“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. 

Easy Women Smoking Loose Cigarettes ~ Signature Theatre

Jordan Wright
March 1, 2020 

SOLD OUT!, read the sign outside the theatre on press night.  That I’m writing this with no chance of you securing tickets might seem fruitless, but just in case someone, anyone, cares to read this review, which is entirely needless, I will forge on.  After all, it is Signature’s 30th anniversary season and that’s something that bears notice.

John Leslie Wolfe (Richard), Shanara Gabrielle (Lee), Susan Rome (Marian), John Austin (Bobby), and Jordan Slattery (Kitty). Photo by Christopher Mueller

As a widely recognized actor on the DC theatre scene, Dani Stoller has been around the theatre long enough to know how it’s done.  However, checking the playbill’s bios, it appears this is her first produced play.  Thankfully, she’s chosen a top-notch local director in Stevie Zimmerman who brings to life a quirky comedy that comes off like a racy TV sit-com.  It’s a little bit new agey, a little bit throwback, with Lee, a young married woman who’s a sex addict; her father Richard and mother Marian (who practices sacred female wisdom) both determined to support her no matter how reckless her behavior; niece Kitty finding her way while unmarried and pregnant; and Bobby a family friend who becomes involved with two of the women.

Susan Rome (Marian) and John Leslie Wolfe (Richard). Photo by Christopher Mueller.

The title alone is suggestive enough to lure theatregoers titillated by the idea of loose women cavorting around onstage, but they won’t find that.  The play is alluring in other ways as it deals with a family teetering on the edge of a total breakdown.  But it’s the determination to heal each other and the terrific comic lines that are the glue holding this piece together.  As Lee’s mother tells her, “Having a child is like your heart walking around outside your body.”

John Austin (Bobby) and Jordan Slattery (Kitty). Photo by Christopher Mueller

A fine ensemble, led impressively by Susan Rome, brings it all home.

With Susan Rome as Marian; John Austin as Bobby; Shanara Gabrielle as Lee; John Leslie Wolfe as Richard; and Jordan Slattery as Kitty.

Directed by Stevie Zimmerman; Scenic Design by Meghan Raham; Lighting Design by Andrew Cissna; Costume Design by Debra Kim Sivigny; Intimacy Coordinator Casey Kaleba.

Through March 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.

Shanara Gabrielle (Lee) and Susan Rome (Marian). Photo by Christopher Mueller

Gun & Powder ~ Signature Theatre

Jordan Wright
February 10, 2020 

An intriguing musical made its world premiere at Signature.  In it, twin mulatto sisters use their beauty, wits and a pistol to deceive and rob whites.  It promises a happy ending but is that enough to take us along on their criminal enterprise?

Emmy Raver-Lampman (Martha) and Solea Pfeiffer (Mary) in Gun & Powder at Signature Theatre. Photo by Cameron Whitman

In contemporary playwright Angela Chéri’s Gun & Powder with music by Ross Baum, we are taken on a journey through a period of American culture, both racist and lawless.  It was originally presented as a reading from Signature Theatre’s SigWorks: Musical Theater Lab program and was based on a somewhat true story of Chéri’s great-great aunts.  It’s as much a story of female empowerment as it is of the wild West.  In the same vein as Annie Get Your Gun and, say, Paint Your Wagon, it explores themes of racism and female bravery in times of slavery.

Emmy Raver-Lampman (Martha) and Donald Webber Jr. (Elijah) in Gun & Powder at Signature Theatre. Photo by Cameron Whitman

That’s the part we like.  However, do we condone their tactics any more than we would condone and encourage those of any other criminal?  As a social construct for a musical based on revenge for racism, I fear it is not.  Leaving that aside to address its staging, acting, directing and music, we come upon another dilemma – how to make it palatable, or believable.  As a musical, it is faultless in its production values as well as its casting.  The voices are beautiful, and the acting, as well as dancing, are sans criticism.  However, the lyrics are often awkward, and 28 numbers are overkill.

Dan Tracy (Jesse) and Solea Pfeiffer (Mary) in Gun & Powder at Signature Theatre. Photo by Christopher Mueller

The story unfolds with freed slaves, Mary and Martha, beautiful, light-skinned, twin sisters, freed slaves living with their mother, Tallulah, on a plantation in Texas.  The owner is a cruel master who threatens to throw them off his land for not picking enough cotton.  When their mother gives them a gun, the girls soon devise a plan to rob unsuspecting white passengers on a train to get enough money to pay off the plantation owner.  “Ya better come back in the two pieces you left in!” she warns them.

Awa Sal Secka (Flo) and Yvette Monique Clark (Sissy) in Gun & Powder at Signature Theatre. Photo by Christopher Mueller.

After becoming wildly successful robbing brothels, a barbershop, a church, and any whites in their path – they soon meet Jesse, a white saloon owner who believes the sisters are white.  They make a plan to hustle him, but soon love follows for Mary, while Martha is smitten with his black butler, Elijah.

Crystal Mosser (Fannie) in Gun & Powder at Signature Theatre. Photo by Christopher Mueller

The real beauty and comic relief of the show are Jesse’s black maids, Sissy and Flo, who have figured out the girls’ scheme.  They know the sisters are “high yellow” and are passing undetected by Jesse.  Their snarky comments behind her back are hilarious and their wisdom is echoed by a chorus of Kinfolk, who are blacks tied to the sisters by spirit and blood.  Whenever the chorus appears, the entire show is elevated by both song and dance, unifying the construct and lending deeper meaning to the women’s original motive to save their mother from despair.

Emmy Raver-Lampman (Martha) in Gun & Powder at Signature Theatre. Photo by Christopher Mueller

Mary’s song, “The Way I Am” is a stunning solo, as is the beautifully sung number, “The Shot That Shook the Soul” performed by the company in the style of the 19th century Fisk Jubilee Choir.

This show has real promise and powerful relevance. I hope it gets the attention and reworking it deserves.

Emmy Raver-Lampman (Martha), Marva Hicks (Tallulah) and Solea Pfeiffer (Mary) in Gun & Powder at Signature Theatre. Photo by Cameron Whitman

With Solea Pfeiffer as Mary Clarke; Emmy Raver-Lampman as Martha Clarke; Dan Tracy as Jesse; Marva Hicks as Tallulah Clarke; Donald Webber, Jr. as Elijah; Yvette Monique Clark as Sissy; Awa Sal Secka as Flo; Crystal Mosser as Fannie Porter.  The Kinfolk are played by Yvette Monique Clark, Amber Lenell Jones, Rayshun LaMarr, Da’Von T. Moody, Christopher Michael Richardson, Awa Sal Secka, and Kanysha Williams.  Ensemble players are Wyn Delano, Christian Douglas, Crystal Mosser and Eleanor Todd.

Directed by Robert O’Hara; Choreography by Byron Easley; Music Direction by Darryl G. Ivey; Costumes by Dede Ayite; Scenic Design by Jason Sherwood; Lighting Design by Alex Jainchill; Sound Design by Ryan Hickey.

Through at February 23rd 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.

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.