Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Xanadu at Signature Theatre in Arlington, VA

A movie musical that was a specatacular flop in 1980 gets turned into a fun, wink-at-how-bad-the-film- was Broadway musical that had a respectable New York run.    Now, talented director/choreographer Matthew Gardiner spins a little disco ball magic on The Max stage at Signature Theatre in Arlington,Virginia.     The costumes designed by Kathleen Geldard are bright and shiny, the four-piece band under the direction of Gabriel Mangiante cranks out the ELO tunes with gusto and the cast roller skates its way through the silly story of the Muse who helps the street artist fulfill his dream of opening a roller disco which was the clear pinnacle of artistic achievement in the artistic desert wasteland that was the early 1980’s.

Xanadu, with the biting wit of librettist Douglas Carter Beane is a slight confection.   Featuring the music  of ELO’s Jeff Lynne and John Farrar the majority of which appeared in the 1980 film, Xanadu joins a long line of recent “jukebox” musicals that invite you to turn off your brain and just enjoy yourself.    Led by the charming Erin Weaver as Clio/Kira, who bravely dons leg warmers, roller skates and an Australian accent, the scant ensemble of nine actors briskly works its way through the story of boy meets muse, muse’s sisters get jealous and plot her doom, muse falls in forbidden love leading to a  literal deux ex machina which saves the day.   As her Evil Woman sisters, Sherri L. Edelen and Nova Y. Payton charmingly chew the scenery as they comically plot against their sister.   Harry A. Winter provides some unexpected depth as Danny Maguire, owner of the deserted nightclub who was burned by his close encounter with the Gods back in the swing of the 1940’s.    Charlie Brady as the loveable lug Sonny Malone is just that, a one-note loveable lug.  The story may be slight and the characters not very well drawn, but there should be more layers to his performance to allow the audience to understand just what Clio/Kira sees in him.

The rest of the ensemble takes on multiple roles in this brisk 90 minute tale.   The highlight of the evening is a trip to Mt. Olympus featuring Greek Gods who resemble those in a certain good version of the Clash of the Titans movies.    (We arrive in Olympus courtesy of Pegasus, played here by a My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic glitter wings action figure).    Rest assured that neon and mirror balls shall reign supreme and Xanadu will end on a happy roller skating note.

The only problems with this production are minor.   The evening I attended the sound system allowed the four member band to overpower the nine actors making their singing muddy and difficult to understand.   As I attended an early preview performance this may have been ironed out.   The Max space provides an additional challenge, as the audience is tri-sected.  With long ramps leading off the front sides of the audience, you are restricted to one entrance/exit to get to your seats.   You cannot step over the ramp to make an exit at the end of the show as this would require stepping on the stage and this leads to slow exiting particularly in the main center section of the audience seating.

Xanadu is playing in The Max theater at Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia through July 1, 2012.   For tickets and other performance information please visit

Saturday, May 19, 2012

The Taming of the Shrew at the Folger Theatre

"He that knows better how to tame a shrew,
Now let him speak; 'tis charity to shed." 

Aaron Posner, who has directed several revelatory productions of the plays of William Shakespeare, turns his eye on that alleged problem comedy, The Taming of The Shrew. By making the decision to set the play in the "wild west" one settles down into seats of the Folger Theatre's Elizabeth stage ready for a rollicking physical evening.  The atmosphere is promising. Tony Cisek has created a marvelous saloon set with bar, weathered chandelier and swinging doors.  Helen Q. Huang has costumed the actors in period appropriate clothing that is designed to allow the actors freedom of movement and the ability to quickly draw the six shooters adorning many of the characters.   Most impressive to the atmosphere is the addition of Cliff Eberhardt as the Blind Balladeer whose musical talents provide an excellent accompaniment to the play.  The actors are well cast.  There are several Washington DC powerhouse actresses, two of whom are cast in a reversal of gender that for the most part enhances rather than distracts from the play. Yet, something is lacking in this Shrew. For this is the gentlest Taming ever put upon the stage.

It's almost as if, Mr. Posner was afraid to allow the comedy in the text to take center stage.   The choices made by the director and his acting company are all justified in the text.   Unfortunately, Kate and Petruchio take a back seat to the over the top performances of the supporting characters.   The audience will laugh as those servants provide the raucous comedy that should be coming from Petruchio, Kate, Bianca and her suitors.   There is also a disquieting feeling that the performances are artificial with a feeling from some of the performances of telegraphing to the audience that they know they are funny rather than allowing the comedy in William Shakespeare's text to speak for itself.

This is the tale of Baptista Minola, a wealthy merchant, here played as a female by the always excellent Sarah Marshall.    Baptista has two daughters, the younger Bianca (Sarah Mollo-Christensen), sought after by two suitors Hortensio (Marcus Kyd) and Gremio (Craig Wallace).   The elder sister Katherine (Kate Eastwood-Norris) is shunned because of her fiery temper.   Baptista vows that Bianca cannot wed until Katherine is married.  Hortensio recruits his friend, Petruchio (Cody Nickell) who agrees, initially because of Katherine's dowry.   Meanwhile a third suitor for Bianca appears, Lucentio (Thomas Keegan) who disguises himself as Bianca's tutor in order to woo her, making his servant, Tranio (the game Holly Twyford) pretend to be her master and present herself as Bianca's suitor.    Petruchio turns the tables on Katherine treating her as she treats others in order to tame his shrew of a wife.    Returning home for her sister's wedding, will Katherine prove that she is tamed?

One cannot fault the actors in this production.  Danny Scheie in the small role of Grumio, Petruchio's "trusty, flamboyant servant" takes full opportunity to sting with wit every one of his lines.   Marcus Kyd gamely takes the abuse when Hortensio attempts to disguise himself as a music teacher showing fine abilities with the comedy inherent in his character.   Sarah Marshall's Baptista is long suffering, but with a short fuse and the long barrel of shot gun.   She uses her slight stature well to make Baptista's stances well known to the crowded ensemble on the small Folger stage.  Thomas Keegan and Sarah Mollo-Christensen are sweet as the lovebirds Lucentio and Bianca, which unfortunately makes the revelation that Bianca is the truly disobedient daughter ring false in the final scene.

Cody Nickell's Petruchio tames with words more than with deeds his mate, Katherine.   The famous wooing scene is not very physical, yet the sentiments are genuine.   Mr. Nickell's delivers the most heartfelt "he that knows better how to tame a shrew" speech.   It is clear that his Petruchio genuinely loves Katherine and wants her to see the light, rather than physically forcing the issue.    Kate Eastwood-Norris begins as only the latest in a long line of recent Katherines who begin the play either crying or (not in this production) abused.   We meet Katherine drowning her sorrows in a bottle of alcohol.   While this can be justified in the text as Katherine makes it very clear that she is jealous of the love and attention heaped on her seemingly perfect little sister, just once it would be nice to see a performance in which Katherine's "shrewish" behavior was taken as fact as part of her personality and the director would allow the comedy to happen naturally without worrying about the acceptable for the 16th century misogyny in the text.     Despite this, Ms. Eastwood-Norris is very good as Katherine.  It is very clear that this is a love match and the famous submission speech at the end of the play is delivered by Ms. Eastwood-Norris as the revelation of an equal partner not a beaten into wifely submission wife.

The Folger Theatre's production of William Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew will be performed through June 10, 2012.   For tickets and other performance information, please visit

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

God of Carnage at Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia

Two boys have a fight on a playground.  One of the boys takes a stick and knocks out two of the other boy's front teeth.  The parents meet to attempt to resolve the situation.  This is the premise of Yasmina Reza's Tony Award winning play, God of Carnage.  The work has undergone several iterations from its original version in French to its English variations translated by Christopher Hampton.  The play shares a theme with Ms. Reza's earlier work Art in that the behavior of supposedly civilized adults is driven by the scenario to devolve into absurdly violent behavior.  At the core of this exercise is a gaping hole caused by the parents and the script forgetting the essential issue---the violent fight between the two children.

God of Carnage is provocative.  The battle between the two sets of parents takes shocking twists and turns as the facade of civility is shattered.  God of Carnage is incredibly funny in the way watching a virtual train wreck is hilarious in a macabre fashion.  The audience heartily laughed throughout the evening.   Yet, God of Carnage the script is ultimately unsatisfactory for failing to address the violent encounter between the two children.   In many ways it is another facet of the growing awareness of bullying, showing that the attitudes of the parents have a lot to do with their children's behavior.

This is a terrific production.  James Kronzer has designed the apartment setting to show an immaculate home that doesn't appear to be child friendly. Kathleen Geldard's costumes help clearly define the personalities of the four characters.  Joe Calarco navigates his actors as they travel from careful strained pleasantries to uninhibited emotional outbursts.  In particular his choices involving the placement of the most antagonistic parents verbally sparring from the far ends of the stage is inspired.

The four actors are incredibly well cast.  Paul Morella is perfect as Alan Raleigh, a corporate lawyer more wedded to his cell phone than concerned with the violent behavior of his son. As his wife, Annette, Vanessa Lock is all tightly wound until the first shocking moment of the play, then she unravels into an emotional prowler.  Andy Brownstein is Michael Novak, the charming lug who loosens everyone up with liberal doses of alcohol.  The astounding Naomi Jacobson, as his wife, Veronica, is controlling and self-righteous even while resorting to violent reactions.

If you go to see God of Carnage you will find a darkly humorous play filled with excellent performances.  Yet the heart of the story is missing.  If there are any lessons to be learned from the awareness of the problem of bullying brought to national attention by the recent documentary Bully it is this.  Veronica has no interest in what might have provoked the violent attack on her son. She is wrong.  It is vitally important that we see the real causes and effects of children who violently attack one another and the description of the injuries to the boy in the play are horrific.  The real issues that God of Carnage barely scratches the surface of are no laughing matter.

God of Carnage is being performed at Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia through June 24, 2012.  For tickets and other performance information please visit 

Come Fly Away National Tour at the Kennedy Center

Isn't it refreshing sometimes to sit down in a theater and simply have an enjoyable evening?  No deep issues to ponder, just a great performance filled with breathtaking choreography and the vocal stylings of The Chairman of The Board. The national tour of Come Fly Away, conceived and choreographed by the legendary Twyla Tharp spent a crowd-pleasing two weeks in the Eisenhower Theatre at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.  A slight confection of a show, clocking in at a just right eighty minutes without an intermission, Come Fly Away is an entertaining evening filled with lithe dancing, Frank Sinatra's vocals and punctuated with a live band under the capable hands of musical director Rob Cookman.

It is easy to see why this show plays well in Las Vegas and on tour.  The scenario of four couples and an ensemble of six dancers meet in a nightclub and engage in various forms of the mating dance,simple plot and pure fun.  Twyla Tharp's choreography tests the abilities of her dancers whether in a sensual pas de deux or with heart stopping athleticism.  All of the dancers are at the top of their game, embracing their characters and producing bravura dancing at its finest. Some of the roles are doubled due to the high energy nature of the show and the dancers at the performance I attended, Ramona Kelley, Christopher Vo, Stephen Hanna, Marceea Moreno, Ioana Alfonso, Chenon Wespi-Tscopp, Matthew Stockwell Dibble, and Meredith Miles gave excellent performances.

The national tour of Come Fly Away was performed at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts from April 18-29, 2012.   For information on future performances please visit

A Midsummer Night's Dream at the American Shakespeare Center

Are you looking for the perfect show to introduce a first time theater-goer to Shakespeare?   If so, get yourself down to the Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, Virginia for their fun interpretation of A Midsummer Night's Dream.    While this play is being performed frequently in 2012 (Classic Stage Company in New York, Britches and Hose, The Shakespeare Theatre Company & The Maryland Renaissance Festival in the DC Area) the fast-paced vibrant production now on stage at the American Shakespeare Center is perfect family friendly entertainment that clearly and crisply brings Shakespeare's language and absurd comedy to life.

Theseus, Duke of Athens plans his wedding to the conquered Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons.  Egeus complains to the Duke that his daughter Hermia refuses to marry Demetrius as she is in love with Lysander.  Hermia begs to be allowed to marry Lysander pointing out that Demetrius has jilted her best friend Helena.   The Duke rules that Hermia must obey her father or by the law either die or enter a nunnery. Hermia and Lysander decide to run away. They tell Helena who decides to tell Demetrius in order to gain his favor.    A group of working men in Athens decide to rehearse a play in the hope of being chosen to perform for the Duke's wedding.   They plan to rehearse in the woods.  In the woods Oberon and Titania, rulers of the fairies are battling because Oberon wishes to obtain from Titania an orphaned Indian boy she is raising.   Oberon instructs his ally Puck to find a magic flower to make Titania fall in love with a beast.   Oberon also takes pity on Helena and orders Puck to use the same flower to make Demetrius fall in love with Helena.   Puck mixes up the lovers, toys with Bottom, the leading actor of the "mechanicals" and Titania finds herself hopelessly in love with an ass. Confusion and merriment ensue.

Following most of Shakespeare's original staging conditions this A Midsummer Night's Dream engages its audience.   Leaving the lights on permits delightful interaction between the audience and the energetic eleven cast members.   Doubling roles adds to the farcical proceedings as the many quick costume changes, sometimes within a scene, keeps the pace brisk.   Victoria Depew's costuming clearly defines the characters.   The lovers and mechanicals are in Elizabethan garments (except appropriately Hippolyta the Amazon queen) and the fairies, with a nod to the battle between Oberon and Titania over an Indian boy are garbed in luxurious fabrics evoking an exotic take on the subcontinent.  Director Kathleen Powers uses physical comedy to great effect, yet the star on this stage are her acting ensemble and their crisp delivery of Shakespeare's language.

All of the eleven actors bring their best to this production.  Most of the ensemble plays two roles, some play three and it is clear that they are having a great deal of fun interpreting these wide ranging characters.   Where to begin?  Denise Mahler (Hermia), Jake Mahler(Lysander) and Patrick Earl(Demetrius) are three of the four cast members who do not double.   They portray well the angst and humor of the lovers situation.   Bridget Rue plays both Helena, the First Fairy and Moth.   Her Helena is a comic highlight of the production. She is particularly funny as she desperately tries to maintain Helena's dignity even as she debases herself with Demetrius.  A running gag involving her hat is hilarious.   Daniel Abraham Stevens is regal as Duke Theseus, manipulated well by Stephanie Holladay Earl's Hippolyta.  Eugene Douglas takes delight in Oberon's revenge plot on his fairy queen, and is sweet as the timid Snug.  Ms. Holladay Earl is sensual and fiery as the angry Titania and her love affair with the lowly Bottom is delightful in its absurdity.

Rick Blunt is a clown.   He is one of the most natural interpreters of the clown roles in classical theater.   Bottom the weaver in his hands is the larger than life buffoon that is required for the role.  It was a great decision to not hide his expressive face in a full mask when he is transformed into an ass as to lose that element would have a negative impact on his performance.   Yet, it is not all low comedy that makes this performance so memorable as Mr. Blunt allows brief glimpses of Bottom's gentle side.

Michael Amendola is a mischievous Puck.   Mr. Amendola is accomplished in his physicality and his exhaustive antics play up the  absurdity of Puck's pranks.   Mr. Amendola also portrays well poor Starveling the put upon mechanical who just can't seem to get moonlight correct.  

As for the rest of the ensemble Ronald Peet as Philostrate, Flute and Peaseblossom, Kevin Hauver as Egeus, Peter Quince and Cobweb and Mr. Stevens again as Mustardseed succeed in helping this A Midsummer Night's Dream be a highlight of the Spring 2012 season at the Blackfriar's Playhouse.

William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream is being performed through June 16, 2012  in repertory with Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale and John Ford's 'Tis Pity She's A Whore as part of the Almost Blasphemy Tour and spring 2012 season the Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, Virginia.   For tickets and other performance information please visit