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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PAGE TO STAGE II

STARR FOSTER’S CROSS-DISCIPLINARY DANCE PROJECT

STARR FOSTER DANCE: Page to Stage II

A Dance Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: December 1-3, 2022

Ticket Prices: $15-$25

Info: (804) 304-1523; www.starrfosterdance.org, www.facebook.com/starrfosterdance, Instagram/starrfosterdance

THE PROGRAM

Choreography by Starrene Foster

Lighting Design by Michael Jarett

Costumes by Starrene Foster

Spirits

Inspired by a story by Patricia Smith

Original Music Composition by Daniel Deckelman

Dear Me

Inspired by a poem by Tonyehn Verkitus

Music by DJ Williams Shots Fired; Iron Fist

Sisterhood

Inspired by a story by Judith Bice

Music by Mike Lazarev; When You Are

FeeJee Mermaid

Inspired by a story by Clay McLeod Chapman

Original Music Composition by Daniel Deckelman with narration by Brent\

Costume Concept Design by Johann Stegmeir, Constructed by Starrene Foster

About Us

Inspired by a story by Mary Lou Hall

Original Music Composition by Daniel Deckelman

Sky Burial

Inspired by a poem by M. C. Boyes

Music by Roger Goula; Looking Back to Self Awareness

Things That Fit Tight Around the Ribs

Inspired by a poem by Molly Todd

Original Music Composition by Daniel Deckelman

I think I have seen most of Starr Foster Dance’s Richmond performances since the company was born in 2001. I have been stunned, enthralled, mesmerized, puzzled, amused, and I have even teased Foster about her seeming preference for lighting on the darker side of the lumens scale or lux meter (or however you measure brightness). The point is, Foster has a unique style, one that most often presents women in a powerful light (no pun intended), and dares to stretch outside any semblance of a comfort zone – whether her own, the dancers, or the audience,

Foster’s latest project, two years in the making – or waiting – due to the restrictions of the pandemic, Page to Stage II, is a collection of seven short dances inspired by seven short stories, excerpts, and poems by local writers. Not only do the dances span a wide range of emotions, but the program is an actual book that contains all of the written works – the pages that found their way onto the stage – that the audience can take away to keep.

In addition to the seven writers, Foster invited six guest performers to dance with her core company of four women: Taylor-Leigh Adams, Fran Beaumont, Anna Branch, and Molly Huey. The six guest performers, Sophia Berger, Charlotte Bray, Shannon Comerford, Elena Dimitri, Keeley Hernandez, and Mosca Mavrophilipos-Flint were a perfect fit, blending easily with Foster’s core dancers and providing the needed enhancement for the stories. To my surprise and delight, I discovered that one of them had been a student of mine when I taught elementary school.

Previous performances of Starr Foster Dance took place in the intimate space of TheatreLab’s black box space, The Basement, but Page to Stage II (the sequel to a 2015 production) was performed at The Firehouse Theatre. The Firehouse seats about 4 times the number of people who fit into The Basement (sadly, TheatreLab shuttered operations at the end of the 2022 season) – and every performance was sold out! This is great for Foster and company, but it also speaks to a growing hunger for contemporary dance in RVA.

Several works on the program stood out above the others for various reasons. The opening work, Spirits, inspired by Patricia Smith’s story of the same name, explores the intentions of spirits, ancestors, and the associations we make with them. Accompanied by strings and the sounds of flowing water, the dancers, dressed in soft pats and matching tops with hems died to look muddied, move like water sprites. They seem to rise and return to a watery grave, evoking images of fictional willies (e.g., the Willis in the ballet Giselle represent the spirits of women left at the alter) as well as the spirits of all whose dreams were cut short before they were fulfilled. The nine dancers seem to float, rise up, and at the end return to their watery grave, still reaching for life – theirs? Or ours?

My absolute favorite was Dear Me. A solo, the work was performed on Friday night by Fran Beaumont. I loved Beaumont’s energy, the lackadaisical way she kicked her leg up to the side and over her head, the motif of running backwards, and even her simple, dark jumpsuit. Funny, assertive, and sassy, the solo, set to a dynamic funk rock score by DJ Williams and Shots Fired, reminded me of the jazzy and dramatic solos of the late American modern dancer, Daniel Nagrin. (If you are not familiar with him, dig back into dance history and find a video of him performing Strange Hero or Man of Action (1948).

FeeJee Mermaid is funny and creepy and deliciously weird. Set to an original score that is reminiscent of circus music and a narration of Clay McLeod Chapman’s fictitious lecture on how to make a FeeJee Mermaid. Some people are terrified of the circus, clowns, and sideshows. FeeJee Mermaid does nothing to allay these fears. Based on a real-life hoax perpetrated by P.T. Barnum and others, Chapman’s work – and Foster’s kinesthetic interpretation – is an instruction manual on how to construct a horrible taxidermist’s nightmare: a fake mermaid created by attaching the torso of an ape to the bottom half of a large fish. Foster’s quartet of dancers, clad in flesh-toned leotards dyed in a fish-scale pattern do not actually construct a FeeJee Mermaid, but their circus antics, and Daniel Deckelman’s music are sufficiently creepy to leave a lasting impression. Oh, and one of the remaining examples of a “real” FeeJee Mermaid has been in residence at Harvard’s Peabody Museum since 1897. Look it up – if you dare.

About Us is a story by Mary Lou Hall that tells of a mother who left her family (physically and/or mentally) in order to save herself. In Foster’s dance, Molly Huey (on Friday night) was supported and surrounded by a quartet of dancers who seemed to represent the various versions of her inner self. Huey danced, often with her eyes closed, moving her hands in a repetitive gesture that seemed designed to clear away the cobwebs that both clouded her vision and restricted her movements. It is a very intimate dance, one that breaks the usual rules by focusing inward rather than outward. The supporting dancers move in a very unexpected way, deliberately not drawing attention to themselves, trying not to stand out, but instead focusing on the main character – and the main character is. . .you/us.

I could find something special about each of the dances in this series. The dark dresses of Sisterhood echo the darkness of the theme that seems to be a prelude to a true-crime story about two sisters whose lives are unhealthily entwined. The women in Sky Burial interact with one another like two people feeding each other with long-handled spoons. Then there is the poignancy and steely sharpness of the pointing finger in Things That Fit Tight Around the Ribs. Like many good books, and all poems, Stage to Page II should be seen again and should definitely be discussed. What did YOU see? What did YOU feel? What did YOU take away? This is Starr Foster Dance at its finest.

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: Douglas Hayes.

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THE INHERITANCE

A Shelter; A Refuge; A Place of Healing

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: August 3 – September 17, 2022

Ticket Prices: $35 -$40; $10 for Students.

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

Inheritance: the acquisition of a possession, condition, or trait from past generations

Matthew López’s epic play, The Inheritance, is nearly seven hours long and runs over two nights. It is presented in two parts, each containing three acts and two intermissions. But that is not the only thing about it that is remarkable. The Inheritance is a story about telling a story, and wise, the audience, have the pleasure of witnessing how this story is crafted. It’s not linear and it certainly isn’t pretty. The storytellers are a community of ten young gay men, living in New York City in the decades after the AIDS epidemic.

Further, it is a multi-generational story, under the guidance and mentorship of one older character (real-life author E.M. Forster/fictional character Walter Poole) played by William Vaughn, a recent Richmond transplant from NYC. There is also an older love interest, millionaire real estate developer Henry Wilcox, played with frustratingly rational conservatism by Eddie Webster. The Young Men (identified in the program by number, although they do have names during the play), are, in turn, a bridge to the next generation.  Ironically, the two younger gay men representing the next generation are played by a single actor, Lukas D’Errico, a rising junior in the Theatre Department at VCU. D’Errico, as Adam, is the recipient of a tangible inheritance, in the form of fame and fortune, while as Leo, a homeless sex worker, he is the recipient of a spiritual inheritance. One of the more stunning moments of a play that is not lacking in spectacle occurs when D’Errico has to portray a life-changing chance meeting and conversation between his two characters. Kudos to D’Errico and director Lucien Restivo for this.

For those who may be interested, there are many comments both negative and positive, comparing The Inheritance with novelist E.M. Forster’s book Howard’s End and playwright Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. Forster’s novel Maurice, a tale of gay love is also prominently featured in The Inheritance. But I’m not focusing on literary comparisons – especially not with books I have not read. I am, however, fascinated with, entertained by, and enamored of  this story, written for these times, by this playwright – and his collaborating characters – played by this cast, under the direction of this director. And the bottom line for me is The Inheritance is a damned good story that left me and just about the entire audience weeping at the end of Part 2. It is one of those theatrical experiences that ends with an extended moment of silence because applause doesn’t quite seem appropriate.

Deejay Gray (narcissistic writer Toby Darling) and Adam Turck (kind-hearted, cultured activist Eric Glass) lead the cast of friends as a couple living an apparently wonderful life in a rent controlled apartment that has been in his family for three generations. [As a transplanted New Yorker of a certain age, I cannot assume that everyone knows what a rent controlled apartment is; it is one protected by an old law that prevented the rent from being raised to market rate, resulting in often elderly people paying rent less than half the going rate. No one EVER moved from a rent controlled apartment. Never. Ever. I had an uncle and aunt who lived in a rent controlled apartment in the Bronx who were paying $65 at a time when most people in their building were paying about $500.]

But, getting back to The Inheritance, things start to fall apart in the Darling/Glass household when Toby rises to success as an author and playwright. The pressure of success forces the fragile threads holding Toby’s past at bay to completely unravel. But the focus is not just on Eric and Toby. There are sometimes subliminal references to current events and to gay culture: the antiviral drug Truvada; gay bars; shared culture/appropriated culture (e.g., the assimilation of “yass qween”); trans youth; and “vengeful, murderous fanatics.”

Politically, The Inheritance is set during the time Obama was President of the United States and Clinton/Trump election was on the horizon. Tristan (Dwight Merritt), a Black, gay physician, plans to Emigrate to Canada. Eric is a liberal activist, while Henry is a closeted Republican – a family and household dynamic that became all too familiar to many in recent years.

Intellectually, some might find some of the characters and some of the conversation elitist and entitled. Tristan’s conversation is impassioned, logical, scientific, and generally intellectual; Eric invites Henry to a German Expressionist show at BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music), but these conversations and activities have a ring of authenticity and familiarity because they could have been recorded from my circle when I lived in Brooklyn in my thirties. Eric warns Henry that the show is four hours long, but has two intermissions and Part 1 ends with a prophetic meeting between Eric and the ghosts of his deceased mentor Walter’s friends. “Welcome home, Eric.”

“Your parents didn’t abandon you. They fled from you like the disease that you are.”   -Eric to Toby

We returned a week later to see Part 2. The intensity seemed to have been ramped up, as well as the urgency. During Part 1 I had almost dismissed Deejay Gray’s portrayal of Toby Darling as just Gray being themself, but in Part 2 as Toby descended in a world of sex, drugs, and alcohol – in a failed attempt to self-medicate and compensate for a horrible childhood – Gray’s acting skills appeared to ascend exponentially, and I was no longer watching Deejay Gray playing at acting but Toby Darling attempting to metaphorically self-immolate during a summer on Fire Island. There are more contemporary and local geographical references: the night Toby disappeared, he took the Acela (Amtrak express train) to Richmond, rented a car and drove to his childhood home in Alabama.

On the night we saw Part 2, many of the actors seemed to stumble over their lines during the first act of the evening, but by the second act they appeared to find their rhythm, and Part 2 was more powerful and emotionally moving than Part 1. At the end, Eric has finally found and accepted his calling. At the end, The Inheritance is not money or a house, but a shelter, a refuge, a place of healing. At the end, The Inheritance is not a prodigal son scrambling to claim what’s his, but a communal inheritance, and even though we’ve been given clues leading up to the final scene, it still strikes us as a surprise, because López, and Restivo, and this cast guided us to suspend our belief and take this journey with them, as good theatre should.

I absolutely loved Frank Foster’s impressive, multi-leveled library set. It was dark from wood stained by history and ghosts and perfectly manifested the private library of a book-lover’s dreams. Lucian Restivo’s sound design was subtle, but when you did notice it, it was personal and dramatic and timely. Raja Benz, the intimacy choreographer, handled the sex scenes with a boldness that was more raw than intimate, in stark contrast to the subtlety of Restivo’s sound design. Taken all together, the cast and creative team created something that felt like family, with its ups and downs, betrayals and recoveries, pain and healing. In short, it is a memorable theatrical experience that is well worth your time.

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

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THE INHERITANCE:

An Epic Achievement Generations in the Making

Inspired by the novel Howard’s End by E.M. Forster

Written by Matthew López

Directed by Lucien Restivo

CAST:

Young Man 3 ……………………………………………………..     Kasey Britt

Young Man 1 ……………………………………………………..     Lukas D’Errico

Young Man 5 ……………………………………………………..     Keegan Ferrell

Young Man 10 / Toby Darling …………………………….    Deejay Gray

Young Man 8 ……………………………………………………..     Kevin Kemler

Young Man 7 ………………………………………..…………..      Jacob LeBlanc

Young Man 6 …………………………………..………………..      Dwight Merritt

Margaret ………………………………………..…………………     Boomie Pedersen

Young Man 2 ……………………………………..……………..      TeDarryl Perry

Young Man 9 / Eric Glass ……………………………………     Adam Turck

Young Man 4 ……………………………………………………..     Joshua Tyler

E.M. Forster (“Morgan”) / Walter Poole ……….…..     William Vaughn

Henry Wilcox …………………………………………………..…     Eddie Webster

Understudies

For Young Man 7 and Young Man 9 / Eric Glass  = August Hundley

For Young Man 1 and Young Man 10 / Toby Darling = Keegan Ferrell

For Young Man 2 and Young Man 6 = Joshua Tyler

For Young Man 3, Young Man 4, and Young Man 5 = Brandon Duncan

For Young Man 8 = Kasey Britt

For Margaret = Stephanie Tippi Hart

CREATIVE TEAM:

Scenic Design                                      – Frank Foster

Costume Design                                  – Maggie McGrann

Lighting Design                                   – Michael Jarett

Sound Design                                      – Lucien Restivo

Properties Design                               – Tim Moehring

Intimacy Choreographer                    – Raja Benz

Hair & Make Up Design                      – Luke Newsome

Dialect Coach                                      – Louise Casini Hollis

Technical Director & Scenic Painter   – William Luther

Assistant Stage Manager                    – Christopher Smith

Assistant Director & Dramaturg         – Kendall Walker

Production Stage Manager                – Lauren Langston

PERFORMANCE SCHEDULE:

August 3 – September 17, 2022

Part 1 – Preview August 3, Opening August 5

Part 2 – Preview August 10, Opening August 12

Then alternating

Part 1 August 18, 20, 21, 26, September 1, 3, 4, 8, 9, 10, 14

Part 2 August 19, 25, 27, 28, September 2, 3, 7, 11, 15, 16, 17

Note that on September you can see Parts 1 & 2 on the same day.

Note that you must purchase tickets to Part 1 & Part 2 separately.

Promo Videos:

Photo Credits: John MacLellan

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SHE STOOPS TO CONQUER:

THE PLAY THAT USHERED IN A NEW WAVE OF HUMOR

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

By: Quill Theatre’s Richmond Shakespeare Festival

At: Agecroft Hall & Gardens, 4305 Sulgrave Road, Richmond, VA 23221

Performances: July 7-31, 2022

Ticket Prices: $20-$33

Info: (804) 353-4241 or quilltheatre.org

Dating back to 1773, She Stoops to Conquer has long been considered one of the most popular English-language comedies. Interestingly, it was a major theatrical success by a relatively unknown playwright – Oliver Goldsmith – and the play that set Director James Ricks, then a middle school student, ablaze with a passion for live theater. It is also credited with being the source of the phrase, “ask me no questions and I’ll tell you no lies.”

The plot is a familiar one – two affluent families, the Hardcastles and the Marlows, arrange to introduce their children, Kate and Charles, with an end goal of marriage. But Kate’s spoiled, immature older half-brother Tony Lumpkin sees this as an excellent opportunity to wreak havoc of monumental proportions. Tony likes to hang out with the masses at the local pub – at one point Mr. Hardcastle say of him, disparagingly, “the only school he’ll ever go to is the ale house.” And that is precisely where he is when he intercepts his sister’s would-be suitor and his traveling companion – at the local pub – as they search for the remotely-located country home of the Hardcastle family. Tony convinces Charles that the Hardcastle estate is an inn. There ensues a “comedy of errors,” and one fascinating result is that young Charles Marlow, who has been described as educated and shy, imperiously treats his unsuspecting hosts as servants, displaying a side Kate was not expecting. Kate, however, has her own agenda, and disguises herself as a barmaid to further explore the character of her would-be suitor.

Like any good sitcom, there are subplots and counter-plots to the main theme. These include a secret love-affair between Kate’s cousin Constance and young Marlow’s friend George Hastings, Mrs. Marlow’s attempts to hide an inheritance, and Tony’s attempts to avoid an arranged marriage of his own. This simplified synopsis does not do justice to the live production. She Stoops to Conquer is neither trite nor stereotypical. Supporting characters are as interesting as leading characters – establishing a sort of social equality that was far ahead of its time.

Debra Wagoner was delightful in the role of Mrs. Hardcastle, the master (or mistress) of much of the seemingly unintended humor. In one of the latter scenes, she gets her comeuppance when her own son (Josh Mullins as Tony Lumpkin) tricks her into thinking she is lost in the wilderness. Mark Persinger as her husband, proved to be a stark contrast to Wagoner’s character and brought his own unique style of humor. Hardcastle, you see, is decidedly old-fashioned, stuck in the past and despises anything modern, while his wife (a social climber) and daughter (a sensible young woman with a mind of her own) yearn for modern fashions and are attracted by the lure of the city. Wagoner proved to be a capable antagonist, while Katy Feldhahn (Kate) was more than capable of conquering.

Josh Mullins, as Mrs. Hardcastle’s spoiled son, happily wreaked havoc at every turn. Calie Bain as Kate and Tony’s cousin (and Tony’s reluctant intended) Constance Neville was solid and dependable in a somewhat predictable and unremarkable role while Ian Page played his role close to the edge and over the top as the socially challenged Young Marlow.

That being said, She Stoops to Conquer was a delightful summer divertissement, comedically ahead of its time, pleasant and fairly well-paced, with direction by James Ricks. It just wasn’t my cup of tea, but I would certainly give it a second chance in the future.

NOTE: Unfortunately, this summer’s Shakespeare Festival took the brunt of the summer storms. Both productions at Agecroft Hall were plagued by cancellations due to weather, and, alas, the closing production of She Stoops to Conquer was no exception.

She Stoops to Conquer

By Oliver Goldsmith

Directed by James Ricks

Cast

Mrs. Hardcastle……………  Debra Wagoner

Mr. Hardcastle ……………   Mark Persinger

Tony Lumpkin ……………   Josh Mullins

Kate Hardcastle ..…………   Katy Feldhahn

Constance Neville…………   Calie Bain

Young Marlow….…………   Ian Page

George Hastings.…………    William Cardozo

Sir Charles/Landlord ……  John Cauthen

Pimple/Betty ………………..   Els Dusek

Diggory/Fellow ..…………    Alex Chapman

Roger/Jeremy .……….……    Audrey Sparrow

Production Team

Director:  James Ricks

Stage Manager: Nata Moriconi

Costume Designer: Cora Delbridge

Lighting Designer: Andrew Bonniwell

Props Designer: Emily Hicks

Music Director: Jason Marks

Choreographer: Nicole Morris-Anastasi

Dialect Coach: Harrison Runion

Assistant Stage Manager: Hope Jewell

Stage Construction: Kevin Johnson

Production Manager: James  Ricks

Run Time: About 2 ½ hours with one intermission

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

———-

Photo Credits: David Parrish Photography

THE BARBER OF MOVILLE

Molly has a PLAN – if only she could remember what it was…

The US Premiere of a New Play by Ronan Carr

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: The Firehouse, 1609 West Broad St., Richmond, RVA 23220

Performances: June 23 – July 17, 2022

Ticket Prices: $30

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

THE BARBER OF MOVILLE is one of the most touching plays I’ve seen all season – perhaps ever. And by touching, I mean you will need tissues. As the play opens, Molly (Katie McCall) is preparing to open up the barber shop she took over after her father died. She heats water for tea – this is, after all, Ireland – and listens to opera as she prepares to receive her first customer, a Wednesday regular. Molly’s husband Dommo (David Bridgewater) soon comes into the shop from the attached living quarters. He’s carrying two suitcases and appears surprised to see that Molly is preparing to open shop. He gently explains that is has been several years since the regular customer Molly is expecting has come into the shop.

It doesn’t take long for the audience to figure out that Molly has Alzheimer’s and despite how put-together and fit she looks, her memory appears to be rapidly deteriorating. But the couple has a Plan. That explains the suitcases: a modern rolling bag and a clunky vintage number. They are about to leave their outdated little barber shop in Derry City, Ireland for an adventure in Zurich, Switzerland, where they plan to check into a fine hotel, attend the opera, and then take Molly to see the doctor. The well-planned trip, Molly’s idea actually, has been carefully documented in Molly’s little black book as Dommo calls it – or notebook, as she insists – and the couple even has a written contract spelling out all the details of their trip. That seems a little excessive, you say? Well, not when you understand that Dommo has a round-trip ticket and Molly doesn’t…

Before leaving, the obviously loving couple takes a trip down memory lane – a tricky proposition when one’s memory has become your arch enemy. There are warm and even humorous moments as we eavesdrop on the couple’s joyous if sometimes frustrating conversation. We hear of their youthful days in art college and learn that Molly prefers Bruce Springsteen while Dommo leans towards Meatloaf, but then there is also a darker side to their story. Molly’s Aunt Christine apparently also had the same disease that is eroding Molly’s sense of self and then there is the uneasy revelation of her beloved father’s true character.

Katie McCall and David Bridgewater inhabit these characters with dignity, with faith. They infuse them with warmth, humanity, and authenticity far beyond mere acting technique. Nathaniel Shaw’s directing is also gentle, yet refuses to hide any of the details of the mental, physical, and emotional toll that Alzheimer’s can wreck on an individual and on a relationship.  A clock on the wall of the barber shop has been set to run in real time and we can see the entire play unfold in 60 minutes. At the end of that 60 minutes, Dommo rips up the contract, and I wiped my eyes. By the end, it felt as if I had been watching something sacred and private, not just watching a play for entertainment. At the end, I could go home and leave Molly and Dommo behind, but that will not be an option for everyone who sees this play. Wisely, for this run Firehouse has partnered with the Alzheimer’s Association, and scheduled several post-show talkbacks.

Set in the present, in a little town that is stuck in the past, the ambience reflects the disarray of Molly’s mind. So does Chris Raintree’s scenic design: a two-chair barber shop complete with the traditional red, white and blue pole. But the left two-thirds of the set is orderly, if a bit dated, while the right third reflects chaos – a broken mirror, cracks in the wall. So many of the pieces fit together perfectly, from Molly’s long, loose sweater and comfortable shoes (thanks to Costume designer Colin Lowrey II) to McCall’s and Bridgewater’s soft Irish accents (kudos, once again, to Dialect Coach Erica Hughes). I have never once been disappointed or felt confused when I’ve seen Hughes listed in a program as the Dialect Coach.

THE BARBER OF MOVILLE is a beautiful play that makes me want to see more of Carr’s work. It runs at the Firehouse through July 17.

THE BARBER OF MOVILLE

The US Premiere of a New Play by Ronan Carr

Directed by Nathaniel Shaw

Cast:

Molly Green ……………….. Katie McCall

Dommo Green ……………….. David Bridgewater

Production Team:

Nathaniel Shaw – Director

Chris Raintree – Scenic Designer

Colin Lowrey II – Costume Designer

Todd Labelle – Lighting and Sound Designer

Erica Hughes – Dialect Coach

Dennis Bowe – Stage Manager

Bill Sigafoos – Photographer

Performance Schedule:

Thu June 23 @ 7:30pm (preview)

Fri June 24 @ 7:30pm (preview/post show talkback)

Sat June 25 @ 7:30pm (opening)

Fri July 1 @ 7:30pm (post show talkback)

Sat July 2 @ 7:30pm

Sun July 3 @ 3pm (post show talkback)

Fri July 8 @ 7:30pm

Sat July 9 @ 7:30pm

Sun July 10 @ 3pm (post show talkback)

Fri July 15 @ 7:30pm

Sat July 16 @ 7:30pm

Sun July 17 @ 3pm (post show talkback)

Tickets: $30

Run time: 60 minutes with no intermission

The Firehouse Theatre requires all audience members to be fully vaccinated and to wear face masks inside the Firehouse.

Photo Credits: Bill Sigafoos

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MAMMA MIA!

Will the Real Dad Please Stand Up!

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: June 24 – August 7, 2022

Ticket Prices: $36-$67

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

Some shows are meant to tell a story, some teach a lesson, some have a moral, and then there are those that are just pure and joyful entertainment. With its energetic and danceable music, familiar songs made popular in the 1970s by the group ABBA, and a stage filled with colorful costumes, throngs of dancers, and even dancing lights (thank you, Joe Doran), Mamma Mia! belongs to the latter category.

Things got off to a good start with a two or three minute Overture. The dancing lights, and upbeat music created a sense of anticipation, and then the company solidly delivered on its promise. After briefly introducing the main characters, Mamma Mia! jumped right into a large ensemble production of “Money, Money, Money” that soon led to the popular “Dancing Queen.” Not to be outdone by the women, the groomsmen and men of the ensemble danced out in flippers (swim fins) and a huge ensemble closed out the first act with a highly animated “Voulez Vous.” The second act was dominated by a series of duets with all the main characters taking turns and ended with a mini concert disguised as an extended encore. Some in the audience came prepared to party, with feather boas and animated applause. I hope the cast felt the positive energy. I know I laughed and smiled until my face hurt.

Background and Spoiler Alert

Most everyone has heard of Mamma Mia! but there are a few – like me – who had somehow never seen any version of it, neither the long-running Broadway hit show or the film series. Mamma Mia!, in spite of its Italian title, was created by a team of British artists and set on the fictitious Greek island of Kalokairi. There we find Sophie, the love-child of a former free-spirited hippie, Donna who once led a girl band, the Dynamos. Sophie is twenty and about to get married, something her mother cannot get on board with, not because she doesn’t like Sophie’s beloved, Sky, but because she doesn’t believe in marriage. To complicate things – because after all, without conflict there would be no plot – at this momentous occasion in her life, Sophie has discovered a deep need to know who her father is, so she scours her mother’s diary, uncovers three possible candidates, and without her mother’s knowledge or permission invites them all to her wedding in hopes of having her father walk her down the aisle for her traditional “white wedding.”

The cast is populated by familiar and new-to-Richmond/VaRep names and faces, and I loved them all. Hannah Jennison played bride-to-be Sophie with a credible grounded freshness. Emelie Faith Thompson gave Sophie’s mother Donna generous doses of sassiness and vulnerability and released her character’s personality in measured doses, as if well aware that too much Donna all at once was more than the average person could handle. Grey Garrett, as Donna’s friend Tanya, drew applause and cheers from the audience even before she spoke her first word, and like the glamorous, thrice-divorced auntie that most families seem to have – and who shows up to all the family celebrations – she was equally comfortable flirting with men half her age and offering wise guidance to her niece.

You are(not) the father!

Now, to return, even if only briefly, to the main plot, the three possible dads are Harry (Anthony CeFaia), Bill (Jason Krypos), and Sam (Alexander Sapp). Each had a special relationship with Donna, and Donna was never one to kiss and tell: dot, dot, dot (inside joke). Each also had a compelling reason to be revealed as Sophie’s father, but, driven by secrecy – both Donna’s reticence about her past and her own unauthorized inspection of her mother’s diary – Sophie had no DNA test results to clear up the mystery.

Good/Bad News Comes in Threes

Just as there were three possible dads, the women were cast in groups of three as well. Donna had two best friends, her former back-up singers, Tanya (Garrett) and Rosie (Catrina Brenae), and so did Sophie: Ali (Havy Nguyen) and Lisa (Jana Prentiss). Even Sky (Micah Cook on opening night; a character who was never as fully developed as the women) had two close friends, the flirtatious Pepper (Connor Macchi) and the more dependable Eddie (Johnny Reardon), both of whom worked at the taverna (a Greek restaurant, this one included a B&B) built and run by Sophie’s mother Donna (Thompson).

It comes as no surprise that the planned wedding does not go on as scheduled, but there is a surprise wedding (I guess you don’t need a license in Greece, at least not in musical Greece) as well as a surprise romance, which comes as no surprise.

Encore and Finale

One of the best parts of Mamma Mia!  is the encore and finale. I noticed Donna and a few others disappear during the final bows, and sure enough Donna and the Dynamos reappeared in brightly colored, ABBA-inspired costumes in red, orange, and yellow – exaggerated bell bottoms, futuristic extended shoulders, and blinged out to the max – only to be joined by the Dads wearing matching outfits and silver platform boots. The company sent the audience out dancing and singing along to “Mamma Mia!” “Dancing Queen,” and more. Mamma Mia! may or may not be perfect, but it is perfectly suited to these times. For some audience members, it was the first time out to a live show since “the time before,” and for others it was a much-needed release after months of disturbing breaking news reports. First produced onstage in 1999, the music is popular enough to span generations, popular enough to be familiar, and old enough to not stir up any controversy or salt any open wounds – it’s a feel-good musical through and through.

With a large cast and lots of choreography, the set was kept simple with a minimalist rotating design representing Donna’s taverna – which looked somewhat Spanish or Moorish to my untrained eye. Most of the visual effects were wisely focused on the costumes and lighting. The band was placed in the orchestra pit, instead of hidden behind the scrim, adding even more of a Broadway, big-stage feeling. The direction (Happy Mahaney), music (Sandy Dacus), and choreography (Ashleigh King) appeared to work together seamlessly, maintaining a fast pace, a high level of energy, and drawing the audience in willingly. A plot was hardly necessary, but there is an actual story-line, and a sub-plot that make sense and is easy to follow. Mamma Mia! hits the target as a summer musical.

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

MAMMA MIA!

Music and Lyrics by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus

and some songs with Stig Anderson

Book by Catherine Johnson

Originally conceived by Judy Crayner

Direction by Happy Mahaney

Cast

Sophie Sheridan          —–      Hannah Jennison

Ali                                  —–      Havy Nguyen

Lisa                              —–      Jana Prentiss

Donna Sheridan          —–      Emelie Faith Thompson

Tanya                          —–      Grey Garrett

Rosie                           —–      Catrina Brenae

Sky (through 6/26)    —–      Micah Cook

Sky (beginning 6/29) —–      Donathan Arnold

Pepper                         —–      Connor Macchi

Eddie                            —–      Johnny Reardon

Harry Bright                —–      Anthony CeFala

Bill Austin                    —–      Jason Kypros

Sam Carmichael         —–      Alexander Sapp

Ensemble                    —–      Mikaela Craft, Emily Dandridge, Paul Dandridge,

                                          Janiece Deveaux, Evelyn Dumeer, Jianna Hurt,

                                          Brandon McKinney, Chandler James Pettus, David Ramirez,

                                          Shannon Schilstra, Caleb Wade, Kayla Xavier

Creative Team

Scenic Design                          – Josafath Reynoso

Costume Design                      – Sue Griffin and Marcia Miller Hailey

Lighting Design                       – Joe Doran

Sound Design                           – Jacob Mishler

Stage Management                – Justin Janke

Music Direction                       – Sandy Dacus

Choreography                          – Ashleigh King

Direction                                  – Happy Mahaney

Band

Keyboard 1/Conductor       – Sandy Dacus

Keyboard 2                              – Leilani Fenick

Keyboard 3                              – David C. Robbins, Joy Weaver*

Keyboard 4                              – Ian Krauss

Bass                                          – Jeff Smick

Guitar 1                                    – Ed Drake

Guitar 2                                   – Hannon D. Lane, Rinatt Montoya*

Drums/Percussion              – Bentley Cobb, Joe Lubman*

*(substituting at select performances)

Run Time: 2 hours and 20 minutes 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

———-

Updated Virginia Rep COVID Guidelines

Masks, covering the face and nose, are required for all patrons while inside VaRep venues, lobbies and restrooms except when actively eating or drinking.

(Note: on opening night, the bar was open for the first time since the start of the pandemic, with canned and bottle drinks and snacks.)

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THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR

Real Housewives of the Elizabethan Period

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

By: Quill Theatre’s Richmond Shakespeare Festival

At: Agecroft Hall & Gardens, 4305 Sulgrave Road, Richmond, VA 23221

Performances: June 2-26, 2022

Ticket Prices: $20-$33

Info: (804) 353-4241 or quilltheatre.org

There’s something magical about sitting under the stars on a warm summer night watching live theater. But not even the perfect ambiance of Agecroft Hall & Gardens was enough to make The Merry Wives of Windsor work for me. Quill Theatre specializes in “classical theatre for the current world,” and often sets Shakespearean works in modern or contemporary settings, but while the cast of this production was dressed in some sort of modern attire, the style and location were uncertain. Yes, there was mention of the Thames, but there never seemed to be any anchoring element that locked in the physical location. And while this has been described as one of the bard’s most popular comedies, and the audience on June 23, the last weekend of the three-week run, was demonstrably enthusiastic, but it just didn’t connect for me.

The Synopsis:

When Sir John Falstaff falls on hard times, he devises a plan to seduce the wives of two wealthy merchants. He implements his plan by sending them identical letters declaring his love, by way of introduction, but of course they know each other, compare letters, and devise a scheme of their own to get revenge. What follows is a chaotic hodgepodge of Elizabethan slapstick humor, plot and counterplot, and subplots involving a cast of characters I never could seem to keep straight.

Humorous Moments:

The play opens with a rendition of  Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain,” and concludes with The Spice Girls’ “Wannabe,” (I’ll tell you what I want, what I really really want). Cast members are dressed in contemporary attire of an indeterminate style and time period and a party guest arrives bearing a box of wine. Mistress Quickly (Erica Hughes, who never fails to leave a positive impression with her physical presence and comedic timing) plays maidservant to Dr. Caius and acts as a messenger taking not one, not two, but three sides, and pocketing a little something on the side from each hopeful lover. In this version she apparently accepts these tips via Venmo or CashApp. Falstaff (Steve Holloway) makes one escape from a jealous husband via laundry bin, and gets dumped into the Thames River for his trouble. On another occasion he makes his escape dressed as an older woman, and gets soundly beaten for his efforts. For all his trouble, he unfortunately remained an unsympathetic character.  

The participants in a duel, Dr. Caius/Robin Vogel and the Parson, were both misdirected to erroneous locations: one shows up with a sword and the other with a golf club. One jealous husband, Master Ford (Robby Gotschall), disguises himself – by donning a baseball cap – and two parents each engineer a secret wedding for their daughter to a man she has no interest in marrying. Anne (Robin Vogel) ditches both unwanted suitors (Dr. Caius and Slender (Kellan Oelkers) for her own secret lover Fenton (also Oelkers). Her parents’ plans are foiled, leaving Dr. Caius and Slender finding they were both tricked into marrying boys disguised to look like Anne in the darkness of the woods. So, The Merry Wives of Windsor is not lacking in humor, but the presentation and timing were somewhat disappointing.

Act 1 was challenged by chatty birds flying overhead and spotty microphones – especially for the supporting characters, while Act 2 was infiltrated by a passing train or two. One of these three distractions was controllable. Sir John Falstaff (Steve Holloway) seemed to be less than committed to his role; while the dynamics between Mistress Page (Donna Marie-Miller) and Mistress Ford (Amber James) was refreshing. My favorite character was a supporting role: Nicole Morris-Anastasi (who also choreographed the show’s lively hijinks) played the Host of the Garter Inn as an animated hip hop character.

I usually see a show during the first week of a run, but due to out of town travel and weather conditions that resulted in my first two reservations getting rained out, I didn’t see The Merry Wives of Windsor until the final weekend – after the director and cast had had time to iron out the wrinkles. Only they weren’t ironed out. And I felt disappointed. Fortunately for the company of The Merry Wives of Windsor, the audience – enjoying the show and weather after a rainy day – had a much more positive take than I.

The Merry Wives of Windsor

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Aili Huber

Cast

Mistress Ford  ……………    Amber James

Mistress Page  ……………    Donna Marie-Miller

Master Ford    ……………    Robby Gotschall

Master Page    ……………    Bryan Austin

Sir John Falstaff  …………    Steve Holloway

Mistress Quickly …………    Erica Hughes

Host    .………………………….   Nicole Morris-Anastasi

Anne/Dr. Caius …………….   Robin Vogel

Slender/Fenton/Nym ….   Kellan Oelkers

Bardolph/Shallow …………  Liam Storm

Pistol/Sir Hugh ………….…  Mikaela Hanrahan

Rugby .…………………….…….  Kit Withers

John     …………………………..  Jasmine Khatcheressian

Robin  …………………………..  Ellie Irwin

Production Team

Director:  Aili Huber

Choreographer: Nicole Morris-Anastasi

Stage Manager: Jennipher Murphy-Whitcomb

Assistant Stage Managers:  Jay Murray & Carissa Lanstra

Lighting Designer: Andrew Bonniwell

Stage Construction: Kevin Johnson

Props Designer: Emily Hicks

Production Manager: James Ricks

Run Time: About 2 ½ hours with one intermission

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

———-

Photo Credits: David Parrish Photography

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