Billy Elliot the Musical ~ Signature Theatre

Jordan Wright
November 10, 2018
Special to The Alexandria Times

The ensemble of Billy Elliot. Photo by Margot Schulman.

The story of Billy Elliot is a tender tale of a boy who dreams of becoming a dancer while growing up in a working-class mining town in Ireland.  But it’s so much more.  It’s a universal story of hope, identity and overcoming the odds when everything seems stacked against you.  Battling against a macho culture dictated by generations of miners who believe a boy’s education requires boxing lessons (all the better to defend themselves in a drunken pub fight, I suppose), young Billy shows indomitable grit in overcoming the rigidly proscribed barriers to self-fulfillment.

Liam Redford (Billy Elliot) and Jacob Thomas Anderson (Michael McCaffrey) in Billy Elliot. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Backdropped against a year-long miners’ strike brought on by the repressive politics of Margaret Thatcher and her Conservative Government, the town rallies in a show of solidarity by vowing not to cross the picket lines.  Billy’s dad and big brother Tony picket daily, battling a phalanx of police who crack heads and terrorize the protesters.  “It’s about our history.  It’s about our rights,” Billy’s dad proclaims.

Owen Tabaka (Billy Elliot), Chris Genebach (Dad) and the ensemble of Billy Elliot. Photo by Christopher Mueller.

Megastar Sir Elton John wrote the music in collaboration with Lee Hall, who wrote the book and lyrics for the film and the musical, as well as the screenplay for Steven Spielberg’s War Horse.  Making its Broadway debut in 2008, this electrifying musical won Tony, Grammy and Academy Awards for “Best Musical”.

Director/Choreographer Matthew Gardiner gifts us with an astonishing cast led by Liam Redford and Owen Tabaka alternating as Billy; the spectacular Nancy Anderson as Billy’s gutsy dance instructor, Mrs. Wilkinson; Chris Genebach as Billy’s widowed dad, Jackie; Dan Manning as George, the boxing coach; the incomparable Catherine Flye as Billy’s Grandma; and a remarkable young actor/tap dancer/singer, Jacob Thomas Anderson, as Billy’s comic, crossdressing playmate, Michael.

As expected in a coal mining town, the language is salty – magnificently salty with f-bombs tempered by that particularly appealing, hilariously dry, Irish-accented wit.  Not suitable to quote those in a family newspaper, I offer this somewhat restrained line.  “It’s not a bloody tea dance,” George chastising a reluctant Billy to bash his pal in boxing class, “Whack him in the head!”

Simone Warren (Keeley Gibson), Sissy Sheridan (Susan Parks), Nancy Anderson (Mrs. Wilkinson), Noelle Robinson (Angela Robinson) and Annie Dodson (Alison Summers) in Billy Elliot. Photo by Margot Schulman.

But let’s talk about the dancing.  Press night gave us the mind-blowing talents of Liam Redford, a kid you couldn’t take your eyes off of.  Highly accomplished in ballet, tap, modern dance, aerial acrobatics (move over Peter Pan wannabes) and singing too, of course, Redford mesmerizes the audience with his elfin charm and precise moves – also notable is his seemingly effortless ease and emotional depth in connecting with the other cast members.  More than two dozen kids and adults are also dancers in this production giving us enough hoofing, boogieing and pirouettes for two shows plus – all to the sounds of a nine-piece orchestra led by Tom Vendafreddo.

Heartwarming, electrifying and highly recommended.

With Sean Watkinson as Tony, Jamie Ecker as Billy’s late mother, Olivia McMahon/Vivian Poe as Debbie, Stephawn P. Stephens as Big Davey, Harrison Smith as Mr. Braithwaite, Grant Richards as Older Billy, and Solomon Parker III as London Dancer.

Scenic Design by Jason Sherwood, Costume Design by Kathleen Geldard, Lighting Design by Amanda Zieve, Sound Design by Ryan Hickey with Assistant Director and Dialect Coach Rex Daugherty.

Through January 6th at Signature Theatre (Shirlington Village), 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, VA 22206.  For tickets and information call 703 820-9771 or visit www.signature-theatre.org.

Heisenberg ~ Signature Theatre In the ARK Theatre

Jordan Wright
September 29, 2018

Prolific British playwright Simon Stephens is attracted to uniquely drawn character dynamics – as in his Tony Award-winning play The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time – his irresistible drama of an autistic child accused of murdering a neighbor’s dog. 

Michael Russotto (Alex) ~ Photo by Cameron Whitman.

In Heisenberg he pens a strange tale of a 75-year old Irishman who falls for a much younger American woman.  Both have unrealistic expectations of the other.  Georgie Burns is deeply flawed.  She is a manipulative, self-absorbed, pathologically prevaricating, intensely neurotic stalker – precisely the type of woman women hate, and men fear.  She calculatingly insinuates herself into Alex Priest’s life through flattery and sexual favors alternately belittling him and, just as quickly, excusing her behavior.  “I’m really weird.  I know.  I love making things up,” she confesses. It’s unnerving watching her cavalierly crush his defenses.  If this were real life she would probably be arrested for elder abuse.

Luring him like a siren to a rocky shore, Georgie beds Alex. “I like your wrinkled skin.  It’s old… like Europe.”  The following morning, she asks him to give her a large sum of money to find the son who no longer wants to see her, though it’s never explained why she doesn’t ask the boy’s father where he is.  All along, Alex follows her around like a lovelorn puppy, mistreated but firmly attached to its owner.

Rachel Zampelli (Georgie) and Michael Russotto (Alex) in the DC premiere of Heisenberg at Signature Theatre. Photo by Cameron Whitman.

Alex is a lonely man, bereft of family and grimly philosophizing about his odds of finding a connection towards the end of his life.  Georgie, who readily confesses she has googled him, takes advantage of his insecurities to satisfy her own needs. But Alex is convinced she can change, telling her, “Personalities are never fixed.  They can always change.  They mean nothing.”  Influenced by German physicist Werner Heisenberg’s uncertainty theory, Stephens asks us to buy into the notion of character mutability.  Though it’s hard to believe how this particular principle might apply to a 42-year old predator.

Michael Russotto (Alex) and Rachel Zampelli (Georgie) in the DC premiere of Heisenberg at Signature Theatre. Photo by Cameron Whitman.

Directed by Joe Calarco, Michael Russotto is superb as Alex, infusing the character with grace and an infectious Irish lilt.  Rachel Zampelli gives a bravely compelling performance as the grifter we wish would crawl back under the rock she emerged from.

That this unsettling play is well-acted, is not enough for this reviewer to grant any redeeming social value to this theatrical exercise.  Ultimately, we want to identify with a character or feel their pain, revel in their joys or see them get their comeuppance.

With Scenic Design by Pamela Weiner, Lighting Design by Andrew Cissna, Costume Design by Alison Samantha Johnson, and Sound Design by Kenny Neal.

Through November 11th in the ARK Theatre at Signature Theatre (Shirlington Village), 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, VA 22206. For tickets and information call 703 820-9771 or visit www.signature-theatre.org.

Passion ~ Signature Theatre

Jordan Wright 
August 24, 2018

Weeks ago, I began to think about Natascia Diaz in the role of Fosca after I saw her perform one of the numbers from Passion at Signature’s Annual Open House.  I wondered how this actress would inhabit a character not known to garner sympathy from female audiences. Having witnessed her in many different roles and seen how certain roles became her – others that would not allow her to shine as optimally as I know she can – I am thrilled to report that this is the role for both her superb acting as well as her beautifully controlled and emotionally riveting voice.  It is a triumph for Diaz in a role she reportedly was not keen on taking.

Natascia Diaz (Fosca) and Claybourne Elder (Giorgio)
 Photo by Margot Schulman.

Stephen Sondheim’s Passion is certainly one of his finest efforts with a sing-through libretto more operetta than standard musical.  Its story of a love triangle between Giorgio (Claybourne Elder in a peerless performance), Clara (Steffanie Leigh in a seemingly effortless portrayal) and the invalid Fosca.  Set on a provincial military outpost near Milan, it is based on the 1869 novel Fosca by Ignio Ugo Tarchetti.  In 1981 it was adapted into the film Passione d’Amore by Ettore Scola before opening on Broadway in 1994 with music & lyrics by Sondheim and book by James Lapine, the show’s original director.

Steffanie Leigh (Clara) and Claybourne Elder (Giorgio)
 Photo by Christopher Mueller

The opening scene between Giorgio and Clara affords us a scene of amorous coupling in Clara’s bed.  There is nudity involved but it is sensuous and tasteful, and yes, passionate, as you would expect, as the rhapsodic lovers declare their undying adoration for each other.  The story unfolds to reveal a complex and untenable power play between the three central characters.

Frail Fosca becomes the third wheel and supplicant to the handsome and dashing officer, Giorgio, who insists he is devoted to the beautiful (but married!) Clara.  But Fosca is undaunted, “If you never have expectations, you never have disappointments,” Fosca insists as she calculatingly manipulates him with both threats to his career and callousness towards her frailties.  This is where audiences audibly groan at her actions.  Think Glenn Close’s character in the movie Fatal Attraction.  But Giorgio challenges her affections, “Is this what you call love – your relentless pursuit?”  On top of this corrosive behavior, he is further humiliated by his fellow officers who claim he is sucking up to Fosca’s cousin, Colonel Ricci, for a promotion.  Imagine this as a modern-day romance.  You want to stop the madness but cannot wait to see what unfolds.

Claybourne Elder (Giorgio) and Steffanie Leigh (Clara)
Photo by Margot Schulman.

Visceral and uncompromising with compelling performances and flawless voices with music written around their exchange of letters.  Highly recommended.

Skillfully directed by Matthew Gardiner with Music Direction by Jon Kalbfleisch with a 14-piece orchestra, Orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick, Scenic Design by Lee Savage, 19th century Costume Designs by Robert Perdziola, Lighting Design by Colin K. Bills and Sound Design by Ryan Hickey.

Claybourne Elder (Giorgio) and John Leslie Wolfe (Doctor Tambourri) 
Photo by Margot Schulman

With Will Gartshore as Colonel Ricci, Ian McEuen as Lieutenant Torasso, Bobby Smith as Major Rizzolli and Fosca’s Father, Lawrence Redmond as Lieutenant Barri, John Leslie Wolfe as Doctor Tambourri, Gregory Maheu as Sergeant Lombardi and Ludovic, Christopher Mueller as Private Augenti, Rayanne Gonzales as Fosca’s Mother and Katie Mariko Murray as Mistress.

Through September 23rd in the MAX at Signature Theatre (Shirlington Village), 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, VA 22206.  For tickets and information call 703 820-9771 or visit www.sigtheatre.org.

The Scottsboro Boys ~ Signature Theatre

Jordan Wright
June 2, 2018 

The Scottsboro Boys races down the tracks like a runaway train from Chattanooga through Alabama and bound for hell.  On that train, on that fateful day in Alabama in 1931, a group of nine young, innocent, black teenagers – two brothers, the rest strangers – became horribly and inextricably tied to two white women.  They had all been “hoboing”, riding the rails without tickets.  Once caught, the women afraid of being jailed, accused the boys of rape.  That this gripping tale is a true story, may strike some as unfathomable.  But it is.  And it was.  Leave it to the brilliant composer + lyricist team of Kander & Ebb to turn a national crime story into a blockbuster musical in the form of a minstrel show.  They had colossal success with Cabaret (Nazis and gay performers in wartime Germany) and Chicago (a murder set in a prison and played out in a courtroom).  Nobody does it better.

Chaz Alexander Coffin (Mr. Tambo), Stephen Scott Wormley (Mr. Bones) and the cast of The Scottsboro Boys. Photo by Christopher Mueller

Minstrelsy shows were popular touring variety shows performed predominantly by whites in blackface from the early 19th century till the 1940’s.  African-Americans also had troupes who painted on exaggerated white lips and portrayed watermelon-eating stereotypes in overalls or minstrels in colorful suits in plaid and stripes.  They were led by a Master of Ceremonies who was white.  Here he is called the Interlocutor (skillfully played by Christopher Bloch) and he could be a dead ringer for Colonel Sanders.  In The Scottsboro Boys the boys are depicted as black minstrels playing out their lives on a stage under the control and direction of the Interlocutor.

How do you turn a Death Row, Depression era story into an entertaining one? First you address the country’s racist history and then you crack it wide open with a breathtaking amalgam of talent, eighteen unforgettable songs and a hard-driving story that just won’t quit.  Under the fine direction of four-time Helen Hayes Award-winner, Joe Calarco, this production breathes fire and fury in your face – and in your heart – from start to powerful conclusion.

Lamont Walker II (Haywood) and the cast of The Scottsboro Boys at Signature Theatre. Photo by C Stanley Photography.

Led by Haywood Patterson (Lamont Walker II), the boys form deep friendships to gird themselves against the women’s baseless charges, their cruel prison guards, an all-white jury and the lynch mob mentality of the South.  Walker will steal your heart with his deeply emotional portrayal of a teenager who pines for his mother and a life unfulfilled.

Backed by an 8-piece band enhanced by the sounds of tuba, banjo and tambourine, the travesty unfolds within the framework of a minstrel show depicting the boys’ trials and tribulations specifically their arrest and two of their eight trumped-up trials.  This colorful musical is set to a variety of period musical styles and features spectacular tap dancing.  Wowza!

Felicia Curry (The Lady) in The Scottsboro Boys at Signature Theatre. Photo by C Stanley Photography.

This staging is especially timely as it coincides with the recent opening of The Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama in a city where a nine-foot statue of Jefferson Davis still stands in front of the Alabama State Capitol.

Absolutely takes your breath away!  Highly recommended.

Aramie Payton (Eugene Williams), Joseph Monroe Webb (Olen Montgo mery), Darrell Purcell Jr (Clarence Norris), Lamont Walker II (Haywood Patterson), Malik Akil (Charles Weems), C.K. Edwards (Roy Wright), DeWitt leming, Jr. (Ozie Powell), and Jonathan Adriel (Andy Wright) in The Scottsboro Boys at Signature Theatre. Photo by C Stanley Photography.

With Jonathan Adriel as Andy Wright, Malik Akil as Charlie Weems and Victoria Price, Chaz Alexander Coffin as Mr. Tambo, Felicia Curry as The Lady, C. K. Edwards as Roy Wright, DeWitt Fleming, Jr. as Ozie Powell and Ruby Bates, Andre Hinds as Willie Roberson, Aramie Payton as Eugene Williams and Little George, Darrell Purcell, Jr. as Clarence Norris and Preacher, Joseph Monroe Webb as Olen Montgomery and Stephen Scott Wormley as Mr. Bones.

Book by David Thompson, choreography by Jared Grimes, music direction by Brian P. Whitted, lighting by Sherrice Mojani, costume design by Emilio Sosa, sound design by Ryan Hickey and scenic design by Daniel Conway.

Through July 1 in the MAX at Signature Theatre (Shirlington Village), 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, VA 22206.  For tickets and information call 703 820-9771 or visit www.signature-theatre.org.

Girlfriend ~ Signature Theatre

Jordan Wright
April 28, 2018 

Girlfriend is writer Todd Almond’s warmhearted story about two teens searching for love while trying to find their footing amid the anxiety-fraught, coming-of-age high school years.  Will is a footloose, no-plans, out-of-the-closet introvert.  His new friend, Mike, is the high school’s prom king and quarterback.  Mike has a structured life that includes leaving their small town in Nebraska for med school.  Their connection seems doomed from the start when Mike calls out Will for being “obvious”, telling him “things could be perfect, if you weren’t you.”  Who would stick around after that?  But Mike keeps phoning Will after he gifts him with a mix tape, and together they bond over music and flicks.  It’s an emotional story filled with the fraught exploration of young love coupled with the universal awkwardness that accompanies anyone’s first relationship.

Lukas James Miller (Mike) and Jimmy Mavrikes (Will) . Photo by Christopher Mueller.

Will acknowledges he’s gay – he gets bullied at school for it – but Mike is confused about his sexuality identity.  Mike has a girlfriend and being gay doesn’t fit into his long-range plans.  Notwithstanding their differences, the teens form an unlikely friendship that begins with a date at the drive-in to see a movie about Evangeline, a nun who’s secretly a superhero.  Mike loves it.  Will’s too shy to say he doesn’t.  Their personalities are polar opposites.

But the appeal of this rock musical isn’t just their adorably awkward relationship, or the hilarious situations these two find themselves in, but the catchy Beatles’-styled tunes composed by Matthew Sweet and played by a four-piece, onstage, powerhouse girl band.  Add in Jimmy Mavrikes’s (Will) and Lukas James Miller’s (Mike) wonderfully appealing in sync voices skillfully blending in ten original numbers from Sweet’s alternative-rock album “Girlfriend”.

Lukas James Miller (Mike) and Jimmy Mavrikes (Will) . Photo by Christopher Mueller.

Thanks to Misha Kachman’s masterful set design that places the musicians behind a wall of glass in a lipstick red, padded recording studio sound booth, stretching the length of the stage, we can see them rock out and tune into their energy.  As backup singing musicians, they are an integral part of the story as they watch the teens along with the audience to see how their budding relationship will turn out.

Directed and choreographed by Matthew Gardiner, it debuted in Berkeley, CA ten years ago, yet has an enduring resonance that aims to please.

Lukas James Miller (Mike) and Jimmy Mavrikes (Will) . Photo by Christopher Mueller.

Recommended to anyone who has ever felt awkward in love and has the memories to prove it.

With musicians Britt Bonney conducting and playing keyboard, Beth Cannon on guitar, Nicole Saphos on bass and Erika Johnson on drums.  Costume design by Frank Labovitz, lighting design by Colin K. Bills and sound design by Ryan Hickey.

Through June 10th in the ARK Theatre at Signature Theatre (Shirlington Village), 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, VA 22206.  For tickets and information call 703 820-9771 or visit www.signature-theatre.org.