“You made it to Ohio. Who knows where else we can go?” sings Cathy (Erin Weaver) toward the beginning of The Last Five Years, Signature Theatre’s moving, neatly staged production of the cult 2001 musical by Jason Robert Brown (currently also enjoying a revival at New York’s Second Stage Theatre). As statements go, it isn’t the greatest endorsement of the Buckeye State, but it isn’t the greatest endorsement of Cathy’s husband, Jamie (James Gardiner), either. Al Jolson famously boasted he’d walk a million miles for one of Mammy’s smiles; Jamie can barely be bothered to catch a redeye from Manhattan to the Midwest to save his marriage.
Herein lies the interesting conflict in The Last Five Years, whose two characters meet only once, in the middle of the play. (Jamie’s story goes chronologically from the beginning of his relationship with Cathy to the end; Cathy’s starts with the heartbreaking ballad “Still Hurting” and progresses backward to her cheerily hopeful “Goodbye Until Tomorrow” at the end.) Cathy is without a doubt the sympathetic one—so much so that I’d wager my life savings nobody in the history of theater has ever pondered silk-screening a “Team Jamie” T-shirt. Cathy struggles through bad auditions, summers taking acting jobs in Ohio, and a marriage in which everyone (including her husband) is obsessed with her husband. Jamie finds success as a prodigy novelist at 23 and never stops congratulating himself for it.
Even with the sweet-faced, charming (if sometimes hyperactive) Gardiner playing Jamie, the disconnect between the two characters is hard to bridge. Director Aaron Posner, who pulled together The Last Five Years in what feels like the last five minutes after his planned production of Crimes of the Heart at Signature was canceled, has created a lovely production in record speed from a show that doesn’t have a lot of heft to it. Weaver, Posner’s real-life wife, is winsome and effortlessly engaging as Cathy, belting out some numbers with perhaps even more emotion and heart than Sherie Rene Scott did in the original run. But with the characters apart for the overwhelming majority of the brief show, there’s no chance for them to build chemistry, or to convince the audience they once had a profound connection.
Up until about midway through The Mountaintop, Katori Hall’s Olivier Award-winning play currently having its Washington premiere at Arena Stage, the show is a provocative, reasonably absorbing look at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s last night on earth. King (Bowman Wright) is a bundle of nerves and anxious energy—he chain smokes, checks his room for bugs, removes his shoes (grimacing at the smell), and converses in a meaningfully loaded and flirtatious way with the maid, Camae (Joaquina Kalukango), who brings him a coffee. The tension that seeps into the air from the play’s setting (the Lorraine Motel, Memphis) and the date (April 3, 1968) is enough to occupy the audience for 40 minutes or so while we wait for something to happen.
Then something does happen, and tonally it’s a shift so abrupt and jarring it’s as if a Busby Berkeley chorus had tap-danced its way into an Ibsen play. To say anything else would ruin the show altogether, so let’s leave it at this: Camae isn’t who she seems to be. If you’re the kind of person who welcomes theatrical bipolarity (and maybe even if you’re not), then the subsequent action might be compelling, heartbreaking, and zanily inventive; if you’d been enjoying the funny back-and-forth between the gloomy but priapic King and his loose-lipped chambermaid, it might all feel like too much of a leap to remain invested.
Directed by Robert O’Hara, a playwright himself who won a Helen Hayes Award for Antebellum when it premiered at Woolly Mammoth in 2009, The Mountaintop takes a fascinating premise—the reality of a very mortal American hero who seems to sense his days are numbered—and suffuses it with a wry sense of self-awareness, as if both characters are aware all along that they’re playing parts. There’s even a scene where Camae puts on King’s jacket and shoes and acts out her own impression of the Reverend Doctor, a not-so-subtle allusion to the playmaking going on.
When Hello, Dolly! opened on Broadway in 1964, Carol Channing entered stage right, doffed her enormous turn-of-the-century hat, flashed her enormous grin, and—before she’d even handed out a single one of her ridiculous, ubiquitous business cards—stole the show.
Channing’s Dolly Gallagher Levi was a matchless matchmaker. We loved her on sight. It might take two hours for the miserly millionaire Horace Vandergelder to succumb to her wiles, but the audience enjoyed the chase almost as much as Channing did.
Signature Theatre artistic director Eric Schaeffer has brought Dolly back to Ford’s Theatre in this joint production, and hired Broadway veteran Nancy Opel (a Tony Award nominee for her role in Urinetown) to play the title role. Schaeffer has a sure hand with musical revivals, and this is no exception. The period costumes by Wade Laboissonniere are perfect, the set by Adam Koch delightful, the pace sprightly. Choreographer Karma Camp provides some of the evening’s best moments with her athletic and appealing dance numbers. We would gladly have ordered another number from her dancing waiters.
Opel does her darndest to sparkle, wheedle, and warble her way into our hearts—but she doesn’t quite make it. Washington stalwart Edward Gero makes a credible Vandergelder, but there is no chemistry between the two. Tracy Lynn Olivera’s beautiful voice, showcased in “Ribbons Down My Back,” can’t make up for the miscasting that matches her with Vandergelder’s clerk Cornelius Hackl (Gregory Maheu).
Hello, Dolly! is a family-friendly musical revival with terrific costumes and choreography. But it’s a star vehicle that needs a dazzling Dolly, and this star merely twinkles.
Hello, Dolly!, a co-production with Signature Theatre, is at Ford’s Theatre through May 18. Running time is about two hours, with one intermission. Tickets ($25 to $77) are available via Ford’s Theatre’s website.
When it comes to skewering hapless souls blindly going about their business, there’s really nobody who does it better than Mike Daisey. In his new show, American Utopias, currently playing at Woolly Mammoth, the bellicose monologuist turns to the ripe fodder of Burning Man and Disney World; the first with its quasi-autonomous hippies ingesting hallucinogens in the desert, and the second with its scores of manic children ingesting sugar in the swamplands of Orlando. When Daisey describes the “sexy tramps,” his campmates at Burning Man who look like “extras from the last two bad Matrix movies,” or the princesses being corralled with Goofy-branded tasers, fairy corpses dangling from their mouths, it’s hard not to laugh until your teeth hurt.
American Utopias is almost endlessly entertaining, but what makes it problematic is when Daisey’s schtick crosses the line from gentle jabbing to full-on polemicism. It feels burdensome to bring up (yet again) the scandal that engulfed his show The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs last year (when an episode of This American Life featuring his monologue was retracted after parts of it were revealed to have been embellished)—but it’s impossible not to when Daisey insists on crowning himself as America’s conscience. He’s a brilliant storyteller, a sharply original theatrical talent, and a fiercely clever thinker. But none of that seems to be enough. In American Utopias he’s part social reformer, part human guinea pig, and part cult leader, and the way he forces the audience to be complicit in his activism can be uncomfortable, to say the least.
Originally designed as a two-part monologue about the wretched excess of Disney World and Burning Man, American Utopias was retooled somewhat when the Occupy movement was born. The Zuccotti Park occupation, which Daisey never actually witnessed firsthand, is the weakest part of the work by far—the narrator abandons humor for the most part and focuses instead on what he sees as the egregious and unconstitutional actions of Mayor Bloomberg and the city’s cops in evicting protestors in the dead of night, under the shelter of a media blackout and a no-fly zone. Daisey describes talking to a kid he met who began screaming in agony after his hands were hog-tied for hours, and a cop who shrugged off his own role by saying the rich Wall Street bankers who worked nearby needed to be kept safe. It all comes off nicely pat, and feels too outraged a narrative for someone who never got closer to Occupy Wall Street than the time he pondered ordering the protesters a pizza.
In the odd, zeitgeisty way in which cultural depictions of certain subjects seem to come along like buses (nothing for decades and then three at once), Elizabeth Keckly is very much alive again—seen portrayed by Gloria Reuben in last year's Lincoln, and as the subject of a recent book by Jennifer Chiaverini. But it’s almost impossible to imagine a more intriguing, nuanced portrayal of Keckly than the one Tazewell Thompson has crafted in Mary T. & Lizzy K., his world premiere play currently at Arena Stage. Immaculate in a gown of bronze patterned silk, and ferocious as she crafts a dress around the First Lady, Thompson’s Keckley (played by Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris) is one of the most riveting female characters seen all season.
In Voodoo Macbeth, everything feels just a little bit louder and a lot more complicated than in the traditional version of the Shakespearean classic—but all the noise doesn’t necessarily add up to dramatic impact.
This version of the iconic tale of murder and regret, currently being staged by American Century Theatre, is an ode to Orson Welles’s infamous interpretation—but it’s hardly a faithful re-creation. When Welles took on the play in 1930s Harlem, he significantly changed the script, used an all-black cast, moved the Scottish play to Haiti, and transformed the weird sisters into Voodoo priestesses.
ACT director Kathleen Akerly keeps Welles’s script but not much else. The show’s set evokes a futuristic military encampment (the play has been moved back to Scotland), and while Voodoo Macbeth’s characters might share a pagan-looking cloak and perform creepy, bloody rituals, these worshippers’ creed is clearly of the Christian variety. It’s a point driven home by the use of iconic crosses and the musical choices (the soldiers pray while singing riffs on “Amazing Grace” and “Ave Maria”), but it’s also one of the production’s sources of confusion.
Contemporary audiences aren’t strangers to radical reinterpretations of Shakespeare—traditional takes have come to feel more rare than “creative” ones. Voodoo Macbeth’s most significant shift (Welles’s all-black cast has been nixed) is the beefing up of the role of Hecate (William Hayes) into the powerful leader behind the black magic, and the switch of Lady Macbeth’s character into Gruoch (Matt Dewberry), a male adviser to the titular character (he’s still tasked with the character’s classic speeches). It’s interesting to watch this change play out—Hayes’s Hecate is a creepy, dominant force, and a male Lady Macbeth strips the role of the sexuality driving her manipulative power. But the loss of such an iconic character is palpable, and Gruoch’s impact is dwarfed by Hecate’s mastery of dark magic, rendering him a more secondary character.
Joseph Carlson as Macbeth gives an intense and transformative performance, moving convincingly from reluctant leader to arrogant murderer. He’s flanked by Frank Britton as an even-keeled and eerie Banquo, while Cyle Durkee brings a relaxed lunacy to the comic relief role of the Porter. A tight, fast-paced sword fight between Macbeth and Christopher Dwyer’s stalwart Macduff provides a thrilling climax to the play. It’s an important example of a time when overt theatrics serve the production well. At other times, there’s just too much flash and gore—blood spurts everywhere to unintentionally comic effect; multiple gunshots (sometimes even into the audience) feel like a distraction. A little streamlining and clarity would go a long way to make Voodoo Macbeth stand out in a sea of Shakespearean revisions.
American Century Theatre’s production of Voodoo Macbeth runs through April 13 at the Gunston Arts Center. Running time is about two and a half hours, with one intermission. Tickets ($35 to $40) are available via American Century’s website.
Old age and new age collide in 4,000 Miles, Amy Herzog’s gentle, Obie Award-winning play currently at Studio Theatre about a young man soothed by a sojourn with his grandmother in Manhattan. Leo (Grant Harrison) is a free-spirited twentysomething who’s ridden his bike cross-country on a loosely defined mission; Vera (Tana Hicken) is the nonagenarian relative who takes him in and acts as an analgesic to his uneasy soul.
It’s the kind of plot format that could feel Hallmark-trite, but Herzog’s granny comes with a twist—she’s a Marxist who keeps copies of Mao biographies and the Kama Sutra on her bookshelf right next to a rotary phone and the Yellow Pages, and her attitude to life is as open-minded as Leo’s is. “I’m glad to see you carry those, but I’m surprised they’re not opened,” she tells him casually as he retrieves the Trojans he left inside his rucksack along with his laundry. She also has the practicality that accompanies age. “I have a tent, and a camping stove, and a love for the outdoors,” Leo says blithely after arriving at her door at 3 AM and debating where he’s going to crash. “I’ll be all right.” “It’s Manhattan,” Vera replies, exasperated.
This production marks the directorial return of Joy Zinoman, Studio’s founding artistic director who handed the institutional reins to David Muse in 2010, and it’s easy to sense what might have appealed to her about this particular play. Vera, based loosely on Herzog’s real-life grandmother, is a vibrant force who’s not all that grandmotherly. Equipped with a sharp tongue and a low tolerance for BS, she nevertheless comforts Leo by gaining his trust. The plot of the play is fairly spindly, but the joy for the audience is in seeing the characters interact, and recognizing their familiarity (costume designer Helen Huang, for example, manages to give Leo a remarkably diverse wardrobe out of a number of clothing items you could count on one hand).
Herzog has a wry wit and a skillful hand with dialogue. Leo’s ex-girlfriend, Bec (Heather Haney), dismissed as “plump” by Vera, shows up with cycling gear and an affectation of speech where everything goes up at the end. “I don’t make these kinds of allowances based on gender?” she tells Vera, sounding for all the world like a more erudite Girls cast member. And yet minutes later she’s deriding the undergraduates she attends college with who “end every sentence with a question mark.”
Early on in Keegan Theatre’s production of A Behanding in Spokane, now playing at the company’s Church Street Playhouse, eccentric hotel clerk Mervyn (Bradley Foster Smith) opines upon the lack of excitement and intrigue checking in to his dingy roadside establishment. The character’s delightfully rambling description of all the outlandish scenarios he’s imagined uncovering in his years manning the reception desk quickly establishes Mervyn as the show’s most commanding, and entertaining, presence. And if he’s looking for excitement and intrigue, the grisly, beyond-bizarre sequence of events that follows more than fits the bill.
Manon Lescaut (1893) was Giacomo Puccini’s third opera, but it was his first unequivocal success. The decision to adapt Abbé Prévost’s novella—about a young woman torn between love and her desire for the good life—was nothing short of audacious, as less than a decade before, Jules Massenet had turned that same heartbreaking text into an opera of enduring popularity. Puccini, however, was confident: “Manon is a heroine I believe in, and therefore she cannot fail to win the hearts of the public. Why shouldn’t there be two operas about her?”
Why not, indeed. Manon Lescaut bears all the hallmarks of the composer’s greatest works: ravishing melodies, searing dramatic tension, wonderful orchestral writing. In this early work Puccini exploited the forces in the pit as skillfully as he ever would, composing music of an almost symphonic quality, crucial to the advancement of the story. In terms of harmony and how closely integrated the orchestra and singers are, and the way certain motives recur in telling ways, the piece shares a few traits with Wagner’s music dramas. The work is also tricky to pull off, not just because of the vocal challenges, but also because of the wild swings in mood, moving from a first act full of ebullience to a finale steeped in pathos and dread.
This transformation is embodied by the character of Manon, a young woman of modest means who must choose between true love with the impoverished Chevalier des Grieux and a life of luxury with the older, wealthy Geronte. The American soprano Patricia Racette, singing the role at the Washington National Opera’s revival of Manon Lescaut, exquisitely spans the emotional range: coquettish and carefree in the first act, vain and indulgent in the second, anguished by opera’s end, when she realizes too late how disastrous her life’s choices have been. Racette’s characterization possesses real depth, but it’s her singing that’s so exciting, by turns warm and bright, expansive and intimate, tender in the quiet moments and rising to ecstatic heights when the music opens up in its most intense moments.
Somewhere within The Convert, Danai Gurira’s three-hour play currently having its local premiere at Woolly Mammoth, is an exquisite two-hour play. Gurira’s characters are extraordinarily eloquent and complex; the actors in Michael John Garcés’s production are so magnetic you feel emotions reverberating from them like seismic waves; and the period—1890s Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia)—is a riveting one to explore. But despite all this excellence, not that much actually happens in act one, and even less in most of act two. It isn’t until after the second intermission that the show, having wrapped its way gently around your heart, pulls tight.
With a little careful pruning The Convert could be as wrenching as Lynn Nottage’s Ruined or as thought-provoking as Bruce Norris’s Clybourne Park (one of Woolly’s most brilliant productions of the last few years). Gurira—an actress and playwright whose bio includes writing/starring in the critically acclaimed play In the Continuum and a current gig on AMC’s zombie thriller The Walking Dead—sets her scene in the charged locale of late-19th-century southern Africa, when colonialism was wreaking havoc on native culture. The conflicts between old and new, black and white, Christianity and voodoo couldn’t be any more enticing or relevant to a 21st-century audience.
The heft of the irresistibly self-satisfying white man’s burden falls on Chilford (Irungu Mutu), a Rhodesian who converted to Catholicism in childhood and now spends his days entreating his countrymen to do the same. He’s a wannabe priest in the pay of the white colonizers, and the action takes place entirely inside his shabby-chic Victorian drawing room, complete with cushioned chaises, a crucifix on the wall, and a bottle of whiskey in the desk drawer (the set is by Misha Kachman). With the true zeal of the convert, Chilford attempts to get his deeply suspicious maid, Mai Tamba (Starla Benford) to say her Hail Marys and to stop littering his house with charms to ward off evil spirits—never mind that the “pagan” superstitions of sprinkling water around and keeping odd shapes around the house aren’t a million miles away from the rituals of his adopted religion.