Monday, November 18, 2019

Take a break from the seasonal ritual of  A Christmas Carol  to  enjoy another Dickens’ classic.  Hard Times, at Washington Stage Guild, is truly a show for this season.  
One of Dickens shortest books is nevertheless filled with dozens of characters. This adaption for the stage by Stephen Jeffreys requires no less than19!  Switching roles in split seconds, Steven Carpenter, Brit Herring, Chelsea Mayo and Sue Struve,  each take on four or five, giving life to Dickens’ wide range of humanity.
Brit Herring is Mr. Gradgrind, whose builds his life around facts. He will also play his manipulative son Tom who will rebel against all this by drinking and thieving.  Chelsea Mayo’s most important role is as his lovely daughter Louisa whose emotions are suppressed by his emphasis that facts alone are what to base one’s life on. She will be married off to Mr. Bounderby, played by Steven Carpenter, who will also play the James Harthouse who will try to persuade Louisa to run off with him.  The two roles are seemingly as opposite as they can be on the surface:  Bounderby the bragging successful owner of all the factories and the bank in Coletown, and Harthouse, with the attention deficit wandering con man equally a braggart. 
 Sue Struve also takes on contrasting roles. She is Sissy Jupe, who enters the Gradgrind home when her father, a circus entertainer disappears.  She will become Louisa’s best friend and in many ways, while she could not get through with Mr. Gradgrind’s school of facts and figures, she will be the one who figures out how to resolve many of the issues. She will also play the spiteful Mrs. Sparsit, who has Mr. Bounderby’s permanent house guest will do what she can to destroy Louisa.
Christmas Carol is so focused on gift giving and presented as a time for wonderful holiday meal with one’s loving  family, while Hard Times has themes of facts versus emotions, capital versus labor,  the circus life versus factories.  This is to say nothing of complex family relationships and the more grueling aspects of poverty, which are  issues as real today as when it was written in the Industrial age in Britain circa 1850.  
Like Christmas Carol, which is grouped around three Ghosts (Past, Present and Future),  Hard Times has three acts: Sowing, Reaping and Garnering.  No evil goes unpunished in Dickens as the summary of what happens to each of the characters five years after the ending, ending,isis made clear in the final speeches.  While it won’t be the happy outcome of Christmas Carol, Hard Times’  biblical message that as a man sows, so shall he reap, it is as important one, presented as Dickens and Washington Stage Guild traditionally does, in a most entertaining way.
(WASHINGTON STAGE GUILD until Dec. 8, 2019)

Photo entitled Old Hell Shaft: Brit Herring as Blackpool. In background L-R Sue Struve, Steven Carpenter, Chelsea Mayo. Photo by C. Stanley Photography

Thursday, November 14, 2019


            Antonio Salieri (Ian Merrill Peakes) pleads with God 
Theaters are known to have ghosts. I saw one last night at  the Folger Theater.  It was Antonio Salieri,  in the starring role of Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus
As in his life, he played the bitter court composer at odds with the brilliant Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.  Once again, as in his life, he is not given credit as he always felt was his proper due for the program notes credit Ian Merrill Peakes as Salieri.
In Amadeus, Salieri is a ghostly figure who in his last hours before dying re-lives the story about how he is responsible for Mozart’s death.  Peakes is more than superb as the 18th century Viennese court composer whose rivalry with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is the stuff of this all consuming bitterness. Indeed Peakes is a strong actor for sure, but it is truly Salieri who takes over the stage in angry moments when he rages at God for placing  musical genius in a person such as the silly Mozart.
As the giddy Mozart,  Samuel Adams is also splendid—so alive, vibrant, fun —until his end when he isn’t of course.  Peakes and Adams are in sync in portraying these two who are opposite in every way from their manners to their music.
The staging was perfect.  What better way to set the tone for a drama about composers then place it in the inners of a giant musical instrument.  The strings that stretched to the height of the stage created perfect paths for the cast:  Justin Adams, Louis Butelli, Lilli Hokama, John Taylor Phillips, and Deidra LaWan Starnes to weave in and out of the scenes.
The story behind Amadeus  is suppose to be fictious.  An evening at this remarkable performance by Peakes and company—and with those solo moments by Salieri acting as himself— totally convinced me that it is all true.
Folger’s production of Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus.  Performances will run through December 22.
CREDITS: Photography by C. Stanley Photography

Monday, November 4, 2019

Live at the Met
Young and vibrant,  the innocent country girl Manon will end worn out by her frivolous life, regretting her choice of pleasure over true love as she dies in desolate spot outside of prison.
From the opera’s first aria,  I expected that  soprano Lisette Oropesa was too cheerful to carry that role to such a bitter end.  But her skill as an actress and her talent— with a range not just vocally but of human continuum of experience— delivered an unforgettable performance.
Tenor Michael Fabiano is her lover, Chevalier des Grieux. Intense and troubled, he tries to escape his heartbreak of Manon’s loss in a monastery, only to rebound as her gambling companion, and to follow her to a painful end.
Polish baritone Artur RuciƄski is her cousin Lescaut,  who goes along for the exhilarating ride of a gambler through life.
Maurizio Benini conducting Massenet’s sensual score, which lingers in the ears of memory long after  The Live at the Met performance of October 26 was over.
An experience to cherish! 
at Constellation Theatre Company
The Constellation’s sell out production has now been extended until Nov 24, 2019.  It has all the ingredients for a cult favorite that could pack the theater for ages.  
Everyone knows something about that man eating plant in a florist shop on Skid Row but to see this production is to see it come to life — very up close to the audience.
As endearing as Seymour, the flower shop assistant who creates an exotic plant, by scene-stealer Christian Montgomery …
or as lovely as Teresa Quigley Danskey as his dream girl warm-hearted coworker Audrey…
or as fun as the three girl singers/ sassy street urchins: Selena Clyne-Galindo as Chiffon , Alana S. Thomas as Ronnette,  Chani Wereley as Crystal…
or as dynamic as  Scott Ward Abernethy who is Audrey’s boyfriend Orin, a dentist who tortures his patients (as well as taking on four other roles)…
or as sentimental as Robert John Biedermann as Mushnik, the flower shop’s ornery owner,
or even as pitiable as the derelict played by several cast members
NEVERTHELESS I retain my sentimental attachment to Audrey II,
who comes to life with  Marty Austin Lamar’s soulful, commanding voice and puppeteer Rj Pavel’s movement to the plant’s physical form.
Audrey II does not dance or sing, she only complains until she gets her dietary requirement  human blood which will include the whole cast before it is over.
How big will she grow?  Will she end up (horrors!) consuming all humanity? What does this old show foretell about greed and ecological concerns in the future? 
Who knows the possibilities of interpretations for greater meanings.  For now this is one fun show to be glad that it is still alive.

How will four Generation Z friends make it from a small college theatre department’s  "green room” to the Off-Broadway stage? 
The Green Room spans three years of college life, in which four actors explore all the complications from looking for love to last-minute cramming for final exams.
They are young, vibrant, aspiring—still green— like the room.  
Director Jessica Jennings  guides them through this complicated journey to success as  Rod Damer and C. Stephen Foster’s book comes to life on stage.  
The magic ingredient is music. Charles Pelletier’s rocking pop score and lyrics, with David Fletcher’s skilled musical direction, give the cast much to sing about.
Ariana Valdes is Divonne, “the Diva.”  In one of the show’s most unforgettable moments, her rendition of “It’s All About Me” sums up great diva moments from musicals and movies. The song won a Songwriter’s Guild of America award. 
Corbin Williams as John (the Jock) and Sami Staitman as Anna (the Princess) are a couple.  Their duets transform the room and transport the audience back to their own college romance.  At the start of the show, John flexes his bourgeoning adult masculinity, seeking to overpower Anna, who shows her doubt in “What Do I Think of Me.” At the end of the show, Anna discovers her adulthood and experiences her freedom in “I Wanna Go To Extremes.”   
Eli LaCroix plays Anna’s brother, Cliff (the Nerd). His razor-sharp delivery and dynamic vocals bring a touching counterpoint to Divonne’s powerful sensuality. 
One song had special relevance when all four, approaching graduation day, have to make decisions of what next. “In The End” directly hits the mark of the choice these four must make:  to follow their dreams of the big stage — or to go in to the business world their parents wish them to.  
Of all the fun and frolics, one young audience member zeroed in on this one, as relating  exactly to her situation in wanting to pursue a career in the arts, while her parents aspire for her to take a traditional professional path. 
This is the joy of live theater  - to experience a moment which is both shared and personal.
The Green Room — a show to enjoy — with music and a message to take with you.

The American Theatre of Actors - Sargent Theatre  - New York, NY, 314 W. 54th Street (Sept. 25 to Oct. 27, 2019)
A 15th century play about Death might be the livest show around.  Playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins brings the medieval morality play up front and center for all to look squarely at the most shared and puzzling human question.
Death is portrayed by the irresistible Nancy Robinette, who carries out her mission directed by God, played by Yonatan Gebeyehu (who also doubles as Usher, who “ushers the audience” in to the story as God ushers us into and out of life.) He also plays Understanding!
There is nothing unique to think of life and death as a lottery.
And while death is mysterious, so is who of five fantastic actors or Somebodies are going to play the single role (thought of as Everyman).   Alina Collins Maldonado, Avi Rogue, Kelli Simpkins, Ayana Workman, and Elan Zafir all participate in God’s lottery to see what roles they will take for that performance.  No two shows will be alike, just as no death is like any others.  
While this is impressive since each actor must know the whole script, I could not help but wonder midway through, “What if that one who is Friendship would play the Somebody now facing death?”  This added insight—to put your self in another’s role in life—is one of the many hidden in plain sight messages.
Since death comes to all, the stage is appropriately presented as any time through lightening and the simplest of props. Balloons are created by our breathe, and will eventually lose their air—a most appropriate symbol for our life and death. Colors and music are metaphors for moods. 
While the lottery picks who will be the Somebody of the Day, there are several roles that do not change, such as Ahmad Kamal as Love who accompanies Somebody to the end.  Clare Carys O’Connell  plays both a young girl and Time.  She and Death will walk off together from the stage clouded  with white balloons and strewn with skeletons.  
Everybody won’t answer the big question it poses, but it provides realizations  to consider about our end while enjoying some laughs along the way. 
Most fittingly, I saw this on Nov. 2, also known as All Souls’ Day.