Escaped Alone ~ Signature Theatre

Jordan Wright
October 5, 2019 

Where will you be when the world comes to an end?  Will you be sipping tea and nibbling on biscuits in a hydrangea-filled English garden?  Will you notice the world’s decline outside your garden walls? Or will you be oblivious until it directly affects you?  In a purposely discordant collection of conversations, four women gossip about their lives, most especially the foibles and failures of their absent acquaintances.  They avoid discussions like the overarching collapse of the planet’s social and environmental systems and skirt around Vi’s six-year stretch in the penitentiary for the murder of her husband – it eventually comes up but only as a symptom of her social paralysis.  Platitudes are offered up as effortlessly as teacup refills.

Valerie Leonard as Mrs. Jarrett, Helen Hedman as Sally, Catherine Flyeas Vi and Brigid Cleary as Lena in Escaped Aloneat Signature Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Sally’s daughter, Mrs. Jarrett, serves as narrator of Earth’s current state of anarchism and apocalypse.  Her news updates announce all the latest disasters – widespread disease, floods, mudslides, pollution, tidal waves, domestic violence, starvation, refugee camps, and more – nothing that’s not reported in our everyday news feeds.  Scenes toggle between the ladies nattering in non sequiturs and Mrs. Jarrett’s doomsday doses of reality.  The women don’t hear her and don’t care.  They have their own problems, picayune though they are.  Sally is cat-phobic and Lena is agoraphobic and without purpose.  Vi is wound up in her own malaise, and Mrs. Jarrett appears to have zero impact on the other ladies.  They’d rather revisit the past and dance to Petula Clark or blame the whole thing on God’s revenge for sexual dysphoria.  Notwithstanding the light-hearted conversations, we sense an undercurrent of depression and manic behavior.

Helen Hedman as SallyandCatherine Flye as Vi in Escaped Aloneat Signature Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman

A brief but notable reference to the Book of Job, “I only am escaped alone to tell thee”, serves to explain the play’s title.  But who of these four will escape?  Their survival is neither promised nor suggested.  Legendary playwright Caryl Churchill (Cloud Nine, Top Girls) wrote Escaped Alone as a short but compelling drama about ordinary people living in extraordinary times – much like ours.  It draws from the concept of British tea houses run by women for women who were free to discuss private matters apart from men.  It later became a sanctuary in which the women’s suffragist movement blossomed.  Expertly directed by Holly Twyford, it features a cast of highly respected, veteran actors.

Valerie Leonard as Mrs. Jarrett in Escaped Aloneat Signature Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman

Brigid Cleary as Lena, Catherine Flye as Vi, Helen Hedman as Sally, and Valerie Leonard as Mrs. Jarrett.

Scenic Design by Paige Hathaway, Costume Design by Alison Samantha Johnson, Lighting Design by Maria Shaplin, Sound Design by Victoria Deiorio.

Through November 3rd at Signature Theatre (Shirlington Village), 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, VA 22206.  For tickets and information call 703 820-9771 or visit www.sigtheatre.org.

Assassins ~ Signature Theatre

Jordan Wright
August 24, 2019
Special to The Alexandria Times

Evan Casey (John Hinckley), Ian McEuen (Giuseppe Zangara), Christopher Bloch (Sam Byck), Lawrence Redmond (Leon Czolgosz), Vincent Kempski (John Wilkes Booth), Bobby Smith (Charles Guiteau), Rachel Zampelli (Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme), and Tracy Lynn Olivera (Sara Jane Moore) in Assassins at Signature Theatre. Photo by Christopher Mueller.

Artistic Director Eric Schaeffer opens the season with Assassins, Signature’s 30th production of a Stephen Sondheim musical with book by John Weidman who wrote for National Lampoon (that should give you a clue as to what to expect in terms of irony) and later for Sesame Street.  The story is a deep dive into the mind of an assassin, though it’s far from grim.  In fact, it’s as comedic as it is concerning, and Schaeffer, who also directs the production, has assembled some of the most notable local performers to star in this intriguing piece.

What kind of a person becomes an assassin?  I say ‘person’ because American assassins have been both male and female.  Some claim religion or revenge as motive.  Are they sociopaths or garden variety kooks, narcissistic psychotics or just temporarily gone off the rails?  Some feel isolated – shut out of the American Dream of prosperity or fame – but all their stories are different, and it’s worth noting that their sociological backgrounds, whether they sprang from wealth or poverty, don’t necessarily give rise to their murderous desires.  In fact, not all assassins have political motives.  It’s a fascinating conundrum.  Remember Hinckley’s twisted infatuation with actress Jodie Foster?

Evan Casey (John Hinckley) and Rachel Zampelli (Lynette Squeaky Fromme) in Assassins at Signature Theatre. Photo by Christopher Mueller.

We are introduced to these seven madmen and two madwomen – nine would-be and successful presidential assassins who used a gun to carry out their acts – in a carnival-like atmosphere.  “Shoot the President.  Win a prize.” is the theme.  One by one we meet Booth, Charles Guiteau (shot Garfield), Giuseppe Zangara (shot FDR), Samuel Byck (attempt on Nixon, but first to try to hijack and blow up a plane), Leon Czolgosz (shot McKinley), Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme (attempt on Gerald Ford), Sara Jane Moore (attempt on Gerald Ford), Lee Harvey Oswald (shot John F. Kennedy), and Hinckley (shot Reagan).

Sam Ludwig (Lee Harvey Oswald) in Assassins at Signature Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman.

For John Wilkes Booth, it was for the glory and notoriety.  It’s been suggested the failed actor was depressed about recent bad reviews.  After all he used Ford’s Theatre, where he himself had once performed, to shoot Lincoln.

Vincent Kempski (John Wilkes Booth) in Assassins at Signature Theatre. Photo by Christopher Mueller.

Sondheim applies irony and wry, dark humor to the music to broaden the appeal and deepen the construct.  There is passion and even empathy, especially of the broader social issues that drove Oswald the loner and loser, and Czolgosz, the disillusioned Pole who fell in love with social activist Emma Goldman.  And who couldn’t love a song entitled, “Everybody’s Got the Right”?

Tracy Lynn Olivera (Sara Jane Moore), Lawrence Redmond (Leon Czolgosz), Ian McEuen (Giuseppe Zangara), Christopher Bloch (Sam Byck), Sam Ludwig (Balladeer), Kurt Boehm (The Proprietor), Rachel Zampelli (Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme), Evan Casey (John Hinckley), Vincent Kempski (John Wilkes Booth), and Bobby Smith (Charles Guiteau) in Assassins at Signature Theatre. Photo by Christopher Mueller.

Particularly hilarious are imagined meetings between Manson follower, Fromme (Rachel Zampelli, captivating as a hippie princess druggie), and ex-CIA employee and suburban mom, Moore (Tracy Lynn Olivera in a superbly crafted performance), as the two women bond over their guns while shooting up a bucket of KFC as target practice.

Rachel Zampelli (Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme) and Tracy Lynn Olivera (Sara Jane Moore) in Assassins at Signature Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman

Another exceptional performance is by Christopher Bloch as Byck, a get-off-my-lawn, ex-U. S. soldier and would-be assassin. Bloch is extraordinary in two scene-length monologues.  Clad in a Santa suit, Byck rants his delusional screed into a tape recorder to mail to Leonard Bernstein and later Richard Nixon.

Christopher Bloch (Sam Byck) in Assassins at Signature Theatre. Photo by Margo Schulman.

An all-around incredibly powerful cast who inhabit the characters like a second skin.  Riveting and relevant with a ravishing score.

Highly recommended.

With Lawrence Redmond as Leon Czolgosz, Evan Casey as John Hinckley, Bobby Smith as Charles Guiteau, Ian McEuen as Giuseppe Zangara, Vincent Kempski as John Wilkes Booth, Kurt Boehm as Proprietor, Sam Ludwig as Balladeer, Christopher Mueller as David Herold, Sam Ludwig as Lee Harvey Oswald, Jimmy Mavrikes as President Gerald Ford, Jack St. Pierre as Billy, Christopher Michael Richardson as James Blaine and Maria Rizzo as Emma Goldman.  Nova Y. Payton appears in the ensemble.

Scenic Design by James Kronzer, Costume Design by Kathleen Geldard, Lighting Design by Chris Lee, Sound design by Ryan Hickey, Concept by Charles Gilbert, Jr.

Through September 29th 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.

Blackbeard ~ Signature Theatre

Jordan Wright
June 29, 2019

Full disclosure:  I am a descendant of Edward Teach aka Edward Thatch aka Blackbeard.

Okay, now that my admission of partiality is out of the way, I can talk about why the world premiere of Blackbeard is a rousing success.  First and foremost, Lyricist John Dempsey (Brother Russia, The Witches of Eastwick, The Fix) and Composer Dana P. Rowe (Dempsey’s collaborator on the same award-winning shows) have chosen the consummate swashbuckling blackguard to lead us into a hilariously unconventional fantasyland of pirates and their amours.  Directed by Signature’s Artistic Director Eric Schaeffer, this turbo-charged adventure is based on the legendary exploits of the infamous 18th century privateer.

Awa Sal Secka (Shanti), Kevin McCallister (Caesar), Chris Hoch (Blackbeard), Christopher Mueller (Jake), and Lawrence Redmond (Samuel) in Blackbeard at Signature Theatre. Photo by Christopher Mueller.

Punctuated with dazzling pyrotechnics, the snicker-snack of gleaming swords, and booming cannons so thunderous that the floor actually quakes beneath your feet, this lusty new musical introduces us to the life of the dastardly pirate, Blackbeard.

Maria Egler (Morgan), Lawrence Redmond (Samuel), Christopher Mueller (Jake), Ben Gunderson (Garrick), Awa Sal Secka (Shanti), and Kevin McAllister (Caesar) in Blockbeord at Signature Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Conceiving a plan to conquer the British navy and achieve notoriety, Blackbeard seeks out his former lover, Dominique, a dazzlingly alluring temptress who rules the high seas.  His aim: To gain access to her sorcery and recruit an army of the undead.  Her aim:  To secure her freedom from the island where he abandoned her and conscript him to bring her three precious jewels.  To achieve this perilous feat, Blackbeard must travel to the kingdoms of Japan and India and confront the Norse gods of Scandinavia.

Nova Y. Payton (Dominique) in Blockbeord at Signature Theatre. Photo by Christopher Mueller.

Accompanied by Roger, a clever young stowaway, his trusty African Captain Caesar, Karl, a curiously reticent sailor, and a scurrilous band of ne’er-do-wells, Blackbeard travels across stormy seas on his perilous mission.

Veteran Broadway actor Chris Hoch (War Paint, Amazing Grace, Matilda, Shrek: The Musical, Beauty and the Beast, Dracula), with his marvelously commanding voice and stage presence, gives us an imposing Blackbeard, while leading lady Nova Y. Payton blows us square out of our seats with her powerhouse singing and fierce portrayal of the payback-seeking Dominique who enchants Blackbeard in the sultry number “Spellbound’.  Equally engaging is Lawrence Redmond’s finely tuned portrayal of the Old Man and Bobby Smith as Ódinn, the Viking ruler, who engages Blackbeard in an uproariously comical drinking contest in the number “Valhalla” – “Val-ha-ha-ha-la”!

As bold and colorful as these pirates is Paul Tate Depoo III’s set design.  Rigged with ship’s lines for clambering and a massive ship’s prow, the two-level set is wonderfully atmospheric.

It’s all tongue-in-cheek as this band of buccaneers takes us on a wild ride to exotic ports of call.

Ben Gunderson (Lt. Maynard) and Chris Hoch (Blackbeard) in Blockbeord at Signature Theatre. Photo by Christopher Mueller.

Highly recommended.  A rousing adventure with a memorable score.

Ten actors play over 60 roles.  With Chris Hoch as Blackbeard; Nova Y. Payton as Sally/Dominique; Rory Boyd as Roger; Lawrence Redmond as Samuel/Old Man; Kevin McAllister as Caesar; Bobby Smith as Karl/Ódinn; Maria Egler as Morgan/La Mer; Ben Gunderson as Garrick/Lt. Maynard; Christopher Mueller as Jake/Kamikase; and Awa Sal Secka as Shanti/Kali Maa.

Conducted by Jon Kalbfleisch; Choreography by Matthew Gardiner; exceptionally costumed by Erik Teague; Lighting Design by Chris Lee; Sound Design by Ryan Hickey; Orchestrations by David Holcenberg & Scott Wasserman; Fight Choreography by Casey Kaleba.

Through July 14th 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.

Spunk ~ Signature Theatre

Jordan Wright
May 14, 2019 

Zora Neale Hurston’s exuberant play-with-music, Spunk, takes us into the African-American experience of America’s Deep South.  It’s like gaining admission to a private club, not just to witness, but to experience full-on a sense of place that no longer exists.  It doesn’t hinge on racism nor rely on oppression to tell its stories, though Hurston makes clear the characters have suffered from their legacy.  Three distinctly different tales provide a glimpse into the colorful characters that peppered the African American communities of the 1930’s and 40’s.  Part celebration and part revelation, part history and part Black culture, Spunk  is the spinning of tales that claim a deep appreciation of a particular time and place.

KenYatta Rogers (Folk Man 1) in Spunk at Signature Theatre. Photo by Christopher Mueller.

“Blues, grits, spit, spunk and pain” describe the colorful activities and lively characters who weave in and out of one another’s lives.  In Tale Number One: “Sweat”, there’s Delia, a washerwoman married to Sykes, a cruel drunkard whom she supports through “blood, sweat and tears” while he’s out messin’ with another woman.  You can almost feel the steamy Florida summer heat when Delia sings “Dirty Water” as she exacts her revenge.

Ines Nassara (Folk Woman) in Spunk at Signature Theatre. Photo by Christopher Mueller.

In Tale Number Two: “Story in Harlem Slang”, we find Slang Talk Man and his cronies, Jelly and Sweet Back – zoot-suited men, called “Harlem pimps” whose only thoughts were of money, the lack of it, the allure of it, and how to get the domestics who bring their paychecks home on a Friday night to give it to them.  Sweet Back, who’s always broke and “bug-a-booin’” while looking to score a fine lady, struts around in his finery with his pal, Jelly.  The two are like a couple of banty roosters sizing up the barnyard.

Tale Number Three: “The Gilded Six-Bits” is a love story and by then we’re ready for it.  Set in Chicago Missy May and Joe have their differences, but when a fast-talking grifter comes to town he turns Missy May’s head with the promise of riches, and the two lovers have to decide if they’ll stay together.  “If you burn me down, you won’t get nothin’ but a pile of ashes,” Missy May warns him.

Marty Austin Lamar (Folk Man 2) in Spunk at Signature Theatre. Photo by Christopher Mueller.

Hip expressions and street corner colloquialisms keep the humor moving at a rapid clip.  And between all the movin’ and groovin’, struttin’ and slipslidin’, there is music, wonderful bluesy music played by Guitar Man and sung by the players.  Written by Chic Street Man a musician and Psychology grad who runs his own youth center and scored the music to this Broadway sensation, it uses some classic tunes as well as stylistically apropos music to reflect the period.

Iyona Blake (Blues Speak Woman) in Spunk at Signature Theatre. Photo by Christopher Mueller.

In granting these characters ethnically correct vernacular, Hurston gifts them with the unique personalities she knew and cherished – though if any writer but an African-American writer had told these stories, they would be tarred and feathered and run out of town on a rail.  Hurston endured criticisms of these Black “caricatures”, even though she was steadfast in her belief that this time and place should not be forgotten.  In the end, she chronicled a period in American folklore that is both historic and universal.

Sweet as cane sugar, sassy and funny with a polished and perfect cast.

With Iyona Blake as Blues Speak Woman, Jonathan Mosley-Perry as Guitar Man, KenYatta Rogers as Folk Man One and Fight Choreographer, Marty Austin Lamar as Folk Man Two, Drew Drake as Folk Man Three, and Ines Nassara as Folk Woman – all playing multiple roles.

Adapted & Originally Directed by George C. Wolfe.  Current direction under Timothy Douglas with Musical Direction by Mark Meadows, Choreography by Dane Figueroa Edidi, Costume Design by Kendra Rae, Lighting Design by Sherrice Mojgani, Scenic Design by Luciana Stecconi, and Sound Design by Ryan Hickey.

Through June 23rd in the ARK 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.

Grand Hotel ~ The Musical ~ Signature Theatre

Jordan Wright
April 11, 2019 

The ensemble of Grand Hotelat Signature Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman

Dapper men in dinner jackets and ladies luxuriously swathed in furs and jewels has a certain mysterious fascination for us all.  In Playwright Ayad Akhtar’s Grand Hotel, guests of this deluxe Berlin hotel reveal that there is more to glamour than meets the eye.  In the hotel’s opulent Art Deco era lobby we meet aging prima ballerina Madame Elizaveta Grushinskaya arriving for her final grand tour with her faithful companion, Raffaela; Flaemmchen, a pretty down-at-the-heels ingénue; Baron Felix von Gaigern, a handsome grifter; Colonel-Doctor Otternschlag, a world-weary doctor; General Director Preysing, a corporate tycoon with an uncertain future; and Otto Kringelein, a big-hearted Jewish accountant with a terminal illness.  For these peripatetic travelers, it’s all about money – keeping it or finding it – and enjoying the luxe life.  What they all have in common is the need to be loved.

Solomon Parker III (Jimmy 2), NickiElledge (Flaemmchen), Ian Anthony Coleman (Jimmy 1) and the ensemble of Grand Hotelat Signature Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman

Twenty-one musical numbers backdrop both their amours and their tragedies as they find themselves in ever-threatening financial circumstances.  Will Otto live to find happiness, will Elizabeta revive her career, will the Baron find deeper meaning, and will Flaemmchen find stardom?  How they evolve as people is the real story behind this glamorous idyll.

Natascia Diaz (Elizaveta Grushinskaya) in Grand Hotelat Signature Theatre. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Director Eric Schaeffer pulls out all the stops with a fabulous set graced with two winding staircases, top-notch dancers and character actors with Broadway-worthy voices that fulfill his vision of transporting us to the age of the Roaring 20’s in a city well known for sophistication and decadent excess.

Nicki Elledge (Flaemmchen) and Nkrumah Gatling (Baron Felix von Gaigern). Photo by C. Stanley Photography

Some of the most memorable musical scenes come during moments of truthfulness and tenderness as between Elizaveta and the Baron in the number “Love Can’t Happen” and her solo dance in “Bonjour Amour”.  And, not to be understated, is the sensational dancing of the two Jimmys in Act One’s “Maybe My Baby Loves Me” with Flaemmchen, and Act Two’s “The Grand Charleston” with the ensemble and “We’ll Take a Glass Together” performed alongside Kringelein, the Baron and the ensemble.

Bobby Smith (Otto Kringelein) and Nicholas McDonough (Erik) in Grand Hotelat Signature Theatre. Photo by C. Stanley Photography

The darker side of working at this posh hotel is not left out but circumscribed by the gritty reality of below stairs workers engulfed in steam heat rising from on-stage grates, and by the precarious job security of Erik, a young concierge forbidden from leaving his post as he awaits the birth of his son.

It’s a big story with multi-dimensional characters who surprise us at every turn.  See it for the music, the dancing and the glitz.

Starring Bobby Smith as Otto Kringelein; Natascia Diaz as Elizaveta Grushinskaya; Kevin McAllister as General Director Preysing; Nkrumah Gatling as Baron Felix von Gaigern; Lawrence Redmond as Colonel-Doctor Otternschlag; Crystal Mosser as Raffaela; Nicki Elledge as Flaemmchen; Ian Anthony Coleman as Jimmy 1 and Zinnowitz; Solomon Parker III as Jimmy 2; Ben Gunderson as Erik; Victor Kempski as Rohna and Witt; Marie Rizzo as Trude and Tootsie 1; Gregory Matheu as Sandor; and ensemble.

Book by Luther Davis; Music and Lyrics by Robert Wright & George Forrest; Based on Vicki Baum’s Grand Hotel; Additional Music & Lyrics by Maury Yeston; Scenic Design by Paul Tate DePoo III; Costume Design by Robert Perdziola; Lighting Design by Colin K. Bills; Sound Design by Ryan Hickey; Choreography by Kelly Crandall D’Amboise.  Conducted by Evan Rees.