THE MAGIC OF THE NUTCRACKER – REFRESHED

Richmond Ballet Presents a Holiday Favorite

An Unconventional Dance Review by Julinda D. Lewis & Guest Reviewers Kingston and Emmitt

By: The Richmond Ballet

At: Dominion Energy Center’s Carpenter Theatre, 600 E. Grace Street, RVA 23219

Performances: December 9-23, 2022

Ticket Prices: $25 – $130

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

Updated COVID-19 Protocols, see below.

THE PROGRAM

The Nutcracker 

Artistic Direction and Choreography by Stoner Winslett

Production conceived by Stoner Winslett and Charles Caldwell

Music by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Music performed by the Richmond Symphony

Conducted by Erin Freeman

Scenery designed by Alain Vaës

Costumes designed by David Heuvel

Lighting designed by Richard Moore and Associate, Catherine Girardi

When I was a Girl Scout Leader (which I was, for 27 years), one of my favorite things to do was to take young girls camping for the first time. Likewise, one of my favorite things to do as a writer, teacher, and grandmother is to take my young people to the theater for the first time. Three of my grandsons live in RVA, ages 14, 8, and 8 months. The oldest has seen The Nutcracker before, and with the return of live performances, it was time for the middle one to have his first Nutcracker experience. So on Sunday evening I got a chance to re-experience the classic holiday ballet through new eyes.

The magic begins the moment you enter the theater – well, as soon as you pass through security and have your tickets scanned. [Security approved of my clear plastic tote and the small “sippy cups” I’d brought so we wouldn’t spill the drinks we bought at the concession stand.] While waiting for the program to begin, I enjoyed watching the families with children of all ages, most dressed in their holiday finery. Kingston (a high school student and the family percussionist) and Emmitt (age 8) saw that it was okay to go take a peek at the orchestra pit and returned to their seats discussing the probability of someone falling into the pit.

Other preparatory and property elements worthy of note included explaining why the audience applauded the arrival of the Symphony conductor and the many layers of show drops and curtains that open throughout the lavish production to reveal scenes from the streets of Nuremburg to the entry and drawing room of the Silberhaus home to the Enchanted Snow Forest and Confitenberg, the Kingdom of Sweets. Also, the diversity of the cast is important, because representation matters, especially when young audience members can see people onstage who look like themselves. An example follows a few paragraphs down.

The Nutcracker is a family show for The Richmond Ballet as well as for the audience. Students from the School of Richmond Ballet, apprentices, members of RBII, new and experienced company members, and even faculty and staff share the stage for this multi-generational extravaganza. In addition to refreshed costumes and scenery, the Silberhaus party features newly constructed doll houses for Dr. Drosselmeyer’s magic show, Mother Ginger is back from her pandemic hiatus – with eight kiddy-winks under her voluminous skirts — and Associate Artistic Director, Ma Cong (who dances the role of Dr. Drosselmeyer) has choreographed a new Chinese dance that incorporates elements of Chinese folkdance, which he studied extensively early in his career, with Beijing Dance Academy and The National Ballet of China.

Yes, there is a magic show within the magical show. Dr. Drosselmeyer, godfather to Clara (Adhya Yaratha at Sunday’s 5:30 PM performance) and her mischievous brother Fritz (Sunnelin Seay), and creator of the famous Nutcracker for which the ballet is named, has a penchant for turning toys into humans. Winslett and Cong’s interpretation of Dr. Drosselmeyer, however, is substantially less creepy than the character was originally written. There is also the magic of dreams as Clara falls asleep with her mended Nutcracker – after her little brother Fritz, in a fit of jealously, pulls off its head – and in her slumber journeys with her Young Prince (Benjamin Piner) to the Kingdom of Sweets – where all the dancing happens.

I am on board with the youth in my adoration for the battle between the Mouse King’s army and the Toy Soldiers. But of course, Kingston and Emmitt who are bonafide martial artists, had a lot to say about the fight technique. One graciously commented that, “it was good.” The other assessed that the sword fights were not realistic, specifically that the swords should have come closer. “We practice near misses,” he critiqued.

Emmitt, the eight-year-old, kept up a running commentary: the Bear (Paul Piner) in the Russian dance is breakdancing, and why is one of the Lambs black? My apologies to any nearby patrons who may have been disturbed. Most noteworthy, he was mesmerized by Mother Ginger to the point that he expressed a desire to participate in an upcoming production. He was undeterred when I told him he’d need to take ballet classes, but near the end of the scene abruptly changed his mind. “I couldn’t do that,” he said. “I can’t stand still that long; I have too much energy.”

I learned later that both novice critics retold the story and re-enacted several scenes for their mother. Both also noted that in a pas de deux the woman gets all the good dance phrases. And finally, “There’s no Nutcracker in the second half – it doesn’t make sense. Otherwise, that was a good one!” That’s Emmitt’s summary and he’s sticking to it.

If I may conclude with my own two cents worth…

Adhya Yaratha and Benjamin Piner were absolutely charming as Clara/The Little Princess and Dr. Drosselmeyer’s Nephew/The Little Prince. The Snow Choir sounded heavenly. I would love to learn that magical gliding step that takes the Angels across the stage, guiding or welcoming Clara and her Prince to The Kingdom of Sweets. It reminds me of a gliding step used by Russian dancers that my dance history students showed me this past fall. The new choreography for the Chinese Dance – the title of which is actually Tea – does, indeed have an authentic look and feel. Dancer Eri Nishihara’s highly touted green pointe shoes are, in fact, all that – and, wait, was the dragon newly outfitted as well?

Naomi Wilson was a lovely Butterfly in the Waltz of the Flowers, and finally, it was a pleasure to finally get to see guest dancer Kristina Kadashevych dancing the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy as well as the ballet’s Grand Pas de Deux with Aleksey Babayev as her Cavalier. The petite dancer’s steps appear effortless and feathery – a stark contrast to the conditions surrounding her current residency. Ms. Kadashevych, you see, fled the Ukraine last spring as her homeland was being invaded by Russian soldiers, so perhaps those ethereal steps actually reflect what it feels like to be free. The Nutcracker is not new to her, and she will also be performing with the Richmond Ballet in February when the company returns to Dominion Energy Center with the East Coast premiere of Ma Cong’s Firebird and Balanchine’s signature Serenade (limited run, February 17-19).


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


THE NUTCRACKER PERFORMANCE SCHEDULE
December 9-23, 2022 | Dominion Energy Center
600 E Grace St, Richmond, VA 23219

Friday, December 9 at 7:00 PM
Saturday, December 10 at 2:00 PM and 7:00 PM
Sunday, December 11 at 1:00 PM and 5:30 PM
Friday, December 16 at 7:00 PM
Saturday, December 17 at 2:00 PM and 7:00 PM
Sunday, December 18 at 1:00 PM and 5:30 PM
Tuesday, December 20 at 7:00 PM
Wednesday, December 21 at 7:00 PM
Thursday, December 22 at 2:00 PM and 7:00 PM
Friday, December 23 at 2:00 PM 

UPDATED COVID-19 Protocols (As of March 2022): Please note that we are seating at 100% capacity this season. Beginning with Studio Three in March, we will no longer require patrons to wear masks or to show proof of vaccination/negative COVID test in order to attend a performance.

MASKS: In light of the latest CDC guidelines and Central Virginia’s current “Low/Medium Community Level” status, masks are optional at these performances.

BALLET BARRE: The Ballet Barre (cashless) will be open for our spring Studio performances. Beer, wine, and soft drinks will be available for purchase pre-show as well as during intermission.

CHOREOGRAPHER’S CLUB: In addition to the exclusive Q&A session with the artists, designers, and dancers, we will host a modified post-show reception. More details will be found in your House Notes email.

WELLNESS CHECK: Patrons who do not feel well leading up to a performance are asked to stay home. If you have tested positive or have symptoms of COVID-19, please call our Box Office at 804.344.0906 x224 so that we may discuss ticket options.


Photo Credits: Production photos to follow

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MIRACLE ON SOUTH DIVISION STREET

Pride, Prejudice & Identity: A Comedy Fueled by Family Secrets, Polish Pastries, & Gefilte Fish

At: The Swift Creek Mill Theatre, 17401 U.S. Route 1, S. Chesterfield, VA 23834

Performances: January 29 – February November 19 – December 31, 2022

Ticket Prices: $15-$49

Info: (804) 748-5203 or https://www.swiftcreekmill.com

We all know that we’re special, but some of us are more special than others. Take the Nowak family of Buffalo, NY, for instance. In 1942 the Blessed Virgin Mary “appeared” – emphasis required! – to an ordinary barber, and his family would never be the same. This miracle led to people being healed, spawned the birth of a soup kitchen, and became the anchoring event that made an otherwise average family special.

But all is not what it seems in MIRACLE ON SOUTH DIVISION STREET. A deathbed confession turns everything upside down, making the Nowak family question everything they have known and based their lives on for two generations.

While the play and its characters are fictitious, the premise of the story is based on fact. There is an actual Our Lady of Seneca Street Shrine in Buffalo, NY – which just happens to be the author’s hometown. In the 1950s a barber named Joe Battaglia lived at 849 Seneca Street in the apartment above his shop. Apparently, one night Battaglia was awakened from his sleep by a shining light outside his window that beckoned to him. When he went outside to investigate, it is reported that he encountered nothing less than an image of the Virgin Mary. The image spoke to him, telling him not to be afraid and instructed him to help spread a message of world peace.

Battaglia commemorated the occasion by building a 20-foot tall brick and glass structure that houses a life-sized statue of the Holy Mother. After the barber’s death, the shrine fell into disrepair and was slated to be torn down but local residents fought to preserve it. To this day the  Lady of Seneca Street Shrine is still maintained by a dedicated local caretaker committed to preserving the history and continuing the legend. The shrine has its own address – 847 Seneca Street – and a mail slot to receive donations and the prayers that come from all around the world.

With this background, Dudzick re-imagined the story of the barber’s vision and the resulting shrine. Instead of the Battaglia family, we meet the Nowaks who are about to have a family meeting in which daughter Ruth (Audra Honaker) is about to reveal startling news that will shake the family to its core. After preparing a lunch of fruit salad (why didn’t she rinse the blueberries and strawberries…) her efforts are thwarted by her older sister, Beverly (Donna Marie Miller) who is more than a little self-centered and has her sights centered on (a) a bowling tournament and (b) a new boyfriend – an ex-priest candidate. There’s also a brother, Jimmy (Neal Gallini-Burdick) whose impending engagement is also the cause of a controversial subtext. The Nowaks, you see, are devote Catholics – at least according to their mother Clara (Jacqueline Jones) – and this is a key component of the script.

The plot twists and unending life-changing revelations create both tension and comedy – often and most successfully when they occur simultaneously. Honaker and Miller are recreating the roles I saw them portray when this play was performed at Virginia Rep’s Hanover Tavern in 2017. But with Jones as Clara and Gallini-Burdick as Jimmy the energy in the Swift Creek production is quite different and the cast’s timing, under the steady-handed direction of Tom Width, hits different notes as well. (In case you’re wondering, in the 2017 production mentioned above the mother was played by Catherine Shaffner and the son by John Mincks, both of whom filled these roles with distinction.)

MIRACLE ON SOUTH DIVISION STREET is a delightful feel-good play, but it touches on some very real, very serious, and still relevant topics: identity, faith, family, love, loyalty, ritual, and more. By making this a comedy and placing it in a different time period, we are encouraged to examine some important and controversial topics from a distance – it’s not me, it’s the Nowaks. But every family has secrets, prejudices, and inside jokes. But how much of it – if any – should be shared outside the family, and to what purpose. Ruth struggles with these questions through the lens of a one-woman show; many today look at – or ignore – the same questions through the multiple lenses of social media. Makes you wonder if the miracle is what resulted from the vision – or what occurred in the Nowak kitchen.

Honaker delivers the tough lines with ease and patience that defies human understanding. Miller behaves like a bratty younger sibling rather than the eldest, but manages to remain likeable, while Gallini-Burdick manages to remain a voice of reason throughout it all. Jones vacillates between wide-eyed innocence and wisdom. She is also at the center of my favorite scene – where Clara, the Catholic mother first discovers that Jesus was Jewish, and later delivers one of my favorite lines – the final line of the play.

ADDENDUM: This review has been edited. I was roundly chastised by the playwright for giving away the final line. But, dear readers,in over forty years of writing about dance and theater, this is the first time I EVER received a comment directly from the playwright. I am humbled – and humbly edited this text. jdl

Just in case I didn’t make it clear in my ponderings, above, I highly recommend MIRACLE ON SOUTH DIVISION STREET. It’s a Christmas story with a purpose; it’s entertaining and thought-provoking, predictable, and surprising at the same time. The cast is outstanding, the story intriguing, and Width’s direction reflects his genuine love and affection for each show he directs, and his scenic design is homey and welcoming. Cue Christmas (or Chanukah) music and enjoy.

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

MIRACLE ON SOUTH DIVISION STREET

By Tom Dudzick

Directed by Tom Width

Cast:

Jimmy Nowak – Neal Gallini-Burdock

Ruth Nowak – Audra Honaker

Clara Nowak – Jacqueline Jones

Beverly Nowak – Donna Marie Miller

Creative Team:

Directed by Tom Width

Costume Design by Maura Lynch Cravey

Lighting Design by Joe Doran

Scenic Design by Tom Width

Technical Direction by Liz Allmon

Run Time:

90 minutes, no intermission

Tickets:

$15-$49

Photos: Kieran Rundle

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CHRISTMAS ON THE ROCKS

The Kids From Your Favorite Christmas Shows, All Grown Up

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: Richmond Triangle Players at the Robert B. Moss Theatre, 1300 Altamont Ave, RVA 23230

Performances: November 16 – December 18, 2022

Ticket Prices: $10 – $45

Info: (804) 346-8113 or rtriangle.org

———-

We can always depend on Richmond Triangle Players to give us an edgy, snarky, comedic, or dark Christmas offering. Christmas on the Rocks, a collection of short plays or scenes by various authors, does not disappoint – it gives us all of the above.

This year, the authors are John Cariani, Jenn Harris & Matthew Wilkas, Jeffrey Hatcher, Jacques Lamarre, Theresa Rebeck, and Edwin Sanchez. The “kids,” a slightly  different cast of characters than RTP’s 2015 production, include Ralphie from A Christmas Story, Zuzu Bailey from It’s A Wonderful Life,  Hermey, the Elf from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Rudolph and the Island of Misfit Toys, Karen, an internet influencer, Tiny Tim from A Christmas Carol, Clara from The Nutcracker ballet, and the hapless Charlie Brown. Zuzu and Karen replaced Susan (Miracle on 34th Street) and Cindy Lou Who (The Grinch Who Stole Christmas). Regional productions may feature different characters.

All these characters are portrayed by two highly talented and versatile actors. Theresa Mantiply plays all the women and Eddie Webster plays all the men. The motley cast of characters wander, one by one, into a local bar, where the friendly bartender, played by Joe Pabst, is at first surprised and ultimately perplexed at the increasingly colorful parade of characters who enter, seeking solace from the loneliness of Christmas Eve.

In the first scene, we see Ralphie, wearing an eye patch, peek through the window of the unimposing little bar – beautifully designed by William Luther with important inclusive details that provide something each of the characters can relate to on a personal level.

To answer the obvious question, yes, Ralphie finally did get his eye shot out, but it was not self-inflicted. A firearms safety instructor for the NRA, he was shot by a student and is now unemployed. On top of that, he has intimacy issues due to that infamous pink bunny suit his Aunt Clara sent, but not for the reasons one might expect.  You see, he actually liked it.

Little Zuzu Bailey who, as a child, declared that every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings, has been harassed by angels for decades – and responds in nonsensical rhyming platitudes, while Hermey, the Elf who had dreams of becoming a dentist, has become a gossipy hater who holds a long-time grudge against Rudolf – not realizing that his own misfit status makes him more like Rudolph than not.

Karen, an entitled but untalented influencer, holds the Bartender hostage, posting increasingly unhinged videos for her unfortunate followers. Tiny Tim drops by, displaying Scrooge-like qualities and Clara’s cheating Prince has left her alone for the holiday. The last customer is none other than Charlie Brown, complete with a yellow sweater with a black zigzag line. Wonder of wonders – it’s a Christmas miracle – he finally gets to talk to The Little Red Haired Girl in the only scene shared by Mantiply and Webster. Through it all, Pabst calmy mixes drinks and offers gentle advice.

Christmas on the Rocks is a non-traditional Christmas story – or collection of sequels – billed as “an offbeat collection of twisted holiday tales” for the grown up kids in all of us who love a good laugh – especially when it’s at our own expense. There are limited performances left, so ditch the kids and go see it.

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

———-

CHRISTMAS ON THE ROCKS:

An Epic Offbeat Collection of Twisted Holiday Tales

Written by John Cariani, Jenn Harris & Matthew Wilkas, Jeffrey hatcher, Jacques Lamarre, Theresa Rebeck, and Edwin Sanchez

Conceived by Rob Ruggiero

Sponsored by David Peake

Directed by Axle Burtness

CAST:

Theresa Mantiply – Woman

Eddie Webster – Man

Joe Pabst – the Bartender

Understudies: Rachel Garmon-Williams and Travis Williams

CREATIVE TEAM:

Scenic & Costume Design       – William Luther

Lighting Design                       – Nathan Wunderlich

Sound & Projections Design   – Lucian Restivo

Hair & Make Up Design          – Luke Newsome

Props Design                           – Tim Moehring

Dialect Coach                          – Donna E. Cogbill

Technical Direction                 – William Luther

Assistant Scenic & Costume Design – Kendall Walker

Production Stage Manager – Saskia Price

Photo Credits: John MacLellan

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MISS BENNET: CHRISTMAS AT PEMBERLEY

A Wonderfully Predictable Christmas Romance

MISS BENNET: CHRISTMAS AT PEMBERLEY

After Pride and Prejudice, The Sequel

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: The November Theatre Arenstein Stage, 114 West Broad Street, RVA 23220

Performances: November 25, 2022 – January 1, 2023

Ticket Prices: $39-$62.

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

MISS BENNET: CHRISTMAS AT PEMBERLEY is like a Hallmark Christmas movie that came to life on stage: amusing, heartwarming, romantic, and predictable. The focus of Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon’s 2016 play is Miss Mary Bennet, the middle sister from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813). The bookish Miss Bennet, who is fast approaching the dreaded season of spinsterhood, accepts an invitation to spend Christmas with her happily married older sister, Elizabeth, and her husband Fitzwilliam Darcy at their estate – Pemberley.

Naturally, a single man, Lord Arthur de Bourgh, is also invited and to no one’s surprise, de Bourgh turns out to be a perfect match for Mary. Shy and socially awkward, de Bourgh reminds me of a Regency-era Sheldon Cooper (of The Big Bang Theory). The two love-nerds bond over books, maps, and wordplay – a perfect meeting of two sapiosexual minds. (Yes, there really is a word that describes people who are sexually attracted to intelligence, and this is the first time I actually had a chance to use it.)

In addition to being a matchmaker, Elizabeth also happens to be a trendsetter. The German custom of displaying Christmas trees inside one’s home was introduced in England sometime in the first half of the 19th century. That makes Elizabeth’s holiday tree something of an oddity and the subject of a running joke throughout Christmas at Pemberley. Act I ends with a Christmas tree bare of decorations except for half a dozen paper stars, but Act II opens with a fully decorated tree – part of the Christmas magic. Act I also closes with a cliff-hanger – a mystery fiancée.

The cast is populated with a number of actors making their Va-Rep debut, as well as a number of performers who are current VCU theatre students or recent graduates of the department where Christmas at Pemberley director Sharon Ott serves as an Associate Professor and the department’s Artistic Director. The show moves along at a relaxed pace, giving the characters ample opportunity to unfold and reveal various facets of their personalities. Given that this is a shamelessly feel-good story, there isn’t much to reveal. The four sisters (the happily married Elizabeth and Jane, the less-happily married Lydia, and our leading lady, Mary) bicker relentlessly, but by the end declare their love for one another. The youngest sister, Kitty, is mentioned, but never makes an appearance – arriving with her parents (all offstage) in the final scene.

There are a few amusingly awkward scenes between the men as well. Mr. Darcy and his brother-in-law Charles Bingley sit in awkward silence, but when Bingley attempts to initiate conversation, it quickly becomes apparent that conversation is even more awkward than silence. Darcy returns to his book, and Bingley resumes staring into space. However, both muster themselves from their introversion to give advice to de Bourgh. Britt Michael Gordon (Darcy), Cameron Nickel (Bingley), and Lukas D’Errico (de Bourgh) embrace their roles, hiding behind manners and protocol, and clothed in stylish Regency attire.

The four sisters are the main attraction. There is a very pregnant Jane Bingley (Patricia Austin), the annoyingly unhappy Lydia Wickham (Naomi Bertha), the wise and conciliatory Elizabeth Darcy (Ally Farzetta, who is Gordon’s real-life wife), and the still single but ready to mingle Mary Bennet (Emily Franch). They trace the patterns of a dance choreographed with equal parts hilarity and love. Sometimes their interactions are heavy-handed and sometimes quite delicate, establishing a balance that kept the Saturday afternoon audience engaged and amused.

Oh, and let’s not forget the surprise fiancée, Ann de Bourgh (Tatjana Shields), the twice-scorned bride-to-be. I found Shields delightful as Mrs. Dickson in a VCU production of Intimate Apparel, another period piece, but her character was overbearing and off-putting in Pemberton. This was an unfortunate manifestation of her character – which was apparently written that way – as there was no opportunity for her to redeem herself and win over the audience. The estate was kept in order by a nameless Maid, a thankless – and silent – supporting role played alternately by Nicole Boisseau and Emma Tolley.

Kudos to Carolan Corcoran for the luscious costumes, although I did wonder why the women were usually in sleeveless dresses in England in the winter – with snow falling outside the window. Hmm. Ah well, it’s fiction, it’s fun, and a good time was had by all.


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


MISS BENNET: CHRISTMAS AT PEMBERLEY

By Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon

Directed by Sharon Ott

Cast

Jane Bingley                            – Patricia Austin

Lydia Wickham                    – Naomi Bertha

Arthur de Bourgh                  – Lukas D’Errico

Elizabeth Darcy                       – Ally Farzetta

Mary Bennet                            – Emily Franch

Fitzwilliam Darcy                   – Britt Michael Gordon

Charles Bingley                       – Cameron Nickel

Anne de Bourgh                      – Tatjana Shields

Maid                                       – Nicole Boisseau, Emma Tolly (alternating)

Jane Bingley/Lydia Wickham u/s – Reese Bucher

Charles Bingley u/s                 – Robert McNickle

Creative Team/Direction and Design

Direction                                 – Sharon Ott

Assistant Director/Dramaturg – Mia Richards

Scenic Design                          – Mercedes Schaum

Costume Design                      – Carolan Corcoran

Lighting Design                        – Lynne M. Hartman

Sound Design                           – Jacob Mishler

Stage Management                 – Justin Janke

Assistant Stage Manager      – Courtney Holmes

Dialect Direction                     – Karen Kopryanski

Run Time: 2 hours, including one 15-minute intermission

Ticket Information

Box Office: 804-282-2620

http://www.virginiarep.org

Tickets range from $36 – $67

Discounted Group Rates and Rush tickets available.

Photo Credits: Aaron Sutten

VA-REP Covid Safety Statement

Virginia Rep encourages wearing masks for our patrons’ safety, but we do not require that you wear a mask in our lobbies or within the theatres. They are now optional.

We continue to follow CDC guidelines and local risk levels. All Virginia Rep staff will continue to wear masks while serving you.

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RICHMOND HOLIDAY TRADITION TURNS 20

THE LATIN BALLET OF VIRGINIA: The Legend of the Poinsettia Celebrates 20 Years

A Dance Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performance Were: January 6-9, 2022

Ticket Prices: $20 Adults; $15 Students/Senior Citizens/Military; $10 Group Rates for 10 or more

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

The Latin Ballet of Virginia has been presenting The Legend of the Poinsettia for 20 years now, and I think we can officially declare this vibrant and colorful production a holiday tradition.

How long does it take for something to achieve the status of tradition? Merriam-Webster offers several definitions, including:

1a : an inherited, established, or customary pattern of thought, action, or behavior

1b : a belief or story. . . relating to the past. . .commonly accepted as historical though not verifiable

2 : the handing down of information, beliefs, and customs by word of mouth or by example from one generation to another without written instruction

3 : cultural continuity in social attitudes, customs, and institutions

With a cast of past and current artists, Latin Ballet founder and Artistic Director Ana Ines King said the anniversary production of The Legend of the Poinsettia “is like going back to when we started.” Before King introduced this home-grown holiday classic to the Richmond community,  “few knew how Christmas was celebrated in Latin America,” said Marisol Cristina Betancourt  Sotolongo, a dancer and Education Program Assistant for the company. Sotolongo performed in the show’s debut at the Carpenter Center in January 2002. “I was four years old,” she recalls. “The Legend of the Poinsettia has become one of my favorite shows. It is kept fresh with new dancers, dances, and scenery.” The Poinsettia pays homage to King’s mother’s dance legacy in Columbia and honors the true spirit of giving through dance, music, and storytelling.

King is from Columbia as is guest artist Ginna Milena Pedraza, founder of Duncan Danza. Sotolongo’s family is Cuban. Guest artist Pedro Szalay, a co-founder of The Latin Ballet of Virginia and current Artistic Director of Southwest Virginia Ballet is from Venezuela. The dancers perform in authentic costumes from Manzanillo, Mérida, and Zacatecas, all in Mexico. The Legend of the Poinsettia encompasses the history of the poinsettia plant, the story of a little girl who discovers the true meaning of giving, and celebratory customs from Mexico, Columbia, Spain, the Dominican Republic (incorporating Cuban dance styles), and Venezuela.

In a beautiful duet, the dancers portraying Joseph and Mary perform a romantic dance that sheds new light on the famous couple’s relationship. Later, in a trio, the family featured in the story echo some of the movements from the duet.

Large ensembles of children, youth, and adults fill the stage with color and rhythm. They exude a high level of energy that often has the audience clapping along, and the one young man, with a mop of curly hair falling appealing over his forehead and glasses, promises to become a strong dancer and partner.

From pageantry to revelry, from the Three Kings clad in glittery finery to an abstract representation of the poinsettia, from Christmas songs – some performed live – to dynamic examples of folk dances (aguinaldos, gaitas, rumbas, and plenas), spiced with contemporary hip hop, capoeira, The Legend of the Poinsettia is engaging and joyous. Most of all, with its diverse cast and traditions, it is educational and inclusive. There is no need to worry about little ones not wanting to sit still – although one fleet-footed little audience member made a mad dash for the stage on Friday night; clapping, singing along, and call and response are the norm here. With children, youth, and adults sharing the stage, the movement is not always perfectly in sync, but it is always heart-warming.

PERFORMANCES

Performances January 6 – 9, 2022
The Cultural Arts Center at Glen Allen
2880 Mountain Road Glen Allen, VA 23060
Thursday, January 6 at 10:30am (Field Trips for schools)
Friday, January 7 at 10:30am (Field Trips for schools)
Friday, January 7 at 7:30pm
Saturday, January 8 at 3:00pm & 7:30pm
Sunday, January 9 at 3:00pm

Get a glimpse of The Legend of the Poinsettia here:

Note: Portions of this review were originally written for Richmond Magazine.

Photo Credits: Photos of past performances of The Legend of the Poinsettia from the LBV website

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THE NUTCRACKER: LIVE

TRIUMPHANT RETURN OF HOLIDAY CLASSIC

A Dance Review by Julinda D. Lewis

By: The Richmond Ballet

At: Carpenter Theatre at Dominion Energy Center, 600 East Grace Street, RVA 23219

Performances: December 11-23, 2021

Ticket Prices: In-Person Tickets $25-$125

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

The Nutcracker
Choreography by Stoner Winslett

Music by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky

with The Richmond Symphony,

Erin Freeman, Conductor

Production Conceived by Stoner Winslett and Charles Caldwell

Artistic Direction & Choreography by Stoner Winslett

Scenery & Prop Design by Charles Caldwell

Christmas Tree Design by Alain Vaës

Costume Design by David Heuvel

Lighting Design by Richard Moore

Associate Lighting Design by Jim French

It’s December 2021 and in three months we will mark a most unlikely anniversary – two full years of living with a global pandemic. After months of learning the differences between social distancing, quarantine, and isolation, live theater has settled into a new routine of live performances. First, there were limited-seating performances with virtual streaming options. The new standard is to allow fully-vaccinated people to attend live performances with few seating restrictions. Patrons must show proof of vaccination and remain masked. Oh, and in the larger venues, you can forget about visiting the bar; it’s closed until further notice. All of this takes some adjusting, but it’s worth it to be able to experience the singular joy of attending a live show.

The Richmond Ballet’s holiday standard, The Nutcracker, was not performed live last year due to the pandemic, but it’s back this year and opened on Saturday, with a few modifications that did nothing to diminish the excitement of joining young Clara on her journey to Confitenberg, the Land of Sweets. Small children and adults sat mesmerized from the moment the Richmond Symphony began the familiar strains of Tchaikovsky’s score until the elaborate curtain dropped after Clara woke up from her adventure.

This year’s production of The Nutcracker is special for two reasons: it is the first live production since the world shut down in March 2020, and this is the last year to see the familiar Nutcracker costumes and sets before they get a make-over for 2022. You can expect three acts and two intermissions (although you cannot take drinks or food to your seats), but I noticed that when the clock struck twelve times only six little mice appeared instead of twelve, and the most obvious change was the absence of Mother Ginger and the dozen little dancers that hide under her voluminous hoop skirt. And of course, with nine new members in this company this season, there are lots of new casting choices to experience.

Adhya Yaratha dances the coveted role of Clara, the recipient of the magical nutcracker doll. Yaratha, a student at The Steward School, was recently featured as a “Standout Spartan” in her school’s newsletter. She revealed that she has been dancing for 13 years and “for much of that time” dreamed of being cast as Clara. She danced with grace and confidence and made a delightful Clara.

Bladen Kidd held his own as Clara’s recalcitrant little brother, a band of boys on a series of humorously disruptive raids against the girls at the Silberhaus’ annual Christmas party. Carter Bush (RB Trainee) proved to be an attentive apprentice to his uncle, the mysterious Dr. Drosselmeyer (the recently retired Fernando Sabino returning as a guest) and a courteous Nutcracker Prince accompanying Clara on her adventures in the Kingdom of Sweets.

The predictability and tradition of The Nutcracker are part of its charm, and seemed especially important this year: they were signs of stability and normalcy. Whoever thought a magical growing Christmas tree and a swan sled could represent stability?

Sabrina Holland and Khaiyom Khojaev danced the “other” leading roles – you know, the adult ones – the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier. They welcome Clara and her Prince to the Kingdom of Sweets and close Act Three with a grand pas de deux that epitomizes the lightness of the Romantic ballerina and the supportive role of the male dancer, with both attacking their technique with relish and flair.

All the favorite characters are there and there are plenty of roles for Richmond Ballet II, the Trainees, and the students of the School of the Richmond Ballet. The battle between the Mouse Army and the Regiment Soldiers features Jackson Calhoun (RB II) in the comedic role of the Mouse King. Principals Izabella Tokev and Joe Seaton deliver a picture perfect ice blue pas de deux as the Snow Queen and Snow King, attended by a corps of a dozen Snowflakes. Celeste Gaiera and Patrick Lennon, Marjorie Sherman and Jack Miller dance a Spanish jota with flair. Naomi Robinson and Ira White revive the sensual Snake and her Charmer, and Naomi Wilson dances the acrobatic role of Tea, accompanied by a group of Chinese dragon dancers.

Sarah Joan Smith and Colin Jacob (both first year company members) are the Shepherdess and Shepherd who shelter a half dozen little lambs who steal the show. They have masks added to their costumes this year which fit perfectly with their costumes. Paul Piner, Roland Jones, and Zacchaeus Page, all members of RB II, are the ever-popular Russian dancers with their very hip dancing bear (Piner), and Eri Nishihara dances the role of the bedazzled butterfly, surrounded by a dozen Candied Flowers.

The diverse and multi-generational cast is an apt reflection of the audience and represents the best of what this season represents. It’ so good to have The Nutcracker back onstage at The Carpenter Theatre this year; there is nothing like live theater to offer a magical escape from the everyday and mundane.

The Nutcracker Performance Schedule

Saturday, December 11th, 2021 @2:00pm and 7:00pm

Sunday, December 12th, 2021 @1:00pm and 4:30pm

Saturday, December 18th, 2021 @2:00pm and 7:00pm

Sunday, December 19th, 2021 @1:00pm and 4:30pm

Wednesday, December 22nd, 2021 @7:00pm

Thursday, December 23rd, 2021 @2:00pm

COVID-19 Protocols: Upon entering the theatre, all audience members ages 12 and above are required to show printed or digital proof of full vaccination against COVID-19 or of a professionally-administered negative COVID-19 test taken within 72 hours of the performance. Patrons ages 18 and above will also need to show a photo ID. All patrons ages 2 and above will continue to be required to wear masks.Please note: Proof of a negative COVID test is not required for children under the age of 12.

Photos Credits: Sarah Ferguson

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STRAIGHT WHITE MEN:

What the fuck are we gonna do about Straight White Men? – Kelsey Cordrey, Director

A Theater Review (kinda, I think) by Julinda D. Lewis

Produced by: The Conciliation Lab

At: The Basement, 300 E. Broad Street, RVA 23219

Performances: December 3-18, 2021.

Ticket Prices: $30 General Admission; $20 Senior/Industry (RVATA); $10 Student/Teacher (with valid ID)

Info: (804) 506-3533; 349-7616 or https://theconciliationlab.org/

NOTE: Proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test within 48 hours of the performance must be shown at the box office.

Walking down the steep staircase to The Basement for opening night of STRAIGHT WHITE MEN we were greeted by blasting music (yes, that was CardiB’s “WAP”), flashing colored lights (the disco kind, not the Christmas tree kind), and a sign that told us to wait until the house opened in the least welcoming terms imaginable. A pre-show curtain talk by the People in Charge, Lucretia Marie and Malakai Lee, confirmed that STRAIGHT WHITE MEN makes no allowances for comfort zones. Just as Marie and Lee reached the end of their curtain speech, four straight white men (Adam Turck, Axle Burtness, Patrick Rooney, and Christopher Dunn) stumbled noisily into the theatre, setting themselves up for a humorous reversal of the CPT (colored people time) stereotype.

I think we can agree that STRAIGHT WHITE MEN is a strange title for a play produced by the Conciliation Lab – a company dedicated to social justice. Marie (a seasoned performer, activist, and anti-racism coach) and Lee (a student activist inside and outside of school at Henrico High School, Center for the Arts) making his professional debut in this show) both joke about this too, noting that neither of them is a straight white man, and one even remarked that a friend asked, “Did they see you?” before they hired you for the show. And anyway, why should we, much less the Conciliation Lab, be concerned about straight white men, with all the privilege they represent?

Having seen the VaRep production of IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE the previous evening, I couldn’t help but make a comparison. Both are Christmas shows. Both center around a depressed straight white man whose crisis comes to a head on Christmas Eve. Both are about love and family relationships. Both are also directed by talented women. Given all these similarities, the two plays could not be more different. Where IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFEis a holiday classic, STRAIGHT WHITE MEN is a different style of theatre intended to be confrontational, to make the complacent feel uncomfortable and upset the expected and accepted order. (And as if literary confrontation was not enough, I was seated in the front row on the sold out opening night, barely three feet from the edge of the stage, a position I highly recommend for this production.)

Written in 2014, the opening of STRAIGHT WHITE MEN at the Helen Hayes Theatre in 2018, made history as the first play by an Asian American woman to be produced on Broadway. The author’s notes specify that the pre-show is to include loud rap music with sexually explicit lyrics performed by female rappers and that the Persons in Charge “should be played by gender-nonconforming performers (preferably of color).” The intent is to create the sense that the show is under the control of people who are NOT straight white men – a role reversal, if you will; a case of turn about is fair play, a sort of theatrical reparations, if you will. And while Marie and Lee seemed to be joking when they said audience members would be removed at the actors’ request, this, too, was in the author’s notes.

Kelsey Cordrey, in her solo directorial debut, kept everything moving at a rapid pace, marked by hilarity. The cast of four white men did her proud, keeping up the pace with an abundance of high impact physical activity while still allowing time to explore the psychological twists, turns, and nuances of this family.

The plot, you see, involves a family of three sons, two of whom (Drew, a writer and Jake, a successful but recently divorced banker) have returned home for Christmas where their widowed father, Ed, has recently been enjoying the company – and domestic skills – of his eldest son, Matt, an unemployed Harvard graduate. The problem is that in spite of the brothers’ good-natured rough-housing and reminiscing about childhood indiscretions, Matt is harboring and unsuccessfully hiding, some serious issues. It all comes out when he suddenly breaks down crying over Christmas Eve dinner.

Adam Turck is the caring insightful sibling, Drew. Axle Burtness plays Jake, the impatient sibling who wants to fix his older brother, regardless of what Matt actually wants. And Matt, played by Patrick Rooney, a newcomer to the Richmond stage, appears to be a caring, lovable man who, despite his Harvard education, seems barely able to articulate his own feelings. An Ed? Well, Ed is from another generation. He helps his neighbors, even when it isn’t convenient, like on Christmas Eve. Christopher Dunn’s character lovingly hangs Christmas stockings on the mantle, and gently pauses when he comes to the fifth – the one that belongs to his late wife – retuning it to the Person in Charge. Who can’t relate to the loneliness of an old widower celebrating his first Christmas without his beloved wife? And therein – herein? – lies the problem. Why should we, the audience, care about the feelings or problems of privileged straight white men?

It seems that every time there is a chance we might begin to sympathize with Matt or his family, a Person in Charge appears and adjusts the emotional thermostat. In addition to the scene with the Christmas stockings, one memorable intervention involves Marie and sharing shots with a frustrated brother at the kitchen counter after a family quarrel.

In her Director’s Note, Cordrey writes:

When all we seem to see on the news are Straight White Men murdering Black and Brown and queer and trans people, and sexually assaulting women – and always getting away with it – it is extremely difficult to find any compassion and care for the entire group as a construct. But what about the straight white men in our day to day lives? Our fathers, brothers, neighbors, friends?

Are you ready to consider the perspective of straight white men with empathy and compassion? To put yourself in their shoes – even if you are not one of them? Is it time for the privileged to re-examine and re-define their own personal identity? Can any of us make any progress, any real change, if they don’t? What will it take for everyone to treat others the way they want to be treated – and to do it without expecting to earn a badge of recognition for doing it? Does STRAIGHT WHITE MEN answer any of these questions? I’ll leave that up to you do decide.

Cordrey directed with her foot on the pedal and created the sound design as well. Michael Jarrett returned to the Basement to light his first show for the Conciliation Lab, with the excellence we have come to expect of him. Nia Safarr Banks brought her skills to the table as costume designer, complete with holiday pajamas and slippers. Chris Foote constructed the warmly lived-in midwestern den and kitchen designed by artistic director Deejay Gray. (My friend and I admired the large stainless steel refrigerator that I later found out is the actual refrigerator used by the Conciliation Lab staff.)

STRAIGHT WHITE MEN is not your traditional Christmas show, and it isn’t what you might expect from the Conciliation Lab – and those are just two good reasons to go see it. The cast of four white men  – that’s two more reasons. And Marie and Lee, who execute the author’s and director’s instructions and make you think it’s their own ideas, all while wearing matching light-up shades and coordinating neckties – well that’s at least another two good reasons that make this production of STRAIGHT WHITE MEN worth your time and money.

STRAIGHT WHITE MEN by Young Jean Lee
Directed by Kelsey Cordrey
December 3-18 at The Basement

THE CAST
Drew …………….……………….. Adam Turck
Jake …….…………..…….……. Axle Burtness
Matt ………….……..…….…. Patrick Rooney
Ed …………………………. Christopher Dunn
Person in Charge #1 …… Lucretia Marie
Person in Charge #2 ………. Malakai Lee

THE TEAM
Direction: Kelsey Cordrey
Scenic Design: Deejay Gray
Lighting Design: Michael Jarett
Sound Design: Kelsey Cordrey
Costume Design: Nia Safarr Banks
Props Design: Margaret Dodson
Set Construction: Chris Foote
Production Stage Management: Crimson Piazza
Assistant Stage Management: Demarco Lumpkin
Associate Direction: Juliana Caycedo
Dramaturgy: Shinji Oh

THE SCHEDULE
* Friday, December 3 at 8pm – Preview
Saturday, December 4 at 8pm – Opening Night Tuesday, December 7 at 8pm
Thursday, December 9 at 8pm
Friday, December 10 at 8pm
Saturday, December 11 at 8pm
Sunday, December 12 at 3pm – Matinee
Tuesday, December 14 at 8pm
Thursday, December 16 at 8pm
Friday, December 17 at 8pm
Saturday, December 18 at 8pm – Closing Night
THE TICKETS
$30 – General Admission
$20 – Senior (65+) / Industry
$10 – Teachers & Students

NOTE: The Basement is a fully vaccinated venue. Proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test (within 48 hours of the performance) are required upon entry. For the safety of our artists and audiences, masks must be worn while at the theatre. Thank you for helping to keep our community safe!
  The Basement is located at 300 East Broad Street, Richmond, VA 23219

Photo Credits: Tom Topinka

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IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE: A LIVE RADIO PLAY

A Christmas Classic with a Gift

IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE

A Live Radio Play

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: The November Theatre Arenstein Stage. 114 West Broad Street, RVA 23220

Performances: December 2, 2021 – January 2, 2022

Ticket Prices: $36-$56. Discounted group rates and rush tickets available.

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

IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE: A Live Radio Play is a feel-good American holiday classic that unfolds on a stage designed to look like an art deco Christmas card. The set represents the stage and auditorium of Studio A at WBFR in Manhattan, New York on Christmas Eve 1946. An On Air sign adds authenticity, and Applause signs provide cues for the audience – so pay attention.

The house lights are on as the action starts, and we quickly find out that we, the VaRep audience, have been assigned roles as the live studio audience. The actors, playing multiple roles, greet us – some more warmly than others – as they arrive for their show. It seems that not everyone had been told they would be performing before a live studio audience.

The story, adapted by Joe Landry from Phillip Van Doren Stern’s story “The Greatest Gift,” (and the 1946 film starring James Steward and Donna Reed) is an Everyman morality play that borrows freely from “A Christmas Carol.” In IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, we meet George Bailey on Christmas Eve 1946, at the nadir of his life’s journey. After giving up his personal dreams for the sake of his family, his friends, and his town, he finds himself about to lose everything and, in the words of his arch enemy, Mr. Potter, he’s worth more dead than alive.

The holidays are a stressful time for many, and IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE acknowledges this very real problem, but balances it with humor and the most unusual distraction found in any play. Some of the humor comes in the form of breaks to acknowledge the sponsors of the play within the play. There’s a commercial for Bremo hair cream and Duck’s Toilet Cake Soap, set to Christmas tunes and sung by the cast within the cast. As for the distraction, well, for me, the best part of IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE is watching the cast perform the role of the Foley artists who create the sound effects. There’s everything from footsteps and doors slamming shut to breaking glass, from doorbells ringing to thunderclaps.

The talented cast includes Kurt Benjamin Smith and Anna da Costa in the lead roles of Jake Laurents and Sally Applewhite, New York City actors who in turn play the roles of Bedford  Falls, NY residents George and Mary. Maggie Bavolack, Joshua Mullins, William Anderson, and Bo Wilson round out the cast playing the roles of actors Lana Sherwood, Harry Heywood, radio host Freddie Filmore, and actor Oliver Johnston. They, in turn, play all the citizen of Bedford Falls, NY, the small town where George Bailey’s guardian angel arrives on Christmas Eve to show him how much of an impact his life has had on so many.

I thought Smith and da Costa had good chemistry and da Costa was powerfully understated as Mary – especially as many of the other characters were so over the top. Anderson, for instance, was steady and unassuming as Freddie Filmore, the radio show host, but high-pitched, hysterical, and giggly as Uncle Billy Of course, given Uncle Billy’s proclivity for liquid fortification, this was completely in character. Maggie Bavolack looked gorgeous as Lana Sherwood and her Bedford Falls characters varied from loyal friend to va-va-voom girl, complete with a drum-roll to accompany her seductive strut. Bo Wilson sampled his various voices before the radio show cast metamorphosed into their Bedford Falls characters, but he seemed to relish the evil Mr. Potter more than any other.

Given the often quick pace of the show, and with six actors playing multiple characters who often spoken over one another, it was necessary to clearly distinguish between the various characters, and most of the time I was, indeed, able to keep up with who was who. At first I was concerned that the background music was too loud and intrusive, but this issue was short-lived. After the introductions, the background music faded into the background where it belonged.

The six actors shared three mic stands, and switched rapidly between them, but this was not necessarily an indication of a change of character, so IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE really keeps the viewer engaged and actively involved. This is a plus given that the show, which runs an hour and 45 minutes was performed without intermission. (Even though this is a family-friendly play, VaRep cautions prospective members that younger viewers may be challenged by the length of this production, given that there is no intermission.)

Mercedes Schaum’s scenic design was attractive and practical, allowing space for all the Foley equipment without overpowering the actors. Sue Griffins’ costumes were appropriate for the time, 1946, but Mary Hatch Bailey’s dress was especially fetching. Jacob Mishler gets the credit for the impressive sound design. Chelsea Burke’s direction kept things moving at a speedy pace, and maintained a comfortable balance between the extremes of comedy and tragedy. IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE is a wonderful show that belongs in your canon of Christmas rituals.

NOTE: For my review of a similar show, A 1940s Radio Christmas Carol at Swift Creek Mill Theatre, November 2018 – January 2019, click here: https://wordpress.com/post/jdldancesrva.com/724

IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE: A Live Radio Play

Adapted by Joe Landry

“It’s a Wonderful Life” is based on the story, “The Greatest Gift” by Phillip Van Doren Stern from the screenplay by Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Frank Capra, and Jo Swerling

DIRECTION

Chelsea Burke

CAST

Jake Laurents…………………………. Kurt Benjamin Smith

Sally Applewhite……………………………… Anna da Costa

Lana Sherwood……………………………. Maggie Bavolack

Harry Heywood………………………………. Joshua Mullins

Freddie Filmore……………………………William Anderson

Oliver Johnston………………………………………… Bo Wilson

Cover…………………………………………………. Nora Ogunleye

Cover………………………………………………… Alvan Bolling II

CREATIVE TEAM

Scenic Design………………………………… Mercedes Schaum

Costume Design ……………………….…………….…. Sue Griffin

Lighting Design ………….,…………………….….. BJ Wilkinson

Dialect Coach ………………………….………Karen Kopryanski

Sound Design ………………………………………… Jacob Mishler

Stage Management ………………………….…….. Justin Janke

Photo Credits: Aaron Sutten

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

Virginia Rep COVID Guidelines

To provide the highest level of safety, all patrons are required to show proof of vaccination, or proof that they have received a negative COVID test by a professional technician within 48 hours of the performance date/time.

Patrons must show your vaccination card or a photo of the card on your phone, along with a valid photo ID, when you arrive for the performance. If you are unable to be vaccinated, you may provide proof of a Rapid COVID-19 antigen test taken within 48 hours of your performance. At home tests will not be accepted.

Please see the Virginia Rep Covid Safety FAQ for details.

In accordance with current city, state, and CDC guidance, face masks are REQUIRED at all times while you are in the building, regardless of whether or not you have been vaccinated.

At this time, no food or drink is allowed in the theatre.

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WINTER WONDERETTES

It’s The Annual Christmas Party & Santa is Missing!

At: The Swift Creek Mill Theatre, 17401 U.S. Route 1, S. Chesterfield, VA 23834

Performances: November 20, 2021 – January 1, 2022

Ticket Prices: $49. $44 for seniors, students, military, and first responders.

Info: (804) 748-5203 or https://www.swiftcreekmill.com

The year is 1968 and it is the annual staff Christmas Party at Harper’s Hardware in Springfield USA. (Take your pick, there are 30-40 towns and cities named Springfield, depending on your source.)

The store has been decorated with gigantic gift boxes and the actors complete the decorating onstage, festooning a fireplace, adding a tree topper, and turning on the lights that extend throughout the theater, bringing the audience into the performing space. Did I say actors? I meant the Marvelous Wonderettes, the former Springfield High Song Leaders, created by Roger Bean in 1999 for a one-act musical in a black box theater in Milwaukee. The quartet of friends, Missy, Suzy, Betty Jean, and Cindy Lou, met with such popularity that the Marvelous Wonderettes gave birth to three sequels. WINTER WONDERETTES debuted in November 2003 and in 2008 the harmonizing of the girl group caught the attention and heart of Swift Creek Mill Artistic Director Tom Width at a performance at the Westside Arts Theatre in NYC.

Now, the four are decorating and harmonizing on the Swift Creek Mill Theatre stage that has been transformed by Width’s scenic design magic into a classic hardware store, the very same hardware store where Betty Jean has been employed since graduating from high school. The tree has been lit, the stage has been illuminated, Santa’s throne has been wheeled centerstage, and Santa’s entrance song has been sung, but where is Santa?

There is just enough of a plot to keep WINTER WONDERETTES from being a concert. We learn that Missy is newly married, while Betty Jean who has risen to a position in corporate sales has recently separated from her husband, Johnny. Suzy is pregnant and married to her high school sweetheart Ritchie who is allegedly running the lights for the program and Cindy Lou is the group’s designated bad girl (with a heart of gold).

These roles have been brilliantly cast with Anne Michelle Forbes and her outrageously contagious giggle as Suzy, Georgi Hicks as Missy, Rachel Marrs as Cindy Lou, and Alanna Wilson as Betty Jean. Maura Lynch Cravey has dressed them in matching dresses, in red, green, purple, and blue, with a festive ruffle around the neck and a satiny ribbon tied at the waist. These are topped off with 1960’s hairstyles that are puffy but stop short of the extreme bouffant or mile high beehive.

The songs are as classic as the hairstyles, from Act One’s “Rockin’ Christmas Medley” (“Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” “Jingle Bell Rock,”) traditional songs (“O Tannenbaum,” “Santa Clause is     Comin’ to Town) and Betty Jean’s heartfelt “Christmas Will Be Just Another Lonely Day” to the “Bells Medley” and “Santa Baby” in Act Two. And then there’s Suzy’s stunning tap-dance turn as “Suzy Snowflake.”

WINTER WONDERETTES is a traditional, feel-good Christmas musical comedy, but it would not be complete without a few twists and turns. When Betty Jean runs off in search of the missing Santa/Mr. Harper, she returns with a stack of envelopes. After passing them out to the staff – many of whom are audience members – everyone is devastated to find the envelopes contain pink slips instead of the expected Christmas bonus checks. The audience is also included in a game of Find the Elf and Missy’s new husband is also selected from the audience.

Oh, and lest I forget. Is it just me, or do the Santa dolls the four women hold at the top of the show look like Tom Width?

With some 25 songs and a lively, unseen band under the direction of Paul Deiss, WINTER WONDERETTES moves along at a lively pace that doesn’t even seem like an hour and forty-five minutes. This show doesn’t make you work, doesn’t make you weigh options or ethics, it’s just pure, delightful, musical entertainment that hits the holiday spot – with a few snowflakes thrown in for good measure.

WINTER WONDERETTES

Written and Created by Roger Bean

Word Arrangements by Roger Bean & Brian Baker

Musical Arrangements by Brian Baker

Cast:

Georgi Hicks as Missy

Anne-Michelle Forbes as Suzy

Alanna Wilson as Betty Jean

Rachel Marrs as Cindy Lou

Direction and Design Team:

Directed by Tom Width

Musical Direction by Paul Deiss

Lighting Design by Joe Doran

Costume Design by Maura Lynch Cravey

Scenic Design by Tom Width

“Suzy Snowflake” choreography by Alissa Pagnotti

Technical Direction by Liz Allmon

Orchestra:

Keyboard: Paul Deiss

Drums: James Oyan

Reeds: Sheri Oyan

Bass: Greg DeBruyn

Guitar: Sam Kindle

Run Time:

100 minutes, one intermission

Performance schedule:

Thu, Fri, Sat @8:00PM Nov 20, 26, 27,

Dec 2, 3, 8, 9, 10, 11, 16, 17, 18, 23, 30, Jan 1

Sat, Sun, Wed @2:30PM Nov 27, Dec 1, 12, 15, 22, Jan 1

Tickets:

$49

$44 for seniors, students, military, and first responders.

Rush – $25 Theatre Only tickets and $15 Student Theatre Only tickets, based on availability one hour prior to any show.

Photos: Robyn O’Neill

LEFT: Anne Michelle Forbes and Georgi Hicks

RIGHT: Rachel Marrs (purple), Georgi Hicks (red), Alanna Wilson (green), and Anne Michelle Forbes (blue)

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A CHRISTMAS KADDISH

A World Premiere Holiday Play

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: Richmond Triangle Players at the Robert B. Moss Theatre, 1300 Altamont Ave, RVA 23230

Performances: November 17 – December 18, 2021.

Ticket Prices: $10 – $40.

Info: (804) 346-8113 or rtriangle.org. Richmond Triangle Theater has returned to full-capacity seating and requires proof of vaccine or recent negative PCR test results for entry. See the theater’s website for their COVID-19 precautions, digital programs, and more.

For more years than I can remember, the Christmas season has been heralded by the return of The Nutcracker ballet and a unique holiday-themed play by Richmond Triangle Players. This year’s RTP Christmas production took a new twist with the world premiere of a new musical conceived, created, and directed by the creative team of Levi Meerovich, Nora Ogunleye, and RTP Artistic Director Lucian Restivo.

To make the twist even twistier (I know, convoluted would be a better word choice, but, you know, candy canes and all), one half of a queer couple wakes up in a hospital on Christmas day, having spent four days in a coma. Instead of contemplating presents, Jay and Leigh are contemplating matters of life and death and come to blows when Jay considers signing a DNR.

Taking a page from A Christmas Carol, Jay has flashbacks to previous Christmases – a Groundhog Day style reunion with their parents, the first meeting with Leigh – each preceded by a staticky segue partially unintelligible (or partially intelligible, if you prefer) voices from an ambiguously unidentifiable entity.

To assist with the otherworldly visitations, there is a long runway style ramp where the center aisle would normally be located. This is where Claire Bronchick (Jay) begins the show and the site of several entrances and other-worldly encounters.

The cast, a dynamic quartet consisting of Emily Berry (Leigh), Bronchick (Jay), Amber Marie Martinez (Dr. Martinez), and Eddie Webster (Rabbi Aaron Edelstein) is energetic and have ear-pleasing voices that partner well with Levi Meerovich’s music and lyrics. Indeed, during their first encounter, Leigh jumps up and admonishes Jay, in their characteristically snarky voice and aggressive attitude, not to sneak up on strangers and start harmonizing with them.

There is obvious love between Jay and Leigh, more powerfully demonstrated when Leigh sings, “I Will Care For You” while Jay sleeps that in any spoken words. But Jay’s unnamed illness – some sort of cancer, it seems – is like an intrusive third party in their relationship. Jay easily balances talk of DNR forms with jokes that slide easily off the tongue, much to Leigh’s chagrin. They are both, it seems, grieving Jay’s imminent departure, but in diametrically opposed ways. When Jay wails, “When you’re dying on Christmas, Christmas doesn’t seem so great,” there is a hint of humor, but when Leigh screeches, “you want to un-alive yourself,” it feels desperate. There is a lot of door slamming, and I hope the set can hold up to the trauma for the duration of the run.

Leigh rebuffs all attempts to help, brazenly insulting Dr. Martinez and ordering Rabbi Edelstein to get out of the room. And that brings up another question. What, exactly, is the deal with the spiritual elements of A Christmas Kaddish? There’s more than just the obvious Judeo-Christian background and conflicts, by the Christmas decorations that adorn Leigh’s large private hospital room and the persistence of Rabbi Edelstein, who so graciously persists in the face of Leigh’s escalating anger. There’s a third spiritual element, but I don’t want to spoil the fun, so after you see the show, comment here on this blog, and let us know what it was.

The cast’s voices and Meerovich’s music and lyrics are supported by an unseen musical quartet: Kim Fox, Mike Goldberg, Joy Lubman, and Bea Kelly. Nia Safaar Banks designed the costumes, and there were some interesting nuances for Leigh (lots of fishnet and cutouts), and a particularly interesting mini dress ensemble for Jay during one of their time-traveling encounters, but it was the costumes and hair (designed by Luke Newsome) for the extra, largely unnamed characters including Jay’s parents and the Rabbi’s deceased daughter, that really demonstrated creativity. Sometimes it was the costume, sometimes it was the total transformation of the character that was most captivating.

There are many moving parts to A Christmas Kaddish, and the production had a lot of wonderful moments even on opening night, but for me, some of these moments didn’t hit the target. I suspect that I might come away with a different overall feeling if I saw this same show later in the run, when the cast and all the elements have had a chance to bond more and develop that distinctive character that distinguishes each show and each cast. Looking at the extensive and talented creative team, I wonder if the individual contributions of each has yet to meld into a cohesive unit – maybe it just isn’t done yet. For now, it was a pleasant night of live theater in one of the most comfortable venues in the region, but I suspect – and hope – that the production will grow and become better than simply good. After all, this is the annual RTP Christmas Show, and Rabbi Edelstein has prayed really hard for it.

A CHRISTMAS KADDISH

Conceived by Lucian Restivo, Levi Meerovich, and Nora Ogunleye

Book by Nora Ogunleye and Levi Meerovich

CAST:

Leigh – Emily Berry

Jay – Claire Bronchick

Dr. Martinez – Amber Marie Martinez

Rabbi Aaron Edelstein – Eddie Webster

CREATIVE TEAM:

Directed by Lucian Restivo and Nora Ogunleye

Music and Lyrics by Levi Meerovich

Scenic Design by Lucian Restivo

Costume Design by Nia Safaar Banks

Lighting Design by Austin Harber

Sound Design by Share Barber

Hair and Make Up design by Luke Newsome

Properties Design by Tim Moehring

Assistant State Manager: Nathan Ramos

Production Stage Manager: Lauren Langston

Orchestra Prepared and Conducted by Kim Fox

Musical Director: Levi Meerovich

Photos:

UPDATED TO INCLUDE Photos by John MacLellan

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