Pride & Joy ~ The Marvin Gaye Musical ~ National Theatre

Jordan Wright
May 12, 2019 

Headed to Chicago after a quick ten-day run at the National Theatre, Pride & Joy ~ The Marvin Gaye Musical has captivated Washington audiences with the life and indelible music of DC-born songwriter, musician, and sweet soul singer, Marvin Gaye.  It was in Washington where Gaye played the Howard Theatre with Bo Diddley and began his singing career.

Pride & Joy. Image by The National Theatre.

As a multiple Grammy Award-winning R&B artist, Gaye together with producer Berry Gordy, created Motown’s legendary hitmaking studio of the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s.  Along the way he married and divorced Gordy’s sister Anna, and, towards the end of his career, became an outspoken musical visionary during the contentious political era of the Vietnam War when R&B music steered clear of politics.  constant singing partner in the early days.

In the same vein as The Jersey Boys, Beautiful – The Carol King Story, and the recent multiple Tony Award-nominated Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations (reviewed here in July 2018 when it previewed at the Kennedy Center).  Musically, it is fabulous, though the sound on the night I was there had serious mic feedback problems and in general was not the high-caliber sound engineering we know from the National Theatre.  I’m cutting it some slack in hopes it develops into a tighter, more cohesive musical that could very well see Broadway in its future.

Jarran Muse (and Chae Stephen) as Marvin Gaye – Photo courtesy of New Day Entertainment

Pride & Joy is a bio-musical filled with Gaye’s finest and most memorable hits accompanied by an 8-piece kick-ass band.  You could call it a full-blown concert with innovative,  continual choreography and snazzy, period-perfect costume changes for each new number.  The plot hangs together on the singer’s relationship with Anna and the Gordy family and Gaye’s religious redemption.  Some of Gaye’s most memorable hits were with Tammi Terrell, featured here as his muse and singing partner.  Her sudden death at 24 deeply affected Gaye and nearly ended his career.

Video projections depicting the period’s history both musically and politically depict riots and racism during the 60’s rise of the KKK.  These videos feature early moments in Gaye’s career including the undeniable influence of the TV show Soul Train along with Gaye’s early performances at the legendary Flame Show Bar in Detroit and New York’s Apollo Theater.

Flame Show Bar dancers. Photo courtesy of New Day Entertainment

The musical has all the elements necessary for a hit, including a strong cast, but it needs some serious cutting.  As of now, it is overly long, gets lost in too many side stories, and lingers needlessly on Gaye’s volatile relationship with Anna.  Currently, there are 34 scene changes with 29 massive musical numbers including “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”, “Heaven Must Have Sent You”, “Sexual Healing”, “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing”, the anti-war classic “What’s Going On”, “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”, and many, many, more mega-hits.  Other huge Motown stars Jackie Wilson, Smokey Robinson, Tammi Terrell, Teddy Pendergrass, and The Marvelettes are part of the story too.

DC audiences were thrilled to hear the old Gospel songs, “His Eyes Are on the Sparrow” and “Precious Lord”, which accompany the most painful tragedies in Gaye’s life.  Arms were raised in praise and my seatmate and I agreed that we could probably skip church that week since it we had just had one heckuva Sunday-go-to-meeting.

Recommended for its high-octane performances, off-the-chain vocals and eye-popping dance numbers.

Kourtney Lenton  as Tammi Terrell and Jarran Muse as Marvin Gaye. Photo credit courtesy of New Day Entertainment

Starring Jarran Muse and Chae Stephen as Marvin Gaye, Krystal Drake as Anna Gordy Gaye, Kourtney Lenton as Tammi Terrell plus a 24-person ensemble cast of dancers and singers.

On its way to the Chicago Theatre for seven performances only from June 19-23.  For information visit www.msg.com. For tickets visit www.ticketmaster.com or call 800 745-3000.

STOMP ~ National Theatre

Jordan Wright
April 24, 2019
Photo credit The National Theater DC

STOMP has a long history as a crowd-pleaser with its roots going back over a quarter of a century.  Since that time the percussion-heavy, wordless sensation has been performed in over 50 countries and in front of 24 million people.  STOMP has won countless theater awards as well as an Academy Award nomination, four Emmy noms and one Emmy Award for the HBO special Stomp Out LoudAdditionally, its talents were featured at the closing ceremonies for the London Olympics as well as The Academy Awards.  It’s a show that speaks to everyone’s sense of rhythm, creativity and a sustaining beat.  It paralells the rhythm, not always discernible, that weaves in and out of our daily lives – sometimes chaotic, other times in harmony.

Eight performers – four women and four men – produce rhythmic sounds on an extensive variety of everyday items – from metal trash cans, matchboxes and push brooms, to dust pans, newspapers, and more.  Ever notice the sound of a straw squeaking in and out of a plastic cup lid?  Add that to the bass sound of a blown-up plastic bag when it’s stroked or thumped and a plastic shopping bag when it’s shaken rhythmically.

To accompany these unique sound combinations, performers keep the beat with their feet or hands, slapping thighs or simply clapping, an activity the audience is invited to participate in.  One routine, played out with long poles and mallets, takes on the primal appearance of a Maasai jumping dance.  Each routine leads to another interaction among the group of performers who provide silent, interactive comic relief.

There are times in this show when it is comparable to the cadence of a military drill, others when it is a coordinated, controlled frenzy and objects go flying across the stage.  It takes some serious hand-eye coordination to pull off metal lids or basketballs tossed and caught in ever-evolving circles of activity.

High-octane, toe-tapping, finger-snapping, kinetic energy.  Find your rhythm and go.  Especially exciting for kids.

Created and directed by Luke Creswell and Steve McNicholas with Lighting by Steve McNicholas. Starring Kayla Cowart, Jonathon Elkins, Alexis JulianoCary Lamb, Jr., Guido Mandozzi, Artis Olds, Jeremy Price, Krystal Renée, Ivan Salazar, Cade Slattery, Steve Weiss and Joe White.

Through Sunday, April 28th at The National Theatre, 1321 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington, DC.  For tickets and information web or call 1-800-514-3849 or at the box office weekdays from noon till 6pm.

A Bronx Tale ~ The National Theatre

Jordan Wright
March 27, 2019 

With actor/playwright Chazz Palminteri there to cheer on his cast, A Bronx Tale kicked off its one-week run at The National Theatre.  It was a ready audience filled with those who know and love this show and they were ready for the laughs and the tunes.

Richard H. Blake (Lorenzo), Frankie Leoni (Young Calogero) and Michelle Aravena (Rosina) ~ Photo: Joan Marcu

As Palminteri reminded everyone about his autobiographical story, it’s all about not wasting talent, advice his father, a Bronx bus driver, imparted to him from the time he was a nine-year old kid on the mean streets – streets that were divided by the blacks on Webster Avenue who guarded their turf with fists and Molotov cocktails and Italian mobsters who ruled Belmont Avenue with guns and bats – guys like Tony 10 to 12, Frankie Coffeecake, Eddie Mush and Jojo the Whale.  Between the gunshots and street fights, bar fights and insults, are the musical numbers.

Jane and Friends (front) Brianna-Marie Bell (Jane) with Brandi Porter and Ashley McManus Photo: Joan Marcus

It’s a set piece from the 60’s filled with the doo-wop croonings from the impromptu jukebox jockeys and the sweet sha-na-nas from the neighborhood black girls singing early Motown.  The musical has a primetime pedigree.  Directed by two-time Oscar winner Robert De Niro and four-time Tony Award winner, Jerry Zaks, the snappy tunes are composed by Oscar, Grammy and Tony Award-winning composer Alan Menken.

Webster Avenue (center) Brianna-Marie Bell, with (l to r) Antonio Beverly, Ashley McManus, Brandi Porter and Jason Williams. (rear) Kirk Lydell. // Belmont Avenue – women and men (foreground, l to r) Haley Hannah, Kyli Rae, Joseph Sammour, Giovanni DiGabriele,~ Joshua Michael Burrage and Sean Bell. (background, l to r) Robert Pieranunzi, Michael Barra, Paul Salvatoriello. (on balconies, l to r) Joey Calveri, Mike Backes and John Gardiner. Photo: Joan Marcus

If you like mobsters, hitmen and their nefarious gangs and how they drew a kid into their criminal lair, this one is for you – the fights, the crap games and the fear that Sonny, the crime boss, imparts to his crew of ignorant thugs.  A ‘rat’ is the worst kind of enemy when you live under the code of Omerta, and Calogero, the boy, chooses not to rat on Sonny when he sees him shoot a man in cold blood.  Sonny is appreciative of the boy’s silence and takes him under his wing.  He tells him to choose Love or Fear as a way of life.  Calogero’s parents are appalled.

Sonny and Young Calogero Joe Barbara (Sonny) and Frankie Leoni (Young Calogero) Photo: Joan Marcu

The story touches on the racism that existed in the Italian neighborhoods and, warning: crude slang is used to describe African Americans, especially when Calogero grows up and falls for Jane, a lovely black girl who sees a better future for him.  After all the deaths and all the murders, Sonny turns into a kindly paternal figure to the teenage Calogero who goes straight.

Sonny and Lorenzo at Chez Bippy Joe Barbara (Sonny) and Richard H. Blake (Lorenzo); (at table) John Gardiner, Robert Pieranunzi and Paul Salvatoriello. Photo: Joan Marcus

With Joey Calveri as Sonny; Shane Pry or Frankie Leoni as Young Calogero; Giovanni DiGabriele as Calogero; Richard H. Blake as Lorenzo; Michelle Aravena as Rosina; Brianna-Marie Bell as Jane; Antonio Beverly as Tyrone; John Gardiner as Rudy the Voice; Mike Bakes as Eddie Mush; Michael Barra as Jojo the Whale; Robert Pieranunzi as Frankie Coffeecake; Paul Salvatoriello as Tony 10 to 12; Sean Bell as Sally Slick; Giovanni DiGabriele as Handsome Nick; Alex Dorf as Crazy Mario; Jason Williams as Jesse; Brandi Porter as Frieda; and Peter Gregus as Carmine/Police Officer/Gang Leader.

Scenic Design by Beowulf Boritt; Costume Design by William Ivey Long; Lighting Design by Howell Binley; Sound Design by Gareth Owen; Choreography by Sergio Trujillo.  A ten-piece orchestra is led by Brian P. Kennedy.

Through March 31st at The National Theatre, 1321 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20004.  For tickets and information visit www.TheNationalDC.org or call 202 628-6161.

Finding Neverland ~ The National Theatre

Jordan Wright
February 27, 2019

Melody Rose in Finding Neverland ~ Photo Credit Jeremy Daniel

 Finding Neverland flew into the National Theatre last night, straight from the second star on the right.  As the second-oldest theater in America, the National continues to provide us with the Broadway shows we are dying to see plus some that have made their out-of-town debuts right here.  Seeing a big show on this smaller stage in this grand historic theater makes it feel as if you’re right on stage with the actors.

Ruby Gibbs in Finding Neverland ~ Photo Credit Jeremy Daniel

This supremely delightful musical takes its cue from the life of author J. M. Barrie and his inspiration for the beloved children’s book, “Peter Pan”.  It’s an adventure suitable for all ages – that is if you still believe in fairies.  And we do!  Written by James Graham with music and lyrics by the composing duo of Gary Barlow & Eliot Kennedy, it is chockful of sweet ballads, rousing Irish jigs and toe-tapping chorus numbers.  This song-writing team is solid gold.  Barlow has sold over 45 million records with his pop group Take That and is co-writer on the popular musical The Band.  Kennedy is a Grammy-Award winning musician/singer/songwriter who has had number-one hits with the Spice Girls, Celine Dion, Aretha Franklin and many more.  Altogether, Finding Neverland has twenty original numbers.

The Company of Finding Neverland ~ Photo Credit Jeremy Daniel

Kensington Gardens is where Barrie, a playwright with writer’s block, meets Sylvia, a widow with four boys – George, Peter (of course), Jack and Michael.  Trapped in a loveless, childless marriage with his imperious wife, Mary, he soon becomes enchanted with Sylvia and her lively brood, providing fuel to the boys’ imaginations as he recaptures his own inner child with a script heartily disapproved by his dyspeptic producer, Charles Frohman, and a stubborn-minded cast who refuse to play children’s roles.

The Company of Finding Neverland ~ Photo Credit Jeremy Daniel

Not to be compared with Peter Pan, the 1954 musical with Mary Martin who flew and crowed her way into Broadway history books, this fantasy adventure has equal amounts of appeal.  Wonderfully engaging choreography by Mia Michaels, choreographer on So You Think You Can Dance and Cirque de Soleil’s Delirium.  Michaels has choreographed for Madonna and Prince and is a three-time Emmy Award-winner.  For this production, rather than flights aided by ceiling wire, cast members lift their mates as they ‘soar’ around Neverland.  The children (and the adults!) around me were gobsmacked with glee.

Jeff Sullivan and Seth Erdley in Finding Neverland ~ Photo Credit Jeremy Daniel

A large banquet table proves to be a hilarious hiding place for the guests when napkins fly in Barrie’s posh home in “The Dinner Party” and “The Circus of Your Mind” that plays out to the sounds of a calliope as it delves into Mary and James’ private lives.  At last, Barrie gets the theater’s troupe to recall their childhood imaginations in “Play”, a wildly animated  tavern scene that brings all the imaginary characters together dancing and singing.

The Company of Finding Neverland ~ Photo Credit Jeremy Daniel

A nine-piece band, beautiful voices, adorable children, pirates! and clever projections (How do they create the stardust? Asking for a friend.) is guaranteed to keep this magical musical close to your heart.

Highly recommended for all ages.  Hurry!  It’s only in town till Sunday.

Through March 3rd at the National Theater, Washington DC – 1321 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20004.  For tickets and information visit www.TheNationalDC.org or call 202 628-6161.

With Jeff Sullivan as J. M. Barrie; Ruby Gibbs as Sylvia Llewelyn Davies; Ashley Edler as Mary Barrie; Paul Thiemann as Albert; Conor McGiffin as Charles Frohman and Captain James Hook; Michael Luongo as Lord Cannan; Emmanuelle Zeesman as Mrs. Du Maurier; Joshua William Green as Mr. Henshaw; Spenser Micetich as Mr. Cromer; Kelsey Seaman as Miss Jones; Adrien Swenson as Miss Bassett; Melody Rose as Peter Pan; Marie Choate as Wendy; Daniel S. Hayward as Captain Hook.

Llewelyn Children played by Brody Bett (Jack/Michael); Seth Erdley (George/Peter/Jack); Caleb Reese Paul (George/Peter/Jack); Peter Schoeller (George/Peter/Jack); Josiah Smothers (Jack/Michael); and Ethan Stokes (George/Peter/Jack).

Original Direction by Diane Paulus; Direction Recreated by Mia Walker; Orchestrations by Simon Hale; Scenic Design by Scott Pask, Lighting Design by Kenneth Posner, Costume Design by Suttirat Larlarb, and Sound Design by Shannon Slaton.

School of Rock ~ The Musical ~ At The National Theatre

Jordan Wright
January 19, 2019 

Cameron Trueblood in School of Rock Tour. Photo Matt Murphy

For anyone who has harbored fantasies of joining a rock and roll band, School of Rock is a flat-out fantastic, fun-loving musical with an Andrew Lloyd Webber score that hits all the right wah-wahs.  With screaming guitar and drum solos – from kids no less – this show will rock you out of your comfy zone.  Based on the movie that starred Jack Black, its story is simple.  Aging rocker, about to be evicted from his former band mates’ apartment for non-payment of his share of the rent, finagles (or shall we say, “cons”) his way into a substitute teaching job at a posh prep school and starts a band with kids who are still mastering their times tables.  Booted from his band for lack of sex appeal, Dewey (Merritt David Janes) is on his last dime and last pair of socks when he arrives at Horace Green prep and meets Rosalie Mullins (Lexie Dorset Sharp), the take-no-prisoners, hard-nosed principal whose secret passion is Stevie Nicks.  Thanks to Dewey the fourth-graders shed both their shyness and classical music studies to study Rock and Roll, while secretly preparing to compete in the Battle of the Bands.

School of Rock Tour. Photo by Evan Zimmerman-Matt Murphy

At home, the kids hide their intentions from parents who are too distant or too consumed by what they want their kids to become.  In “If Only You Would Listen” the children hope for better communications with parents who are too busy to care about their individual hopes and dreams.

Due to the many questions about the reality of the kids playing their instruments, Webber makes a pre-curtain, taped announcement to assure us that they do – backed by a nine-piece pit orchestra.  Though the set up and introduction of the characters is a tad slow going, by Scene 6 in Act 1 under the expert direction of Laurence Connor, the story comes alive when the students, with Dewey’s encouragement and guidance, lose their inhibitions and rock out.  As actor musicians you can sense their youthful enthusiasm which is as palpable as it is contagious.

School of Rock Tour. Photo by Evan Zimmerman-Matt Murphy

Of the kids in leading roles watch for outstanding performances from Sami Bray as the feisty, smarty-pants Summer; Leanne Parks as the stone-faced, pigtail-sporting, bass player Katie; Mystic Inscho as the hard-driving, moves-like-Jagger, lead guitarist Zack; Theo Mitchell-Penner as the nerdy, shy keyboard player; Grier Burke as Tomika the soulful singer who sheds her insecurities; and Cameron Trueblood as James the kick-ass drummer.

A cast of nearly three dozen, some in multiple roles – with Layne Roate as Ned, Madison Micucci as Patty, Arianna Pereira as Shonelle, Gary Trainor who also plays Dewey, Sinclair Mitchell as Snake/Mr. Mooneyham.

School of Rock Tour. Photo by Matt Murphy

Book by Julian Fellowes, Lyrics by Glenn Slater, Choreography by JoAnn M. Hunter; Scenic and Costume Design by Anna Louizos, Lighting Design by Natasha Katz, Sound Design by Mick Potter, Music Direction led by Martyn Axe with Julie Homi.

Through January 27th at the National Theater, Washington DC – 1321 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20004.  For tickets and information visit www.TheNationalDC.org or call 202 628-6161.