Friday, November 30, 2012

Supreme Beings: “Dreamgirls” at the Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia

By Mark A. Newman
Photos by Christopher Mueller

Many people whom I respect in the world of theatre cite Dreamgirls as one of their favorite shows if not their all-time favorite. This is one of those things I simply do not understand in the way I don’t get the popularity of “Two and a Half Men.” As the second musical in Signature’s 2012 – 2013 season, Dreamgirls is a show filled with immensely talented people stuck with singing unmemorable, mediocre songs.

Dreamgirls is an odd show; there are really only two standout roles (not performers, mind you): Effie White, played with show-stopping prowess by Nova Y. Payton and Jimmy “Thunder” Early portrayed with spirited cheeky glee by Cedric Neal. And then there are other characters who seem to spend most of their time waiting for Effie and Jimmy to hit the stage. So is the audience.

However, that is not an indictment of the talent on the stage of Signature’s Max Theatre; nothing could be farther from the truth. The cast is nothing short of amazing, but by now it is a familiar tale that we’ve all seen over and over again. What was new in 1981 seems somewhat trivial and lackluster in 2012. In all honesty, Henry Krieger’s score for the Broadway cult phenomenon Side Show was much more compelling than what is heard here (hint hint, Signature).

Matthew Gardiner’s direction is spot on as he sends our heroes – the Supremes-like divas, the Dreams – on their way through the ups and downs of the music industry. The show really kicks into gear in the middle of the first act when the full-figured Effie is pushed aside to make room for the Beyonce of her day, Deena Jones (the lovely Shayla Simmons) while Lorrell (Crystal Joy), C.C. – Effie’s brother who writes the group’s songs – (David Bazemore), and a last minute addition to the group, Michelle (Kara-Tameika Watkins) all get caught up in the roiling backstage antics. Most of these antics are engineered by the suave music operator Curtis Taylor, Jr. played with impeccable smarm and charm by the debonair Sydney James Harcourt.

A supporting character in this show would have to be the amazing costumes by Frank Labovitz who obviously let his inner Bob Mackie escape to create the lavish, sequin spewing dresses the Dreams wore, as well as the period-savvy attire worn throughout the show. A special kudos must go to the actresses and their dressers for the lightning speed in which they changed costumes almost two dozen times!

Despite the show’s highpoints, it feels like the first act is simply a prelude to Effie’s bring-down-the-house-and-the-rest-of-Shirlington-Village showstopper “And I am Telling You (I’m Not Going).” Payton’s entire career could be boiled down to that cathartic moment when Effie lets everyone know what’s what. It’s a “come to Jesus” meeting all encapsulated in that single number. Payton was born to play the role of Effie White and it is a star turn that lights up the night.

Payton shines further in the second act as Effie attempts to make a meager comeback beginning in Chicago’s club scene and further progressing to the point she has a hit of C.C.’s showstopper ballad “One Night Only” that competes with the Dreams own disco version of the same song. Effie’s version is wrought with heartfelt emotion while Deena and the Dreams raise the show’s kitsch level to the extreme.

During this time the married Jimmy is carrying on with Lorrell as he moves from being a James Brown-like firebrand into a milquetoast Johnny Mathis clone. When Jimmy finally has his breaking point, the audience breathes a sigh of relief that the old Jimmy is back. But I guess that wasn’t enough for book writer Tom Eyen; that’s the last we see of Jimmy. He’s fired and sent packing. I guess we all know there’s no happy ending there.

By the time the Dreams have their farewell concert and Effie is brought in for one final number, you are relieved that the show is finally coming to a close. While the performances were stellar, the design was amazing, and the feel and pace of the production were top notch, I just can’t get over the mediocre score and less-than-dazzling book. The performers are the reason to see Dreamgirls because you will not see better diva moments on the DC stage for a long, long time.


Book & Lyrics by Tom Eyen
Music by Henry Krieger
Directed & Choreographed by Matthew Gardiner
Orchestrations: Harold Wheeler
Music Director: Jon Kalbfleisch
Lighting designer: Chris Lee
Costume designer: Frank Labovitz
Sound designer: Matt Rowe
Scenic designer: Adam Koch
Co-Choreographer Brianne Camp

Tickets: Ticketmaster (703) 573-SEAT (7328)
Signature Theatre • 4200 Campbell Avenue • Arlington, VA 22206

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

“Figaro” - Quite Simply, A Winner

By Judd Hollander
Photos by Jacob J. Goldberg

Tasting like a delicious farcical soufflé, with a side offering of ribald humor and heaping helpings of tongue twisters and circular logic tossed in, The Pearl Theatre Company's presentation of Beaumarchais' 1778 play Le Mariage de Figaro, entitled here simply Figaro, is a delightful treat. Wonderfully adapted – actually freely adapted, according to the press notes - by Charles Morey, the production offers satirical attacks on the upper class, the courts and the legal system in general – all served up with a generous amount of winks to the audience.

In 18th Century Spain, Figaro (Sean McNall), a servant in the employee of Court Almavia (Chris Mixon), is engaged to Suzanne (Jolly Abraham), the love of his life and handmaiden to the Countess Almavia (Joey Parsons). Though in order for Figaro and Suzanne to wed, the Count must first sign the marriage documents, and before he does that he expects to receive an intimate favor from Suzanne, a woman he has long had his eye on.

Undaunted by this turn of events, Figaro, who always has an idea or two up his sleeve, concocts a plan to fool the Duke and make things right. However Figaro's machinations are continually upset by numerous unforeseen circumstances. Such as Cherubin (Ben Charles), a somewhat younger, mealy-mouthed member of the staff with an eye for the ladies, and who is particularly enamored with the Countess, not to mention having a more physical relationship with Fanchette (Tiffany Villarin), the gardener's daughter. Figaro also has to deal with Marceline (Robin Leslie Brown), an older woman who wishes to marry him, as well as Brazile (Brad Heberlee), the Count's scheming associate, who wants to wed Marceline.

With everyone having an ulterior motive and no one wanting to be caught in the act by the others, the various characters must resort to hiding in closets, cowering under sofas, and jumping out of windows, all accompanied by mistaken identities galore. The show also offers twist upon twist and one unexpected turn after another. Indeed, even when it appears that things are finally untangled – after a hilarious legal encounter – there are still some cards that must be played, for while one couple or two may be happy, there are others who are yet not and in trying to help those unhappy, the ones who are happy may find themselves becoming unhappy once again before all is resolved to the happiness of some, but perhaps not all.

Great credit must go to Hal Brooks' direction in not letting this rollicking ride go completely off the rails. With most of the characters being larger than life and situations that are often over the top, or under the sofa as it were, Brooks is able to keep the show at least somewhat grounded in reality while allowing the actors to have great fun with their roles and keep things moving at pretty good clip. At the same time, he is also able to skillfully blend the show's humor, with its underlying message about the follies of the male sex, and the numerous in-jokes and asides to the audience while never taking the story into the realm of parody.

McNall does a wonderful turn as Figaro, a supremely self-confident individual with a rather interesting past. Something about an incident on Seville, an encounter that one could make an opera out of, he muses as one point. Also look for his story about a handbag. Some of his explanations are hilarious as he talks his way out of one showdown after another, all with a continuous matter-of-fact attitude and an ability to think on his feet; with a little help from Suzanne every so often. Yet Figaro is not completely without  failings, such as a bit of jealousy, which might ultimately prove his undoing.

Abraham is great fun as Suzanne, matching Figaro verbal joust for joust at times, with the love between the characters apparent and with McNall and Abraham having strong chemistry together. Suzanne may also be the wisest character in the play, noting time and again how "men are so stupid", and being able to exploit their moral weak points to her advantage and the advantage of those she tries to aid.

Parsons strikes the right combination of humor and pathos as the Countess, a woman desperately in love with her husband, a man who has apparently fallen out of love with her. At the same time, the Countess is every inch a woman and not above enjoying the flattery of Cherubin; Charles doing a nice job as the hapless young man who just wants to have fun without dealing too much with the responsibilities that go with such actions.

Mixon is nicely officious as the Count, a person whose manner screams for a comeuppance; while Heberlee, in addition to his work as Brazile, does delightful double duty as Antonio, a perennially drunken farmer, and Radisson, a somewhat hard of hearing toady of a judge – the latter acting as a showcase for some of Beaumarchais' feelings about the state of the legal system at the time.

Jo Winiarski's set is nicely scrumptious, especially the dark reds used in the beginning of the story, and the period costumes by Barbara A. Bell are enjoyable to look at.

Good for much more than one hoot, holler and belly laugh, with a moral lesson to be told, this production of Figaro is a clear winner from start to finish and a good way for The Pearl to kick off their 2012-2013 theatre season.


Featuring Sean McNall (Figaro), Jolly Abraham (Suzanne), Dan Dailey (Doctor Bartholo), Robin Leslie Brown (Marceline), Chris Mixon (Court Almavia), Ben Charles (Cherubin/Doublemain), Brad Heberlee (Bazile/Antonio/Bridoison), Joey Parsons (Countess Almavia), Tiffany Villarin (Fanchette)

Freely adapted from Le Mariage de Figaro by Beaumarchais
by Charles Morey
Directed by Hal Brooks
Scenic Design: Jo Winiarski
Costume Design: Barbara A. Bell
Lighting Design: Stephen Petrilli
Sound Design: Jane Shaw
Dramaturg: Kate Farrington
Production Stage Manager: Dale Smallwood
Fight Director: Rod Kinter
Production Manager and Technical Director: Gary Levinson

Presented by The Pearl Theatre Company
555 West 42nd Street
Tickets: 212-563-9261 or
Running Time: Two Hours, 15 Minutes, including one intermission
Closes: December 2, 2012

“Ivanov” - A powerful look at despair and emptiness

By Judd Hollander
Photos by Joan Marcus

Guilt, despair, the malicious sting of unsubstantiated gossip, the fine line between comedy and pathos, and the endless boredom of a never-changing existence. All are explored in Classic Stage Company's very enjoyable production of Anton Chekhov's Ivanov.

Ethan Hawke, Joely Richardson
Ivanov (Ethan Hawke), the owner of an estate in 1880s Central Russia, is in the grip of melancholy, and is disgusted with himself for being so. For months he has done nothing but bemoan his mental state, as well as his inability to function. While all this has been going on, the estate has moved deeper into debt. Ivanov also refusing to listen to any suggestions by estate manager Borkin (Glenn Fitzgerald) about how to get things back on sound financial footing. Adding to Ivanov's pain is the fact that his wife Anna Petrovna (Joely Richardson) is dying.

At least some of Ivanov's problems stem from the fact that he has fallen out of love with Anna, a woman who loves him still. Yet theirs was more than just a simple marriage. Anna was Jewish, renouncing her faith when she married Ivanov, subsequently being disowned by her family. Thus, she brought no dowry into the union. Since that time there have been persistent rumors that Ivanov feels be made a bad deal with his marriage to Anna, and is waiting for her to die, or is perhaps hastening her to the grave, so he can find better arrangement. This is a feeling brought out time and again by Dr. Lvov (Jonathan Marc Silverman). Also living on estate is Shabelsky (George Morfogen), an aging Count and uncle to Ivanov.

Ethan Hawke, Juliet Rylance
Ivanov's only relaxation are his nightly sojourns to the estate of Lebedev (director Austin Pendleton subbing for Louis Zorich the night this reviewer saw the show), where he listens to the various news of the day. While Ivanov has a good relationship with Lebedev, the same however cannot be said of Lebedev's wife Zinaida (Robert Maxwell), who is determined Ivanov at least begin to pay the money he owes them. Also usually present at these gatherings is Babakina (Stephanie Janssen), a wealthy young widow, and Sasha (Juliet Rylance), daughter of Lebedev and Zinaida, who has long had eyes for Ivanov.

The one continual theme in the play which stands out above all others, is the terrible boredom the various characters experience day after day, and how most of them will do anything to escape from it. Such attempts ranging from entering marriages that one knows are ill-advised, to business machinations that seem plausible, but upon closer look are not on the up and up. There is also continual verbal beating about the bush by just about every character present, as if all of them are afraid or unwilling to express exactly what they want or how they feel.

All of what is being presented could be played as straight drama, but Pendleton, using Carol Rocamora's translation of the work, takes great care to leaven the piece with humor, showing not only the depths of these people's despair but also the foibles and follies of those involved. Morfogen is quite good with this, with his endless diatribes on doctors and to a lesser degree lawyers, showing perhaps what Chekhov felt about those professions. Borkin also works well in this regard, the playwright using the character for a satirical attack on business.

Ethan Hawke
Hawke is brilliant in the title role, showing Ivanov to be a man perpetually in the grip of hopelessness, as well as contempt for himself for how fall he has fallen - such as when he must beg Zinaida and Lebedev for an extension on his loan. Yet at other moments, his mind is filled with clarity, understanding and finally, an ultimately resignation to his situation. An object of pity and pain, Hawke is able to make this tormented character seem quite real. There is one moment where, after having an epiphany of sorts, one wants Ivanov to put everyone in their place and finally reclaim his life once and for all. At the same time, he is not above prejudices when it comes to his wife, and is also clearly affected by the malicious gossip that seems to always follow him.

Morfogen is pointedly hilarious as the dry-witted Count. A man who, like Ivanov, has almost no money of his own. A level-headed and principled sort, Shabelsky is not above getting involved in some of Borkin's schemes, such as a marriage to the much younger Babakina, simply as a way to relieve the boredom his life has become. Morfogen also has good chemistry in his scenes with Pendleton, their characters supposedly very old friends.

Pendleton does a nice job with Lebedev, a man who attempts to see the humor and/or reality in most situations and prefers not to lose his temper or even give advice unless forced to. His reactions during a heart-to-heart talk with Sasha are good examples of this. As for his directorial work, Pendleton demonstrates a good understand of the characters and helps to create the right atmosphere for the play. While the work has a tendency to drag at points, especially in the middle third of act one, which is mainly just two people talking to one another for a long time, once things shift from the Ivanov estate to Lebedev's, the play picks up steam and never weakens again.

Fitzgerald is nicely overbearing as Borkin. At first a seemingly astute and level headed businessman, it eventually becomes obvious he is a budding manipulator trying to better things for himself, and not above pushing people into situations they not might care for if the financial rewards were ultimately worth it.

Silverman wonderfully exudes malevolence as Lvov, the real villain of the piece. A so-called honorable man who despises those who don't live up to his definition of morality, it is by his actions that much of the gossip about Ivanov has spread throughout the province. Lvov at times going to methods and extremes that would, in today's world, be considered harassment.

Richardson is fine as Anna, though she has little to do other than continually ask Ivanov why he no longer loves her and play the pious, dying wife. However she does very well in playing a scene, one dripping with spite, when she thinks Ivanov has not been true to her. On the other side of the coin, Rylance nicely portrays Sasha as an earnest and naive young woman, drawn to the shattered wreck Ivanov has become and believing wholeheartedly that it is her duty to fix him.

One other actor definitely worthy of mention is James Patrick Nelson in the role of Kosykh, a local tax officer who's perennially complaining about what happened to him during a game of cards. His continuous descriptions and explanations of the event, and everyone else's reactions, quickly become highly comical.

The set by Santo Loquasto of the Ivanov and Lebedev estates are good, costumes by Marco Piemontese come off well, and the lighting by Keith Parham and sound design by Ryan Rumery all works nicely within the context of the story.

Funny, poignant and powerful, if occasionally a bit dragging at times, this well-executed production of Ivanov is very good indeed.


Featuring: Ethan Hawke (Ivanov), Glenn Fitzgerald (Borkin), Joely Richardson (Anna Petrovna), George Morfogen (Shabelsky), Jonathan Marc Silverman (Lvov), Roberta Maxwell (Zinaida), Anthony Newfield (Grigory Grigorich Gost), James Patrick Nelson (Kosykh), Annette Hunt (Avdotya), Anne Troup (Gavrila), Stephanie Janssen (Babakina), Louis Zorich (Lebedev), Juliet Rylance (Sasha)

Written by Anton Chekhov
Translated by Carol Rocamora
Set Design: Santo Loquasto
Costume Design: Marco Piemontese
Lighting Design: Keith Parham
Original Music and Sound Design: Ryan Rumery
Hair Design: Paul Huntley
Managing Director: Jeff Griffin
Production Stage Manager: Joanne E. McInerney
Production Supervisor: Production Core
Casting: Calleri Casting
Press Representative: The Publicity Office
Directed by Austin Pendleton

Presented by Classic Stage Company
136 East 13th Street
Information: 212-677-4210 ext. 10 or
Running time: 2 hours, 50 minutes, One Intermission
Closes: December 9, 2012

Thursday, November 15, 2012

“The Freedom of the City” - "Packing a Political Wallop"

By Judd Hollander
Photo by Carol Rosegg

Playwright Bran Friel offers a resounding indictment against oppression, misinterpretations by the media and the excessive use of force by those in power with his 1973 work The Freedom of the City. The play is based on an actual 1972 incident where 13 protesters were shot by the British Parachute Regiment in the town of Derry in British-occupied Northern Ireland.

Using that real-life situation as a template, Friel sets his story in the same location, and two years earlier, where three very different people, all strangers to one another, are taking part in a civil rights demonstration. When British authorities break up the gathering with water cannons, rubber bullets and tear gas, such demonstrations being illegal, the three take shelter in the first open building they can find, which happens to be the Guildhall, where the Mayor of the town holds court.

As the trio begins to take stock of their situation, each reacts differently. Lily (Cara Seymour), a mother of eleven and who sees these demonstrations as an excuse for her to get out of the house, is fascinated by her surroundings and treats the entire experience with a sort of awe and wonderment. Skinner, (Joseph Sikora) the most vocal of the three, sees their being at the Guildhall as a tremendous joke, and through his tendency of "defense flippancy", as he calls it, a chance to get in some quick satisfaction now that the location is in the hands of the people, so to speak. Meanwhile Michael (James Russell), who's more cautious than the others and who firmly believes in civil rights, as long as there's no violence involved, wants to leave as it's safe to do so, with everything being left exactly the way they found it.

It may be too late for any of them to leave, however, as the police are preparing to surround the Guildhall, believing it to be filled with armed terrorists. All the while the media, unable to get specific information on just who is inside or what their intentions are, report a series of half-truths and possibilities, turning those in the Guildhall into local folk heroes. With the masses rooting for the unknown protesters and the British authorities desperate to regain control of the situation, a potentially dangerous scenario quickly goes from bad to worse.

Friel pulls no punches here, going for the jugular in accusing those in charge of totally mishandling things due to ignorance, fear and the need not to look stupid in the eyes of both their supporters and their detractors. Increasing the emotional impact is the fact that the story takes place in two separate time periods, continually switching back and forth between each. The first follows Lily, Michael and Skinner at the Guildhall and the subsequent involvement of the police and media; while the second takes place sometime later as a court of inquiry tries to unravel who is ultimately responsible for what occurred on that fateful day. As such, it's interesting to see the theories presented and conclusions drawn regarding what was going on, as compared to seeing what actually happened.

The only time a lack of believability creeps in is with the reaction of the three inside the Guildhall when they realize the gravity of their situation. The first act ends with the police ordering them to come out with their hands in the air. Yet in act two, while Michael wants to leave immediately, Skinner and Lily continually talk about one thing or another, with Skinner also beginning to trash the place. Yet Skinner's actions and Lily's attitude don't really jibe with the characters as they have been presented. There are some strong points made between the three during these exchanges, but it would have worked much better had the police announcement come later in the play, as having them holding a mock meeting on various mayoral issues of the day after they're been given a warning to come out stretches the credibility of the scene somewhat.

Seymour does a good job in making Lily more than a stereotypical wife and mother. At first glance a woman slowly being suffocated in a life she nonetheless loves, Lily eventually admits, with some urging from Skinner, that she's more involved in the civil rights demonstrations than she first thought, seeing in them not only a temporary escape from her endless housewife duties, but also the possibility of a better life for her children. Still, regardless of how she feels inside, she is first and foremost a mother; as shown in a cute moment when she orders a quickly chastised Skinner to get out of his wet clothes before he catches cold.

Russell effectively makes Michael both a study in denial and the most unsympathetic person of the trio. A man who believes in peaceful protests, as well always trying to see the best in people, Michael worries more about the cause he supports than what's happening to the people said cause is supposed to benefit. He also steadfastly refuses to believe that the police would harm them indiscriminately, making him somewhat naive considering what has gone on up to that point. Michael's attitudes are also in marked contrast to the unfolding events, the audience already knowing what is about to happen, though not in the manner that it does.

Sikora is good as Skinner, an angry malcontent with a fatalistic attitude, and a man determined to leave him mark, even if it's only by signing the Guildhall guestbook, before he's done. His devil-may-care attitude, coupled with a smoldering aura of violence and a past he won't discuss, leads to several confrontations between him and Michael, with Lily more often than not coming down on Skinner's side of things.

Elsewhere, John C. Vennema is nicely officious as the Judge who presides over the official inquiry by the authorities, while Craig Wroe is good as Brigadier Johnson-Hansbury, the man in charge of the various companies which surrounded the Guildhall, and who ultimately may have been responsible for the final outcome.

Ciarán O'Reilly's direction works well, building the tension nicely, though much of the extraneous material in act two slows things down a bit. However he does a good job in helping the actors to bring out the human side of their characters, showing them all to be flesh and blood figures rather than simply symbols of a cause or a particular moment in history.

Charlie Corcoran's set is nicely furnished without being over the top. Costumes by David Toser range from the functional to the officious. Sound design by Ryan Rumery is excellent throughout, particularly hitting home in the last moments of the play when it helps to paint a devastating final image just before the blackout.

The Freedom of the City looks at an event which should never be forgotten, and while some aspects of the play have become a bit dated, the work's underlying messages of misuse of authority, wrongful oppression, the rights of the individual and the need for the truth to ultimately come out, still strongly ring forth.

The Freedom of the City

Featuring: James Russell (Michael), Cara Seymour (Lily), Joseph Sikora (Skinner), Christa Scott-Reed (Photographer/Dr. Dobbs/Eileen O'Kelly), Ciaran Byrne (Priest/Soldier C), John C. Vennema (Judge), Clark Carmichael (Constable B/Soldier D/Balladeer/Reporter/Dr. Winbourne), Craig Wroe (Solider A/Reporter/Brigadier Johnson-Hansbury), Evan Zes (Soldier B/Army Press Officer/Processor Cupley)

Written by Brian Friel
Directed by Ciarán O'Reilly
Set Design: Charlie Corcoran
Costume Design: David Toser
Lighting Design: Michael Gottlieb
Original Music: Ryan Rumery
Sound Design: M. Florian Staab
Props: Sven Nelson
Dialect Coach: Stephen Gabis
Casting: Deborah Brown
Hair and Wig Design: Robert-Charles Vallance
Production Stage Manager: Pamela Brusoski
Assistant Stage Manager: Rebecca C. Monroe
Press Representative: Shirley Herz Associates

Presented by the Irish Repertory Theatre
Francis J. Greenburger Mainstage
Address: 212-132 West 22nd Street
Tickets: 212-727-2737 or
Running Time: 2 hours, with one intermission
Closes: November 25, 2012

Friday, November 2, 2012

Hurricane Sandy

Internet access is spotty, so sorry for the lack of updates.  Hope to be back soon.