One day you're discussing the future of the death penalty and your affinity to Notorious B.I.G., and the next you're watching a heartfelt musical starring two twentysomethings who were once in Pitch Perfect and Glee.
That's how Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg rolls.
Last night, accompanied by a slew of bodyguards and donning her signature scrunchie, she attended the opening of Dear Evan Hansen at Arena Stage. A little context: The musical stars Ben Platt--Benji Applebaum in the acapella film series Pitch Perfect--and Laura Dreyfuss, a Broadway starlet who plays Madison McCarthy on the sixth season of Glee.
If there was any doubt whether Platt could pull off a leading role, those concerns were squashed within the first few moments of the eight-character play. This is a rare opportunity to witness a production while it still feels young and new, but make no mistake: Platt and Dear Evan Hansen will surely flourish beyond the walls of Arena Stage, and it's a wonderful thing to see it, like RBG did, while it unfolds right in our own backyard.
RBG is a frequent theater patron. Last year, she recited a monologue at Arena Stage as part of a National Civil War Project event. In May, she participated in the Trial of Don Quixote alongside Justice Stephen Breyer for the Shakespeare Theatre Company's Bard Association's annual Mock Trial.
But last night, she didn't linger. Once the play was over, while the audience erupted in a standing ovation, the Justice slid out of the theater, turning a few heads as she walked out the door.
Dear Evan Hansen runs through August 23 at Arena Stage.
Olney Theatre's production of Mel Brooks's 2001 musical The Producers only has three more performances, but it's not going to close without a bit of manufactured controversy. Audience members at Montgomery County playhouse are going to have to walk past a small coterie protesting the show's play-within-the-play, because, the demonstrators say, it makes light of Adolf Hitler and the atrocities committed by Nazi Germany.
"I understand the intent is satire," says Jeffrey Imm, who is organizing the demonstration through his anti-discrimination group, Responsible for Equality And Liberty. "This is the point of morality: some things we have to recognize as absolute evil. When 6 million people are murdered, we don’t view it with knee-slapping, we view it with reverence."
In The Producers, which is adapted from Brooks's Oscar-winning 1968 film of the same name, two crooked Broadway producers endeavor to profit off a critical and commercial flop, which they believe they find in Springtime for Hitler: A Gay Romp Adolf and Eva at Berchtesgaden, which portrays Hitler as a flamboyant dandy.
Even though the jokes in The Producers come at the expense of show-business types and Nazis, Imm is not impressed by its humor, or the original Broadway run's record 12 Tony Awards. Contemporary audiences, he argues, are no longer frightened by genocide.
What can I say about Silence! The Musical? No, really. Which of the raucous, racy jokes, the shockingly sexual physical gags or bawdy snort-inducing songs could I possibly describe in appropriate detail without having my hand slapped by my editor? The infamous off-Broadway musical, now playing at Studio Theatre's 2ndStage through August 9, makes The Rocky Horror Picture Show look like PBS Kids.
Director Alan Paul doesn’t make apologies or tone down the hilariously appalling script for a Washington audience—and that’s what makes the production so successful. Likewise, the talented cast never shows a moment of hesitation or discomfort that might leave the audience twisting uncomfortably in their seats. Like a master class in leaving humility at the door, the actors deliver filthy lines and evocative gestures, have their faces photo-shopped gratuitously onto ghastly explicit sexual images, and even display full frontal nudity without batting an eye.
From the minute you walk in to the room Silence! is an experience. Staged cabaret-style, the audience sits at intimate four-top tables adorned with dimmed black and red zebra lamps. Soft lounge music can be heard just over the din of the crowd.
Framed stills from the 1991 Academy Award-winning movie Silence of the Lambs—on which the musical is based—line the walls to jog memories of key plot moments. The shadowy bar serves cringe-worthy cocktails like the “Hannibal Nectar” and “Lotion in a Basket.”
The show begins quite chastely, with a chorus of coquettish lambs. But the real action commences when Clarice Starling (Laura Jordan), the young FBI trainee, makes the long walk down the cellblock (a low catwalk that extends from the stage out into the audience) for her first meeting with serial killer Hannibal Lecter (Tally Sessions). Inmates lurking in the shadowy spaces between the audience’s tables spit sexual slurs, inspiring Hannibal’s first ballad, “If I Could Smell Her C--t.” Coarse lyrics aside, Tally’s rendition is jaw-droppingly gorgeous, clearly showcasing his Broadway chops.
Jordan, also a Broadway veteran (and who played Clarice in Silence! off-Broadway), speaks and sings through a thick Jody Foster twang that, while charming, sometimes muddles her musicality. However, her infectious energy, wacky face contortions, and physical comedy—all played straight for the audience—keep you drawn to her throughout the show.
Tom Story, who rounds out the trifecta, slays the audience as serial-killer-turned-skin-seamstress Buffalo Bill. His every move drips with the kind of creepy lasciviousness that makes you want to cross a street or lock your car doors at a stop light. He seems to be having a ball on stage, injecting the show with a ferociously giddy energy.
DC actor John Patrick Loughney (a young Steve Carell look-a-like) slid effortlessly among several roles including the humorless FBI Director Jack Crawford and Starling’s dead father (complete with West Virginian accent and familial lisp), who dropped in from heaven throughout the show. Awa Sal Secka, another local with a serious set of pipes, delivered a brashy Aretha-worthy soul anthem as Ardelia.
There were some moments of uncomfortable silence in the show. Some jokes fell flat, either because they just weren’t funny or the audience couldn’t keep up. On a few occasions, the actors gave a little nudge-wink to make sure the audience didn’t miss the really filthy bits. Following a particularly off-color joke regarding the shade of a dead girls’ nail polish, Jordan announced, “I’m just going to wait until that one sinks in.”
A few seconds later, she was rewarded with gasps of horror and guilty laughter.
Now playing through August 9 at Studio Theater’s Second Stage. $20 to $50; 202-332-3300; www.studiotheatre.org.
Admit it--we Washingtonians tend to take ourselves a bit too seriously. Sometimes we just need to be reminded: It’s summer! Time to take off that starched suit, leave that laminated ID badge at home, and relish these long, hot evenings—perhaps with an adult beverage and some belly laughs.
A hearty dose of the Second City’s excoriating wit may be just what's needed to loosen those collars. The famed Chicago sketch comedy troupe that launched a thousand careers (including that of DC native Stephen Colbert) has taken up residence at Woolly Mammoth for a month-long run of Let Them Eat Chaos.
Dear Evan Hansen
July 10 to August 23, 2015
$55 to $70
Fans of Rent and Next to Normal will fawn over director Michael Greif’s latest project, Dear Evan Hansen. Starring the talented and quirky Ben Platt of Pitch Perfect fame as Evan Hansen, this new musical tells the story of a teenage boy whose secrets get exposed on social media. Heartbreak ensues. The brainchild of playwright Steven Levenson, Dear Evan Hansen explores the difficulty of navigating life and love in the modern world.
June 24 to July 26, 2015
$18 to $70
The Producers, the 2001 hit musical brought to you by Mel Brooks, returns to DC with the comedic antics of washed-up producer Max Bialystock and his accountant/sidekick, Leo Bloom, as they attempt to pull off the greatest scam in Broadway history. With twelve Tony Awards under its belt, this musical is a sure-fire good time.
Awake All Night
July 9 to July 26, 2015
One of seven musicals debuting at the Capital Fringe Festival, Awake All Night will delight romantics with its refreshing take on love and song. The plot follows a long-distance phone call between Hermes, the messenger of the Greek gods, and a college-aged woman named Ariadne. The one-act, two-person show by Itai Yasur offers a unique mixture of mythology and melodies.
June 16 to August 16, 2015
$43.00 to $250.00
Nine Tony Awards and four years later, the Book of Mormon hits DC on its national tour. South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone put together this tale about an unlikely pair of missionaries who travel to northern Uganda to spread the Mormon faith. A hilarious and outrageous series of events follows. Plus, it was called “the best musical of this century” by the New York Times.
Silence the Musical
July 15 to August 9, 2015
Ever wondered what the Silence of the Lambs would be like if it were made into a musical? If so, this may be the show for you. Tap-dancing lambs and rookie FBI-agents take you on a journey with everyone’s favorite cannibal, Hannibal Lecter, in this uproarious satire.
July 7 to August 16, 2015
$65.00 to $160.00
This musical adaptation of the eponymous award-winning film makes the story of a Dublin romance come to life, with actors and musicians playing instruments on-stage. Good luck getting "Falling Slowly" out of your head.
Wall Street Journal contributor James Bovard has a message for Arlington's Synetic Theater and its wordless productions of William Shakespeare plays: Recite the script, or get off the stage.
Bovard, a libertarian policy analyst by day, writes in an op-ed in Tuesday's Journal that Synetic's silent, sultry, and often fleshy productions are turning traditionally high-fiber theater into empty calories. "In Act 5 of Love’s Labor Lost, one character scoffs at pedants: 'They have been at a great feast of languages, and stolen the scraps,' " Bovard writes. "The latest Shakespeare fashion, at least in the Washington area, is to invite people to a feast of language and serve nothing but grunts, grimaces and grins—with a few gyrations thrown in for dessert."
Synetic, in Bovard's estimation, is the latest in what he calls a healthy supply of "bad Shakespeare productions in America," even knocking the fact that the 14-year-old theater company has racked up 27 Helen Hayes Awards since its inception in 2001 and its financial support from the National Endowment for the Arts and Virginia Commission for the Arts. "[H]igh-energy performances relying on acrobatics, pantomime and special effects," are no good for the Bard, Bovard writes.
Ben Platt isn’t afraid to play the outcast. The 21-year-old actor—best known as magic-trick-obsessed Benji Applebaum in the movie Pitch Perfect and its sequel—stars as the title character in Dear Evan Hansen, a world-premiere musical directed by Michael Greif (Rent, Next to Normal).
Like Benji Applebaum, Evan Hansen has trouble fitting in. After a private letter goes public, he takes on a fake identity and gets caught in a web of lies. The play tackles deceit, self-discovery, and the drawbacks of social media. “Every thought that you decide to post is just given free rein to be judged,” Platt says. “We’re having to make these decisions daily: ‘Am I okay with this being everyone’s view of who I am?’” It’s a very modern, relatable conflict, which is part of what drew him to the role: “I like to do projects that people can see themselves in.”
Hansen journeys to a greater self-awareness, unlike the one-dimensional yet irresistibly charming Applebaum of Pitch Perfect. The stage role’s physical demands are also greater: Acting and singing in eight shows a week is no easy feat. For Platt, that only makes the reward greater: “I get to give my whole self.”
Until this gig, he had visited Washington only twice—for a wedding and for the obligatory eighth-grade field trip. Platt will be in town for two months this summer, fulfilling one of his longtime ambitions: “My dream ever since I was a kid was to do original, musical theater. It’s quite a big bite to chew, but I’m really excited.”
Dear Evan Hansen runs from July 10 to August 13 at Arena Stage. $40 to $90.
Scena Theatre's planned staging of Anton Chekhov's The Three Sisters was set to open August 14 under the direction of Gabriele Jakobi. The Berlin native, who’s staged Genet’s The Maids and Brecht’s Mother Courage for the company, has a knack for assembling dazzling casts and infusing difficult plays with a rich and vivid sense of humanity. In early June, though, Jakobi suffered a stroke.
Nanna Ingvarsson and her husband Brian Hemmingsen, Scena veterans who’ve worked with Jakobi before and were slated to collaborate with her again on Three Sisters, describe a powerful presence accustomed to communicating physically as well as verbally—English not being the director’s first language—now fighting her way back to full strength in a northern Virginia hospital room, knowing precisely what she wants to say but sometimes relying on the visitors around her to supply the words. When the visitors get those words wrong, Ingvarsson says, it’s pretty clear. “You can see in her eyes,” Ingvarsson explains. “I’ll realize, ‘I’ve seen that look before.’"
Both actors describe Jakobi as a director who throws herself at a play with an appetite for bold concepts that might give others pause, but not a dictator. “She’s very close to the characters,” Ingvarsson says. “She’s very good about working with the actors to get there. That’s incredibly rare and important.”
There was no question that Three Sisters would be put on hold for next year rather than going forward without Jakobi, who’d been talking to her cast about a version of the play set in a more modern milieu, with characters older than those in the original. "It’s her vision,” Hemmingsen says. “It has to be her.”
To fill the gap in Scena's season, artistic director Robert McNamara will step in with a revival of his gender-bent staging of The Importance of Being Earnest. Hemmingsen—who at 6’3 is what you might describe as an imposing figure—will once again tackle the part of domineering Lady Augusta Bracknell in the Oscar Wilde comedy of manners; Ingvarsson is on board as well, playing one of the society swells at the story’s center. The aim, McNamara says, is to generate “a sense of dizziness—the fun of the sexual rondelay” that’s there between the lines of Wilde’s arch dialogue, with its tug-of-war between the proper and improper impulse among the Victorian upper crust.
“We treat it like a gigantic silent film, but with words,” McNamara says. And yes, it plays maybe a touch more broadly than some productions: “There’s a little bit of Charley’s Aunt,” the director laughs.
The classic tale of Peter Pan has thrived for more than a century, and now you can enjoy the show in a whole new way. Including intricate projections and flying acrobats in a theater-in-the-round tent, Peter Pan at Tysons Corner Center is unlike anything else you've seen before. Here are five reasons why you should go.
1. Actors literally soar across the stage.
What would a Peter Pan show be without some flying? Cast members zoom through the air multiple times, twisting and twirling midair. From Peter to Tinker Bell to Wendy, each of them makes flight look effortless.
2. Panoramic 360-degree projections bring the theater to life.
The show takes place in a theater-tent, but the lights projected onto the stage take you on a vibrant journey. As Pan and the crew fly to Neverland, the audience is taken with them as they soar over London. The Lost Boys climb poles and do flips while building a home for Wendy. Mermaids dangle from silk ribbons performing acrobatic feats against an underwater background. Sword fights, dancing, and the occasional song make this an action-packed show.
3. The audience takes an active role in the story.
Given the space's tight constraints, the cast is placed very close to the audience. The result? Lots of fun and friendly banter. At one point during a recent performance, Captain Hook looked out to the crowd and asked, “Do you fear me?” “No!” a child in the audience responded. Peter Pan also engages with the audience. In order to help Tinker Bell, he asked the crowd if they believe in fairies. Of course, many young audience members were eager to help.
4. Your kids will thank you afterwards.
Don't think that your kids won’t enjoy a show that they’ve most likely seen before. Kids of all ages sit wide-eyed and eager as the play progresses--some even let out loud “Oohs” and “Ahhs” throughout the night.
5. There’s something cool about watching a show in a tent.
One of the best parts about the show is that it takes a very basic performance space and adds state-of-the-art touches. Audiences will still experience the intimacy of a tent, but the 360-degree projections and flying cast members really open up the space and make it feel like a huge stage.
A few things to know before you go: Don’t let the tent fool you. It might be sticky outside, but the tent itself is kept very cool. Bring a sweater.
Peter Pan at the Threesixty Theatre at Tysons Corner Center runs through August 16. Tickets $25 to $125. 800-745-3000.
Ari Roth may have more to say, in private, about the unpleasantness that accompanied his firing late last year from Theater J, the company based at the Washington DC Jewish Community Center on 16th Street where Roth, 54, spent nearly two decades as artistic director. Under Roth, the group was known for drama that was politically charged, intellectually curious, and above all controversial—too controversial, in the end, for the JCC: Roth’s insistence on presenting plays critical of Israel provoked years-long, increasingly nasty, and ultimately terminal quarreling.
His loudest retort has been a nearly instantaneous rebound. In December, he founded a new company, Mosaic, housed at the Atlas Performing Arts Center on Northeast DC’s H Street. Its board of directors includes five members he shares with Theater J, and the producing director is longtime Studio Theatre stalwart Serge Seiden.
Roth sat down for a conversation about what his rebirth says about the state of theater in Washington.