Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity ~ Signature Theatre

Jordan Wright
March 12, 2019 

Plunged into anarchy in an apocalyptic scenario in an unnamed Middle Eastern country, Layla struggles to make sense of what appears to be the end of her life.  As a world-famous art conservationist, she had been spending her days in an art museum cataloguing the most important things in the world – statues, relics, books, paintings, music, photos and more – in case of just such a catastrophe.

Holly Twyford in Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity ~ Photo credit C Stanley Photography

Now rubble and ruin lie all around her and she is trapped in this museum-turned-prison in a city under constant barrage.  Layla is despondent over the destruction of the precious and intangible heritage of our humanity by an enemy who seeks to build a new world order.

Felicia Curry, Yesenia Iglesias, and Holly Twyford in Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity ~  Photo credit C Stanley Photographer

Crippled with injuries inflicted by her ruthless guard, Mitra, she shares her chamber with a young Muslim woman, Nadia, who silently tends to her wounds.  Mitra demands Layla restore a damaged Rembrandt painting.  She refuses, pondering what is left of her life without her father and daughter and what in the world is worth saving.  Each woman has seen their loved ones slaughtered and each is tethered to one another by the commonality of deep loss.  Incongruously, they are united by the brutality of war and its aftermath.  Will the women escape the fate imposed on them by the soldiers’ bloodthirsty struggle for power? Will art? And if so, how?

DC playwright Heather McDonald’s world premiere Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity asks of us where the world would be without beauty, without art or music, and without nations who hold culture and civilization in high esteem.  How did we get here, and why, are the questions posed by this dystopian drama.

Set to the haunting strains of opera and against the constant volley of bullets and explosives, Zachary G. Borovay’s projections offer a realistic sense of being front and center on the battlefield.  Synched to James Bigbee Garver’s sounds of war, and James Kronzer’s scenic design of broken statues and crumbling buildings, it gives us a bird’s eye view of the confusion and misery experienced by those who suffer the consequences.

Holly Twyford and Yesenia Iglesias in Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity ~ Photo credit C Stanley Photographer

Fierce performances by two beloved Helen Hayes Award-winning actors, Holly Twyford as Layla and Felicia Curry as Mitra, and Yesenia Iglesias as Nadia.  This is a thinking person’s play – edgy, dark and important – a play I’d expect to see produced by the more politically-minded Mosaic Theater, though I am more than excited to see Artistic Director Eric Schaefer tackle such profound subject matter with the brilliant and internationally-respected director, Nadia Tass.

Costume Design by Kathleen Geldard, Lighting Design by Sherrice Mojgani, Sound Design & Original Music by James Bigbee Garver, and Fight Choreography by Robb Hunter.

Highly recommended.

Through April 7th 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.

Ain’t Misbehavin’: The Fats Waller Musical Show ~ Signature Theatre

Jordan Wright
February 10, 2019
Special to The Alexandria Times

Solomon Parker III, Iyona Blake, Nova Y. Payton, Korinn Walfall and Kevin McAllister. Photo by Christopher Mueller.

Ain’t Misbehavin’, the show that opened on Broadway in 1978 starring Nell Carter is a revue of the compositions of the period, most notably Fats Waller’s.  Performed by five super-talented singers, all well-known to Signature fans, who deliver thirty-nine numbers, some in short form.  The music reveals the scope of Waller’s extensive repertoire and his mastery of the Harlem slide piano.  Many of the songs may be unfamiliar, but some are surprisingly well-known – “Honeysuckle Rose”, “The Joint is Jumpin’”, “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love, Baby”, “It’s a Sin to Tell a Lie”, and “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter”, recorded by everyone from Frank Sinatra to Nat King Cole and Paul McCartney.

The show is a musical anthology rather than a story-driven theatrical production.  Its format is a singers’ showcase performed by a quintuple of song stylists who interpret the melodies in a range of styles through dance, mood and motion.  There are duets to revel in and sexy, sultry ballads that sizzle.  There is jitterbug and jazz, blues and boogie-woogie, and even a glee club-styled dirge in the number “Black and Blue” which was Waller’s response to the racism he experienced.  A particularly hot and rarely heard number, “The Viper’s Drag”, sung by Solomon Parker III, wows with a slinky dance and hep cat jam referencing his pipe dream of “a reefer five-feet long”.  Iyona Blake, Kevin McAllister, Korinn Walfall and Nova Y. Payton round out the cast of top-notch singers.

Solomon Parker III and Korinn Walfall. Photo by Christopher Mueller

Marquee lights, Art Deco pendant lamps hung from the ceiling and small shaded lamps affording a honeyed glow rest on cocktail tables positioned in front of the stage to transform the MAX Theatre into a Harlem nightclub – one with a seven-piece onstage band led by Mark G. Meadows as Fats Waller.  Glamourous costumes of the period – ladies dripping with fur and rhinestones and gents sporting crisply tailored chesterfields and spiffy black tie as conceived by Costume Designer Sarita P. Fellows.

Mark G. Meadows. Photo by Christopher Mueller

Thomas “Fats” Waller was a brilliant musician and fascinating character.  An accomplished classical pianist who found too many doors shut to him until he arrived in Harlem to become one of the greatest and most prolific composers of early jazz and syncopated rhythms as well as a stylish performer in his own right.  I tell you this up front, since, unlike other productions like Beautiful: The Carole King Story or the Gloria and Emilio Estefan musical On Your Feet! designed around the lives and works of the composers or the stars, this is a revue without a back story.

Iyona Blake and Solomon Parker III. Photo by Christopher Mueller

Perfect for date night!

Written by Richard Maltby, Jr. and Murray Horowitz and Directed by Joe Calarco.  Additional cast members Da’von T. Moody and Kanysha Williams.  Scenic Design by Paige Hathaway; Lighting Design by Sherrice Mojgani; Sound Design by Ryan Hickey; Choreography by Jared Grimes.  Musicians: Mark G. Meadows on piano; Michael Bowie on bass; Carroll “CV” Dashiel III on drums; Ed Walters and Grant Langford on reeds; Kieron Irvine on trumpet: and Christopher Steele on trombone.

Through March 10th 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.

 

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.