A GENTLEMAN’S GUIDE TO LOVE & MURDER: Who’s Turn to Die?

A GENTLEMAN’S GUIDE TO LOVE AND MURDER: A Musical Comedy Tour de Force!

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: The November Theatre Marjorie Arenstein Stage

Performances: September 27 – October 20, 2019

Ticket Prices: $36-63

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

A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder has a love triangle, dysfunctional family dynamics, people who marry for money over love, a leading man who is a serial killer, and Scott Wichmann playing 8 different characters.

Written by Robert L Freedman (book and lyrics) and Steven Lutvak (music and lyrics), based on a novel by Rod Horniman, and directed and choreographed by Kikau Alvaro, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder is a delightful musical comedy in the hands of a dynamic and talented cast.

After an opening prologue by the ensemble, dressed in elegant mourning attire – a premonition of what is to follow – the audience meets Monty Navarro, sitting at a small desk on the eve of his sentencing for murder, writing his memoirs, including a full confession of how eight members of his family mysteriously died in less that a year. Alexander Sapp plays Navarro, the son of a recently deceased washerwoman who, it turns out, is related to the D’Ysquiths, a wealthy family who made their fortune in banking and finances. In fact, Monty is eighth in line to becoming the Earl of Highhurst, and Sapp seems to have as much fun playing Monty as the audience does watching him plot and plan his way to success, with time out to for romance. Never mind that his love interest, Sibella Hallward, decides to marry someone else. Grey Garrett’s portrayal of the vain and materialistic Sibella is spot on – a perfect balance of comedy and musical theater diva.

Debra Wagoner, as the mysterious Marietta Shingle, has a couple of surprises that are integral to the plot. She is supported by an ensemble that includes Georgia Rogers Farmer, Maxwell Porterfield, Daniel Pippert, Adrienne Eller, Lauren Leinhaus-Cook, Theodore Sapp, and Derrick Jaques.

 

No, I did not forget to mention Scott Wichmann. This is one of those awkward situations in which the most memorable character is not the leading man, but a supporting character – in this case eight supporting characters, all played by Wichmann. It’s not even fair to call Wichmann a supporting character, as he portrayed all the D’Ysquith heirs in line for the title Earl of Highhurst – including an inebriated cleric, a body-building lord mayor, and a country squire who is married but seems to prefer the companionship of men.

There’s Lady Hyacinth, whose interest in helping the poor and disadvantaged provides a perfect opening to send her off to her death in poverty stricken Egypt or serving the lepers in India. Surviving these dangerous missions, Monty sends her off to deepest, darkest Africa to work with a tribe of cannibals. (It’s 1909, and no one had yet been warned to be politically correct or culturally sensitive.) Lady Salome D’Ysquith Pumphrey is such a bad actress that when Monty replaces the blanks in her prop gun with real bullets and she shoots herself on stage, the audience applauds her death, perhaps not realizing she has really died. Both Lady Hyacinth and Lady Salome are played by Wichmann. Each character has a different voice, posture, and gait. The Reverend Lord Ezekial D’Ysquith, for example, has a distinctive, stylized teetering walk.

Each also has a distinct style of dressing, thanks to costume designer Sue Griffin. Visually, the production is also enhanced by Chris Raintree’s expansive set, characterized by multiple movable set components (ranging from Monty’s modest home to Lord Adalbert D’Ysquith’s mansion – an expansive mansion so grand that it offers tours to tourists.

Sandy Dacus’ music direction, along with Alvaro’s direction kept things moving along at a fair clip, although there were a few moments when I thought something should have been tightened up. The first act lasts nearly 90 minutes, with a total run time of about 2 ½ hours. For the most part, the musical selections do not cater to foot-tapping show tunes, but rather to sung narrative that advances the story line – when all the words are clear; sometimes they were not at Wednesday’s matinee.

The surprise ending brings about an unlikely alliance and opens the door to a sequel. A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Marriage is delightful musical comedy, satisfyingly delivered by a death-defying cast.

 

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

———-

Photo Credits: Aaron Sutten

A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder
Lauren Leinhaas-Cook, Adrienne Eller, Alexander Sapp, Grey Garrett and Scott Wichmann. Photo by Aaron Sutten.
A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder
Adrienne Eller and Alexander Sapp. Photo by Aaron Sutten.
A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder
Grey Garrett and Alexander Sapp. Photo by Aaron Sutten.
A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder
Scott Wichmann. Photo by Aaron Sutten.

 

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FALSETTOS: Who Do You Call Family?

FALSETTOS: Four Jews in a Room Bitching

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

Richmond Triangle Players

At: The Robert B Moss Theatre, 1300 Altamont Avenue, RVA 23230

Performances: September 4 – October 5, 2019.

Ticket Prices: $10 (student) – $40 (general admission)

Info: (804) 346-8113 or rtriangle.org

I knew a little – very little – about Falsettos prior to seeing the show. The Richmond Triangle Players website tells us this musical “revolves around the life of a charming, intelligent, neurotic gay man named Marvin, his wife, lover, about-to-be-Bar-Mitzvahed son, their psychiatrist, and the lesbians next door.” That description doesn’t even come close to preparing the viewer for the emotionally immersive theatrical experience that is Falsettos.

Written by William Finn (book and lyrics) and James Lapine (book), Falsettos a two-act musical that runs about 2 hours 30 minutes, with one intermission, was originally two separate one-act plays. The first, March of the Falsettos, was written in 1981. The second act, originally Falsettoland was written nearly a decade later, in 1990. The two have been knit together so seamlessly, with the first act providing introductions to the characters and fleshing out their backstories, that I cannot imagine watching the production as two separate plays.

Debra Clinton directs with a great sense of timing and an innate sense of when to turn from humor to drama. She also choreographed the show with energetic and sometimes comedic movement that is both organic and perfectly suited to actors who are not necessarily dancers. Natan Berenshteyn is the musical director, and three musicians are disappointingly but understandably offstage – unlike most musical productions at Triangle where the musicians are either onstage or at least partially visible. Jonathan Sparks’ sound design included several familiar popular songs from the 1980s and this connected with much of the audience on Friday night.

Kevin Johnson’s set was simple, versatile, and somewhat bland, with a linoleum-patterned painted floor, a trio of crates that served as furniture and props, a truncated bed that cleverly slid out from a wall, and a half-dozen empty picture frames on the walls. They were deliberately hung crooked and at significant moments they were reversed from their plain white sides to colorful sides then back again and in the final scene a seventh frame was added – and it was plumb-line straight.

Sheila Russ’s costumes looked like they came from a 1970s consignment shop, from the Richard Simms style jogging suits worn by characters Trina and Mendel to the pattern of Trina’s Act One shirt. Attention was paid to the most minute detail, such as the way Mendel’s slacks picked up one of the color’s in Trina’s shirt, and Trina’s culottes matched Mendel’s shirt. Michael Jarrett’s lighting captured it all in a golden halo of light – especially in scenes enacted on the extended runway of the stage that ran half the length of the center aisle. If I’ve omitted any elements, please understand that all the technical components worked in complete harmony and I didn’t notice any glitches.

The cast turned in all-around stellar performances – some of which were surprising for actors I’ve seen and become familiar with over the past few years. Matt Shofner, in the principal role of Marvin, developed his character with a certain amount of restraint and internal reserve that runs counter to his usually larger-than-life performances. If there was such a thing as the opposite of melodramatic, then that would be it – natural, realistic, yet intense. The gradual transformation of Marvin from an entitled, obnoxious man with a bad temper in Act One to a man aware of his own shortcomings and making strides to work on them in Act Two was remarkable.

Similarly, Dan Cimo, as Mendel, Marvin’s psychiatrist who ends up marrying Marvin’s ex-wife, showed an entirely new side of his acting chops. When I think of Dan Cimo, the first thing that comes to mind are his unnaturally wide eyes, yet here he seemed to have commanded them to assume, at least temporarily, a new, slightly subdued shape. Cimo was the strong yet sensitive man, the voice of reason and conciliation as he navigated the tenuous territory that comes with a doctor falling in love with his patient’s ex-wife and becoming step-father to his son.

Durron Marquis Tyre also turned in a touching performance as Marvin’s gay lover. His unlikely friendship with Marvin’s son, Jason, developed with remarkable subtlety and gentleness. Tyre also had a show-stopping number with “The Games I Play” near the end of Act One. Near the end of Act Two, he sings “You Gotta Die Sometimes,” and there was audible sniffing and sniveling throughout the audience. Boxes of tissues should be placed under the seats.

Two newcomers not only held their own, but nearly stole the show. Fourteen-year-old Rowan Sharma [this is a correction as I originally reported his age as 12] turned in a stunningly strong and touching performance as Marvin and Trina’s traumatized son – nearly buried under the rubble of his parent’s crumbling marriage after Marvin left Trina to seek his new identity as a gay man, while refusing to let go of his family. Casey Payne, as Trina was responsible for possibly the best and most hilarious musical number of the show with “I’m Breaking Down” in the middle of Act One. There are no spoken lines in Falsettos, every word is sung, and “I’m Breaking Down” perfectly captures the heightened emotion of a woman who finds out that her husband is gay and doesn’t know how to navigate life from there.

Shofner, Cimo, Payne, Tyre, and Sharma are joined, in Act Two, by Kelsey Cordrey and Rachel Marrs, as a lesbian couple. Cordrey, as Dr. Charlotte, enhances the dramatic content with her work on the cutting edge of New York’s AIDS epidemic, while Marrs, as her partner Cordelia, as some of the shows best comic moments as a new-age Kosher caterer whose food tastes terrible! There are few scenes that include all seven cast members, but one of those that does, “The Baseball Game” is a hilarious and touching commentary on family and the social observation that Jewish kids don’t play baseball.

In both plays, in both acts, family is the pivotal element. There is the nuclear family, and then there are the families that we choose – and the families that choose us. Sometimes they intersect and the interactions can ignite sparks or explosions. Family and love and the complexities of love are woven throughout. “Love is Blind.” There is the “Thrill of First Love.” Sometimes, “I Never Wanted to Love You.”

Falsettos is an interesting production that has been brilliantly mounted by a director and cast that seem to be perfectly matched to each other and to the show. I laughed. I cried. I was touched. I experienced theater at it was meant to be.

 

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

———-

Photo Credits: Photos courtesy of Phil Crosby, RTP.

FALSETTOS_0081
(clockwise from upper left) Matt Shofner, Rowan Sharma, Casey Payne, Durron Marquis Tyre and Dan Cimo in Richmond Triangle Player’s production of “Falsettos,” running now through Oct 5 at RTP’s Robert B. Moss Theatre. http://www.rtriangle.org
FALSETTOS_0836
Matt Shofner and Durron Marquis Tyre (partially under the covers) in Richmond Triangle Player’s production of “Falsettos,” running now through Oct 5 at RTP’s Robert B. Moss Theatre. http://www.rtriangle.org
FALSETTOS_0310
Casey Payne is “Breaking Down” in Richmond Triangle Player’s production of “Falsettos,” running now through Oct 5 at RTP’s Robert B. Moss Theatre. http://www.rtriangle.org

 

 

Ailey

 

Whistlin’ Women

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PASSING STRANGE: If It Were Any More REAL, It’d Be Fiction!

PASSING STRANGE: A Rock Musical

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: The Firehouse Theatre, 1609 W. Broad Street, RVA 23220

Performances: September 4 –6 previews; opening September 7 – October 18, 2019

Ticket Prices: $20/student; $25-30/military & RVATA; $30-45/general admission

Info: (804) 355-2001 or firehousetheatre.org

All musicals are not created equal. Passing Strange, billed as “a new rock musical” is a semi-autobiographical tale of a young man’s search for his identity – “the real.” Nothing out of the ordinary in that but Passing Strange is written by Stew and his partner Heidi Rodewald, musicians with the band The Negro Problem.

The upbeat and energetic score is made up of rock and roll infused with gospel, blues, jazz, and punk rock. A four-piece band led by musical director Leilani Fenick is placed prominently on a platform upstage center, and occasionally gets drawn into the onstage action. Jeremy V. Morris, the narrator, hypes up the audience, introduces the band, narrates the story, and occasionally merges into the story. It soon becomes clear that the Narrator is an older version of the lead character, an unnamed Youth played by Keaton Hillman in what I believe is his first leading role.

The Youth’s search for identify takes us from a middle class home in South Central Los Angeles in the 1970s to a communal family of young artists in free-spirited Amsterdam to a collective of revolutionary performance artists in Berlin. Ironically, it is the German anarchists who teach him the value of family – but not before it is too late.

The tightly knit ensemble – Patricia Alli, Keydron Dunn, Keaton Hillman, Dylan Jones, Jamar Jones, Katrinah Carol Lewis, and Jeremy V. Morris – has no weak links, with each of these performers giving their all throughout the two-act musical that runs about 110 minutes, with one intermission. They act, dance, sing, and set the stage, moving large black packing crates, sometimes discretely wiping their streaming faces with conveniently stashed towels as they pass one another.

Ahh, passing – now there’s a word packed with symbolism. The actors pass one another on stage. The Youth passes through the spaces and stages of his life. Time passes from Youth to Narrator. Blacks passed for white in order to get better jobs. The Youth passes as a poor young man from the ghetto to achieve artistic recognition. Black actors pass themselves off as white Europeans. And Stew, who played the role of Narrator in the original production, was inspired, in passing, by none other than Shakespeare whose Othello, the Moore of Venice uttered the phrase “passing strange” in Act 1, Scene 3.

Passing Strange is directed by Tawnya Pettiford-Wates (Dr. T.), and it seems that her projects (e.g., last season’s An Octoroon at TheatreLAB The Basement) often deserve at least a second viewing and a talk-back, if not an entire seminar. Dr. T.’s staging, along with dynamically interwoven choreography by Christine Wyatt, a recent graduate of the VCU Dance program, keeps everyone moving at a swift pace that frequently contains hints of the minstrel show. The show is largely comedic until the final two scenes, but even the humor is rich in historic, racial, ethnic, sexual, regional, and cultural references. Some may be familiar, some may pass over the heads of many, and others fly by so fast that even the knowledgeable might miss them while savoring a previous nugget.

While this is clearly an ensemble masterpiece, there were standout moments and roles. I’ve seen Keaton Hillman perform in supporting roles in VaRep’s 1776, and  The Wiz, and Richmond Triangle Players’ A Chorus Line, handle puppets in the Children’s Theatre’s Mr. Popper’s Penguins, and portray a snake in The Heritage Ensemble Theatre Company’s

The Dreamseller and the Forest Dweller and deliver a tear-jerking monologue in Oedipus: A Gospel Myth at The Firehouse, but this is his first leading role. He nailed it. He was silly and frustrating, frustrated and innocent. Sometimes you wanted to shake him, and other times you wanted to hug him.

Jeremy V. Morris was part hype man, part mentor as the Narrator, sometimes watching, sometimes guiding, sometimes participating. We, the audience, didn’t know what to expect, but what he gave was just what was needed. Jamar Jones, who often shares a stage with Morris, used his malleable expressions to create a host of characters, from an LA youth to bible thumping preacher, from a gender fluid artist to a macho ex-boyfriend. The versatile and highly skillful Katrinah Carol Lewis also played several characters, but the one that made the strongest impact on me was Desi, the revolutionary artist who believed that the only thing that really matters is love. Keydron Dunn’s repertoire of characters included Mr. Franklin, the closeted gay son of the Baptist preacher. He initiated his newest choir member with a weed-smoking session in his car and introduced his youthful proteges to more than just harmonies and hymns. That made The Youth’s rejection of him all the more painful and poignant. Patricia Alli portrayed the mother with empathy and realism, all while maintaining a high level of first humor and later drama. Last but not least was Dylan Jones, making her Richmond debut, delightfully portraying three characters that ranged from teen-aged seductress to pornographic performance artist.

Chris Raintree’s simple set of a raised platform for the band and moveable boxes and chairs to create the environments through which the Youth passes was enhanced by lighting by Bill Miller, including some colorful LED lights on the walls. Alex Valentin’s costumes were appropriate but largely unremarkable – until the Mother’s final scene in which she appeared in the beautiful rose-colored gown she had dreamed of in Act One. September and October are busy months for theater and dance in Richmond, but I hope to squeeze in one more performance of Passing Strange before it closes October 18, and I highly suggest you get there as soon as you can. I wouldn’t be surprised if tickets become scarce after words get out about this one.

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

———-

Photo Credits: Bill Sigafoos

Passing Strange - Patricia Alli, photo by Bill Sigafoos
Patricia Alli
Passing Strange - Keydron Dunn, photo by Bill Sigafoos
Keydron Dunn
Passing Strange - Keaton Hillman, Jeremy V Morris, photo by Bill Sigafoos
Keaton Hillman and Jeremy V Morris
Passing Strange - Keaton Hillman, Jamar Jones, Katrinah Carol Lewis, Keydron Dunn, Dylan Jones, photo by Bill Sigafoos
Keaton Hillman, Jamar Jones, Katrinah Carol Lewis, Keydron Dunn, and Dylan Jones
Passing Strange - Jeremy V Morris, photo by Bill Sigafoos
Jeremy V Morris
Passing Strange - Jamar Jones, Keaton Hillman, Jeremy V Morris, photo by Bill Sigafoos
Jamar Jones, Keaton Hillman, and Jeremy V Morris
Passing Strange - Dylan Jones, Keydron Dunn, Keaton Hillman, Jamar Jones, Katrinah Carol Lewis, photo by Bill Sigafoos
Dylan Jones, Keydron Dunn, Keaton Hillman, Jamar Jones, and Katrinah Carol Lewis

 

Alvin Ailey
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Whistlin Women
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FOREVER PLAID: Songs & Shenanigans

FOREVER PLAID: Heavenly Harmony

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: Virginia Repertory Theatre at Hanover Tavern, 13181 Hanover Courthouse Road, Hanover, VA 23069

Performances: July 19 – August 25, 2019

Ticket Prices: $44

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

Forever Plaid, the final production of the Va-Rep Hanover 2018/2019 season is a humorous heavenly harmonic hash guaranteed to make you pat your feet and smile. In the barely-there plot, a quartet of young singers on the way to a big gig at the Airport Hilton gets killed by a school bus full of Catholic high school girls (why this is important I’m not sure), on their way to watch the Beetles debut on the Ed Sullivan Show (which does become important later.) The four find themselves returning from some sort of limbo where they have spent the last 55 years for one last chance to perform in front of a big audience. The accident happened in the 1964, and one member of the quartet asks the audience what year it is. On Thursday, the audience member, perhaps flustered, initially gave a false date, in the 1950s, before admitting it was 2019.

This is not the only instance of audience participation. In another scene a compliant woman named Nora was charmed onstage to play piano with Sparky (while Travis is on his union break), and the entire audience is corralled into a sing-along on the song “Matilda.” The quartet brings instruments into the audience for those who care to participate in a hands-on experience, and Nora, by the way, left the stage with a commemorative plaid dental floss and a certificate with her name on it.

The shenanigans are carried on with amusing awkwardness – one member of the four is often out of step and depends on antacids to tame his nervous stomach, one hyperventilates, one has a mild speech impediment, and the fourth is prone to nosebleeds – by Mitchell Ashe (Sparky), PJ Llewellyn (Smudge), Ian Page (Jinx), and Caleb Wade (Frankie). Two, Jinx and Smudge, I think (it’s hard to keep up) are even step-brothers, and in one touching scene reminisce about a childhood tradition of family TV night. They watch, what else, “The Ed Sullivan Show.” The “band” consists of Travis West on piano and David Yohe on bass. They all sing well, even when making mistakes on purpose, while rotating through a veritable warehouse of wacky props, from six foot plumbers’ helpers (plungers) to straw hats and a traditional nun’s wimple.

Ashe, Llewellyn, Page, and Wade seem to have as much fun playing these characters as the audience does watching and listening to them. Wade, as the group’s leader, shows equal parts confidence and compassion, which seems even more amazing considering that the group leads off with, “We’re Forever Plaid, and we’re dead.”  My favorite part of the show, however, is when The Plaids perform the entire “Ed Sullivan Show” (that ran on CBS from 1948 – 1971) in three minutes and eleven seconds – including the animal acts, puppets, musical acts, comedians, and even Topo Gigio, the Italian mouse.

Forever Plaid, written by Stuart Ross and first performed off-Broadway in 1989, was directed by Wes Seals with musical direction by Travis West. Both keep the pace moving at just the right speed (45rpm). Terrie Powers’ set is simple – arches, silver curtains, stars, a rounded stage – and BJ Wilkinson’s lighting sets just the right tone. Marcia Miller Hailey’s white dinner jackets are simple and classy, and the long-awaited arrival of the group’s plaid tuxedo jackets doesn’t occur until near the end of the one-act show that runs just under 90 minutes. The sound design by Derek Dumais makes everything clear and easy to understand, and the choreography (no credit is given, so I assume they retained Ross’ original choreography) is charmingly corny.

There are more than a dozen songs, beginning with “Three Coins in a Fountain” and ending with “Love is a Many Splendored Thing,” the song they were rehearsing in their red Mercury convertible when they were killed. In between there is a wide variety of musical numbers, from the Caribbean medley to Sam Cooke’s “Chain Gang,” “Perfidia,” which was inspired by the quartet’s collective crush on their high school Spanish teacher, to one of my favorites, the energetic “Crazy ‘Bout Ya Baby.” There are plenty of period and time-related references that might fall flat on anyone under the age of 50, and “The Ed Sullivan Show” seems to be a unifying thread, but Forever Plaid is a joyous, feel-good musical revue that favors naivete over controversy.

 

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

———-

Photo Credits: Aaron Sutten

Forever Plaid
Ian Page, Mitchell Ashe, Caleb Wade, PJ Llewellyn. Photo by Aaron Sutten.
Forever Plaid
PJ Llewellyn, Mitchell Ashe, Caleb Wade, . Photo by Aaron Sutten.
Forever Plaid
Ian Page, Caleb Wade, Mitchell Ashe, PJ Llewellyn. Photo by Aaron Sutten.
Forever Plaid
Mitchell Ashe, Ian Page, Caleb Wade, PJ Llewellyn. Photo by Aaron Sutten.

 

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Whistlin Women

 

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Alvin Ailey

Fellowship Cruise 2020

 

POLKA DOTS: A Musical About Segregation

Polka Dots: The Cool Kids Musical

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: July 12 – August 11, 2019

Ticket Prices: $21

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

Polkadots: The Cool Kids Musical is based on the real-life events of the Little Rock Nine. In 1957 nine black students enrolled in the formerly all-white Little Rock Central High School, a test of the 1954 Brown v Board of Education Supreme Court ruling that declared segregation in public schools unconstitutional. For Polkadots, Melvin Tunstall, III (book) has set the  story in Rockaway elementary school, in an undetermined state. Instead of black and white, the tension takes place between the blue skinned squares and the pink skinned polkadots. The squares believe they are the superior group, and don’t want to share their school or their town with polkadots.

Eight-year-old Lily Polkadot, played by Caroline Lynch, is the first polkadot to integrate the school, and the plot revolves around Lily’s efforts to make a friend and assimilate into her new school. Serious and sensitive issues are handled with care under the gentle direction of Jan Guarino.

Lily puts up a brave front, standing up to the mean spirited Penelope Square, singing “Sticks and Stones” as an affirmation, but she still privately wishes her skin was covered with squares instead of polkadots. The children’s teacher, Ms. Square, played by Sydnee Graves, who also plays the role of Mama Square, is warm, friendly and accepting of Lily, but at the same time she doesn’t want to make waves.

On the first day of school, Lily must remain alone in the classroom during the bathroom and water break because the polkadots’ water pump has not yet been installed, and Lily must not drink from the squares’ water sprinkler. A separate water fountain is eventually rolled out for Lily, and this marks one of many times I wondered just how much the younger members of the audience really understood the historical significance of what was taking place.

This was one of the few times I did not have my grandsons Kingston (10) and Emmitt (who just turned 5) along to consult with. As a matter of fact, the volunteer ticket taker took one look at me and asked, “Where’s your grandson?” I almost felt like some sort of pervert attending the Children’s Theatre without a child or two in tow, and I really would like to know what they would have taken away from this show.

Interesting, the cast, including Quan Chau as Sky Square, Sydnee Graves as Ms. Square/Mama Square, Caroline Lynch as Lily Polkadot, and Madeleine Witmer as Penelope Square is quite diverse (white, black, Asian), and all are making their debuts at the Children’s Theatre at Willow Lawn. The quartet was uniformly energetic, and all boast strong singing voices. Douglas Lyons’ lyrics are surprisingly sophisticated for a children’s show – more throaty ballads than bouncy ditties and the music by Greg Borowsky and Lyons provides a firm foundation for Mallory Keene’s choreography. There is even one number, where Sky and Lily create a silly dance, the Squa-Dot, that invites audience participation, but on Friday night, although there was one enthusiastic row of youthful audience members bouncing in their seats, no one was brave enough to stand up and join in the dance.

Graves was almost annoyingly prim and proper in her role as the teacher and seemed like an authentic school counselor when she shared with Lily her own trials as the first “lady teacher” at their school. Witmer was almost satisfyingly snarky as the mean girl big sister, and was visibly disappointed when her big song, “Cool Kid,” which was meant as a put-down for Lily missed the mark, because Lily wasn’t in the audience to hear it. Chau was adorable as little brother, Sky, and Lynch was perfectly cast as the spunky yet vulnerable Lily.

Kyle Artone’s costumes are colorful and cartoonish, and the square women’s full-skirted dresses, stretched over stiff and puffy crinolines, are especially pretty. Lily’s dress is simpler and less elaborate than the dresses of the squares. I found the pink and blue skin (part fabric and part makeup) and cotton candy colored hair a bit creepy, but it didn’t seem to bother the younger members of the audience.

Emily Hake Massie’s set was surprisingly simple. A huge square platform in the center of the stage served as Penelope’s bed, Ms. Square’s classroom, and Mama Square’s dining table. Cubes served as props and seating and doubled as steps to allow the performers access to sit and dance atop the square platform. Lynne Hartman’s lighting was also minimal, with a few special effects that highlighted the segregated fountains.

Unlike in real life, there is a happy ending, with everyone becoming friends – or at least, agreeing to live and work together – but as a lesson, it’s a start. Looking around at the faces of the children in the audience, mostly 6-10 years old, they appeared to be having a good time, but it would take a post-performance discussion to determine how much they actually learned.

Polkadots: The Cook Kids Musical runs just under an hour, with no intermission, and will be playing at The Children’s Theatre at Willow Lawn through August e.

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: Aaron Sutten

Polkadots: The Cool Kids Musical
Madeleine Witmer. Photo by Aaron Sutten.
Polkadots: The Cool Kids Musical
Quan Chau, Caroline Lynch. Photo by Aaron Sutten.
Polkadots: The Cool Kids Musical
Madeleine Witmer, Sydnee Graves, Quan Chau. Photo by Aaron Sutten.
Polkadots: The Cool Kids Musical
Caroline Lynch, Quan Chau, Madeleine Witmer, Sydnee Graves. Photo by Aaron Sutten.
Polkadots: The Cool Kids Musical
Caroline Lynch. Photo by Aaron Sutten.

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Fellowship Cruise 2020

girlfriend: a tender tale of first love

GIRLFRIEND: A Summer Romance

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

Richmond Triangle Players

At: The Robert B Moss Theatre, 1300 Altamont Avenue, RVA 23230

Performances: June 24 – July 9, 2019.

Ticket Prices: $10-20

Info: (804) 346-8113 or rtriangle.org

Girlfriend, a two-person musical, is a summer romance about first love. Set in a small town in Nebraska in 1993, in the weeks following high school graduation, the story follows two young men as they explore their first love. The girlfriend of the title is an unseen but central character – much like the adults in Charlie Brown’s world – and one begins to wonder if she really exists at all. The budding love, so tenderly explored by Todd Almond’s book and carried along by Matthew Sweet’s punchy and energetic rock music and lyrics, is between Will, a sort of nerdy young man with a charming sense of humor and no plans for the future, and Mike, a popular jock who struggles with his attraction to Will as well as with his father’s plans for his future.

Cooper Sved, who was most recently seen in RTP’s Corpus Christi, plays Will, and infuses his character with energy, and endearing insightfulness. I am less familiar with Ray Wrightstone, who was recently in the cast of Seven Homeless Mammoths Wander New England (as an Early Man in a museum diorama). Wrightstone, who looked every inch the handsome jock, struck a tenuous balance that admirably captured Mike’s tension as he navigated the treacherous waters between his father’s expectations that he attend medical school, his teammates who hungrily chomped at the bit at any hint of homosexuality, his attraction to Will, and his desire to please everybody and not upset the boat. Of course, it is an impossible challenge.

Sved and Wrightstone are supported by a rocking four-piece band, under the musical direction of Levi Meerovich on keyboards. The band, especially the women, Hannah Goad and Roxanne Cook, provide background vocal support and even get a number of their own. My only complaint is that the music was sometimes too loud and overpowered the dialogue.

Chelsea Burke’s direction kept the one act play – running about an hour and fifteen minutes with no intermission – moving along at a great pace, assisted by some lively choreography by Aza Raine. Running in tandem with Grey Gardens, The Musical, girlfriend remarkably managed to transform the larger production’s set so that it was unrecognizable. Michael Jarett provided the moody lighting, and Dylan Eubanks provided the sound design – which included some very amusing movie sound effects. A running joke in the show is that Will and Mike keep attending the same movie all summer.

Something about the intensity and intimacy of this story reminded me of The Last Five Years, another powerful musical duet that was produced at TheatreLAB The Basement during their 2017/2018 season. After just a little digging around I found that Chelsea Burke also directed that show. So now, I’m not sure if the similarities I felt were due to the story lines or the genres or to the director’s special touch. It could be a combination of all of the above. At any rate, it makes me want to pay special attention to Burke’s future work. At this writing only two performances of girlfriend remain – on July 8 and 9, so don’t put it off if you plan to see this touching musical duet.

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: RTP website and Facebook page

 

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THE WIZ: Ease on Down the Road

THE WIZ: Everybody Rejoice!

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: The November Theatre Marjorie Arenstein Stage

Performances: June 21 – August 4, 2019

Ticket Prices: $36-63

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

 

OMG! I can’t think of a better time than the night I spent at Virginia Rep’s production of The Wiz!

The Wiz is a familiar story, based on L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. The all-black version is familiar to many, from the 1975 Broadway show, starring Stephanie Mills as Dorothy (with book by William F. Brown, lyrics by Charlie Smalls, and choreography by my former teacher, George Faison) or from the 1978 film version starring Diana Ross as Dorothy and Michael Jackson as the Scarecrow.
Virginia Rep, under the direction of Artistic Director Nathaniel Shaw and Director/Choreographer Kikau Alvaro uses the Brown/Smalls script, but with re-imagined staging, using scenery by Kimberly V. Powers and costumes by Jeanne Nugent that were inspired by Afrofuturism and visual artists of the African American diaspora (e.g., Romare Beardon and Lina Iris Viktor). In layman’s terms, think Wakanda, and you have a pretty good idea: African prints meet modern technology and run into urban swag. It may not have lived up to the verbal description, but the colors and styles really popped and worked well with Alvaro’s dynamic choreography.

The movement ranged from ballet to urban to tap. I sat up and took notice of the tornado, created by the dancing ensemble and the orchestra and my respect for the choreography and dancing remained at an all-time high throughout the first act. I recognized the dance expertise of Ira White – a member of the Richmond Ballet – before I could even see his face, and other ensemble dancers, including Michelle Mercedes and Rachel Seeholzer brought the ensemble up a notch or two from the usual ho-hum musical theater dancing. When D. Jerome Wells, the Tin Man, broke out into a smooth tap dance, my heart melted – for about the fourth time, and it was only the first act!

My heart started melting with the orchestra’s Overture, under the able musical direction of Anthony Smith. The entire score – which gave equal weight to the instrumental and the vocals throughout the production – was absolute perfection. The sound quality was very good, and vocals were clear, even when spoken off stage. My heart melted yet again when Toto ran across the stage at the beginning of Act One, and for the third time when Desirée Roots, as Aunt Em (one of THREE roles she plays) serenaded Dorothy with “The Feeling We Once Had.”

I know people were smitten with Brandon LaReau’s Lion, and rightfully so, as he owned that role and played it for every laugh and tender moment he could wring out of the very willing audience, but I quickly developed a soft spot for Dylan T. Jackson’s Scarecrow, whose insightful comments throughout belied his lack of a brain. When the Tin Man described how, as a flesh-and-blood woodcutter, he had cut of first one leg and then the other, Scarecrow asks why he didn’t think that, perhaps, he needed to get rid of the cursed ax. And speaking of the Tin Man, not only did Wells win me over with his tap dancing, but he closed out Act One with a soulful rendition of “What Would I Do If I Could Feel?” that was worthy of an R&B concert date night.

By the end of the first act, my face hurt from smiling and laughing, my eyes were leaking from laughing and an overload of joy, and my heart was a puddle on the floor at my feet. But this show wasn’t done with me yet. It wasn’t enough that Desirée Roots melted my heart with her ballad to Dorothy, she then killed it with an over-the-top performance as the good witch Addaperle. Her wand didn’t work, she couldn’t make herself disappear, and she carried her magic paraphernalia in a gigantic glittery handbag. She was like a magical, bedazzled version of everybody’s favorite, slightly inebriated aunt at the family cookout. Then in the second act she threw down as a punk-rock styled Evillene in black lace, a bustier, and thigh-high boots. “Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Bad News” was never sung better.

Jessi Johnson didn’t appear until midway through the second act, as Glinda, a good witch. Dressed regally, with a torch-carrying entourage, she graced us with her powerful and sensuous voice in “A Rested Body” and a reprise of “Believe in Yourself” before making a diva-worthy exit.

I didn’t forget Dorothy. Mariah Lyttle, a recent graduate of Ithaca College, has a voice to be reckoned with. While she was strong and clear in “Soon As I Get Home” and other songs with the ensemble and her motley entourage, she was really able to shine in the heartfelt Finale, “Home.”

Jerold E. Solomon also did double duty, as Uncle Henry in the first act and as The Wiz in the second. Solomon more than met the challenge of “Ya’ll Got It” after revving up, so to speak, from the mild-mannered misfit who became The Wiz to a hyped-up revivalist-style preacher who poured a heavy dose of self-empowerment on the citizens of Oz before disappearing in his magically restored hot air balloon.

There may be no such thing as perfect, but I couldn’t find a single thing I didn’t like – no, love – about this production of The Wiz. There are a few, shall we say, strong words or innuendos, but this is, overall, a family-friendly production. The couple sitting next to us was a grandmother on a date with her pre-teen grandson. There were lots of children in the audience, which was more diverse, overall, than one usually finds in the November Theatre. With all that’s going on – the scene changes, the sparkling lighting effects, the music, the songs, the dancing that moves off the stage and into the aisles – the entire production runs just slightly over two magical hours. I hope I have time to see this beautiful show again before it closes on August 4. It’s pure happiness on a stage.

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer (who was once a poppy in a scene from The Wiz), teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

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Photo Credits: Aaron Sutten

The Wiz
D. Jerome Wells (Tin Man) and Mariah Lyttle (Dorothy). Photo by Aaron Sutten.
The Wiz
Mariah Lyttle (Dorothy) and cast. Photo by Aaron Sutten.
The Wiz
Mariah Lyttle (Dorothy) and Jerold E. Solomon (The Wiz). Photo by Aaron Sutten.
The Wiz
Desirée Roots (Evillene). Photo by Aaron Sutten.
The Wiz
Mariah Lyttle (Dorothy) and cast. Photo by Aaron Sutten.
Wiz.1
Desirée Roots as Aunt Em, Addaperle, and Evillene.

 

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