Giselle ~ Ballet Nacional de Cuba ~ Kennedy Center

Jordan Wright
June 1, 2018 

With the continuation of the Cuban Arts festival Artes de Cuba: From the Island to the World – the largest presentation of Cuban Arts in the United States – one of the world’s most prestigious ballet companies, the Ballet Nacional de Cuba, performs Giselle through Saturday with additional matinees on Saturday June 2nd and Sunday June 3rd.  I give you this up front so can grab tickets ASAP.

Alicia Alonso takes a bow with principal dancers, Sadaise Arencibia and Dani Hernández, after their performance in Giselle at the Kennedy Center

Alicia Alonso takes a bow with principal dancers, Sadaise Arencibia and Dani Hernández, after their performance in Giselle at the Kennedy Center

After four decades since her last appearance at the Kennedy Center, legendary dancer and choreographer, Alicia Alonso and her acclaimed troupe return to the Kennedy Center.  The nonagenarian, who now serves as both Artistic Director and Choreographer, was on hand to cheer on her dancers, but she too garnered wild applause after the opening night performance when she was led onstage by premier danseurs, Sadaise Arencibia (Giselle) and Dani Hernández (Albrecht, Duke of Silwesia).

Ballet Nacional de Cuba  Giselle Ginett Moncho as Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis ~Photo by Teresa Wood`

Anyone who knows a whit about ballet knows of Alonso’s numerous achievements over her 80-year career.  She was the epitome of a prima ballerina during the 20th century working in America with Mikhail Fokine, George Balanchine, Leonide Massine, Bronislava Nijinski, Anthony Tudor, Jerome Robbins and Agnes de Mille as a principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre.  So, we were decidedly gobsmacked to see her up and about and traveling back to America to celebrate – and choreograph – both Giselle and Don Quixote whose short run ended May 31st.

Ballet Nacional de Cuba Giselle Ballaeina Troupes ~ Photo by Teresa Wood.

The story of Giselle is that of a peasant girl who falls for a handsome Duke, only she doesn’t know he’s a duke (he’s disguised as a farmer).  She discovers his noble station when she is spurned by his family and fiancé.  The folk tale derives from a Slavic belief that girls who have not become brides before they die, return to earth as sylphs to their true loves, haunting them until death.

Ballet Nacional de Cuba_ Giselle_Raúl Abreu as Albrecht, Duke of Silesia and Sadaise Arencibia as Giselle_Photo by Teresa Wood.

Alonso’s version of Giselle is considered the most accomplished one as it more smoothly merges the pastoral dynamic of Act One to the spirit world of Act Two.  Of particular note is Giselle’s emergence from her tomb to woo Albrecht in an ethereal almost otherworldly solo by Arencibia and Hernandez’s response in a pas de deux that matches her statuesque grace with powerful leaps and gorgeous lifts.

Highly recommended.

At The Kennedy Center, 2700 F St., NW, Washington, DC.  For tickets and information call 202 467-4600 or visit www.Kennedy-Center.org.

Hamlet ~ The Royal Shakespeare Company from Stratford-upon-Avon at The Kennedy Center

Jordan Wright
May 7, 2018 

Gasp!  The Royal Shakespeare Company at The Kennedy Center!  Unfortunately, they blew into town as quickly as they departed.  Four days only.  Nonetheless they made a thunderous impression on this reviewer and the audience too, who went crazy for this wonderful interpretation.

Paapa Essiedu and Buom Tihngang with the cast of Hamlet. Photo by Manuel Harlan.

So… Hamlet (Paapa Essiedu), goes mad when his dad the king dies, and mom marries his uncle, and he drops Ophelia like a stone, except she floats.  But you already knew that.  So, I’ll spare you all the deets.  What’s refreshing is the eighteen-member troupe – African, British and Jamaican, with the exception of three white cast members, Byron Mondahl as the Professor of Wittenberg, James Cooney as Horatio and Eleanor Wyld as Guildenstern, gifter of English biscuits.  And though they speak of Denmark, director Simon Godwin uses themes from both ancient and modern-day Africa to achieve this fresh, new dynamic.  (There’s a Wakanda salute from Hamlet to Horatio. Watch for it!)  What’s exciting is this alternative perspective – imagining how the tragedy would go down in contemporary society.  It’s entirely relatable.

Paul Will’s contemporary design demands richly colored kente cloth costumes and lofty headdresses for Queen Gertrude with formal military dress uniforms for King Hamlet.  Palace guards, Barnardo and Francisca, sport stylish camouflage and Cordelia’s four-inch heels and dreadlocks beside Hamlet’s hipster get-ups and drummers in dashikis, assure us we are firmly in the present day.

Mimi Ndiweni and Paapa Essiedu in Hamlet. Photo by Manuel Harlan.

Will envisions Hamlet as a graffiti-painting, boombox-toting lad who’s gone off the rails.  (For some unknown reason, I thought of Prince Harry’s rebellious period after the loss of his mother.)  In a mash-up of past and present, the mood shifts precipitously from formal Danish court to ancient African rituals and indigenous dances.  As in The Lion King, characters frequently dash down the aisles and leap onstage.  Composer Sola Akingbola sets the tone with fierce drumming and African music from calypso to tribal.

Of particular note was the ghost of Hamlet’s father, spotlighted up in the balcony, and the handling of Ophelia’s speech about the flowers – fennel, pansy, rue, columbine – as she mourns Hamlet’s repudiation of her love.  It is in this tragic scene that she, grief-stricken, pulls out locks of her hair, one for each flower she names, to give to the King and Queen.

With Lorna Brown as Queen Gertrude, Clarence Smith as Claudius, Joseph Mydell as Polonius, Buom Tihngang as Laertes, Mimi Ndiweni as Ophelia, James Cooney as Horatio, Romayne Andrews as Rosencrantz, Patrick Elue as Marcellus, Lucianus and Fortinbras, Kevin N Golding as Barnardo and Tracy-Anne Green as Francisca.

Direction by Simon Godwin, Design by Paul Wills, Lighting by Paul Anderson, Composed by Sola Akingbola with Fight Direction by Kev McCurdy.

What a joy and privilege to experience this brilliant production by a such fine cast!

Candide ~ The Kennedy Center

Jordan Wright
May 8, 2018 

Imagine, if you will that composer Leonard Bernstein’s 18th C set piece opera Candide was first staged the year following the Broadway premiere West Side Story.  1956.  It seems incredible that these two wildly divergent stories were composed, staged and produced by one man in less than twelve months.  Okay, he was a genius, which is why the Kennedy Center is lauding his songbook for its exciting celebration on the 100th anniversary of his birth.

Wynn Harmon, Emily Pogorelc, Alek Shrader, and Denyce Graves in Candide. Photo by Scott Suchman.

Under the virtuoso direction of Francesca Zambello, this imaginative, new production hails from New York’s The Glimmerglass Festival, where she is Artistic Director.  And it is not hyperbole to say it is a jaw-dropping extravaganza of dance, opera, comedy and, yes, drama too.  Sword fights!  Its list of lyricists – Richard Wilbur, Stephen Sondheim, Lillian Hellman, John La Touche, Dorothy Parker and Bernstein too – puts one in mind of late, martini-soaked nights plotting the script at the Algonquin’s famed Round Table.  One can only imagine the heady repartee.

Based on the dystopian novel by Voltaire in which Candide (Alek Shrader) discovers that the world, and his royal pals, are not the egalitarian society he had been taught.  And that Professor Pangloss’s (Wynn Harmon who doubles as Voltaire, the musical’s raconteur) rosy outlook on the world has its challenges – chief among them Candide’s love for the dazzling, gold-digging ingenue, Cunegonde (Emily Pogoreic).  That, and survival.

Amid the velvet breeches and Gainsborough frock coats of the aristocracy, Candide encounters war, famine and human suffering but manages to keep a cheerful and brave demeanor.  Along the way he meets the characters who will shape his life – The Old Lady (DC’s own superstar Denyce Graves), the haughty Maximillian (Edward Nelson), Candide’s comrade in arms Cacambo (Frederick Ballentine), the naughty servant girl Paquette (Eliza Bonet) and James (Matthew Scollin doubling as Martin the pessimistic street sweeper).  Balancing out his misadventures are the ruthless Grand Inquisitor (Alexander McKissick) and the addle-headed Baroness (Keriann Otaño) who would give Marie Antoinette a run for her money with a powdered wig so high she needs her lackey to hold it up with what appears to be a fishing pole.  Credit David C. Zimmerman for hair and makeup.

Emily Pogorelc, Denyce Graves, and Alek Shrader in Candide. Photo by Scott Suchman.

Throughout Candide’s peregrinations through the Old and New Worlds – in Holland, Paris, Spain, Uruguay, Paraguay and Surinam – he encounters war and misery, but somehow fortune prevails, and, unlike the thousands killed, he is spared hanging, burning at the stake, bayoneting and drowning.  I may have left a disaster out.  When our hero finally arrives at the Doge’s masquerade ball in Venice after some consorting with edenic Incans, he discovers his long lost Cunegonde bereft of the money and jewels she sold her soul to acquire.  They work it out.

This is a lavishly artistic, sublimely witty, while yet philosophical, musical that never slows down. You will adore it!  And, while I’m raving, I must single out the remarkable beauty, charm, comedic skills and flawless soprano voice of Emily Pogoreic.  Her aria “Glitter and Be Gay” is breathtaking.  And did I mention her dancing?  Absolutely marvelous.  Everyone is.  Twelve additional cast members add to the beautiful chorus and the Opera House’s acoustics sound particularly magnificent thanks to G Thomas Clark and crew for GTC Sound Design LLC.

Please, please go! Even if you never thought you’d see an opera. It’s Bernstein, for Pete’s sake.

With surtitles. Even though it’s in English, they’re useful.  You don’t want to miss a line.

Conducting by Nicole Paiement, book adaptation from Voltaire by Hugh Wheeler in a new version by John Caird, choreography by Eric Sean Fogel and Felicity Stiverson, lighting by Mark McCullough.  Soloists are Andrea Beasom, Tom Berklund, Jaely Chamberlain, Andrew Harper, Katherine Henly, Michael Hewitt, Nicholas Houhoulis, Jarrod Lee, Danny Lindgren, Alison Mixon, Ameerah Sabreen, Louisa Morrison Waycott.

Performances on May 12th, 14th, 18th, 20th, 22nd, 24th and 26th at The Kennedy Center, 2700 F St., NW, Washington, DC.  For tickets and information call 202 467-4600 or visit www.Kennedy-Center.org.

In The Heights ~ Kennedy Center

Jordan Wright
March 29, 2018

If you blinked you missed it.  Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In The Heights blew into the Kennedy Center for a few days and just as quickly fled.  Shades of things to come as the arrival this June of his blockbuster musical Hamilton hits a feverish pitch.  This was just the teaser.

In The Heights Cast ~ Photo by Teresa Wood

The Kennedy Center’s production starred a wealth of Broadway’s In The Heights original cast members like Blanca Camacho as Camilla; Eden Espinosa as Daniela; Eliseo Roman as Piragua Guy (Drama Desk Award); and tons of other notable Broadway stars including Ana Villafañe who plays Nina the Puerto Rican girl who goes off to Stamford to prove there’s a way out of the barrio if you’re willing to sacrifice love.  Villafañe originated the role of Gloria Estefan in On Your Feet which played the Kennedy Center in January.

Arianna Rosario, Ana Villafane, Eden Espinosa, and Vanessa Hudgens ~ Photo by Teresa Wood

Other cast members from Broadway’s Hamilton are J. Quinton Johnson who plays Benny Nina’s African-American love interest.  He currently stars in Hamilton as Hercules Mulligan and James Madison; and Grammy Award-winning musician and actor Anthony Ramos as the lead character Usnavi.  Ramos originated the roles of John Laurens and Phillip Hamilton in Hamilton.  Miranda likes to re-cast his actors.  A lot!

Lin-Manuel Miranda and Vanessa Hudgens_Photo by Yassine El Mansouri

The audience went wild for the adorable Vanessa Hudgens of Broadway’s Gigi and also of the High School Musical movies.  Here she plays Vanessa, the hairdresser who dreams of a better future.  Squeals could be heard throughout the chandeliered theatre for Anthony Ramos who has his own adorable factor as well as a killer voice.   Yet, most captivating to this reviewer was newcomer Mateo Ferro as Sonny.  If there’s a scene stealer here, it’s this 16-year old who had been cast as Usnavi in In The Heights in Strathmore theatre’s Young Artists of America summer theatre and who played Sonny at Clarksburg High School in Montgomery County, Maryland. We need to see more of him.

J Quinton Johnson, Anthony Ramos, and Mateo Ferro ~ Photo by Teresa Wood

There was a huge refresh in terms of dance and musical delivery.  There’s more rapping by Usnavi and even pop-locking by a bevy of dancers who salsa their tail feathers off.

Miranda himself showed up on the final night of the show to thunderous applause.  If we have a National Hero in the theatre it’s this.

If you haven’t seen In The Heights yet, try to catch a production somewhere in the area.  It augurs Miranda’s rap/ballad style which has revolutionized musical theater and will prepare you for the Kennedy Center’s production of Hamilton – should you have been fortunate enough to be one of the lucky ones who snagged a ticket.

Seen at the Kennedy Center on March 22nd.

Chess ~ Kennedy Center

Jordan Wright
February 16, 2018

Bryce Pinkham and Ensemble in CHESS_Photo by Teresa Wood.jpg

Kennedy Center theatregoers were treated to an all-star inaugural production of Chess on Thursday night.  Heading for its Broadway run, this latest treatment of the original 1986 rock opera is chockful of enough extraordinary singers to make any producer green with envy – Raúl Esparaza, Ramin Karimloo, Ruthie Ann Miles, Karen Olivo, Bradley Dean, Sean Allan Krill and Bryce Pinkham.

With a rich score by Björn Ulvaeus (ABBA songwriter) and Benny Andersson (ABBA bandmember), and lyrics by Tim Rice (collaborator on Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, The Lion King, Alladin, Beauty and the Beast), Broadway Center Stage expects this new version to achieve supersonic stature.  Tony Award-winning director Michael Mayer, who is top-loaded with stage and screen credits, has been charged with pulling it all together.  In this five-day only musical concert, all performers remain on stage reading their lines and singing their numbers from script books which, unfortunately, renders most of their words unintelligible.

Ramin Karimloo and Raul Esparza in CHESS_Photo by Teresa Wood.jpg

For pill-popper and American grandmaster Freddie Trumper (the oddest choice of names), it’s a mental duel with himself – and he’s losing.  His paranoia (though it turns out the Russians were spying on him and trying to psyche him out) threatens to undermine his chances for success.  It all goes down against the backdrop of the historic SALT II Treaty talks, the success of which hinges on convincing Freddie to lose the tournament so the Soviets can regain their pride.

Raul Esparza and Karen Olivo in CHESS_Photo by Teresa Wood.jpg

Freddie (Raúl Esparaza Company, Sunday in the Park with George) and Anatoly (Ramin Karimloo Anastasia) are both in love with Florence (Karen Olivo West Side Story, In the Heights), a Hungarian national forced to work for the CIA, but Anatoly is still wed to Svetlana (Ruthie Ann Miles The King and I, Here Lies Love) who lives apart from him in Moscow with their two children.  Alex Molokov (Bradley Dean Dear Evan Hansen) is Anatoly’s KGB handler and Walter de Courcey (Sean Allan Krill Honeymoon in Vegas) is Freddie’s CIA handler.  The Arbiter (Bryce Pinkham A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder) relates the backstory while the tournaments are held in different countries.  It’s a fairly basic love story brightened by international cloak-and-dagger schemes backgrounded by the Cold War.

Video projections by Darrell Maloney reflect history-making moments and Lorin Latarro (Waitress) choreographs the dance sequences (one of which is super erotic) in this human chess game where winning is the only goal despite the threat of a looming nuclear war.

Through February 18th in the Eisenhower Theatre at The Kennedy Center, 2700 F St., NW, Washington, DC.  For tickets and information call 202 467-4600 or visit online.