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.

John ~ Signature Theatre

Jordan Wright
April 12, 2018 

We are waiting.  For an answer.  Three and a half hours including two intermissions later with a slowly dwindling audience after the first two acts.  Ah well, it is a weekday night.  And though given the title of the play we have a fairly good guess John will be involved, we are still waiting for an explanation as to why we have slogged through the sucking sound of a surfeit of red herrings. All clues lead to nowhere.  The only explanation I can deduce is that this is some sort of exercise in existentialism.  There is no note in the program from the award-winning playwright Annie Baker and nothing from director Joe Calarco either, so we can only speculate.

Nancy Robinette, Anna Moon and Jonathan Feuer in John at Signature Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman.

One reason you may want to sit through this mystery, is the superb acting by Nancy Robinette and Ilona Dulaski.  They are stellar!  Two veteran actresses of note who, given the puzzling plot, still manage to keep us curious enough to await the denouement.  Hint: It’s a single word at the close of the play.

Robinette as Mertis, aka Kitty, is the off-kilter proprietress of a Bed & Breakfast in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.  Her blind, mentally deranged friend, Genevieve (Dulaski), imagines noises in the house.  The duo have latched onto mysticism for reasons not made clear.  Perhaps to explain why the lights flicker and the electricity frequently fails or why Kitty’s husband never appears.  “He’s not well.”  But we discover he was working on the historic home’s electrical system.  Is this a clue? To what? Credit lighting designer Andrew Cissna for the blackouts and the plethora of antique lamps.  Are we spooked?  It’s a stretch to be frightened when there’s no murder.

Anna Moon and Jonathan Feuer in John. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Certainly the creepiest part is Paige Hathaway’s set design chockfull of dozens of dolls, tchotchkes (a huge collection of china cats!!!), and an abundance of Christmas décor.  One of the dolls, perched atop a player piano, is the target of attention from Jenny (Anna Moon) – one half of the couple that is staying at the B&B.  Jenny had the same American Girl doll and is overwhelmed with guilt that as an adult she has relegated the doll to a box in her mother’s attic.  She shares with Kitty an obsessive attachment to objects and the imparting of human emotions to them.  Her passive-aggressive, jealous boyfriend Elias (Jonathan Feuer) is coming off anti-depressants and is in meltdown mode.  There are ferocious fights that result in them sleeping in separate rooms.

But back to the red herrings.  Kitty frequently changes the time on a grandfather clock and writes down her daily reflections in an unknown language.  At one point the lights go out in the theater and we hear a chuckle.  Who or what?  Kitty tells Elias not to ask about a portrait of a woman.  This is never resolved.  Kitty tells the couple she doesn’t drink.  She chugs a glass of wine.  Elias visits the Gettysburg battlefields and claims he has taken a photo that has a ghostly image.  Also, he hates B&Bs, “The tragedy of B&Bs is to be homey and cute and filled with tchotchkes.”  Why are they staying at one?  They insult the others’ cultural backgrounds – he’s Jewish, she’s Asian. There’s a reference to the house being a former Civil War hospital – arms and legs were tossed out the windows.  No ghosts arrive.  Genevieve is fixated on the husband she abandoned.  This never comes up again, though a lot of dialogue is spent on how he invaded her thoughts for years.  His name was John.  Elias was kissed by a man when he was a child.  We never learn if any of this is relevant.

Nancy Robinette, Jonathan Feuer and Ilona Dulaski in John. Photo by Margot Schulman.

I don’t think I’m giving anything away.  There are plenty more contrivances that never add up.  If this is meant to be like Get Out, this year’s Oscar-nominated horror film, they lost this reviewer amid the smokescreens in a B&B in Gettysburg.

With Costume Design by Debra Kim Sivigny and Sound Design by Kenny Neal.

Through April 29th at Signature Theatre (Shirlington Village), 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, VA 22206.  For tickets and information call 703 820-9771 or visit www.sigtheatre.org.

Light Years ~ Signature Theatre

Jordan Wright
February 17, 2018 

John Sygar, Natascia Diaz, Luke Smith and Robbie Schaeffer in LIGHT YEARS. Photo by Christopher Mueller.

Artistic Director, Eric Schaeffer, presents us with yet another world premiere musical.  This time it’s a tender tale of a father and son who go in and out of each other’s lives over a period of decades.  Light Years features the music, lyrics, and book by Robbie Schaefer (no relation to Eric).  Robbie is a member of Eddie from Ohio (EFO), a Northern Virginia indie/folk/rock band known for their beautifully blended four-part harmonies.

It’s part concert, part sentimental journey.  Three guitar playing performers play Robbie – John Sygar as Young Robbie, Luke Smith as Middle Robbie and Robbie Schaefer as the adult Robbie.  Veteran actor Bobby Smith plays Robbie’s Jewish father, Konnie, a man reticent to share his past as a former White House economist.  Natascia Diaz becomes Robbie’s wife, Annie, and Kara-Tameika Watkins, his friend, Amelia, but not before the two play backup singers Chantelle and Soma who lay down harmonies for the band during their tours in the 90’s.

John Sygar, Kara-Tameika Watkins, Robbie Schaefer, Natascia Diaz, and Luke Smith in LIGHT YEARS. Photo by Christopher Mueller

Framed by video projection screens and a simple concert-style stage, this no-intermission, 90-minute musical hints at Konnie’s peripatetic past – one that has him fleeing Nazi-occupied Romania for Israel, then later emigrating to the U. S.   “Everything is temporary,” Konnie repeatedly warns Robbie.  But it’s only towards the very end of the story that we, and Robbie, learn of his father’s tragic beginnings.  Up till then there is only a child’s confusion, and ours as the audience, as to why his father seems unable to connect.  Ultimately when Robbie has his own wife and family, can they express understanding and compassion towards one another.  But is it too late?

Shaefer’s music is of the story-telling kind, a there are fifteen songs filled with joy and heartbreak, disappointment and redemption.  Its sweet melodies and pitch-perfect harmonies will please those who enjoy a laid back concert-style experience.

Through February 18th at Signature Theatre (Shirlington Village), 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, VA 22206.  For tickets and information call 703 820-9771 or visit www.sigtheatre.org.

4,380 Nights ~ Signature Theatre ~ Women’s Voices Theater Festival

Jordan Wright
January 27, 2018 

Ahmad Kamal (Malik) in the world premiere production of 4,380 NIGHTS. Photo by C Stanley Photography.

When the Women’s Voices Theater Festival opened in early January, I found myself explaining its purpose.  Some thought the productions focused solely on women’s issues.  They don’t.  It’s merely an opportunity to focus on plays written by women.  And of the ones I’ve seen and reviewed, they approach a diversity of subjects.  So, jump right in.  The festival continues through March 14th in DC Metro area theaters.

Annalisa Dias ~ Photo Credit: Christopher Mueller

In Annalisa Dias’ powerful play 4,380 Nights, Malik Djamal Ahmad Essaid (Ahmad Kamal in a riveting performance as both Malik and El Hadj El Kaim) is being held in the Guantanamo Bay Detention Center accused of being an Al Qaeda recruiter and radical Islamist.

His rights stripped from him without charge, he lives in chains and solitary confinement with visits from Bud Abramson (Michael John Casey who later appears as The Man), a defense attorney appointed by the U. S. government.  Malik languishes in prison for twelve years without trial while his family awaits him in France.

Ahmad Kamal (Malik) and MJ Casey (Bud Abramson). Photo by C Stanley Photography.

Directed by Kathleen Ackerley, the story is told to The Man by a sylph-like narrator, The Woman, played by Lynette Rathnam in a sinuously exotic performance.  She speaks in lyrical prose echoing the history of the Carthaginians, the French, and much later the Americans who wage war against the Arabs and Berbers.

Lynette Rathnam (Woman) in the world premiere production of 4,380 NIGHTS. Photo by C Stanley Photography

The Man beseeches The Woman to tell him how the story ends, but she puts him off to relate the story that began with Cato’s words from ancient times.  No matter which side of the argument you are on, you'll be left wondering the same thing.  Does it ever end, this centuries-old conflict of “the water, the earth, the sand”?  Whether for reasons of trade or expansionism, the battles have long been dominated by racism, ignorance and fear.  “It’s not the first time you’ve kidnapped Africans and enslaved them,” Malik reminds his American captors.

As the story toggles from ancient times to the present, we meet Malik’s grandfather, El Kaim, a former guide and translator for the French Colonel Aimable Pelisssier.  El Kaim fought on the French side, betraying his own people in the Algerian Wars, and Malik feels certain, if he is ever released to his homeland, he will be imprisoned by his own government.  Ah, the sins of the fathers.

Ahmad Kamal (Malik) and Rex Daugherty (Luke). Photo by C Stanley Photography.

Luke Harrison (Rex Daugherty who doubles as the Colonel), is a young American soldier who guards Malik.  Luke is emotionally imprisoned which causes him to descend into a kind of sadistic madness.  Think Abu Ghraib and you have some idea of the barbaric abuse he metes out to his prisoner. Abramson is sympathetic but tells Malik his detainment is awash in “papers, petitions, orders, reviews and broken international laws.”

Dias’ play is filled with expertly crafted dialogue that speaks to the deeply rooted, tangled web of Anglo Arab relations and their effect on long-term global stability.  Her indelible characters, molded in the shifting sands of time, afford clarity and perspective to the issues facing our nations today.

Highly recommended.

Through February 18th at Signature Theatre (Shirlington Village), 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, VA 22206.  For tickets and information call 703 820-9771 or visit online.

For more on the Women’s Voices Theater Festival visit online.