Sweeney Todd – The Demon of Fleet Street Provides Murder, Mayhem and Brit Wit at Signature Theatre

 Sweeney Todd – The Demon of Fleet Street Provides Murder, Mayhem and Brit Wit at Signature Theatre

Sweeney Todd – The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Signature Theatre
Jordan Wright
May 26, 2023
Special to The Zebra

Nathaniel Stampley (Sweeney Todd) and Ian McEuen (Pirelli) in Sweeney Todd at Signature Theatre. (Photo/Margot Schulman)

Set in the darkest environs of London we find Sweeney Todd just released from prison and plunged into a life of murder and mayhem, a topic popular with virtuous Victorians and their high-minded devotion to morality and manners. Sweeney Todd – The Demon Barber of Fleet Street provides us with a singularly depraved and vengeful killer, a man “who would blink and rats would scuttle” as he “served a dark and vengeful god”, underpinned by the intelligent beauty of Stephen Sondheim’s brilliant score with book by Hugh Wheeler.

Columns of screeching steam announce the opening scene as the characters enter from the aisles. We hear the plaintively beautiful operatic voice of the Beggar Woman (Rayanne Gonzalez) as she portends the evils that await and we meet handsome, young Anthony Hope (note the surname) (Paul Scanlan), a sailor who saved Sweeney’s life in a shipwreck and who arrives in London to find Todd and ask for a favor in return.

Katie Mariko Murray (Johanna) and Paul Scanlan (Anthony Hope) in Sweeney Todd at Signature Theatre. (Photo/Christopher Mueller)

Mrs. Lovett (Bryonha Marie), an ambitious and wily widow with a failing meat pie shop and soon to become the lover and murderous accomplice of Sweeney (Nathaniel Stampley), appears in her establishment bemoaning the high price of meat while noting how all the neighbor’s cats have disappeared. They soon strike up an unusual and diabolical alliance and, in a stroke of business genius, Mrs. Lovett (note the surname) provides Todd with a tonsorial parlor above her shop where they gleefully combine the two disparate businesses. “Think of it as thrift,” she chirps ominously.

The musical is a tale of love, loss and revenge merrily served up in all its carnivorous glory with a spot of tea and a stiff upper lip. A grisly horror story dripping with blood and British humor and some of the most notably creative of Sondheim’s music and lyrics. And, not to worry, my pet, it’s also gifts us with an acerbic side-eye and biting gallows humor.

Bryonha Marie (Mrs. Lovett) and Nathaniel Stampley (Sweeney Todd) in Sweeney Todd at Signature Theatre. (Photo/Christopher Mueller)

As for our leads, Marie and Stampley, there could not be a more perfect casting of these two actors who both support and contrast each other. Stampley, portrays a gloomy figure of a man who stalks and broods in tenor splendor and who conveys all the evil in the wider world. He is matched only by the broad expressiveness, charm, and magical vocals of Bryonha Marie. They are superb together.

Scenic Designer Mikiko Suzuki Macadams reflects London’s gritty underbelly with the dark and dirty greys of its 19th century warehouse district complementing Costume Designer Robert Perdziola’s vision of ladies in muted grey dresses – save for our heroine Johanna who is a vision in white linen. Director Sarna Lapine creates a scene of constantly swirling dramatic intrigue and a clever concept to mimic the appearance of blood (of which there is much) using thin, red streamers to palatably capture the mendacity afoot.

Of particular note are performances by Katie Mariko Murray who plays sweet, innocent Johanna, Todd’s long-lost daughter; Harrison Smith as Tobias Ragg, the couple’s wide-eyed hapless assistant; John Leslie Wolfe as the libidinous Judge Turpin who keeps Joanna in an actual birdcage; Christopher Michael Richardson as The Beadle; and Ian McEuen as Pirelli, Todd’s Italian challenger to the title of best barber.

Choreographed by Alison Solomon and conducted by Jon Kabfleisch commanding a 15-piece orchestra for the full-on experience.

Highly recommended.

With an ensemble to include Benjamin Lurye, Jimmy Mavrikes, Bob McDonald, Adelina Mitchell (doubling as Dance Captain), Crystal Mosser, Lawrence Redmond (doubling as Fight Captain), Katherine Riddle, Sarah Anne Sillers and Chani Wereley.

Through July 9th at Signature Theatre in Shirlington Village, 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, VA 22206. For tickets and information visit www.SigTheatre.org or call the box office at 703 820-9771.

Sondheim’s Pacific Overtures Brings Magical Realism to Japanese Culture at Signature Theatre

Sondheim’s Pacific Overtures Brings Magical Realism to Japanese Culture at Signature Theatre

Pacific Overtures
Signature Theatre
Jordan Wright
March 22, 2023
Special to The Zebra

Eymard Meneses Cabling (Lord Abe) and the cast of Pacific Overtures. (Photo/Daniel Rader)

Thanks to the brilliance of multi-Emmy Award-winning Book writer, John Weidman (an early Sondheim collaborator), who has updated some of the 50-year-old material in Pacific Overtures, and the adaptation by the eminent Hugh Wheeler this production is now more relevant than it has ever been. It presents as a well-curated collection of precious gifts – each one a surprise. Throughout both acts I was in a constant state of wow. It differs from some other Sondheim musicals in that, although there is the distinct aspect of magical realism, there is also a political message cleverly couched between the indisputable lure of Asian culture and its bellicose history. Told by the Reciter (Jason Ma), it begins with a tea ceremony on the island empire and tells of a lowly fisherman Kayama (Daniel May) who navigates a complicated journey in the worst of times.

Quynh-My Luu (Photo/Shannon Finney)

In its representation of mid-19th century life in Japan, its formality, its chrysanthemum tea ceremonies, and its well-defined class structure under the emperor, we behold exquisite costumes – lavish kimonos and stylized papier maché hair designs. Newly hired Associate Artistic Director Ethan Heard has assembled a unique and uber-talented crew to flesh out all the details and it is mightily impressive. Silks are wafted like ocean waves and a circular stage that turns in the center to reveal all sides of the characters and their interactions. From behind Japanese scrims fan-twirling geishas hide and giggle as they plot their welcoming of the American sailors. The raking of sand sculptures imbedded in the stage floor show no hint of inner chaos. Stylized depictions of Kabuki theater allow each minute detail of Japanese culture to be honored and observed. It is both elegant and intentional.

Pacific Overtures’ charm is scintillating. Characters in hyper-distorted masks pop seemingly out of nowhere, some as hyper-politicized puppets, symbols of the way Japan saw America in the days of the Shogun, others as comical and cute in a nod to Japanese Manga comics.

Chani Wereley (Madam) and Jason Ma (Reciter) with Quynh-My Luu, Albert Hsueh, Andrew Cristi, and Christopher Mueller. (Photo/Daniel Rader)

The stage is divided into two major areas. A second story holds the largest Wadaiko drum on the East Coast. Played to accentuate the sword-wielding samurais and kenjutsu fighting, it is dramatic and thundering. Beside the drum high up under a gingko tree sits a life-like puppet of Emperor Meiji on his throne. He was only one year old when America entered the Japanese harbor and threatened to come ashore. Up until then no foreigner had ever been permitted to enter the country since 1603, but Commodore Perry was determined to open trade routes even if he had to bomb the country to smithereens. Fortunately, that didn’t happen and he weaseled his way into the country by hook and by crook.

Though the rarely produced Pacific Overtures has the distinct signature of Sondheim’s better-known musicals and complex plots, there is a charming Gilbert & Sullivan levity in some of its ditties. How perfect that this wonderful production should come to us at cherry blossom time.

Highly recommended!!!

The cast of Pacific Overtures at Signature Theatre (Photo/Daniel Rader)

With Quynh-My Luu as Tamate; Alex Koichi Beard as Manjiro; Eymard Meneses Cabling as Lord Abe; Andrew Cristi as Mother of Shogun; Albert Hsueh as Boy; Jonny Lee Jr. as Manjiro; Joey Ledonio as Mother of the Shogun understudy; Christopher Mueller as Warrior and others; Ashley D. Nguyen as Tamate/Madam understudy; Chani Wereley as Madam/Others; Nicholas Yenson as Perry/Others; Ryan Sellers as Lord Abe/Warrior/Perry understudy.

Direction and Musical Staging by Ethan Heard; Music & Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim; Conducted by Alexander Tom; Orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick; Additional Material by Hugh Wheeler; Scenic Design by Chika Shimizu; Costume & Puppet Design by Helen Q. Huang; Lighting Design by Oliver Wason; Sound Design by Eric Norris; Kabuki Consultant Kirk Kanesaka; Fight Director Yoshi Amao; Taiko Consultant Mark H. Rooney.

Through April 9th at Signature Theatre in Shirlington Village, 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, VA 22206. For tickets and information visit www.Sigtheatre.org or call the box office at 703 820-9771. 

A Deeply Moving Drama Unfolds at Signature Theatre

A Deeply Moving Drama Unfolds at Signature Theatre

Selling Kabul
Signature Theatre
Jordan Wright
March 8, 2023
Special to The Zebra

Yousof Sultani and Awesta Zarif (Photo/Christopher Mueller)

As the repercussions ripple out across the world after the U. S. retreat from the war in Afghanistan, its people continue to be deeply affected in a myriad of ways. This neatly crafted play focuses on one family’s struggles to navigate the frightening and endless fallout. In award-winning writer Sylvia Khoury’s play Selling Kabul, family members Taroon (Mazin Akar), his sister Afiya (Awesta Zarif) and her husband Jawid (Yousof Sultani) are living in a small one-bedroom flat in Teheran. They are barely surviving. Taroon, who acted as translator for American soldiers, is in hiding from the Taliban who are actively hunting down all Iranians who aided the Americans. He knows, if captured, he will be tortured and killed. The lives of his friends and family members are similarly endangered if they are found to be collaborating in any way.

In a crumbling economy, Jawid tries to support his wife and son-in-law sewing Taliban uniforms in his family’s tailor shop while Afiya brings in additional income by mending their uniforms. They hope their familiarity with the soldiers will protect them. Jawid observes guiltily, “I sold Kabul for a television set.”

The Taliban’s harsh edicts and the soldiers’ omnipresence make daily life a constant struggle. They are all in danger from prying eyes like those of their neighbor and Afiya’s best friend, Layla (Neagheen Homaifar), whose unannounced visits terrify them forcing Taroon to hide in an armoire. While Taroon awaits a message from the U. S. Immigration approving his asylum, his wife is in hospital giving birth to their first child. A wrenching decision is made by the family. He must not risk a visit to see his newborn son.

Awesta Zarif and Neagheen Homaifar (Photo/Christopher Mueller)

When after four months in hiding Taroon receives no word from America, Jawid and Afiya conspire to smuggle him out of the country with the help of a fixer. There is no guarantee he will make it out alive. Afiya tells him, “You will leave without a visa or without your head!”

This tightly knit drama shows us the human costs of a country at war with its own citizens and the agonizing and uncertain decisions its people are forced to make just to stay alive.

The small cast shines with a tenacious incandescence under the superb direction of Shadi Ghaheri.

Scenic Design by Tony Cisek; Costume Desgin by Moyenda Kulemeka; Lighting Design by John D. Alexander; Sound Design by Matt Otto; Cultural Consultant & Dramaturg, Humaira Ghilzai.

For more information the theater suggests three organizations:

Aschiana Foubndation at www.Aschiana-Foundation.org; Afghan_American Foundation at www.AfghanAmericans.org; and Afghan-American Women’s Association at www.A-AWA.org.

ousof Sultani and Awesta Zarif (Photo/Christopher Mueller)

Through April 2nd at Signature Theatre in Shirlington Village, 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, VA 22206. For tickets and information visit www.SigTheatre.org or call the box office at 703 820-9771.

A Perfect Production of Sondheim’s “Into the Woods” at Signature Theatre

A Perfect Production of Sondheim’s “Into the Woods” at Signature Theatre

Into the Woods
Signature Theatre
Jordan Wright
November 23, 2022
Special to The Zebra

The cast of Into The Woods (Photo/Daniel Rader)

Smack dab in the heart of the holiday season comes Into the Woods. For fans of the legendary collaboration of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, this is the ultimate delight. This semi-autobiographical musical has brilliant lyrics, a stunning score and all-around silliness wrapped up neatly in a big red bow. It’s part farce and part tragedy – a metaphor for the vagaries of life played to the hilt by a formidable cast. I’ve seen it before on a grand stage and I have to say it didn’t feel as moving as this intimate staging by Director and Choreographer, Matthew Gardiner, who never ceases to amaze me with his brilliant reinventions of classic musicals.

Jake Loewenthal and Erin Weaver (Photo/Christopher Mueller)

Remember the Disney film version with Meryl Streep and a cast of Hollywood stars that debuted a few years ago? Okay, try not to. It was godawful. Well, this is nothing like that. It’s imaginative and intimate thanks to Lee Savage’s wonderful set design that features unique entrances and exits. It’s a sing-through and mash-up of Jack (the hilarious David Merino) and the Beanstalk, Cinderella (Katie Mariko Murray), Little Red Riding Hood (Alex De Bard) and Rapunzel (Simone Brown) and her Prince (Paul Scanlan),a giant (voiced by Phylicia Rashad), Cinderella’s mother (Maria Rizzo) and wicked stepsisters, Florinda (Adelina Mitchell) and Lucinda (Chani Wereley), and the Baker (Jake Loewenthal) and his Wife (Erin Weaver) whose despair at childlessness introduces us to all the storybook characters. There is a brief reference to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, but they don’t make an appearance. We do meet Cinderella’s Mother (Crystal Freeman), Jack’s Mother the incomparable (Sherri L. Edelen) who also plays the Granny), Cinderella’s Father (Lawrence Redmond), the Wolf (Vincent Kempski who also plays Cinderella’s Prince) and Steward (Kurt Boehm). All thanks to the Narrator (Christopher Bloch who also plays Mysterious Man).

And though we despair of the plight of the baker and his barren wife we laugh wholeheartedly at the Witch’s demands that they deliver to her Jack’s beloved milky white cow, Red Riding Hood’s blood red cape, Rapunzel’s yellow-as-corn hair and the golden slipper from Cinderella – quite the tall order to ensure the wife’s fertility. As for keeping it light-heartedly silly, Sondheim gifts us with the three campy stepsisters and an enchantress Witch, who morphs into a sexy temptress. For those of you already familiar with Nova Y. Payton who plays the Witch you will swoon at her delivery of “Children Will Listen” and “Stay with Me”. I wanted to press ‘Repeat’, but alas.

Alex De Bard (Photo/Daniel Rader)

Meanwhile, amid all the wishes and fears of the characters, cue romance – as when the prince has an extramarital sylvan tryst with the baker’s wife and explains it away by asserting, “Foolishness can happen in the woods.” In fact, all the ills of the world are allegorically represented by the characters encountered in the woods where we find heroes and villains and those whom we imagine to be, but even they protest their typecasting. Why? Because as the Narrator tells us, “People make mistakes” and others have ulterior motives. Flaws are us, it seems to say. Deal with it.

Highly recommended.

Costume Design by David I. Reynoso; Lighting Design by Amanda Zieve; Sound Design by Eric Norris; with a fifteen-piece orchestra led by Jon Kalbfleisch,

The cast of Into The Woods (Photo/Daniel Rader)

Through January 29th in Shirlington Village at 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, VA 22206. For tickets and information visit www.SigTheatre.org or call the box office at 703 820-9771.

Local Veteran Song-and-Dance Man Bobby Smith Hits All the Right Notes in No Place to Go

Local Veteran Song-and-Dance Man Bobby Smith Hits All the Right Notes in No Place to Go

Signature Theatre
Jordan Wright
September 10, 2022
Special to The Zebra

Grant Langford (Sal) and Bobby Smith (George) (Photo by Christopher Mueller)

In an off-beat musical with shades of existentialism, veteran song-and-dance man Bobby Smith channels the travails of the working man. Woman would fit here too. In fact, anyone who has ever had a job they loved or hated. Smith, who has appeared in 28 Sig productions, is tailor made for the role. His singular ability to perform while drawing upon a wide range of emotions has always been his stock-in-trade. Winner of two Helen Hayes acting awards, Smith is a local crowd favorite and this is the perfect vehicle for him to prove why.

No Place to Go tells the story of George, married with children and living in a small company town in upstate New York. We like George because he is a thinking man with views on everything from politics to the Arts. George is an “information refiner”, a job that turns facts into information. We don’t need to understand what that means, we only need to recognize that George is content with his work and nestled in an office environment with co-workers he enjoys. What he’s not entirely comfortable with is his twelve-year employment as a part-timer – no benefits, no paid holidays and especially no job security. When the company decides to move its headquarters to “Mars” as George refers to the new location, he must decide whether to relocate. “I’m standing on the slenderest thread of magical thinking.”

As with many stories of companies down-sizing and moving to far-flung towns to slash salaries and force out employees, the thought of a drastic transition is bitter for him. “They’re the ones who are breaking up with me.” As he weighs the pros and cons of moving to a new town, he imagines several scenarios. Will his in-laws move in and help with expenses, should he self-incorporate (Oh, the benefits!)? At 50 years old, his options are limited and his blueprint for change looks bleak. We want to see George resolve his very relatable personal dilemma, maintain his dignity and come out on top.

Grant Langford (Sal), Bobby Smith (George), Tom Lagana (Jonah), and Ian Riggs (Duke) (Photo by Christopher Mueller)

Moments of dark humor and silly schticks – a forlorn sandwich awaits – temper the seriousness of the subject matter and Smith manages to swing from cheery to somber in a heartbeat. Three accomplished musicians accompany Smith and set the mood for each number. It’s a mix of philosophy and humor bracketed by 12 original songs featuring Blues, Cool Jazz, Merengue, Beatbox, Country Rock, Folk and Mambo. Some numbers are fast paced and Smith’s ability to move like Jagger is impressive. Others, especially the ballads, speak to George’s anxiety about change and longing and here’s where Smith’s talent at emotional candor and his chameleon-like style shine through.

Having seen this staged ten years ago in Manhattan’s Joe’s Pub, a cabaret club and live showcase venue in New York, Artistic Director Matthew Gardiner waited for the right moment and the right performer. It was worth the wait.

Written by Ethan Lipton with music composed by Ethan Lipton, Eben Levy, Ian M. Riggs and Vito Dieterle. Directed by Matthew Gardiner with Scenic Design by Paige Hathaway; Costume Design by Frederick P. Deeben; Sound Design by Matt Rowe; and Arrangements by Ian M. Riggs. Musicians: Tom Lagana as Jonah, Grant Langford as Sal and Ian M. Riggs as Duke.

Through October 9th at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Avenue in Shirlington Village, Arlington, VA 22206. For tickets and information visit www.sigtheatre.org or call the box office at 703 820-9771.

The Color Purple – Emotional and Brave with a Story and Music That Will Grab Your Heartstrings

The Color Purple  – Emotional and Brave with a Story and Music That Will Grab Your Heartstrings

Signature Theatre
Jordan Wright
August 26, 2022
Special to The Zebra

Nova Y. Payton (Celie) and the cast of The Color Purple at Signature Theatre. (Photo by
Christopher Mueller)

The power of The Color Purple is its deeply poignant story of a woman who suffers both abuse and triumph hidden deep inside a culture rife with racism, sexism and poverty. Based on Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name this searing musical drama etched its spot in the pantheon of great Broadway musicals by earning a Tony Award in 2016 and again in 2017 when it garnered a Grammy for “Best Musical Album”. Its soaring gospel sounds and sweet, emotionally laden ballads grasp at our heartstrings. The story of a child bride fighting for survival in an abusive marriage in the Deep South, speak to us about where we can find love and how we seek truth in the face of adversity. Although set in 1909 we can still recognize these -isms through the rise of #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter.

Kaiyla Gross (Nettie) and Nova Y. Payton (Celie). Photo by Margot Schulman.

The story of 14-year-old Celie, whose only close relationship is with her sister Nettie, unveils a tortured child without agency who has been given in marriage to a cruel man who belittles and abuses her, a repeat of her relationship with her father. Played beautifully by noted actress and singer Nova Y. Payton who clones a girl locked in a world without love or self-worth until Shug Avery a jive club singer comes to stay. Shug, an independent woman whose steamy sexuality reflects her independence has a hold on Celie’s husband Mister and right smack dab under Celie’s nose Shug moves in and renews her relationship with him. What Mister doesn’t bargain for is Shug’s amorous feelings for Celie.

Directed by Timothy Douglas this crack cast includes two Nigerian actors, three actors hot off the recent smash hit Grace and a strong supporting cast who inhabit their roles like buds on a tree. (A simile that will have relevance in the final act.) The strength of their performances – wonderfully in synch – reflect mightily on Douglas’s direction and his passion for the story.

Nova Y. Payton (Celie). Photo by Christopher Mueller.

Tony Cisek’s stark set design resembles a weathered wooden cabin replete with barn boards that operate like the slats of a window blind to reveal when opened the characters in silhouette or in bright light situated on two levels. Peter Maradudin’s lighting enhances the dramatic moments in cool blues and fiery reds as when Celie’s sister, son and daughter return from Africa and there is a magical African drumming and dancing scene that adds to Dane Figueroa Eddi’s fabulous choreography. Solomon Parker III, as Mister’s son Harpo, does double duty as the Dance Captain and you can’t help but thrill to his cool style of laidback crossed with hopped up, jumpin’ and jivin’ moves.

The cast of The Color Purple at Signature Theatre. Photo by Christopher Mueller

The show’s memorable songs by Allee WillisStephen Bray and Brenda Russell are sung by an excellent ensemble who present this complex crystallization of life-on-the-edge-of-nothing with Blues, Gospel and ballads intricately woven into this tender tapestry.  “I’m Here” Celie’s redemptive ballad is the moment where Payton shows the power of her singular voice, Shug’s notable red hot mama number “Push Da Button”, Mister’s “Mister’s Song” (Torrey Linder kills it!) and “Hell No!” by Sofia and the Women are guaranteed to thrill audiences.

With Danielle J. Summons as Shug Avery; Temídayo Amay as Squeak; Kaiyla Gross as Nettie; Jalisa Williams as Jarene; Gabrielle Rice as Doris; Nia Savoy-Dock as Darlene; Keenan McCarter as Pa; Stephawn P. Stephens as Preacher/Ol’ Mister; Torrey Linder as Mister; Frenchie Davis as Sofia; Tobias A. Young as Buster; Sean-Maurice Lynch as Adam; Raquel Jennings as Olivia; Ian Anthony Coleman as Guard/Bobby and Fight Captain.

Book by Marsha Norman; Costume Design by Kara Harman; Sound Design by Ryan Hickey; Musical Direction by Mark G. Meadows; Conducted by Angie Benson.

Highly recommended!

Through October 9th at 4200 Campbell Avenue in Shirlington Village, Arlington, VA 22206. For tickets and information call the box office at 703 820-9771 or visit www.SigTheatre.org.