A Chorus Line ~ Signature Theatre

Jordan Wright
November 11, 2019 

Director Matthew Gardiner’s reinterpretation of A Chorus Line features brand new choreography from Denis Jones and departs from the original branded choreography by Michael Bennett.  Though I can’t recall the original enough to make a comparison of the two, I don’t think it’s necessary to enjoy the musical we’ve all come to love.

The cast of A Chorus Line at Signature Theatre ~ Photo by Christopher Muelle

A typical dance studio is the only set.  Framed by wide strips of Mylar ‘mirror’ and the traditional ballet barre, the focus is on the personalities and emotional stories of the 24 chorus line hopefuls.  Fairly quickly, seven are unceremoniously cut from consideration and we are left with seventeen dancers vying for a limited number of spots in an unnamed production.

Zach is the psychotic director.  From his command post, a desk, positioned in the center of the audience, he insults, cajoles, challenges and intimidates the dancers. “I just wanna hear you talk and be yourselves,” he says, insisting they reveal their innermost thoughts and childhood traumas, asking why they are there and why they chose to be dancers.  Larry, his emotionless assistant and choreographer, imposes Zach’s whimsical demands and works to corral the wannabes into a cohesive line.

Emily Tyra (Cassie) and Matthew Risch (Zach) in A Chorus Line at Signature Theatre ~ Photo by Christopher Mueller.

The story depicts a cross section of the dancers’ insecurities and neediness, and the fierce desperation of hoping for a break, as they are forced to relive the traumas of their childhood.  It’s intensely relatable and curiously human.  In a way, it’s pure schadenfreude.  We feel their pain and recognize their struggles, but we can’t, and shouldn’t, look away.

There are so many indelible, and identifiable, characters here – Cassie, the aging beauty once in a relationship with Zach and now begging him for a spot in the line; Sheila, a tough broad with attitude, desperate to forget a harsh childhood; Mark, an awkwardly naïve manchild who hilariously misdiagnosed gonorrhea from his addiction to medical textbooks; Val, a former cheerleader with Broadway aspirations and newly purchased plastic surgery; Paul, whose dance experience as a stripper in a drag club brings him shame; Maggie, a warm-hearted dreamer with a difficult past; Richie, a flashy dancer and former school teacher; and all the others, too numerous to describe here.  Among them they speak of their struggles to overcome the pain of suicide, incest, depression, poverty, homosexuality.  Among the dancers there is love, caring and understanding.

Joshua Buscher (Larry), Daxx Jayroe Wieser (Mark), Bryan Charles Moore (Don) and the cast of A Chorus Line at Signature Theatre ~ Photo by Christopher Mueller

You will easily recognize many of the musical numbers composed by Marvin Hamlisch with lyrics by Edward Kleban (Tony Awards for ‘Best Original Score’, ‘Best Musical’ and ‘Best Book of a Musical’).  Zach asks, “If today were the day you had to stop dancing, what would you do?” The answer is the torch song, “What I Did for Love.”  Beautifully expressed, the words and music reflect the highs and lows of showbiz life, yet with a universality recognizable to everyone.

A wonderful, shiny, madly talented cast.  Highly recommended.

With Maria Rizzo as Sheila; Emily Tyra as Cassie; Matthew Risch as Zach; Joshua Buscher as Larry; Michelle E. Carter as Tricia; Zeke Edmonds as Roy; Adena Ershow as Val; Samantha Marisol Gershman as Diana; Jeff Gorti as Paul; Ben Gunderson as Bobby; Lawrence Hailes as Butch; Vincent Kempski as Al; Julia Klavans as Vicki; Elise Kowalick as Kristine; Lina Lee as Connie; Bryan Charles Moore as Don; Corinne Munsch as Judy; Zachary Norton as Greg; Kayla Pecchioni as Maggie; Daniel Powers as Frank; MK Sagastume as Lois; Trevor Michael Schmidt as Mike; Jillian Wessel as Bebe; Daxx Jayroe Wieser as Mark; Phil Young as Richie; and Joshua Buscher as Dance Captain.

Book by James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante; Lighting by Adam Honoré; Sound Design Ryan Hickey; Orchestra led by Jon Kalbfleisch.

Through January 5th 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.

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.