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Vanessa Hudgens stars in a sparkling new production of the classic musical. By Leslie Milk
The cast of Gigi at the Kennedy Center. Photograph by Joan Marcus.

Thank heaven for grand old musicals. A brilliant score and a new production polished like a jewel give this revival of Lerner and Loewe’s Gigi the attention it deserves.

It is Paris in 1900, when a rich man can pick a prize paramour at will as long as he is willing to pay for his passion. Young Gigi (Vanessa Hudgens) is being groomed to become just such a prize by her loving grandmother (Victoria Clark) and calculating great-aunt (Dee Hoty). Gigi’s youthful exuberance delights Gaston (Corey Cott) a bored young buck in the process of discarding one mistress and searching for a replacement. In the intermission between the first and second acts, Gigi “blossoms like a flower” and Gaston falls in love with her.

In this new, more politically correct version of the story adapted by Heidi Thomas (Call the Midwife), Gigi bemoans her lack of occupational options, and Gaston’s aging roué uncle Honoré (Howard McGillin) doesn’t get to sing the show’s anthem “Thank Heaven for Little Girls”—it’s instead performed by Gigi’s grandmother and great-aunt. In fact, Honoré doesn’t seem to be having much fun—a pity to those of us who remember Maurice Chevalier twinkling in the Oscar-winning 1958 movie version.

Talent will out in this production. Victoria Clark and Dee Hoty steal the show to a degree that often makes the Gigi-Gaston romance seem like a subplot. Hudgens and Cott are fair of face and sweet of voice, but they can’t compete with the powerful performances of the old pros.

Still, Gigi is a feast for the eye as well as the ear. The costumes (by Catherine Zuber) are sumptuous, the sets (Derek McLane) are gorgeous, and the lighting (Natasha Katz) is magical. Director Eric Schaeffer capably helms this old gem, and casting Hudgens, the star of High School Musical, is bound to attract younger audiences. See it before Gigi picks up her picture hat and moves to Broadway.

Gigi is at the Kennedy Center through February 12. Tickets ($45 to $150) are available online.

Posted at 10:55 AM/ET, 02/03/2015 | Permalink | Comments ()
There's a lot to like in this visually dazzling Broadway revival. By Leslie Milk
Photograph courtesy of the National Theatre.

There is a lot of excitement and fun in this revival of the 1970s hit Broadway musical. But it loses energy in the second act.

It is hard to imagine a more winning combination—sexy Fosse choreography, Cirque du Soleil-like acrobatics, a tuneful Stephen Schwartz score, a tongue-in-cheek book, and stunning performances by both theatrical old hands Lucie Arnaz and John Rubenstein and talented newcomers Sasha Allen and Kyle Dean Massey.

The production has sex, war, and rock 'n' roll. Add magical illusions and dazzling special effects, and it is easy to see why Pippin won the 2013 Tony Award as the best musical revival.

The story itself is a slender scaffold upon which to hang so much activity. The title character, Pippin, is the son of King Charlemagne, who rules over the Holy Roman Empire. The lad is in search of a greater destiny than merely succeeding to his father's throne.

His search for the true meaning of life leads him through battles, orgies, and a brief experiment in patricide. These graphic and beautifully choreographed pursuits should deter parents from bringing their young children to see this production. Try explaining what the scantily clad threesome is doing in the cage and why the lady in black has a whip.

Pippin (Massey) is accompanied on his journey by a helpful coach and narrator called simply Lead Player (Allen). He is affecting, athletic, and sweet of voice; she is an electric performer. Both are destined for greater things.

Two veterans more than hold their own against younger talent. Lucie Arnaz plays Pippin's grandmother, Berthe. She has one blockbuster number and makes the most of it—she sings, she dances, she flies on a trapeze, and she stops the show.

John Rubenstein was the original Pippin in 1972. Now he plays King Charles with vigor, and brazens through a tongue-twisting, hurricane-speed number that would challenge performers of any age.

Pippin—both character and production—both slow down in act two, when our hero succumbs to the allures of ordinary life. Where is Grandma in sequins when we really need her? Still, there were plenty of dazzling stunts and visual fireworks to delight the audience and the promise of a youngster about to begin his own search for greatness.

Pippin is at the National Theatre until January 4. Running time is about two hours and 30 minutes, including intermission. Tickets ($48 to $93) are available online.

Posted at 11:52 AM/ET, 12/24/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
A world-premiere holiday musical based on the comic strip “Mutts”—for little kids only. By William O'Sullivan
Photograph by Scott Suchman.

There’s one comic strip I read these days (well, until “Doonesbury” comes back from hiatus): Patrick McDonnell’s sweet, simple, funny, humane, and often silly “Mutts,” a brilliantly drawn leap into the inner life of dogs and cats, equal in artistry to the two greatest strips of the last 50 years, “Peanuts” and “Calvin and Hobbes.”

When I heard the Kennedy Center had commissioned a family musical of McDonnell’s wonderful “Mutts” book The Gift of Nothing—in which Mooch the cat tries to find the perfect present for his pal Earl the dog—I couldn’t resist, even though I haven’t been a kid since Snoopy was in his newsprint prime, and I don’t have kids of my own.

Adapted by McDonnell, local playwright/director Aaron Posner, and Posner’s wife, actress Erin Weaver, with songs by Andy Mitton, The Gift of Nothing is a pleasant way for a family with small children—very small children—to pass an hour during the holidays. The Kennedy Center bills it as a show for ages four and up, but I’d bet a good portion of the audience couldn’t see their fourth birthday over the horizon yet, and anyone older than about six would likely be impatient with the board-book-style dialogue and songs.

Unlike the comic strip, which has intergenerational appeal, this is a musical for preschoolers. As such, it it’s bright, bouncy, and easy to follow, with a warm message against holiday commercialism and in favor of companionship and love as the most meaningful gifts.

Nickolas Vaughan shines as the impulsive feline Mooch, his black-clad body slinky, agile, and unguardedly goofy as he gets excited about his gift idea or wraps himself around his “person,” Millie, played by an endearing Rachel Zampelli, a few decades younger and at least 50 pounds lighter than her comic-strip counterpart. Joseph Patrick O’Malley is winningly nerdy as Ozzie, Earl’s human dad and the cartoonist’s alter-ego (whose inspiration for the strip was his own dog Earl).

A weak link for longtime “Mutts” fans (i.e., grownups) is that Earl is played by an actress, Maggie Donnelly. She’s fine in the part, but why have a boy dog named Earl portrayed by a woman? No doubt it’s to widen the play’s appeal to both genders—as if young girls can’t relate to a dog and cat that are both male?

To someone (i.e., that grownup again) for whom the gold standard of the comic-strip-turned-musical is the melodic sophistication and verbal wit of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, the songs in The Gift of Nothing are unmemorable, even clunky at times. But the little ones in the audience seemed to be having fun—helped by generous audience participation, a nice touch. Besides, when you’re three or four, memorable isn’t so important—it’s what’s in the moment that counts. And that’s actually an idea Earl, Mooch, and their friends can get behind.

“The Gift of Nothing” is at the Kennedy Center through December 28. Running time is one hour, with no intermission. Tickets ($20) are available online.

Posted at 11:40 AM/ET, 11/26/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
This production of the classic musical is in desperate need of a stronger lead. By Leslie Milk
Jonathan Hadary as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof. Photograph by Margot Schulman.

This year is the 50th anniversary of the Broadway production of Fiddler on the Roof, the musical based on the stories of Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem. It recreates life in a small village “beyond the pale,” where Jews eke out a meager living amid the threat of pogroms at the whim of the Russian czar.

At the center of this is the milkman Tevye, a man “blessed” with five daughters in need of dowries, a demanding if understanding wife, a horse that limps so much Tevye has to pull his own milk wagon, and a faith that sustains him through daily tribulations that would destroy a weaker man.

Fiddler might have been dismissed as too schmaltzy, too sentimental were it not for the brilliant score by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, the witty book by Joseph Stein, and the dynamic choreography by Jerome Robbins. Its song like “Sunrise, Sunset” became instant classics, and its focus on the quandary between maintaining tradition and bending to a new generation resonated with audiences around the world—for instance Japan, where it was a huge hit. The show has the added advantage that it was dated when it debuted. It remains a daguerreotype of a time and place that exist in distant memory and folklore.

Arena Stage artistic director Molly Smith has embraced the spirit of musical with gusto—the stage rings with joyful melodies and the stomps of energetic dancers. And there are some stunning performances: Ann Arvia is pitch-perfect as Tevye’s wife, Golde; as are the actresses playing their daughters Tzeitel (Dorea Schmidt), Hodel (Hannah Corneau), and Chava (Maria Rizzo).

But those strong points and the perfect setting cannot mask the missing jewel at is center: Jonathan Hadary is a Broadway veteran and a talented performer, but he lacks the dramatic heft to embody Tevye. The character demands a larger stage presence, a booming voice, a gallon-jugful of audacity. Hadary’s milkman is fat-free.

Another unfortunate point: Some of the other players speak in accents that bear no resemblance to Russian Jewry. They are immigrants from some country (one actor sounded vaguely Irish), but not one Sholem Aleichem ever visited.

That said, the sheer exuberance of Fiddler on the Roof is bound to delight audiences—particularly those who have never tasted the full-fat variety of Tevye.

Fiddler on the Roof is at Arena Stage through January 4. Running time is about two hours and 35 minutes, including one intermission. Tickets ($50 to $99) are available online. UPDATE, 12/10: The Arena Stage run has been extended through January 11.

Posted at 12:40 PM/ET, 11/13/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
The touring show stopped by the Newseum Saturday night. By John Scarpinato
The cast of Water +/- at the world premiere in New Orleans. Photograph courtesy of NPR.

This weekend, NPR brought its “NPR Presents” series to the Newseum with Water +/-, a live performance that combines theater and journalism to create a new form of storytelling. The DC stop was the second on the show’s eight-city tour, which continues across America this month.

Tony Award-winning director Kenny Leon, writers Arthur Yorinks and Carl Hancock Rux, and actors Anika Noni Rose, Michele Shay, Jason Dirden, and Lucas Caleb Rooney joined NPR science correspondent Christopher Joyce and WAMU’s Kavitha Cardoza, who served as hosts.

The subject of the night? Water—as life source and killer, as basic necessity and symbol of privilege. Each definition was illustrated through personal accounts, most taken from NPR’s national and local news coverage and brought to life by the actors, some as monologues and others incorporating the cohosts. One account involves a man explaining what it’s like to be homeless in New York with no hot water to shower with. He views water as a source of dignity. In another, a woman talks about the changing landscape in New Orleans, where rising sea levels wipe away the marshes. Water influences everyone’s life in some way, but the range of experiences described in one evening’s performance was eye-opening.

Music played a large part in driving the narrative. Violinist Daniel Bernard Roumain’s original score reflected the tone for each story; some segments were accompanied by fast, pulsing sounds, while others required a more soothing tune.

At face value, the program may seem a bit dull—but after spending a little over an hour watching such personal stories come to life, it’s impossible not to consider the subject in a new light. In Western society, many people take running water for granted; this performance reminds that it is a luxury for some, even in America. Water +/- will leave you pondering both the role the substance plays in human existence—and the part we play in its preservation.

More information and the full touring schedule for Water +/- is available online.

This post has been updated from a previous version.

Posted at 06:06 PM/ET, 11/10/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
Eighteen ways of looking at a battle. By Tanya Pai
The company of Our War at Arena Stage. Photograph by Teresa Wood.

Early on in Our War at Arena Stage, one of the show’s many characters declares he’s “bringing the color to the black and white picture.” It’s a statement that applies to the production as a whole, a reminder that “race” in America today applies not just to black and white but to every shade in between.

Our War comprises 25 new monologues by as many playwrights, each examining the Civil War from a distinct, rarely expressed perspective that attempts to expand (and subvert) the traditional historical narrative. Director Anita Maynard-Losh divided the monologues into two sets of 18—“Stars” and “Stripes”—performed on alternating nights. Also shaking up the usual theater format is the presence of “notable Washingtonians” such as Mayor Vince Gray and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who recite a monologue of their choosing at select performances.

The production is part of Arena Stage’s participation in the National Civil War Project, and Maynard-Losh used it as a chance to explore one of America’s greatest conflicts from vantage points not found in history books. “With a collection of playwrights that is more than half women and a great majority people of color, we get quite different points of view,” the director told Washingtonian. Each author had free rein to determine the time period and voice of his or her work, and Maynard-Losh then arranged them thematically rather than chronologically. The stage is simple—just a raised platform, with a backdrop of movie screens on which the name of each piece and scribe is displayed, along with occasional video clips—and six actors, clad in simple, neutral-toned outfits, take turns embodying each role.

The show, as a whole, works quite well, and is often surprisingly funny; in the space of a few minutes, the majority of the works manage to conceive of a whole world and a distinct, fully realized character: a bubbly, Rand Paul-quoting fourth-grader, an ebullient Indian-American female soldier, a former slave. The cast is as diverse as the monologues, and all the actors succeed admirably in selling the various characters by distinct gestures and vocal inflections (though the accents are, on occasion, a bit iffy). There’s a sense that despite the shortness of each piece, the same amount of thought went into each character’s backstory as would in the case of a full-length play. (This has the unfortunate side effect of making the guest monologues stand out even more; while not ruinously distracting, they do disrupt the otherwise relatively uniform flow of the production.)

Some of the monologues proved more affecting than others, particularly ones set in the present day and told from the perspective of recent American immigrants, such as Aditi Kapil’s “Moo” and María Agui Carter’s “Fourteen Freight Trains.” Both involved illegal immigrants—one Indian, one Hispanic—who join the armed forces to try to secure a permanent place for themselves in the US. Both are all too aware of their own mortality, of the fact that they’re putting their life on the line for a country that might not recognize their contributions until it’s too late, and both accept their fate with open eyes. Even if it’s a bit of a heavy-handed depiction of the immigrant experience, it serves to draw a stark and sad parallel between the issues that divided the nation in the 19th century and the racial inequalities that continue to stitch themselves into the fabric of US life. As another character points out in a monologue aptly titled “Times Have Changed,” society has shown progress—just not much.

Our War is at Arena Stage through November 9. Running time is about one hour and 30 minutes, with no intermission. For tickets ($40 to $50) and guest-star information, visit the theater's website.

Posted at 03:00 PM/ET, 10/31/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
The songs are the weakest point of this otherwise solid musical production. By Missy Frederick
Charlie Pollock as the titular character in Elmer Gantry. Photograph by Christopher Mueller.

Apparently there’s something about Aimee Semple McPherson that drives people to write musical theater.

The charismatic real-life evangelist has been the inspiration for not one, but two musicals staged at Signature Theatre. First, there was Saving Aimee, Kathy Lee Gifford’s problematic musical about the controversial historical figure, which had its world premiere there in 2007 and briefly found new life on Broadway as Scandalous in 2012. Now there’s Elmer Gantry, which again tells the story of a flawed but magnetic female preacher—and the titular huckster who finds himself entwined with her.

This time, that preacher is technically Sister Sharon Falconer, not Aimee—though Sinclair Lewis, who wrote the novel from which the show was adapted, based several elements of the character on McPherson. Gantry is an unapologetically shady traveling salesman who catches one of Falconer’s tent revival shows and is immediately drawn to her. Since Gantry spent about ten seconds of his youth as a preacher, he’s able to draw on that experience to get Falconer’s attention—and convince her his expertise can bring more attention (and funding) to her enterprise. He’s right about that, and the two become almost an unstoppable pair as they travel the country spreading the word of Jesus (and making money)—and drawing the attention of some opportunistic businessmen in the process.

Lewis’s novel was both shocking and satirical in its day. This Elmer Gantry doesn’t have the same impact: Book writer John Bishop seems more interested in redeeming Gantry than mocking him, and the musical doesn’t really emphasize the dark side of the duo’s manipulative evangelism. Still, the plot moves briskly, and the story keeps the viewer interested, even if a few too many reveals are crammed into the second act of the story. But more important, Elmer Gantry might have worked better as a play with music than as a musical.

On one hand, when the cast is singing the gospel numbers of Gantry and Falconer’s revival show, Elmer Gantry comes alive. Songs like “Walk With the Prophets,” “Carry That Ball,” and “He’s Coming Back” are showstoppers, thanks especially to stand-out singers like Nova Y. Payton and Jessica Lauren Ball. Mel Marvin’s score, which draws from everything from gospel to blues to ’80s-style pop ballads, is lively and diverse, but Bob Satuloff’s lyrics can frequently be clumsy. This is most apparent during Elmer Gantry’s overly explanatory soliloquy songs, which tend to ploddingly spell out plot details and characters’ motivations. (The show opener, “Between Trains,” is a major offender.)

As Gantry, Charlie Pollock works to sell even the most emotive of these ballads, lending sort of a slimy sexiness to the kind-of con man. He’s well-matched in Mary Kate Morrissey, a terrific singer who brings depth and intensity to Falconer in such numbers as “You Don’t Know Who I Am,” which hints at the preacher’s less-than-pure back story. The pair’s scenes together have heat, even if duets like “With You” probably won’t find their place in Broadway history.

Nearly every supporting element of Eric Schaeffer’s production is strong, from the performing ensemble to lush new orchestrations from Bruce Coughlin. Dan Conway’s simple but commanding set of angular wooden beams even gets its own curtain call of sorts during one particularly climatic moment in the show. Signature Theatre is doing everything it can to make Elmer Gantry sing; there just probably should be a little less singing.

Elmer Gantry is at Signature Theatre through November 29. Running time is two hours and 20 minutes, with one intermission. Tickets ($36.80 to $105.50) are available through the theater’s website.

Posted at 02:00 PM/ET, 10/21/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
Despite a handsome staging, this production lacks bite. By Jane Horwitz
Sean McLaughlin and Caroline Bowman in Evita at the Kennedy Center. Photograph by Richard Termine.

A veteran theatergoer might experience a pang upon entering the Kennedy Center Opera House to catch the national tour of Evita. Stuck like cheesy appliqués onto a blue theater curtain are two enormous cutout headshots of the real Juan and Eva Perón. They are so tackily attached that the seams show. Such wear and tear is not uncommon with touring shows—Elf the Musical was a far worse example to land at the KenCen—but that initial image doesn’t inspire confidence.

Once the curtain rises, however, the production proves a handsome and well-sung affair, though rarely a transcendent or politically spiky one.

Che is the show’s singing narrator, a character intended to recall, at least a little, the legendary Argentine leftist radical Che Guevara. In this touring version of the 2012 Broadway revival, staged by British director Michael Grandage and choreographed by Rob Ashford, Che has been nearly depoliticized, bereft of his iconic beret. The weird mix of leftist and fascist policies used by the Perónists defies easy definition—which may be exactly what Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyricist Tim Rice wanted to say here. Making Che apolitical may make him more sympathetic, but it clarifies nothing.

The curtain rises on Eva Perón’s funeral in 1952. After that her life unfolds in flashbacks. A large screen taking up nearly two-thirds of the height of the Opera House stage shows newsreels of her actual funeral. Dwarfed by the screen, the show’s ensemble, dressed in mourning, sings a requiem. Projections, which are all the rage on stage these days, do add historic context here, but they go on so long. You wonder if you’re watching a documentary or a show. Eventually, though, the screen gives way to a set: an impressive enough neoclassical façade that stands in for the presidential palace and other buildings in Buenos Aires.

The new choreography by Ashford emphasizes the tango-y lilt in Webber’s score. This serves particularly well in “The Art of the Possible,” a number about military officers jockeying for power. The men move in a semi-comical blend of tango and French hurl-your-partner apache dancing. Clever stuff.

As Che, Max Quinlan sings in a pleasing light tenor, but his portrayal could use more bite. When he chides Evita for her hollow promises to the masses and her husband’s corruption, his words carry a touch of irony, but little outrage, which is surely the stuff of drama—even a fully sung musical drama.

Caroline Bowman as Evita, lovely in Christopher Oram’s Paris-inspired wardrobe, can shift from a supple soprano into a piercing belt as Evita’s power and Webber’s notes climb higher. The Howard County native plays the difficult, vocally challenging role with skill and precision, but doesn’t fully embody the charisma the real-life Evita purportedly had.

Two other lead performers stand out for the way they meld their characters’ gravitas and their music. Sean MacLaughlin as Perón carries himself ramrod straight, his lust for power and his fear of rivals forever tugging at him. His physical portrayal and his fine baritone lend Perón depth, as when he explains to Evita their crumbling political situation in “The Dice Are Rolling.” Christopher Johnstone, wedding a certain smarminess and a gorgeous tenor, oils his way through the role of the tango singer Magaldi, who brings country girl Eva Duarte to the big city.

The entire cast does better than decent justice to one of Webber’s best, subtlest and most strongly atmospheric scores—really, just one melody, which goes through many variations and periodically gels into “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina.” It’s used to powerful effect when Evita, in a glittering white strapless gown, addresses the masses after her husband’s election—a moment that remains electrifyingly theatrical.

When it comes to Rice’s lyrics, however, the ensemble, the orchestra, and the sound system too often leave an audience wondering what’s being said. Great poetry they are not, but Rice’s lyrics are smart, witty and often usefully explanatory, crucial in a totally sung show about a historical subject.

The bottom line: This Evita won’t change your life, but it will pleasantly divert your eyes and ears.

Evita is at the Kennedy Center Opera House through October 19. Running time is about two hours and 20 minutes, including an intermission. Tickets ($39 to $130) are available online.

Posted at 01:20 PM/ET, 10/06/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
Thanks to strong performances and solid direction, this 1935 drama still packs a punch. By Jane Horwitz
Laura C. Harris, Rick Foucheux, and Naomi Jacobson in Awake and Sing! at Olney Theatre Center. Photograph by Stan Barouh.

The dingy 1930s apartment splayed across the stage at Olney Theatre Center speaks, before the show ever starts, to the sort of proud impoverishment in which the Berger family of Clifford Odets’s Awake and Sing! lives. A Jewish family in the Great Depression-era Bronx, the Bergers are barely treading water, and scenic designer Jack Magaw nails it in one.

The blended odors of musty hallways and boiled cabbage don’t literally hang in the air, but they linger in the atmospherics of Olney’s highly satisfying, often soul-stirring production. Serge Seiden has directed an ensemble of some of the area’s best actors, and proved that Odets’s 1935 kitchen-sink drama about life on the underside of American capitalism can still pack a gut punch, 79 years after its debut with the legendary, politically vocal Group Theatre.

That doesn’t mean that aspects of the play and the Olney production don’t lapse into ethnic stereotypes now and then; or that the two female characters onstage, and a third who comes up in conversation, don’t suffer from being caricatured as the nagging wife and the wayward daughter, responsible for causing men much pain. But never mind all that. This cast and director give the characters inner lives that go beyond caricature. And the level of ensemble work comes close to the memorable 2006 production at Arena Stage, directed by Arena cofounder Zelda Fichandler.

Twentysomething Ralph Berger (Alex Mandell) feels he’s been deprived of everything, from skates as a child to life itself, now that he’s grown. He works a crummy job for $16 a week, which he hands over to his domineering mother Bessie (Naomi Jacobson), and sleeps on a cot in the living room because his grandpa Jacob (Rick Foucheux) has the spare bedroom. Jacob was a barber, but his true passion is politics: He spouts Marxist slogans and calls for revolution, though based on his soft-heartedness, one expects he’d prefer the nonviolent kind. 

Younger audience members—who should check this play out if they like serious drama—may not be aware of how many Americans, particularly children of European immigrants, were attracted to Marxism and Communism in the 1930s. It seemed to many of them during the Depression that capitalism didn’t work any more. The slaughters and other human-rights abuses under Stalin in the Soviet Union weren’t widely understood. Not that Jacob has any fellow travelers in the family, but at least his grandson listens, and in turn, Jacob lends a sympathetic ear to the young Ralph’s woes.

Bessie tries to run a tight ship. Worn and faded her furniture may be, but she’s hung lace curtains at the window and keeps the place neat as a pin. She claims to want the best for everyone, but to her, that means berating her father for his idealism and his opera records, preventing Ralph from living his own life or seeing the girl he loves, and forcing her rebellious daughter Hennie (Laura C. Harris) to marry a timid though gainfully employed immigrant, Sam (Joshua Morgan), whom she doesn’t love. 

Though Bessie’s husband, Myron (Paul Morella), a dreamer and a milquetoast, carries no authority in the home, Bessie has nothing but admiration for her brother, Morty (a blustery Richard Pelzman), who deigns to visit his poor relations now and then. A successful businessman, Morty fights off the labor unions and dismisses his father Jacob for having entered his “second childhood.” Jacobson and Pelzman deserve credit for letting us glimpse Bessie’s and Morty’s softer sides, if only through the odd gesture or look. Bessie, a woman of little imagination, has become a petty tyrant in her desperate need to keep the family out of the poorhouse, which Jacobson ably shows. 

Chris Genebach’s terrific portrayal of Moe Axelrod, who rents a room at the Bergers’, stands out for the many hues he brings to the character. A World War I vet with a wooden leg, Moe makes a living as a small-time crook and is the manliest man in the place, with a major “yen” for Hennie Berger, who dislikes him intensely—or so she’d have him think. Genebach’s subtle shifts from hardboiled con man to pining lover to sympathetic observer are just swell.

Olney’s Awake and Sing! demonstrates that a vintage three-act play with lots of meaty roles and a point of view can simmer into a tasty stew. 

Awake and Sing! is at Olney Theatre Center through October 19. Running time is about two and a half hours, including one intermission. Tickets ($55 to $65) are available online.

Posted at 02:40 PM/ET, 09/29/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
This rollicking revival showcases the vocal prowess of its trio of main characters. By Missy Frederick
Bernadine Mitchell, Ashley Ware Jenkins, and Roz White in Three Sistahs at MetroStage. Photograph by Chris Banks.

Who knew a song about mind-blowing sex with a man twice the singer’s age could end up being a gut-busting musical theater showstopper? Actually, seeing it on paper, maybe we could have seen that coming.

In MetroStage’s revival of Three Sistahs, that blockbuster number is “Barely Breathing.” Bernardine Mitchell gasps, pants, and wails her way through the terrific, hilarious song about her former professor’s prowess in bed. The musical may be about guilt, grief, and family secrets, but it doesn’t shirk away from welcome moments of comic relief, either.

Mitchell plays Olive, the oldest of the titular trio. The sisters are on their third funeral in three years, burying first their mother, then father, and now, most tragically, their youngest brother, a casualty of the Vietnam War. Set in Washington, DC, against a backdrop of civil unrest, the family is trying to come to terms with the fact that their father essentially forced his son into the military, with devastating consequences by singing their way through the pain. The play is a homecoming for MetroStage, too—the Alexandria theater is celebrating 30 years with remounts of some previous hits, including this show, which showcased two of its three stars in past productions.

The subject matter is heavy to be set to such a jazzy, doo-wop influenced score, but William Hubbard’s music usually works; “In My Father’s House,” despite its melancholy subject matter, is one of the catchiest tunes in the show. Ashley Ware Jenkins—who plays Irene, the youngest of the family and the angriest about the senselessness of the war and its civil rights implication—brings a lovely sort of pathos to the dark “Temple of My Dreams.” The sly, pragmatic Marsha (Roz White), ostensibly satisfied but struggling deep down with domesticity, gets her chance to shine on numbers like “Sometimes You Just Need a Change.” 

Both the score and Thomas W. Jones II’s direction take advantage of the strengths and versatility of its performers, showcasing their voices through interesting harmonies, smart blocking, and songs that show off each singer’s range.

In the second act, Three Sistahs does veer into schmaltzy territory, and things get a little muddled. Directly singing the text letters from the sisters’ military father and brother is a little on the nose, and the play abruptly wraps up loose ends in its two closing musical numbers. But it’s still a refreshing, affecting celebration of the strength of family bonds—not to mention the strong women themselves.

Three Sistahs is at MetroStage through November 2. Running time is about two hours and 15 minutes, with one intermission. Tickets ($50 to $60) are available through the theater’s websiteFind Missy Frederick on Twitter at @bylinemjf.

Posted at 01:00 PM/ET, 09/25/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()