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.

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.

Daphne’s Dive

Daphne’s Dive

Signature Theatre
February 15, 2022
Jordan Wright

Special to www.TheZebra.org

Pull up a Barstool and Enjoy “Daphne’s Dive” Now Playing at Signature Theatre

Rayanne Gonzales, Jonathan Atkinson, Yesenia Iglesias, Jyline Carranza, Quynh-My Luu, (Photo by Christopher Mueller)

Have you ever been to a dive bar? And I don’t mean Cheers. If not, you should enter the world of Daphne’s Dive. In this exciting work Playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes offers us a barstool at a Puerto Rican-centric dive bar on Philly’s seedier side and she has filled it with the most colorful characters this side of San Juan.

There’s Daphne (Rayanne Gonzales), the full-throated, take-no-prisoners owner with a heart of gold and years of hard luck; Jenn (Quynh-My Luu), the political activist who openly admits to a messiah complex though nicely tempered by her adorableness; Rey (Jefferson A. Russell), the leather-clad biker looking for love; Inez (Yesenia Iglesias), married to dapper businessman slash politician, Acosta (Dylan Arredondo), and finding her independence; Pablo (Jonathan Atkinson), the dumpster-diving artist; and Ruby (Jyline Carranza), Daphne’s stepdaughter, who is growing up surrounded by a quirky family of barflies.

Quynh-My Luu and Jyline Carranza (Photo by Christopher Mueller)

Their story begins in the 1990’s and goes through the 2000’s – so a lot of major life changes for all the characters. What keeps it barreling along is how they navigate these curve balls with the help of their tight-knit bar familia. Watching them evolve and interact, alternately challenging and supporting each other through the worst of times and the worst of disagreements, is both heartwarming and fraught. It’s a bird’s eye view into a unique cultural dynamic – one that Hudes invites us to appreciate and understand. As for Hudes’s street cred, she wrote the book for In the Heights so she knows barrio life and is a two-time Pulitzer Prize nominee.

James Whalen, Yesenia Iglesias, and Jefferson A Russell (Photo by Christopher Mueller)

Director Paige Hernandez’s friendship with Hudes began at the Kennedy Center with Hudes’s production of Barrio Grrrl! and continued as Hernandez searched for some of Hudes’s lesser-known plays to bring to the attention of Signature audiences. This is exactly the sort of uplifting yet serious diversity that audiences are searching for. Set in the intimate ARK theater, it’s an up-close-and-personal experience putting the audience mere feet from the stage.

Rayanne Gonzales and Jonathan Atkinson (Photo by Christopher Mueller)

The excitement is further enhanced by Scenic Designer Meghan Raham and Lighting Designer John D. Alexander who together create a credibly dingy bar decorated with neon bar signs, funky period beer ads, shelves of cheap booze and what appear to be actual working beer taps. Pacifico anyone?

You’ll seat-dance to the hot rhythms of their Latino music, laugh at their drinking games, and marvel at their personal transformations inspired by Jenn’s motto of “Peace, Liberty, Ecology and Democracy”.

This cast is phenomenal! See it!!!
P.S. Sig’s lobby bar has reopened.  Plan ahead!

With Costume Design by Moyenda Kulemeka and Sound Design by Kenny Neal.

Through March 20th at Signature Theater, 4200 Campbell Avenue (in the Village at Shirlington), Arlington, VA 22206.   For tickets and information visit www.SigTheatre.org or call the box office at 703 820-9771.

“Rent” at the Signature Theatre

The cast of RENT at Signature Theatre. Photo by Christopher Mueller.

David Merino (Angel Dumott Schunard) in RENT at Signature Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Ines Nassara (Joanne Jefferson) in RENT at Signature Theatre. Photo by Christopher Mueller.

November 10, 2021

By: Jordan Wright

A quick synopsis: Rent is a rock opera set in the East Village of New York City during the Christmas holidays. It premiered Off-Broadway in 1996 and is an homage to Puccini’s opera, La Bohème. it was Johnathan Larson’s game-changing contribution to musicals and opened the door for later rock-based musicals.

Signature’s first-of-the-season production Rent exploded on stage like a white-hot cannonball.  Having seen it more times than I should, I was not only stunned by its reinvention but thrilled beyond measure to witness a fresh approach imagined by Sig’s now permanent Artistic Director, Matthew Gardiner.  As the recipient of three Helen Hayes Awards for “Outstanding Director of a Musical”, Gardiner has shepherded many of Sig’s biggest hits including over a half dozen from their ongoing Sondheim series.  Another important announcement on opening night from Managing Director, Maggie Boland, we Sig fans should cheer, is Mark G. Meadows as permanent Musical Director. Both men collaborated on this production of Rent alongside Choreographer Rickey Tripp, better known for his Tony Award successes on Broadway like Hamilton, Motown: The Musical and the Tony Award Winning In the Heights (Original Cast). Tripp brings all that dazzling choreographic talent to this musical.

What makes this production so over the top is a gasp-worthy assemblage of Broadway-caliber singers and dancers. Tripp packs up to 16 performers on a stage that utilizes three separate aisles which take the actors up the aisles, plus two elevated balconies. This clever staging raises the excitement level full bore.

With voices to knock your socks off: Vincent Kempski as Roger; Katie Mariko Murray as performance artist and activist, Maureen; Josh A. Dawson as Tom Collins fresh off Beautiful: The Carol King Musical; Jake Loewenthal as Mark; Ines Nassara as the tough-talking Joanne; David Merino as the sassy transvestite Angel; Da’Von T. Moody as Ben, friend and sponsor of the bohemian coterie; and Arianna Rosario as the dying Mimi. I never thought of Rent as having a great deal of comic relief, but Murray seizes the audience in a laugh-lock in “Over the Moon”.  Let’s just say there’s a cowbell and cow-print skirt. Enough said.

Two out of six musicians sit beside the stage, and we can see one of the keyboardists, who also conducts, on one side of the stage and a guitarist/keyboardist opposite.  It’s an inventive construct that affords us the intimacy of a small concert venue, yet one with a powerful sound plus organized chaos.

This Rent holds you in its crazy embrace and does not let go. Get your tickets, stat!!!

Book, Music & Lyrics by Jonathan Larson; Choreographed by Rickey Tripp; Scenic Design by Paige Hathaway; Costumes by Erik Teague; Lighting Design by Adam Honoré.

Running time approximately 2 hours and 30 minutes including one intermission.

Through January 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.