HARRIET TUBMAN AND THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD: Captivating Children’s Theatre

HARRIET TUBMAN AND THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD: “It’s Like History Class, With Music”

This production is part of the 2020 Acts of Faith theater season.

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis, in collaboration with Kingston Marley Holmes (age 11) and Emmitt Christian Holmes (age 5)

At: Virginia Rep’s Children’s Theatre at Willow Lawn; 1601 Willow Lawn Drive, RVA 23230

Performances: January 24 – March 1, 2020

Ticket Prices: $21; contact the theater for discounted group rates or to apply for a free Community Tickets Grant for nonprofit organizations.

Info: (804) 282-2620 or virginiarep.org

Virginia Rep opened its 2019-2020 Children’s Theatre season with a magical musical, Tuck Everlasting, based on Natalie Babbitt’s children’s novel about a family that finds immortality in the waters of a remote spring in the New Hampshire countryside and the grieving young girl who befriends them. The second production of the season is Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad, a spirit-filled production with book and lyrics by Douglas Jones (who was in the audience opening night), music by Ron Barnett, direction by Katrinah Carol Lewis, and an energetic, tightly-knit ensemble of six who made the hour-long production speed by. “It felt like just ten minutes!” was Kingston’s estimate.

The content of Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad seems to be targeted primarily towards the older kids, say ages 9 and up, but even Emmitt was alert and committed – especially when he realized the audience was encouraged to snap, clap, and sing along. For parents, teachers, scout leaders, and other adult types, Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad is enjoyable, entertaining, and informative. The author, Jones, and director, Lewis, do not talk down to the younger audience members, and at the same time they avoid the trap of some children’s shows of including double entendre’d jokes and language designed to appeal to the adults. Well done.

I described the production as “spirit-filled,” and I intentionally meant that in two ways. The production includes several well-known African-American spirituals, including “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” “ Go Down Moses,” “Wade in the Water,” and “Follow the Drinking Gourd.” Most include or encourage audience participation, and the text weaves in detailed but uncomplicated explanations of the hidden meanings of the words of these songs. The program, which doubles as a poster, includes a QR code that links to a 2-page PDF resource on Spirituals.

There is also a lovely 6-page PDF study guide with a brief bio of Harriet Tubman, a glossary of terms, critical thinking questions and conversation starters, interesting facts, activities, and a page about theater cues. You can find and print the guide here: https://va-rep.org/tour/guides.html

In a second sense, the program was spirit-filled with the ensemble’s acting and energy. Marjie Southerland (whose most recent local credit seems to be as Angela in the workshop productions of Warm, at The Firehouse Theatre last August) has the title role of Harriet Tubman while Elisabeth Ashby, Dan Cimo, Dorothy Dee-D. Miller, Gregory Morton, and Durron Marquis Tyre take on all the other roles: Tubman’s father, brothers, abolitionists, book publisher, passengers on the underground railroad. Southerland holds down the lead with confidence and sometimes a little well-placed humor, but this is truly an ensemble effort with everyone carrying their weight as well as a tune.

And finally, the program was spirit-filled through the words and memories of Harriet Tubman. And that is why, in spite of the lively music, and Emily Hake Massie’s simple, rustic, and serviceable set design, and Anthony Smith’s foot-tapping musical direction, and Sara Grady’s attractive period costumes (Kingston was particularly taken with Durron Tyre’s top hat) I found my eyes leaking from time to time. Tubman’s own words, spoken by Southerland, read from the text of Sarah H. Bradford’s biography about her, and resurrected in song, maintain the power to change the world, one life at a time. That is something the youngest audience members might not yet understand, but it was, for me, the singular purpose of this work, and in that it succeeded.

As far as the target audience was concerned, Emmitt declared Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad, “Good! It was awesome because of the actors.” And Kingston said, “It was like history class but fun, with music!” Walking to my car afterwards, Kingston and Emmitt debated the pros and cons of live theater versus television and movies. Live theater, Kingston concluded, “is more captivating.”

Mic Drop

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Check the Virginia Rep website for additional information on:

Sensory Friendly Performances suitable for patrons with Autism and other sensory or social disabilities. For these performances, changes will be made in lighting, sound, seating arrangements, and length of performance to create a more welcoming environment. A Sensory Friendly performance will be offered at 10:30 a.m. on Saturday, February 22. See the website for more details: http://va-rep.org/sensory_friendly.html

Audio Described Performances in collaboration with Virginia Voice, in which actions, expressions and gestures are described during gaps between dialogue throughout the performance for patrons with low vision or blindness. Patrons are also invited to participate in a tactile tour before the performance. An Audio Described performance will be offered at 2:00 p.m. on Sunday, January 26, 2020. Refer to the website for more details: https://va-rep.org/access_for_the_blind.html

Virginia Rep also offers a free Community Tickets Grant for nonprofit organizations who have a demonstrated need for complimentary tickets;  groups must fill out a short application that can be found at: bit.ly/CommunityTix

Performance Schedule

Evening performances at 7:00 p.m. on select Fridays, check the website for dates

Matinee performances at 2:00 p.m. every Saturday and Sunday

Matinee performances at 10:30 a.m. on select Saturdays, check the website for dates

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Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

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Photo Credits: Photos were not yet available at the time of this publication.

 

LATIN BALLET: Legend of the Poinsettia 2020

‘THE LATIN BALLET OF VIRGINIA: LEGEND OF THE POINSETTIA 2020

A Dance Review and Seasonal Observations by Julinda D. Lewis

At: The Cultural Arts Center at Glen Allen, 2880 Mountain Road, Glen Allen, VA, 23192

Performance Were: January 9-12, 2020

Ticket Prices: $10 – $20

Info: (804) 356-3876 or http://www.latinballet.com

The Legend of the Poinsettia is, for many, a local holiday tradition, much as The Nutcracker ballet has become in communities across the USA. This year I attended a Thursday morning production. Because it is designed for school field trips, the program has been truncated and lasts only one hour. I am familiar with the full-length two-act version and was impressed that the field trip edition is seamless, and if you didn’t know what was omitted, it didn’t feel as if anything was missing.

I noted that the indomitable Miss Frances Wessells, who normally dances the role of Abuelita, the grandmother, was absent. I understand that she is saving her appearance for the final performance on Sunday at 3:00pm, and at age 100 (yes, she officially became a centenarian last August!), she can choose to dance whenever and wherever she wants!

There was no soloist, singing “Ave Maria” as well as several other selections. Also, the life-sized nativity, where the Virgin Mary usually takes up residence for most of the second act, remained empty.

Other differences were not cast related. This year’s production has done away with the traditional, and sometimes bulky, set and replaced it with stunningly beautiful projections of background scenes, buildings, window boxes, the night sky, whatever is needed to enhance and promote the storyline. The program doesn’t list a credit for the projections, but Antonio hidalgo Paz is credited for lighting design and technical direction with Steve Kohler as technical assistant.

Dominion Energy sponsored the program as well as some of the schools present. But while the weather was sunny in Richmond and Glen Allen, some schools from Fredericksburg were forced to cancel due to snowy conditions just a little father north of the Glen Allen venue. Those present ooh’d and ahh’d when the curtain went up, and again when the company’s men – Jay Williams, Nicolas Betancourt Sotolongo, and Glen Lewis, performed flips and handsprings across the stage. But this is Latin Ballet, and I felt that the young attendees’ responses were subdued – either because this was their first time attending the theater experience or because their teachers and chaperones had cautioned them to be on their best behavior. And they were – on their best behavior, that is.

At the end, company member Jay Williams invited audience members onstage for a mini-hiphop class, which offered many aspiring performers the opportunity to show off their best moves. The young audience members seemed to enjoy meeting the cast, taking pictures, and getting autographs nearly as much as the performance itself.

            The Legend of the Poinsettia tells the story of Little Maria (with Sydney Smith and Kaia Davis-Martin, who performed on Thursday morning, alternating in the role).  After the sudden death of her mother, who was teaching her how to weave a colorful blanket, Maria finds herself in need of a gift to present to the Baby Jesus on Epiphany Day on January 6. Epiphany or Three King’s Day (Dia de los Tres Reyes Magos) celebrates the 12th day of Christmas and the legend of the three Wise Men bringing gifts to the Christ Child. This provides a great excuse for those who did not take down their Christmas trees on January 1 to just say you were waiting to celebrate Epiphany.

The narration, given in English and Spanish, also emphasizes that this is also the story of “the true spirit of giving.” Not only is there entertainment and a moral, but there is also history, as the program explains how the poinsettia came to be a symbol of Christmas after Joel Roberts Poinsett, first ambassador from the US to Mexico in 1825, imported clippings and cultivated the plants that came to bear

As I have written previously, The Legend of the Poinsettia is a family-friendly, multi-cultural, multi-generational festival featuring dances, music, and colorful costumes from Columbia, Mexico, and Spain. There are cultural offerings from Mexico (the origin of the legend and of the poinsettia plant), Colombia (King’s birthplace, which also celebrates the nine nights before Christmas with las novenas including songs, prayers, and nativity scenes), Venezuela (the home of the gaitas or festive songs that blend the Spanish and African cultures), the Dominican Republic (home of the bachata, a mixture of Cuban bolero and son), Puerto Rico (home of the Christmas parrandas or musical festivities) and Spain (home of flamenco and the Christmas novenas). A blend of solemn candle lighting and prayers with festive singing and dancing is the common thread that ties together the many cultures and traditions, concluding with the miracle of the poinsettia plant, represented by dancers in red and green. The Spirit of the Poinsettia, floating around the perimeter of the stage in a voluminous read gown from which individual poinsettia “plants” emerge, may remind some of the Mother Ginger figure in The Nutcracker who hides a dozen small children under her huge gown.

Tickets are still available for a weekend of family-friendly shows

 

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

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Photo Credits: Photos from Latin Ballet website; photos of Jay Williams working with the children by Julinda.

 

 

RICHMOND BALLET: Why Do We Love “The Nutcracker”?

RICHMOND BALLET: The Nutcracker – a Holiday Classic

Reflections on a Ballet by Julinda D. Lewis

At: Dominion Energy Center for the Performing Arts | Carpenter Theatre | 600 E. Grace St., RVA 23219

Performances: December 13-23, 2019

Ticket Prices: $25-$125

Info: (804) 344-0906 x224 or etix.com

Why is The Nutcracker a holiday tradition – what do nutcrackers have to do with Christmas? According to German folklore, nutcrackers bring good luck and protection to your family and home. It represents power and strength, guarding your family against danger and baring its teeth to ward off evil spirits while serving as a messenger of goodwill.

The Nutcracker character originated with Prussian author E.T.A. Hoffman’s 1816 story, The Nutcracker and The King of Mice. In the story, the Stahlbaum family has an annual Christmas party and their children, Marie, Fritz, and their sister Louise, receive gifts from their godfather, Drosselmeyer, a clockmaker with a talent for making mechanical toys. The story, filled with

about the triumph of good over evil. In 1844 French author Alexander Dumas père, adapted Hoffman’s story, changing Marie’s name to Clara. The family became the Silberhauses. This was the version that became a ballet, created in 1892 by Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and choreographers Marius Petipa (French) and Lev Ivanov (Russian). The Petipa and Ivanov choreography became the model for many of our contemporary productions.

The Richmond Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker was conceived by the company’s Artistic Director, Stoner Winslett and Charles Caldwell with artistic direction and choreography by Winslett and scenery and props by Caldwell. (The magical tree was designed by Alain Vaës and the lush costumes are by David Heuvel.) This year marks Winslett’s 40th production of the holiday classic for Richmond Ballet. From time to time, she makes changes and refreshes the ballet, which keeps it as interesting for the dancers as it is for the audiences.

The Richmond Ballet Nutcracker is a beautifully mounted production that appeals to both children and adults. There is, of course, dancing. While the “star” of the show is Clara, danced on Wednesday by McKenzie Fisher, who shares the coveted role with Kyla Williams, there is plenty of dancing by the adult company members.  There is a lovely duet for the Snow Queen and King (Melissa Frain and Ira White) and later Lauren Archer and Trevor Davis, the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier, danced the “Grand Pas de Deux.” After spending the fall semester teaching dance history, it was hard not to think of the changing roles of men and women in ballet from the Classical period (of which The Nutcracker is a prime example) to the Romantic period (when women became more prominent). I was torn between watching Davis spin Archer with mechanical precision – almost as if she were one of Drosselmeyer’s inventions — and gasping in awe as she ran and leaped, landing precariously and gloriously atop his shoulder. Repeatedly.

This ballet is also filled with character dancing, from the halting waltz by the grandparents (Susan Massey and Marcelo Outeiro) to the mouse battle with Anthony Oates as the Mouse King. The second act has something for everyone, dancing flowers and angels, and specialty dances (Spanish, Arabian, Chinese,  Russian, and more. Izabella Tokev and Fernando Sabino were mesmerizing as the Snake and Her Charmer, and the Russian dancers, Patrick Lennon and Logan O’Neil with Matthew Frain as their Dancing Bear is always a favorite. The Trépak, based on a traditional Ukranian folk dance has the men jumping in the air, then spinning on the floor like break dancers, while the bear adds a touch of humor, wearing red shoes to accent his furry costume, and moon walking off the stage while blowing kisses to the audience.

But wait, there’s more. The costumes are stunning, providing a visual delight, along with the huge, colorful set and props like the magical Swan Sleigh that glides across the stage carrying Clara and her Little Prince (Nicholas Blankenship).

And, finally, there is Tchaikovsky’s beautiful score. It is familiar from the opening notes through the Finale and is probably the first classical music many children are ever exposed to. There are magical melodies associated with each scene that evoke memories of previous productions and prompt associations with idealized visions of Christmases past, present, and yet to come. The icing on the cake in this kingdom of sweets is that the music is played live, by the Richmond Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Erin Freeman and a 30+ member Snow Choir, directed by Lisa Fusco.

The Nutcracker wraps young and old in a warm, familiar fantasy. It means Christmas and traditions and family, and a complete letting go of the stresses of everyday life for two hours of joy.

 

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

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Photo Credits: Richmond Ballet Facebook Page

 

Alvin Ailey
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CONCERT BALLET OF VIRGINIA: 43rd Annual “Nutcracker”

THE CONCERT BALLET OF VIRGINIA: The Nutcracker

Observations on the Nutcracker, 43rd Annual Production by Julinda D. Lewis

At: Atlee High School Theatre, 9414 Atlee Station Rd., Mechanicsville, VA 23116

Performances: December 14, 15, 20-21, 2019

Ticket Prices: $12-24

Info: (804) 798-0945 or http://concertballet.com/ or concertballetofvirginia@yahoo.com

I’ve seen many of the Concert Ballet of Virginia galas, and even the pared-down excerpts of The Nutcracker, but this is the first time I’ve seen their full-length version of the holiday classic.

Synopsis: The Silberhaus’ host their annual Christmas party, attended by their children Clara and Fritz and an assortment of family and friends. Clara receives a pair of dancing slipper and her brother received a sword and a mechanical rat – which he and his friends promptly put to use terrorizing the girls. A family friend, the mysterious Drosselmeyer, arrived late and gives Clara a Nutcracker that has magical powers. When all the guests have gone home, Clara comes to retrieve her Nutcracker, but it comes to life and takes Clara on a Christmas adventure filled with soldiers and horses, battling mice, a Snow Queen, a Sugar Plum Fairy, a Cavalier, and other fantastic characters.

The familiar score by Tchaikovsky and traditional choreography after Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov as conceived by the late deVeaux Riddick captured and held the attention of the audience made up predominantly of families with young children. The story of Clara and her mischievous little brother Fritz is filled with humorous scenes that a young audience can relate to, and the magic of the mildly menacing family friend, Drosselmeyer, keeps the story interesting.

The variety of the “Divertissements” in Act II (Spanish, Arabian, Chinese, Russian, and Mother Ginger – here called Mother GingGong – along with acrobatic clowns and waltzing flowers) allows for a display of diverse genres and the multiple abilities of this community dance company (all unsalaried), “operating within the framework of a professional dance company.”

The scenery, by artistic director Scott Boyer and costumes (by a full team consisting of Erline Eason, Cecil Carter, Jill Driskill, Patricia Morris, Kay Allen, Mary Beth Rhyne,  Ann Reid, Corinne Abernathy, Kim Gangloff, and Tracey Latham) were a beautiful treat for the eyes. They even engineered snow falling gently on the Snowflakes corps de ballet scene.

The Nutcracker is often a young dancer’s – or audience member’s – first exposure to ballet, and this production, while lacking in virtuoso technique and clarity and definition of line, is a visual and musical treat that just might stimulate the interest of new young dancers and future balletomanes.

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

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Photo Credits: Concert Ballet of Virginia Facebook page

Concert Ballet NutcrackerConcert Ballet Nutcracker2

 

Alvin Ailey
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Whistlin Women
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CINDERELLA: Not Your Childhood Bedtime Story

CINDERELLA: Rogers & Hammerstein’s Musical Comedy

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: The November Theatre Marjorie Arenstein Stage

Performances: November 29, 2019 – January 5, 2020

Ticket Prices: $36-63

Info: (804) 282-2620 or www.virginiarep.org

Don’t expect a traditional Cinderella from this production with music by Richard Rodgers, Lyrica by Oscar Hammerstein, II, and book by Douglas Carter Beane. Originally written for television, Cinderella aired live on CBS in 1957 with Julie Andrews in the title role. Beane wrote a new book for the 2013 Broadway adaptation that includes some plot twists and introduces new characters – adding hilarity as well as a new political and social slant that makes the plot more interesting for adults without sacrificing the wide-eyed fascination and delight of younger audience members.

SPOILER ALERT: If you don’t want to know the details of the adaptation, STOP! Skip to the final two paragraphs, then read the rest after seeing the show.

In this version, Cinderella’s father has died, leaving her at the mercy of her cruel stepmother and stepsisters. Susan Sanford plays the role of Madame, the selfish and self-centered stepmother. She is, being Susan Sanford, deliciously droll and completely over the top. Madame is so committed to being mean that she has a mini-meltdown when Cinderella says something kind to her at the prince’s ball while playing a game called Ridicule (imagine a mix of musical chairs and Words Against Humanity).

Audra Honaker plays Charlotte, the less favored sister – and Madame takes every opportunity to make sure she knows it. Honaker plays the role with a gravelly voice and a crude attitude (imagine a young Rosie O’Donnell, before she fell out of favor) pulling up her ballgown, removing one shoe, and sitting on the palace steps in the female version of manspreading. She goes for the physical humor and hits the mark nearly every time.

Havy Nguyen plays the favored and more conventionally attractive sister, Gabrielle. Gabrielle is more refined, not as loud, and kinder. Surprisingly, Gabrielle is sympathetic to Cinderella’s plight, and the two form a sisterly bond, sharing secrets and commiserating over their common oppression by Madame’s heavy-handed control.

Gabrielle isn’t really interested in the prince, because she is in love with Jean-Michel, a new character, played by Durron Marquis Tyre. Jean-Michel is a social activist, holding court in the marketplace and shouting outside the palace gates, trying to get the attention of Prince Topher (Edward L. Simon) to convince him to help the poor and disenfranchised citizen who are being evicted and losing their homes and land. Tyre’s character is a rabble-rouser in the marketplace, but shy and somewhat tongue-tied around Gabrielle. For their first date, he plans to take her to a soup kitchen to feed the poor.

Speaking of the poor. . .Prominent among the town’s characters is Marie, a beggar woman who is described as crazy but harmless. Of course, she turns out to be Cinderella’s fairy godmother. Katrinah Carol Lewis brings glamour and a larger-than-life presence to this role. With her magic wand and the help of some theatrical smoke, she transforms Cinderella from rags to riches, a pumpkin into a carriage, some mice into horses, and a fox and a racoon into a coachman and footman. The most amazing bit of magic, however, is the transformation of Marie’s beggar’s rags into a gown worthy of a fairy godmother, and Cinderella’s ragged dress into a ballgown – twice! A magic wand, some theatrical smoke, a few twirls under the special lighting effects, and the transformations happen in seconds right before our eyes. It’s the magician’s quick dress change trick, and it never fails to amaze me. (There were occasionally a few hints when a hem shifted, revealing an under layer – but this still didn’t spoil the fun, just as when, about five minutes into the show, Prince Topher apparently fell short in tossing his rope to topple a giant, and we caught a stage hand crawling out to retrieve the errant lasso.) Unless I missed it, I didn’t see any credit given for magic or special effects.

No, I didn’t forget the leading lady and her Prince Charming – or rather, Prince Topher. (The Town Crier’s recitation of the Prince’s ten or twelve formal names is another amusing running joke.) Quynh-My Luu and Edward L. Simon are both new to Virginia Rep.  Luu makes a lovely Cinderella, with a strong voice and a likeable personality. She doesn’t overdo the kindness, maintaining a balance between humility and empowerment. Simon didn’t make as strong an impression as I thought a prince should. When we first meet him, he has just turned twenty-one and is in search of himself before taking the throne. Like Cinderella, both his parents have died, and he has been raised by Lord Chancellor Sebastian, who has also been running – and corrupting – the government while waiting for his young charge to come of age. Jay O. Millman is a somewhat stronger and more forceful presence than his prince, which seems unfortunate.

In this version, Cinderella doesn’t lose her shoe when rushing home from the ball, but deliberately leaves it on the palace steps a few days later, after attending a banquet the prince holds in order to lure her back to the palace. In both cases, Cinderella has a midnight curfew. She misses the first by a few minutes, leading to a humorous chase where the footman and coachman partially transform, revealing furry tails sticking out from their livery uniforms before they fully return to their furry four-footed selves.

Friday’s performance was before a full house, and there were many children of all ages present. From my vantage point in the last row of the orchestra, I was able to glance, from time to time, at some of the young people, who seemed to be thoroughly engaged. (The production starts at 7:00pm, rather than 8:00pm, and runs just under 90 minutes.) Some of the smaller ones sat on a parent’s lap or, if they had an aisle seat, hung over the armrest; VaRep might consider investing in a few booster seats for occasions like this.

During intermission, one friend mentioned that it took her some time to get used to an Asian Cinderella, as she was used to a Disney version with blonde hair and blue eyes. I didn’t hear anyone else say anything about the “color-blind” casting, with white, black, and Asian actors portraying fictitious characters, but then, I wasn’t focused on that aspect of the performance.

There are nearly 30 musical numbers in this two-act show. Among my favorites are “The Prince is Giving a Ball” in Act I and  the quartet by Ella/Cinderella, Charlotte, Gabrielle, and Madame in Act II. I also enjoyed Matthew Couvillon’s choreography, with strong roots in both ballet and social dancing. Brian Barker’s scenic design is surprisingly constrained: a stand of thick trunked trees and a full moon for the outdoor scenes, the edge of a cottage for Cinderella’s house, a few wagons and far stands for the town square, and a wide, elegant balcony and stairway for the palace. BJ Wilkinson’s lighting doesn’t hold back on glitz and glitter, and Anthony Smith is the musical director of a small orchestra with a big sound. (Thankfully, the orchestra is in the pit and there are no holes for the dancers to tiptoe cautiously around.) Laine Satterfield’s direction kept things moving along at a rapid clip; there were no lulls for the younger audience members to get bored or distracted, or to allow the adults to notice the passage of time. I didn’t do any research prior to the show, so I didn’t know how funny it was going to be. Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella is a delightful family show that unapologetically includes a message about treating all people well without becoming too preachy or pedantic.

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

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Photo Credits: Photos not available at the time this review was written.

Cinderella.1

Alvin Ailey
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13: THE SECOND TIME AROUND

13, THE MUSICAL: The Second Cast; A Second Look

An Addendum to Yesterday’s Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

By: Virginia Rep/Cadence Theatre Company

At: Theatre Gym, Virginia Repertory Center, 114 W. Broad St., RVA 23220

Performances: October 26 – November 17, 2019

Ticket Prices: Single tickets start at $42

Info: (804) 282-2620 or va-rep.org

Yesterday (October 25) I wrote about 13, The Musical after seeing the first cast. Today (October 26) I returned for the second opening night with a different cast – except for, I think, two actors.

The original view may be viewed at:

https://jdldancesrva.com/2019/10/26/13-what-could-possibly-go-wrong

When Cadence Theatre’s Artistic Director Anna Senechal Johnson announced that there would be two entire casts for 13, THE MUSICAL and that there would be two opening nights, I decided to attend both. The board with the actors’ headshots had to be changed, and there were two sets of programs printed. Preparation for this musical, more than 40 performers (actors and band members ranged in age from 12 to 17) required changing the headshot board and printing two sets of programs to accommodate the two casts – the Appleton and the Indiana (named for the town and state where our young leading man must move after his parents’ divorce). It must have felt like the theater company was preparing to give birth to twins.

For the first five minutes, I started to compare the performances of the two sets of  main characters, but about 10 minutes into the show I realized that the characters had taken over. While the chemistry was different, and different actors brought their own nuances, I can honestly say that the experiences were equivalent to seeing the same show twice with the same cast.

Physically, Brandon McKinney and Evan Dymon are quite different (in stature, facial structure, and more) but both portrayed lead character Evan with naivete, bravado, and compassion. Bridget Sindelar may have had a slight edge over Violet Craighead-Way as far as vocal range or power, but both made me root for Patrice and cheer her independence and self-identity.

The differences between Donathan Arnold and Cohen Steele are even more striking than the differences between McKinney and Dymon. Arnold is tall, slender, and black while Dymon looks farm-strong and he’s white.

I think Caroline Johnson portrayed a somewhat more prissy and less conceited Kendra than did Audrey Kate Taylor, while Jolie Smith and Anjali Sharma were equally strong as the mean girl. Both were able to maintain a sneer throughout a rigorous cheerleading routine, but Sharm’s tripping of best-friend-and-arch-enemy Kendra was perhaps a tiny bit more subtle than was Jodi Smith’s action for the same scene.

Ethan Dunne Stewart and Marcus Dowd, as Brett’s friends and hangers-on were a bit more outrageous, if possible, in their role as back up singers than were Owen Buckenmaier and Jake Barger, but both pairs of hangers-on were among my favorite characters.

Since much of the story line is sung, it is important that the lyrics can be clearly heard, and from my position (second row, right on Friday night and second row, front on Saturday) there where a few times that the vocals got lost for a moment or two and I never did understand the much repeated line of the finale.

My first impression remains the same: 13, THE MUSICAL: is a fun and energetic piece of theatre that is this wholly engrossing. Both casts of teens exude energy and professionalism; they make you care about what happens to Evan, Patrice, and Kendra (the bar mitzvah boy, his new friend, and the popular girl) and their friends. As if anticipating the audience reaction, the authors have the cast sing about their growth, their decisions, their triumphs and failures over the course of the school year

 

 

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

———-

Photo Credits: Jay Paul

13, The Musical
Josh Chapman and Violet Craghead-Way
13, The Musical
Anjali Sharma
13, The Musical
Autumn Papczynski
13, The Musical
Evan Dymon, Brenna Duffy, and John Chapman
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Alvin Ailey
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13: What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

13: A Teen-aged Musical

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

By: Virginia Rep/Cadence Theatre Company

At: Theatre Gym, Virginia Repertory Center, 114 W. Broad St., RVA 23220

Performances: October 26 – November 17, 2019

Ticket Prices: Single tickets start at $42

Info: (804) 282-2620 or va-rep.org

The musical 13 with its high-energy cast of teenagers starts off at a level 10 and pretty much stays there for the duration. The first – and so far only – Broadway musical to have a cast made up entirely of teenagers, the Richmond casts of 13 ranges in age from 12-17. Yes, casts. That was not a typo. Cadence Theatre’s Artistic Director, Anna Senechal Johnson, worked with two casts that will alternate throughout the run. I assumed this was because of the youthful ages of the cast, but in speaking with Johnson after Friday’s opening night program – a second opening night will be held on Saturday for the second cast – it seems that the dual casts are also a way to fulfill the company’s mission and “commitment to development and training for young actors all over Virginia.” Indeed, several of the young actors – and their parents or guardians – commute to Richmond for this show from as far as Northern Virginia and Maryland.

Written by Jason Robert Brown (music and lyrics) and Dan Elish and Robert Horn (book), 13 chronicles several months in the life of Evan, played on Friday by Brandon McKinney. Evan is looking forward to his bar mitzvah, when he gets hit with not one but two major blows: first his parents divorce, then his mother informs him they are moving from New York City – the only hone he has ever known – to a Smalltown, USA, or Appleton, Indiana, to be precise.

Evan befriends Patrice (Bridget Sindelar) before finding out she is a social outcast, and in a heart-wrenching scene, he un-invites her to his party so that the popular kids will attend. Patrice is played by Bridget Sindelar, whom my daughter Soleil immediately recognized as Pinocchio from the VirginiaRep children’s show last season. [https://jdldancesrva.com/2019/03/31/pinocchio-bright-and-shining-son ]. Sindelar nails the character of Patrice, but more importantly, her singing is strong and here range impressive.

Evan’s action catches the attention of Patrice’s best friend, Archie (Ethan Phelps) – a classmate with an unnamed debilitating condition (muscular dystrophy, according to a synopsis of the script) that requires that he use crutches to walk. This makes him an object of ridicule to the popular kids, but that doesn’t stop him from plotting and planning to manifest his deepest fantasy. Archie has a crush on Kendra (Audrey Kate Taylor) and quickly enlists Evan to help jock-boy Brett (Donathan Arnold) secure a date with the ever-popular Kendra, with the ulterior motive of inserting himself in the role of leading man. The boys hatch a plan that at first seems successful – but if that were the case, the play would have ended here instead of continuing to its conclusion.

The lively music under the direction of Anthony Smith is played by a live band, most of whom are onstage in front of us but some of them are placed behind the audience. There is energetic choreography – 13 even included a tap dance – by Jasmine Mckenzie that is created and performed with a sense of ordered chaos that perfectly captures the teen-aged characters. A simple cinderblock set by Emily Hake Massie hides a few surprises that are revealed when doors swing out to create new spaces. Sarah Grady’s costumes are contemporary, with most of the cast – especially the ensemble – dressed in neutral shades like gray, but Evan sports a red plaid shirt, and other leading characters break out of the gray mold with bits of color.

Patrice/Sindelar is full of wisdom, but also has some of the funniest lines in the show. When introducing Evan/McKinney to the town of Appleton, she points out the highlights, like the Walmart and Dairy Queen, but also drops lines like, “The inbreeding takes up a lot of our time.”

Brett/Arnold is the cool, handsome quarterback, and is stereotypically vain and not the sharpest knife in the drawer. His buddies Eddie (Owen Buckenmaier) and Malcolm (Jake Barger) are loyal, hilarious sidekicks. When trying to help Brett prepare to ask Kendra (Audrey Kate Taylor), the prettiest girl in Dan Quail Middle School, they metamorphose into R&B backup singers. Although why the star quarterback and most popular boy on campus needs help getting a date is beyond me. Taylor plays her role with wide-eyed innocence and it’s irritating when she doesn’t seem to catch on to her friend’s betrayal.

Teen-agers can be some of the meanest people on earth, so it is no surprise that there is a Mean Girl in 13. Lucy (Jolie Smith) is supposed to be Kendra’s best friend, but she wants Brett for herself, and does everything she can to get Kendra out of the way: bullying; tripping her during cheerleader practice; giving conflicting advice about how to behave around a boy; and starting a vicious rumor. I suppose why 13 year old students are dating is irrelevant, but one scene hinges around Evan asking his mother to buy movie tickets to an R-rated movie for Evan and his popular friends. The sneer Smith wears whenever Kendra is around is so convincing I began to actively dislike Lucy.

Mia Meadows and Hannah Riggs share the lead in the closing song in a breakout surprise, after performing in the ensemble and the cheerleading squad for most of the play. Brenna Duffy stood in for Zoë Brown on Friday, taking over Zoë’s duties as Rabbi. Because of the huge size of the cast – when doubled – I will let the words of the press release fill in the missing notes:

Returning to the Cadence stage in the Appleton Cast are Violet Craghead-Way (Fun Home), Caroline Johnson (Appropriate), Grace Connell (Appropriate), and Sophia Bunnell (Violet). Returning in the Indiana Cast are Brandon McKinney (Fun Home; Caroline, or Change), Donathan Arnold (Caroline, or Change), and Alex Csaky (Fun Home). Making their Cadence debuts in the Appleton Cast are Evan Dymon, Josh Chapman, Cohen Steele, Anjali Sharma, Ethan Dunne Stewart, Marcus Dowd, Emma McClain, Autumn Papczynski, Molly Nugent, Sam Hurst, Raif Winn, Brenna Duffy, Gracie Farrell, and Lauren Brabrand. Debuting in the Indiana Cast are Bridget Sindelar, Ethan Phelps, Audrey Kate Taylor, Jolie Smith, Owen Buckenmaier, Jake Barger, Molly Rose Meredith, Mia Meadows, Bekah Blackburn, Sawyer Williams, Jack Hensley, Mia Krivanec, Zoë Brown, Madelyn Diradour, and Sarah Kathryn Makl. Performing with both casts will be Hannah Riggs and Christopher Stone. Mason Timberline will be joining the cast as the pianist/Master Conductor.

So, it appears I was led along this theatrical musical journey by the very capable Appleton cast. On Saturday I will go back to see how the Indiana cast conducts themselves along this same path, and I’ll report back to you.

13 is a lively, upbeat show tackles real-life teen-aged problems: popularity; peer pressure; bullying, and more. And every single one of the teens onstage has a cellphone in their pocket; they frequently take them out for a selfie or to record some controversy or other. There is even a one-page Study Guide included in the program that asks some interesting questions, such as “How has technology changed social expectations for adolescents?” and “What does the musical, 13, teach us about friendship and prioritizing personal relationships.

 Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

———-

Photo Credits: Jay Paul

13, The Musical
Cast of 13. Brandon Mckinney. Photo by Jay Paul.
13, The Musical
Cast of 13. Photo by Jay Paul.
13, The Musical
Cast of 13. Brandon McKinney. and Bridget Sindelar.Photo by Jay Paul.
13, The Musical
Cast of 13. Audrey Kate Taylor and Donathan Arnold. Photo by Jay Paul.
13, The Musical
Cast of 13. Photo by Jay Paul.
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