hour, five-act version, did you?  This one is three and a half hours with two 20-minute intermissions between acts.  Premiering in 1859, Charles Gounod’s opera debuted in the Théâtre Lyrique in Paris.  It derives from Goethe’s story of the man who sold his soul to the devil in exchange for the supernatural powers that would give him love and youth.  As for Méphistophèlés, he was all too thrilled to grant him the ultimate wish on the condition he serve him in Hell.  Unbeknownst to our soul-seller, Satan is determined to make it a two-fer.

Cursed by her brother, Marguerite (soprano Erin Wall) prays for forgiveness after his death. Photo credit Scott Suchman

First, he lures in Faust, then he takes his beloved Marguerite in the bargain.  It was an easy plan as Marguerite’s brother, Valentin, goes off to war, and can no longer protect her virtue.

Faust (tenor Marcelo Puente) makes a deal with the devil for wealth and beauty. Photo credit Scott Suchman

Audiences loved it.  It dovetailed neatly into their fondness for Byron and Shakespeare and was the just right fit for the ‘boulevard’ theaters of the 19th century Romantic period.  Though these moralistic productions were considered ‘low-brow’ recreation, the excitement of witnessing stage magic, then called, ‘phantasmagoria’, was as addictive as the schadenfreude of seeing a fallen woman get her comeuppance.

Mephistopheles (bass Raymond Aceto) predicts Marthe’s (mezzo-soprano Deborah Nansteel) future. Photo credit Scott Suchman.

Gounod’s opera blends inspired elements of comedy, tragedy, and passion with a hefty dose of evil incarnate.  Comedy first arrives when, as the despondent Faust is about to end his loveless life with a chalice of poison, Satan appears in a fitted doublet and feathered hat looking like Sir Walter Raleigh and says to Faust, “Is my attire not to your taste?”.  Doctor Faust, dressed in a manner befitting Copernicus, doubts his powers given his natty attire.  Not the sort of challenge one should present to the Devil himself.  Ah, well, Faust accepts the terms and the deal is on.

The devil (Raymond Aceto) looks on as Faust (Marcelo Puente) woos Marguerite (Erin Wall). Photo credit Scott Suchman.

There are many exceptional arias – the one between Faust and Marguerite is legendary.  It’s the moment when she decides he really, really loves her by plucking the petals off a flower – as in ‘He loves me. He loves me not.’   That’s conveniently after she discovers the casket of lavish jewels he has gifted to her.  After Satan’s urging to be more manly in his love-making, ‘Avant de quitter ces lieux’ marks the moment when she accepts his love.  Here is where she loses her moral compass.  Diamonds can do that to a girl.  You could be blindfolded and skip the projected English surtitles, and still hear how Goudnod’s music reflects the disparate emotions throughout the libretto.  Gounod was a pioneer in these reminiscence motifs and later composers borrowed his techniques.

Valetin (baritone Joshua Hopkins), a young soldier, prepares for war and hopes God will protect his sister during his absence. Photo credit Scott Suchman

Earl Staley’s gorgeous scenic design and costumes are storybook perfect.  From Faust’s study bathed in red to the villagers celebrating harvest time at a fair with a vignette of Adam and Eve, a juggling Pulchinello, giant masks on stakes, and acrobats tumbling across the stage cheer on the soldiers as they go off to war.  Later an evocative garden scene beside Marguerite’s Tudor cottage windows becomes golden-lit by the glowing hearth as the season changes and snow falls.  In the end when Marguerite faces her Maker to beg for forgiveness for her wanton and murderous ways, the stage becomes a massive church, Chartres-blue and featuring a massive cross.  If that wouldn’t put the fear of God in audiences back in the day, what else would?

The townspeople rejoice with wine and dance celebrations. Photo credit Scott Suchman

Utterly magical and highly recommended.

Featuring Marcelo Puente as Faust; Erin Wall as Marguerite; Raymond Aceto as Méphistophèlés; Samson McCrady as Wagner; Joshua Hopkins as Valentin; Allegra De Vita as Siébel and Deborah Nansteel as Dame Marthe.  With The Washington National Opera Chorus and Supernumeraries.

Libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel CarréThe Washington National Opera Orchestra conducted by Keri-Lynn Wilson; and Lighting Design by Michael Clark.

Performances are on March 22nd, 24th matinee, 27th and 30th 2019.

Faust Related Programs and Events

Opera Insights before every performance, Kennedy Center Opera House

WNO presents a free pre-performance education event prior to every performance of Faust. These events begin one hour prior to curtain in the Opera House and last approximately 20–25 minutes. Musicologist Saul Lilienstein’s Opera Insights on Monday, March 18, begins at 5:45 p.m. and lasts approximately 35-40 minutes.

Musical Preview of Faust and Eugene Onegin

Wednesday, March 6, 2019 at 6 p.m., Kennedy Center Millennium Stage 

Enjoy a free preview of musical highlights from two of opera’s grandest works: Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin and Gounod’s Faust, running concurrently this March. This special program features the vocal talents of WNO’s Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program performing each opera’s most famous works.

Guided Rehearsal: Faust

Friday, March 8, 2019 at 7 p.m., Kennedy Center Opera House

Explore the Arts. Audience members get a behind-the-scenes glimpse of a world-class opera production through this unique open rehearsal experience. Using audio headsets, attendees can learn more about the production via expert commentary while watching a rehearsal with piano and the professional cast. Visit the WNO website for ticket information.

Artist Q&As: Faust

Monday, March 18, and Sunday, March 24, post-performance, Kennedy Center Opera House

Following the performances on Monday, March 18 and Sunday, March 24 in the Kennedy Center Opera House, please join WNO artistic staff for a wide-ranging discussion with the artists for an inside scoop on the production. These events are free to patrons presenting a Faust ticket and begin immediately after the performance.

“Touch Cart” and Audience Experience

Friday, March 22, and Wednesday, March 27, pre-performance, Kennedy Center Grand Foyer

WNO’s Touch Cart will be open one hour prior to the performances on Friday, March 22 and Wednesday, March 27 to experience first-hand real props and costume items featured in the opera. WNO’s Education Department invites patrons to come early to touch and explore items from the production.