The Merchant of Venice

The Merchant of Venice

Shakespeare Theatre Company
Jordan Wright
March 29, 2022

Held in the recently rebranded The Michael R. Klein Theatre at the Lansburgh, Director and Obie Award-winner, Arin Arbus’s modernist vision of The Merchant of Venice is an exercise in portraying Shylock as a sympathetic character and his Venetian enemies as the vile racist snobs they are. Starring the brilliant actor, John Douglas Thompson, as Shylock, the play reveals a dreadful era when Venetian society frowned on Jews and other minorities but depended on their business acumen in times of financial woe. We cannot fail to see the relevance to our current state of the world.

Shakespeare purists with not be at home with the modern-day costumes, occasional American slang, and reworking of the characters. For me, it only proves Shakespeare’s relevance to our modern lives. Has anything changed since Jessica uttered, “Love is blind.”?  When the Princes of Morocco and of Aragon choose the casket they hope will win the fair Portia, they foolishly reveal their egos and cupidity. Even the Prince of Morocco, who admits, “All that glisters is not gold,” failed to heed that sage advice. When Portia rhymes “lead” with “dead” to as a hint to Bassanio, he ignores both the gold and the silver caskets to win her hand with the lowly lead casket.

How to handle Shylock in this play is the director’s challenge. He is both a sympathetic character and a vengeful man and that is made clear. Still, we are drawn into his dilemma of his daughter Jessica who betrays him, Antonio who takes advantage of him and all those others who degrade him. Lessons in morality and religion are not readily solved here. Ego and intransigence bring everyone down. Nevertheless, The Bard is always on top of morality and, of course, women dressing in drag to fool the men! In fine form, Arbus ends with Jessica reconnecting with her father as they recite the centuries-old Kol Nidre Hebrew prayer.

A simple stage set focusses on the unfolding drama, and we are treated to a memorably powerful portrayal of Shylock by Thompson counterbalanced by the engaging Isabel Arraiza as Portia. Shirine Babb, Portia’s backup bae, shines as Nerissa. Nate Miller brings much-needed comic relief as Lancelet and Alfredo Narciso brings the requisite evil as Antonio.

With Varin Ayala as Prince of Aragon; Jeff Biehl as Balthazar; Sanjit De Silva as Bassanio; Danaya Esperanza as Jessica; Yonatan Gebeyehu as Solanio; David Lee Huynh as Lorenzo; Maurice Jones as Prince of Morocco/Duke/Tubal; Nate Miller as Lancelet Gobbo; Haynes Thigpen as Gratiano; and Graham Winton as Saliero.

Lighting by Marcus Doshi; Scenic Design by Riccardo Hernandez; Costume Design by Emily Rebholz; Original Music and Sound Design by Justin Ellington.

Through April 24th at The Michael R. Klein Theatre at the Lansburgh.

Catch Me If You Can

Catch Me If You Can

Arena Stage
Jordan Wright
March 20, 2022
Special to TheZebra.Org

Catch Me If You Can Soars with High Energy and a High-Flying True Story of the Infamous Conman


Christian Thompson (Frank Abagnale, Jr.) and the cast of Catch Me If You Can running March 4 through April 17 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Photo by Margot Schulman.

As it turns out, the real-life story of a precocious chameleon and 17-year-old conman, Frank Abagnale, Jr., makes for one helluva musical directed by Molly Smith with book by Terrence McNally especially with this stunner cast. From the very first number you’re in for the supersonic ride of your life.

The swinging 60’s when Pan Am was at the forefront of the commercial airline industry sets the tone for one of Frank’s big cons – that of an airline pilot. In that pre-politically correct luxury era of flying, flight attendants were called “stewardesses” and was considered the most glamorous job for women – dating the airline’s Clipper pilots was part of the allure. Naturally, Frank plays up his boyish charm to the hilt and the women unwittingly abet him in his quest to pose as one of the pilots.

Rhett Guter (Roger Strong/Agent Branton/Jack Barnes/Player), Nehal Joshi (Carl Hanratty) and Jody Reynard (Agent Dollar/Player) in Catch Me If You Can running March 4 through April 17 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Using an assortment of aliases, Frank, Jr. aka Frank Taylor and later the charismatic Doctor Frank Connors, manages to weasel his way past a team of FBI agents led by Carl Hanratty whose mission is to nail the imposter for $2M in forged checks. Along the way Carl “Here I Am to Save the Day” and Frank form a telephone friendship as Carl becomes the type of father figure Frank never had as Frank Sr. was a swaggering conman and merciless alcoholic with a cheating wife and the law on his tail who schooled his son well in conning the IRS while lying, cheating and stealing with great aplomb.

Choreographer Parker Esse increases the excitement with some of the greatest ever dance sequences on Arena’s Fichandler stage. Costume Designer Alejo Vietti picks up on the period outfitting the dancers in Mondrian mini dresses with Sassoon haircuts and white go-go boots, the men in their crisply-fitted flight uniforms all frenetically doing “The Frug” to the opening number, “Live in Living Color”.

The cast of Catch Me If You Can running March 4 through April 17 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Impressive performances by Christian Thompson (Frank Abagnale, Jr.) who recently starred as Smokey Robinson/Damon Harris in Broadway’s Ain’t Too Proud and supported by the incomparably suave Jeff McCarthy as Frank Abagnale, Sr.; Nehal Joshi as Carl Hanratty; Stephanie Pope Lofgren (with a sensuous Eartha Kitt-like voice) as wife Paula Abagnale; and Hayley Podschun as Frank’s love interest, Brenda Strong – all big-time Broadway stars.

The music is spot on with catchy lyrics by Scott Whitman and Composer Marc Shaiman.  You’ve got to love a line in “Butter Outta Cream” that rhymes with scheme, of which there are many. Sixteen numbers lay out the story, which (spoiler alert) has a real romance though it starts out as a story of a lonely teen enchanted by comic superheroes.

Christian Thompson (Frank Abagnale, Jr.) and Jeff McCarthy (Frank Abagnale, Sr.) in Catch Me If You Can running March 4 through April 17 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Terrific choreography designed by Parker Esse ratchets up the energy to include tap shoes that light up in “Don’t Break the Rules” and a bevy of dancers who seem to populate every square inch of the theater in the round. Props by Alessandra Shines and Grace Trudeau are eye-popping as is Alexander Dodge’s clever stage design which is tricked up to both rise from the center with fresh sets and disappear and features two stairways on either side that descend beneath the stage. Actors sometimes break the third wall acknowledging Conductor Laura Bergquist who can be seen by the audience.

Highly recommended! Catch it, now!

The cast includes Alexandra Frohlinger as Carol Strong; Brett-Marco Glauser as Agent Cod; Rhett Guter as Roger Strong/Agent Branton/Jack Barnes; Jody Reynard as Agent Dollar. Lighting Design by Nicole Pearce and Sound Design by Daniel Erdberg.

Through April 17th at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth Street, SW, Washington, DC 20024. For tickets and information call 202 488-3300 or visit www.ArenaStage.org.

Riverdance

Riverdance

The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
Jordan Wright
March 18, 2022
Special to TheZebra.Org

Riverdance 25th Anniversary Show (Photo/Anna-Livia)

On a balmy Spring evening perfectly timed to kick off the celebratory season of Saint Patrick’s Day, Irish Ambassador and Mrs. Daniel Mulhall hosted a swank cocktail party in the South Tier Opera Lounge before the performance of Riverdance. In attendance were Taoiseach Micháel Martin, Ireland’s Prime Minister, and American diplomat and former Ambassador to Japan, Caroline Kennedy. Delicious savory treats featuring Ireland’s best beef, cheeses and cured salmon were served capping the gathering with coffee, tea and a sumptuous Irish Whiskey Cake and Crème Brûlée, after which guests proceeded to the Opera House for the performance where audience members frequently leapt to their feet for standing ovations between acts.

Taoiseach Michael Martin delivers remarks to the guests (Photo/Jordan Wright)

Ambassador Daniel Mulhall with Caroline Kennedy (right) and guest at the reception. (Photo/Jordan Wright)

Celebrating their 25th anniversary and first time performing at the Kennedy Center, the Riverdance troupe was in fine form and their staccato taps could be heard up to the rafters. Originally an Irish folk dancing and musical production, Riverdance has gone on to include both Russian and Flamenco dance, acknowledging some of the roots of Irish dance. I couldn’t help but conjure up the evolution of these dances in the American heartland where the Irish immigrated in droves and the style of clogging emerged.

Riverdance 25 Anniversary Show Lead Couple

Interspersed with the tightly choreographed syncopated-formation dances by the troupe, a coloratura soprano performed haunting Irish melodies in octaves that soared into the stratosphere and a beautiful lassie played the pipes honoring an ancient Irish warrior from the Bronze Age. Between 18 electrifying scenes a narrator weaves Celtic tales and stories from the land of the faeries. Video projections of picturesque scenes frame the evening’s entertainment.

Many stories can be told of the history of this extraordinary production that began with the choreography and iconic dance skills of Michael Flatley and has toured around the world many times over. Their epic success on six continents, a Grammy Award and generous fundraising efforts are but a few of their achievements, but their promotion of Irish dance supported by the exceptional singers, dancers and musicians who perform in the show, give gravitas to this exciting one-of-a-kind experience.

Riverdance 25 Anniversary Show Reel around the Sun

Directed by John McColgan, Produced by Moya Doherty, Composed by Bill Whelan, Costumes by Joan Bergin, Sound by Michael O’Gorman, Lighting by Andrew Voller, Sets by Alan Farquhason and High Res by Peter Canning.

Through March 27th at The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 2700 F Street, NW, Washington, DC 20566. For tickets and information call 202 467-4600 or visit www.Kennedy-Center.org.

Cosi Fan Tutte

Così Fan Tutte

The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
March 14, 2022
Jordan Wright

Laura Wilde (soprano) and Andrey Zhilikhovsky (baritone) in Cosi fan tutte at the WNO (photo by Scott Suchman)

Introducing the Washington National Opera Company’s Cafritz Young Artists who sang the Ukrainian National Anthem, General Director Timothy Leary welcomed back the audience of opera lovers to the first of the season’s offerings, “We have learned to gather together in community and safety,” he announced with pride. A standing ovation honored both the students’ exceptional talents as well as the audience’s heartfelt sympathies to the Ukrainian people (two Ukraine nationals were in the cast) to set the evening’s enthusiastic tone. Beginning the season with such light-hearted fare, is just the ticket for our COVID doldrums.

Ana-Maria-Martinez-soprano-and-Ferruccio-Furlanetto-bass-in-Cosi-fan-tutte-at-the-WNO (photo-by-Scott-Suchman)

A bit of background:

Commissioned by the Emperor Joseph II, Mozart’s fan fave two-act opera, with text by Lorenzo da Ponte, was first performed in Vienna in January of 1790 and characters of the sisters, Fiordiligi and Dorabella, were actually sisters in real life with their story well-known in Vienna society. It first came to the London stage in 1811 and later to New York at the Metropolitan Opera House in 1922 conducted by Artur Bodanzky. This was at the acme of Mozart’s career and the comic opera is well-regarded as one of his finest compositions.

Così fan tutte is an intriguing tale of Fiordiligi and Dorabella, two sisters betrothed to two soldiers, Guglielmo and Ferrando. Enter the aged bachelor and friend to all concerned Don Alphonso who suggests to the men that all women cannot be faithful. Challenged with testing the women’s fidelity by disguising themselves and tricking their lovers under Alphonso’s direction, the men agree to the bet. Unbeknownst to the lovers, the duplicitous Alphonso enlists the aid of the ladies’ maid, Despina, who is to be handsomely paid for her efforts.

WNO”s “Cosi Fan Tutte”

The plot plays with gender identity in a way that questions the misunderstanding between the sexes. A question as old as the hills and revived by such books as “Men Are from Mars’, Women Are from Venus”. Will the women cave to such amorous machinations by the men who threaten suicide if their lovers do not break their troths and reciprocate their advances? With Don Alphonso’s secretive encouragement, these underhanded swains pull every trick in the book to unhinge the ladies’ devoted commitment to them.

As sumptuously elegant as the music is, it is neatly underpinned by the comic antics of those involved in the set up. The wonderful cast is charged with incorporating comedic abilities as well as their magnificent vocal talents to pull it off, which they do quite well. Watch for Anna María Martinez in three roles as Despina, the doctor, and later the notary to bring the house down thanks to the vivid imagination of Costume Designer Lynly A. Saunders who also nails the 18th century period ladies’ dresses with the appropriate paniers locked and loaded.

A balm for the senses. Highly recommended.

With Kang Wang as Ferrando; Andrey Zhilikhovsky as Gugielmo; Ferrucchio Furlanetto as Don Alphonso; Laura Wilde as Fiordiligi; and Rihab Chaieb as Dorabella.

Conducted by Erina Yashima; Directed by Alison Moritz; Set Design by Erhard Rom; Projection Design by S. Katy Tucker.

Through March 20th at The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 2700 F Street, NW, Washington, DC 20566. For tickets and information visit www.Kennedy-Center.org or call 202 467-4600.

She Loves Me

She Loves Me

Signature Theatre
Jordan Wright
March 11, 2022
Special to TheZebra.Org

Ali Ewoldt (Photo/Christopher Mueller)

If you don’t fall in love with a capital “L” with Director Matthew Gardiner’s production of She Loves Me in the first five minutes you might as well call yourself a hard-boiled cynic. It is a wonder of romance, uproarious comedy and light-hearted charm served up with the eye-catching deliciousness of a trolley of French pastries.

With music and lyrics written by Broadway icons, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick from a 1937 play by Hungarian Miklos Laszlo, the staged musical version has seen numerous incarnations from a former cinematic life with James Stewart and Margaret Sullivan in The Shop Around the Corner, followed by a musical film version starring Judy Garland and Van Johnson In the Good Old Days, and finally in 1998 a modern movie classic with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in the popular You’ve Got Mail.

Lawrence Redmond, Deven Kolluri, Maria Rizzo, Jake Loewenthal, and Emmanuel Elliot Key (Photo/Christopher Mueller)

Five dedicated salespeople keep Maraczek’s Parfumerie abuzz, catering to every whim and whine of their tony clientele. It is overseen by single and sexy Ilona who is smitten with Steven, a serial cad; Ladislav an elderly gent with a family to support; Arpad, the adorable delivery boy; and Amalia and Georg, the would-be lovers.

Amalia and Georg, secret pen pals through a lonely-hearts club, they work side-by-side at the parfumerie, though they are at sixes and nines in every way. Each is unaware that it is the other to whom they are writing (they have never met) and have fallen deeply in love through their passionate correspondence.

Ali Ewoldt and David Schlumpf (Photo/Margot_Schulman)

Lee Savage’s gorgeous jewelbox set design of Maraczek’s Parfumerie glimmers with gilt-edged cosmetic counters and massive pistachio-colored cabinets chock-a-block with over-sized, pastel-colored, parfum bottles to reflect the elegant aesthetic of Budapest in the 1930’s. It is so cleverly constructed it incorporates a seamlessly rotating stage featuring the characters’ private bedrooms as well as the workshop where staff huddle to swap gossip. You could hear the audience gasp at each set transformation.

But I won’t stop with praise for the scenic design. There is so much more to fall in love with here. As Amalia, we expect Ali Ewoldt (Christine in B’way’s The Phantom of the Opera) to gift us with exquisite vocals, and she does magnificently, but full bows to the rest of the cast who match her talents sending this frothy musical soaring sky high. Choreography and casting by Kelly Crandall D’Amboise create a super-charged dynamic showcasing a top-drawer ensemble very much up to the task. Watch for Emmanuel Elliot Key as the bouncy, adorable Arpad and the comedic high jinks of Daniel Powers as the Busboy.

A triumph for Signature! Highly recommended.

With Bobby Smith as Ladislav Sipos; Maria Rizzo as Ilona Ritter; Deven Kolluri as Georg Laszlo; Lawrence Redmond as Mr. Maraczek; Jake Loewenthal as Steven Kodaly; Christopher Mueller as Mr. Keller; and David Schlumpf as Headwaiter.

Jon Kalbfleisch conducts the ten-piece orchestra; 1930’s bespoke costumes by Alejo Vietti; Lighting Design by Adam Honoré; Sound Design by Ryan Hickey; Assistant Director Clancey Yovanovich.

Through April 24th at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, VA 22206 in Shirlington Village. For tickets and information visit www.SigTheatre.org or call the box office at 703 820-9771.

Jesus Christ Superstar as Interpreted by Brits

Jesus Christ Superstar

Special to www.TheZebra.org
The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

February 25, 2022
Jordan Wright

Aaron LaVigne, Tommy Sherlock and the company of the North American Tour of JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR. (Photo by Matthew Murphy, Evan Zimmerman)

I was looking forward to this reimagining of Jesus Christ Superstar by two Brits, Director Timothy Shearer and Choreographer Drew McOnie, if only to see how they tailor their work to a British audience. Both gentlemen have earned Olivier Awards (Britain’s equivalent to a Tony Award) for their work – Sheader earning four for “Best Musical Revival” to include one for Jesus Christ Superstar and McOnie celebrating two nominations for “Best Theatre Choreography” and winning for In the Heights. Together they spell theater royalty.

So, I was more than surprised when I found some odd choices in the staging of this iconic musical. Don’t get me wrong, I can still be found humming and tapping my foot to the glorious Andrew Lloyd Webber score and running home afterwards to listen to the beautiful music days later. But as I watched this production unfold, I found myself too frequently scratching out “Why?” in my notes.

Jenna Rubaii in the North American Tour of JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR. (Photo by Matthew Murphy, Evan Zimmerman)

Why did Jesus use a mic stand? Mary and Judas, too. Sometimes, not always. Why did some performers use a hand mic and others not? Utterly mystifying. Why did Jesus sport a hipster man bun throughout his performance, then switch over to a ponytail for the final scene? I wonder because his head shot in the program has him with long wavy blond locks. Wouldn’t it have been more apropos to let it hang in loose curls around his shoulders? And, if I may state the obvious, wouldn’t it have been the perfect opportunity to cast a person of color in the role of Jesus?

There are more mysteries to unpack here. Why did Jesus carry around an acoustic guitar? If the thought is to depict him as a rock star, wouldn’t he play a snazzy electric guitar? Why were the sound levels all over the place? Sometimes singers came across powerfully at other times they could hardly be heard no matter from which area of the stage they were singing. Why did the casting director choose a lead with the weakest voice in the entire cast? And, for Chrissake (pun intended), why did Aaron LaVigne give such a stilted, unemotional performance as Jesus? Poor Mary.

More questions vexed me. What was the point of tossing dozens of glitter bombs at Jesus to sub for the 40 lashes ordered by Pontius Pilate? And, in the strangest interpretation of all, why was Mary (Jenna RubaII) absent in so many scenes usually played by Jesus’s side? It was an especially bizarre directorial choice during her solos, especially for the lovely lullaby, “Everything’s Alright”, when she comforts Jesus urging him to, “Close your eyes, close your eyes and relax, think of nothing tonight,” which she sung in her unique, lilting and soulful vibrato. This has been one of the most poignant scenes in other productions as she caresses him to allay his fears.

As for the musical element, 11 onstage musicians in second tier cubicles are joined by members of the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra for a concert-like sound. Add Omar Lopez-Cepero as Judas (that falsetto!) and the experience is worth the price of admission. With his epic rocker voice, he brought the house down several times over. Wailing electric guitars and a hot licks sax solo that nearly shook the great Opera House chandelier ratchet up the temperature. As to the choreography, rest easy. McOnie chose ace dancers who sing their faces off.

With Alvin Crawford as Caiaphas; Tommy Sherlock as Pilate; Tyce Green as Annas and an ensemble of 18 singer/dancers.

Through March 13th at The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts 2700 F Street, NW, Washington, DC 20566.  For tickets and information call 202 467-4600 or visit www.Kennedy-Center.org