THE 39 STEPS: See my review in Fifty Plus magazine (link below)

* My review of The 39 Steps at VaRep Hanover Tavern will appear in Fifty Plus magazine on March 9.

Here’s a link the review, found on pages 23 & 25 of the March Edition of Fifty Plus magazine:

Richmond Fifty Plus

The 39 Steps_Fifty Plus Magazine

THE CAKE: A Slice of Life

New Show March 7 at 2 pm! Most Other Performances Almost SOLD OUT!  Tickets on Sale at 10 am Monday, February 24!

THE CAKE: A Ripped-From-the-Headlines Play

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

Richmond Triangle Players – An Acts of Faith production

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

Performances: February 12 – March 7,  2020

Ticket Prices: $10-35

Info: (804) 346-8113 or rtriangle.org

Stepping into Della’s North Carolina bakery shop is like stepping back in time. In an opening monologue, Della sings the praises of real butter and sugar and tells us that cake made from a box is like Scotch tape dipped in Splenda®.

Della has a lot going on in her life right now. She’s living her dream of being a contestant on The Great American Baking Show when along comes Jen, her goddaughter, who announces her impending wedding and she wants Della, her late mother’s best friend, to bake her wedding cake. Della and her husband Tim, a plumber, are stunned to find that Jen plans to marry another woman – a black woman journalist. That step back in time is multi-faceted; it is physical, geographical, social, and political.

The strong cast compellingly engages in difficult discussions about topics that are emotionally laden, faith testing, and politically controversial. Terri Moore as Della, Nicole Morris-Anastasi as Jen, Zakiyyah Jackson as Jen’s partner Macy, and Gordon Bass as Della’s husband Tim are all more than up to the task. The audience is skillfully exposed to the different points of view and nuances of each character.

And this is where Terri Moore – who recently delighted audiences as Patsy Cline’s number one fan, Louise Seger, at Hanover Tavern – pulled out all the stops. Della convincingly struggled to balance her Christian faith with her love for Jen – even searching the scriptures to see if she really understood the word of God.

In turning to her husband Tim to talk through her dilemma, Della uncovered her own marital discontent and in the second half of the one-act play (running nearly two hours with no intermission) she touchingly, hilariously, yet unsuccessfully tried to spice things up by seducing Tim. The failed seduction involved soft lights, mood music, and whipped cream. Tim later countered in a hilarious scene that will forever make you look differently at mashed potatoes.

Jen breezed into her childhood town with unresolved issues surrounding her life as a gay woman and her need to earn the approval of her late mother. Significant discussions about difficult topics that are both emotionally charged and faith-challenging occur between Della and Tim and between Jen and Macy. Macy is confident and pragmatic; she’s not really interested in anyone else’s opinion, and the most difficult thing for the audience to accept may be how Macy and the self-deprecating Jen ever fell in love with each other, much less sustain a viable relationship.

The thing is that we are able to empathize with both Della and Jen. I credit this to the combined creative ability and social intelligence of Moore, director Dawn A.  Westbrook, and playwright Bekah Brunstetter (who is also a writer for the hit television show This Is Us). The Cake provides a template for how we might all deal with the difficult topics: gender; race; marriage and more. The cast of four is excellent, with Moore and Jackson’s characters standing out as more fully developed. The Cake is a charming play, made even more delightful thanks to Terri Moore.

I think I was enamored of this play because we see Della, Jen, Macy, and Tim as people, not as issues. Westbrook’s direction is gentle, and the humor flows freely and easily shares the stage with the serious topics, keeping the audience engaged.

This slice of life play is based loosely on the true story of a Colorado baker whose refusal to bake a wedding cake for two gay men went all the way to the Supreme Court. (The Court ruled in favor of the baker, based on his religious beliefs.)

David Allan Ballas designed an inviting bake shop that cleverly converts to two bedrooms with the aid of two murphy-style beds hidden behind the shop’s shelving. The Robert B. Moss Theatre lobby has also been decorated with a variety of tempting-looking cakes and sweets. Sheamus Coleman’s sound design includes very appropriate background music, while Michael Jarett’s lighting and Sheila Russ’ costumes supported the overall look and theme and Donna Coghill’s dialect coaching helped the North Carolina accent roll gently off the tongues of Della, Jen, and Tim.

 

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: John MacLellan

TheCake_031
Terri Moore is Della, a well-known Southern bakery owner who is faced with a dilemma that will change her life in “The Cake,” a new comedy by Bekah Brunstetter (“This is Us”), directed by Dawn A. Westbrook. Playing at RTP’s Robert B. Moss Theatre through March 7.
TheCake_337
Nicole Morris-Anastasi (left) and Zakiyyah Jackson as Jen and Macy, a couple in a bit of a crisis running up to their wedding in “The Cake,” a new play by Bekah Brunstetter (“This is Us”), directed by Dawn A. Westbrook. Playing at RTP’s Robert B. Moss Theatre through March 7

 

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RICHMOND BALLET’S “SWAN LAKE”: Happily Ever After

Richmond Ballet’s SWAN LAKE: A Valentine Treat

A Dance Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: The Carpenter Theatre at Dominion Energy Center, 600 E. Grace St., RVA 23219

Performances: February 14-16 @ 7:00pm; February 15 & 16 @2:00pm

Ticket Prices: $25 – $125

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

It’s hard to believe that when the ballet Swan Lake debuted at Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre in 1877 that it was not well received. Times change, and with it, people’s taste and expectations. After many adaptations and variations – the current production has choreography by Nicholas Beriozoff  after Marius Petipa, Lev Ivanov, and Alexander Gorsky, with restaging and additional choreography by Richmond Ballet’s Malcolm Burn. Petipa and Ivanov choreographed the 1895 revival; the original choreography was by Julius Reisinger. One constant in the evolution of Swan Lake has been Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s beautiful score, with all its drama and the familiar leitmotif, “The Swan’s Theme.” https://youtu.be/9cNQFB0TDfY

In addition to the music, Swan Lake is a visual treat with its three major sets: the lakeshore, the area outside the castle where Prince Siegfried begins his birthday celebration, and the magnificent castle ballroom. Credit for the opulent set and costume design goes to Jens-Jacob Worsaae.

Two dancers with the Chinese National Ballet, a company the Richmond Ballet has developed a relationship with overtime, were scheduled to dance the lead roles of Odette/Odile and Prince Siegfried but plans were changed due to fears about the coronavirus, which prevented Xu Yan and Li Wentao from traveling to the US.

The lead roles were performed by Sarah Lane and Cory Stearns, both principal dancers  with American Ballet Theatre. The chemistry between the guests and the Richmond Ballet seemed organic, and both Lane and Stearns seemed to derive as much joy from performing their roles as the opening night audience on Valentine’s Day. There were audible ooh’s and ah’s each time the curtain rose, and extended applause for the guest artists as well as for the soloists.

Trevor Davis was pure joy as the Court Jester and Mate Szentes made such an impression as von Rothbart, the evil sorcerer, that people actually booed when he took his final bows. The most memorable dancing occurred in the ballroom scene in the third act and included a “Czardas” led by Melissa Frain and Ira White, a “Neapolitan” duet performed by Elena Bello and Marty Davis, and a “Russian Dance” that drew enthusiastic applause for Eri Nishihara. The Black Swan “Grand Pas de Deux” also occurs in the third act and Lane and Stearns did not disappoint. Their performance was elegant and enthusiastic.

BTW- While I understand the convention of applause after the pas de deux (and various displays of virtuosity), the dancers’ mid-performance bows break the flow of the dance and interrupt my enjoyment of the illusion the cast has worked so hard to create.

I always look forward to the big, classic ballet productions the Richmond Ballet offers each year around Valentine’s Day – except when the ballet is Romeo and Juliet because the I find the deaths of the young lovers depressing. Swan Lake has several versions – and endings – and I was happy to find that one of the happier endings was selected.

To clarify, Swan Lake tells the story of the beautiful Princess Odette who is turned into a swan by the evil sorcerer von Rothbart. (No explanation is ever offered, except that without this turn of events, there would be no ballet.) Prince Siegfried is celebrating his birthday with friends and his mother appears to tell him it’s time to get married and start adulting. This sends him into a depression, which he and his friends resolve to address with a hunting trip. Of course, he encounters Odette, who is allowed to appear in human form an hour each day, at midnight.

Prince Siegfried falls in love with Odette and vows to break the evil spell on her with love. Von Rothbart will have none of this and shows up at the castle where the Queen Mother has assembled a half dozen prospective brides for her son to choose from – only von Rothbart brings his own daughter, Odile, disguised as Odette. Prince Siegfried falls for Odile and when he finds out he has been deceived; he rushes to the lake to reassure Odette of his love. This is where some versions have the lovers commit suicide, usually by drowning in the lake, but in this version Prince Siegfried battles the evil sorcerer von Rothbart (with some lovely lightening-like lighting effects), finally overcoming the spell and releasing Odette and the other captive swans from the evil spell. Odette returns to her human form, and she and Prince Siegfried live happily ever after.

Sometimes happily ever after is just what is needed. Swan Lake allows us to linger in the world of make-believe for nearly three hours (with two intermissions). It is a delight for the eyes, the ears, and the soul.

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: Sarah Ferguson

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STARR FOSTER DANCE: In Rest and Sleep (a dance about love, loss, reflection, revenge & unlimited chances)

STARR FOSTER DANCE: In Rest and Sleep

A Dance Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: TheatreLAB The Basement, 300 East Broad Street, RVA 23219

Performances: February 13-15: Thursday & Friday @7:30pm; Saturday @3:00pm, 5:00pm & 7:30pm

Ticket Prices: $15; $25 on Friday (includes post-performance reception)

Info: (804) 304-1523, https://m.bpt.me/event/4497856

Starrene Foster’s new work, In Rest and Sleep, begins with a bit of audience participation. It would be impossible to describe my experience without giving it away, so *SPOILER ALERT*: If you plan to see it, and want to be surprised, skip the italicized paragraph.

 

*SPOILER ALERT*

The audience is held in the lobby and bar area until it is time to enter the performing space. Latecomers will not be seated. As we prepared to enter the space, we were each given a white calla lily – a symbol of holiness and purity, but also of death and resurrection; it is a popular Easter flower. This made me think of a funeral, a feeling that was reinforced as we processed through a black curtain to the sounds of somber music. Once inside the space, we observed three dancers laying face up on the floor and a fourth sitting on a tree stump in solemn contemplation. We were instructed to toss our flowers on the dancers.

*END OF SPOILER ALERT *

 

In Rest and Sleep is described as a dance about love, loss, and reflection. It is also described, in different settings, as a dance about revenge or a dance about unlimited chances. It is all of that, and more. After the show – which runs about 40 minutes, with no intermission – my theater companion asked what I thought it meant, and my response was, whatever you needed it to mean. This is the kind of work that, after the applause, leave the audience momentarily silent, speechless, mute and alone in the midst of a crowd.

I have, on more than one occasion, remarked to Foster that I found her work dark – not just emotionally, but physically, due to the subdued lighting she and her lighting designers prefer. Yet even though In Rest and Sleep may be thought of as a dark topic, the lighting, while subdued, is not very dark at all. In fact, there are moments when Michael Jarett illuminates the space with bright flashes, like shards of enlightenment. The set, designed by Foster and Brad Lebahn, consists of two rectangles of artificial grass and a tree stump. At the beginning and again later, one dancer sits quietly on the stump carefully observing the other dancers.

The combination of stillness that feels like waiting is juxtaposed with violent reaching, grabbing pulling, dragging, and writhing. There are supportive lifts and gentle touches, but there are also kicks and shoves and intertwining phrases of movement that create a perceptible level of anxiety, of unease.

Two distinct moments in time stood out for me, capturing my attention and stirring my emotions. In a duet, one dancer stood off to the side with her right arm extended, fingers trembling in a repetitive pattern while her partner, some distance away, explored the other side of the space until the two eventually tumbled together. While this interaction was unfolding, a third dancer sat on the tree stump watching intently, and the fourth lay curled at her feet on a patch of grass – resting, or asleep. I saw myself in the dancer with the outstretched arm – reaching, disconnected – as well as in the dancer who sat intently observing, waiting for her season to become involved. Others may have connected with the dancer who was moving through space, or with the sleeping figure.

The other moment that caused me to hold my breath occurred when the four dancers ran, one after the other, to a patch of grass, dropped, rolled to center stage, got up, and repeated the pattern several times! The movement was mesmerizing, but the energy emitted was like a volcano erupting. It was over all too soon.

In Rest and Sleep,  a premiere by Starrene Foster, has only five performances this weekend, and while the audience is seated on three sides of the space, there is limited seating. Everyone is up close to the action – and the resting. On Thursday and Saturday at 3:00pm the performers are Fran Beaumont, Caitlin Cunningham, Shelby Gratz Paez, and Mattie Rogers. On Friday and on Saturday at 5:00pm and 7:30pm the cast is Kylie Hester, Erick Hooten, Anna Lebahn, and Mattie Rogers.

The RVA theater community has an Acts of Faith festival – if dance were included, In Rest and Sleep would be a prime candidate for Acts of Faith, along with the accompanying talk-back opportunities for the audience to discuss works with the cast and creative team.

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: Starr Foster Dance by Douglas Hayes. NOTE: Production photos were not yet available at the time of posting.

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BLOOMSDAY: An Irish-Time-Travel Love Story

BLOOMSDAY: Time Shifting & Love

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: CAT Theatre, 419 No. Wilkinson Rd., RVA 23227

Performances: February 7-22, 2020

Ticket Prices: $25 Adults; $20 RVATA Members; $15 Students

Info: (804) 804-262-9760 or cat@cattheatre.com

I was not familiar with Steven Dietz’ play, Bloomsday. Published in 2017, the four-person play is  set in Dublin, Ireland and shifts between the present and 35 years earlier. The four actors play two characters – the present-day Cait and Robert and their younger embodiments, Caithleen and Robbie. Robert also acts as narrator.

Bloomsday is a tale of love, regrets, and “what ifs.” Robbie, a young American tourist on the rebound from a breakup, joins a walking tour of James Joyce’s Dublin – following the path of Leopold Bloom in Joyce’s novel, Ulysses. The tour guide, an attractive young Irish woman named Caithleen, has a group of 12 tourists ready to explore the streets of James Joyce’s novel as seen through the eyes of Leopold Bloom, but she needs another person so the tour group will not have 13 people (including herself). Robbie joins the group, then selfishly encourages the other tourists to abandon the tour (there are several pubs along the route) so he can have Caithleen all to himself – taking numerous pictures of her.

The two spend one day together. Robbie returns to Seattle where he obsesses over Caithleen until finally, 35 years later, he returns. What follows is a surreal tale in which it is sometimes impossible to tell what really happened and what is just a memory. Cait and young Cathleen, Robert and young Robbie all interact with one another, sometimes sharing the same space – which means time has warped so that the characters come face-to-face with their older/younger selves.

It’s an interesting device that forces the audience to work to keep up with these parallel universes. At one point Mike Fletcher (Robert) and Jordan Stroud (Robbie) are dressed alike. But Robbie’s messy hair and untucked shirt earn him a reprimand from his older self. The first encounter between Caithleen (Lydia MacFarlane Watt) and Cait (Martha Kelly) in Act 1 confirms for the audience, that time is, in fact, malleable in this play.

Mike Fletcher is the dominant figure. After all, his character Robert is both narrator and the one who travels back to Ireland. The interaction between Fletcher and Jordan Stroud, who plays his younger self, is interesting. It has the tension and contentiousness of a father-son relationship. I never got quite as strong an impression from Martha Kelley’s character. The mature Cait seems to have succumbed to the same unnamed mental illness that plagued her mother. Cait seems more contemplative and rational than the others, but I never got a real sense of who she was.

Lydia MacFarlane Watt was well cast as Caithleen, alternating between self-assured  confidence, self-righteous indignation, and anxious introspection. Alison Eichler has dressed Caithleen in sensible shoes, a tulip shaped skirt, white shirt and print sweater, with a large leather bag across her shoulder. The look – along with Watt’s attitude) is perfect. Eichler also created a wonderful costume with a flamboyant feather festooned had for Cait, in honor of Bloomsday – a celebration of James Joyce’s Ulysses that takes place on June 16 and includes dressing up in period clothing.

Mike Fletcher and Joe Bly designed the set – a row of shop fronts, including a chemist, a pub, and a café – pasting yellowed book pages on the walls, floor, and steps. (I got up close to check to see if the pages were from James Joyce’s Ulysses but none of them were. Jimmy Mello created the sound design, which included some appropriate ambient sounds, while Jason Lucas’ lighting attempted – sometimes successfully, sometimes not – to emphasize the shifting.

While I found Bloomsday to be a hidden gem of a play, there were some areas that seemed to drag; the show runs only about 90 minutes with one intermission but I there is very little action and after a while the lilting rhythm of Irish accents (mostly good ones, that are easy to understand used by all but Robbie who is American). Mello and his cast made good use of the space, using the aisles as well as the stage. But it is the tenderness and unanswered or unanswerable questions that make this play special. An Acts of Faith Festival offering, Sunday’s nearly sold-out matinee was followed by the first of two audience talkbacks -the second will be Sunday, February 16.

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: Daryll Morgan Studios

 

FENCES: “Who the hell say I got to like you?”

FENCES: “Some people build fences to keep people out…and other people build fences to keep people in.”

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: The November Theatre Marjorie Arenstein Stage

Performances: February 7 – March 1, 2020 (Previews February 5 & 6)

Ticket Prices: $36-54

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

One of the better known plays of African-American playwright August Wilson, and one in his Pittsburgh Series of ten plays, each set in a different decade, Fences (1985) is set in the 1950s and explores family, racism, identity, generational curses, honor, salvation, and ultimately love through the eyes of the Maxson family. There is so much rich material packed into this one play it is no wonder it runs nearly three hours but playwright Wilson and director Tawnya Pettiford-Wates (Dr. T) seem to share a vision and are committed to letting the story unfold in its own time. Dr. T. appears to confirm this in her director’s note, where she writes:

August Wilson is a poet/storyteller and the script for Fences is like jazz, blues

And gospel music in spoken language. Fences captures in the text and in a

Variety of voices the polyphonic multisyllabic rhythms of Black culture almost

As if it were a musical score played by a classic jazz quartet.

Troy Maxson, the family patriarch, was once a stellar Negro Leagues baseball player but the play finds him supporting his family as a trash collector and agitating the segregated sanitation department that allows only white workers to drive, leaving the dirtier work and heavy lifting to the Negro workers. James Craven wears the mantle of Troy Mason with authority. He brings a fierce but broken power to the role that is carefully nuanced. We see the passion and defeat, the sense of responsibility and loss that drives this man. Like people we know, he is flawed, but still worthy of respect; we begin to understand him but cannot bring ourselves to like him.

For some, it may be impossible to understand the kind of love his wife, Rose, holds – a love that holds on even at the cost of giving up her own hopes and dreams? ***SPOILER ALERT*** Could you, would you be able to humble yourself yet at the same time empower yourself to be able to not only raise but also to genuinely love the child of your husband’s deceased lover? Lisa Strum steps into Roses shoes with a quiet dignity that many of us can only strive for, but most will never achieve. When she finally lashes out, I found myself exhaling a breath I was not aware I had been holding.

Both Craven and Strum are making their VaRep debuts in Fences. Both were well-chosen for their roles.

The cast also includes the versatile Jamar Jones as Cory, the teen-aged son of Rose and Troy. Cory’s dreams of becoming a football player are dashed by his father, still bitter at not being able to move from the Negro Leagues to Major League Baseball. Rose tries to intercede in the rift this causes in the father-son relationship, but it takes years, during which Cory leaves home only to return for his father’s funeral, before healing can begin.

Joe Marshall plays Lyons, Troy’s eldest son from a previous marriage or relationship. When we first meet Lyons, he is trying to borrow money from his father, who belittles him for trying to make a living as a musician instead of taking on a steady job. As the plot unfolds, we begin to see other sides of Lyons. In addition to providing some comic relief to the thick tension, he also acts as a buffer between the family members who share Troy’s household. Home ownership is a source of pride for Troy, who doesn’t have much else to be proud of, aside from his wife and children.

Troy’s best friend and coworker Bono, played by J. Ron Fleming, Jr., has known Troy longer than anyone else in his life at this point, and tries, futilely, to keep him on track. Bono is a supporting role that provides key information to the advancement of the story – and to the audience’s understanding of Troy’s motives. Bono is as much family as anyone related by blood.

My favorite supporting character is, hands down, Gabriel. Troy’s brother returned from military service having sustained a head injury that left him with a metal plate in his head and the belief – or ability – to talk to St. Peter and communicate with the unseen. He gets arrested for disturbing the peace, but he says he was chasing the hellhounds that seem to plague him. There are some possibly shady dealings concerning how Troy has handled Gabriel’s modest settlement from the government, which makes us love Gabriel even more, while casting even more shade on Troy. But the final moments of the play belong to Gabriel, who arrives for his brother’s funeral with his battered trumpet and tries desperately to blow a note, perhaps a reveille, so St. Peter will open the gates. But he can barely force a tiny bleat from the battle weary instrument and raises his hand in the air and begins to sing in a warm voice that forced an unwilling tear from my eye.

Finally, a word of encouragement for little Milani Hopkins who plays Raynell, the little sister of Cory and Lyons. Hopkins shares a sweet duet, dancing and singing with her big brother Cory who left soon after she was born. Their connection is immediate and authentic, and Little Miss Hopkins even gets a brief solo.

I don’t usually notice sound design, but Nicholas Seaver has created a beautifully organic sound design that includes a train and barking dogs that possibly embody the imaginary hellhounds that Gabriel hears in his head. Nia Safarr Banks’ costumes are period appropriate and in line with the financial status of the family. But Josafath Reynoso’s set deserves special recognition. The play takes place in the backyard and alley of the Maxson home, and Reynoso has designed the rear of the Maxson’s modest brick home – a home that has seen better days. There is a porch that is shallow and sadly lacking in railings, a clothesline, a row of trash cans, and the fence of the title. The fence is only partially built at the beginning of the play, but it is complete by the end – another physical embodiment of one of the plays allegorical themes. And then there is the tree – a real, full-sized tree, perhaps 15-20 feet high, standing downstage right (the audience’s left). Andrew Bonniwell’s lighting creates changes of day and season, with one powerful effect when Troy stands frozen under that huge tree, baseball bat raised, and again at the end when rays of light seem to break through unseen clouds and shine rays of sunshine and spiritual enlightenment on the family gathered to pay homage to Troy.

Fences is a story told by a master storyteller (and that word “storyteller” includes the playwright, the director, and the cast). It skillfully guides the audience through a plethora of emotions, but I never felt manipulated, and it shines a revelatory light onto the lives of black families in a particular time and place in America. One couldn’t ask for anything more. Of course, Fences  is a part of the Acts of Faith theatre festival.

Here’s a link to the Fences Study Guide: https://va-rep.org/show_fences_study_guide.pdf

And here’s a link to a short video preview with the director, Dr. T.: https://youtu.be/EM3bFoLaynY

 

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

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Photo Credits: Photos not available at the time this review was written. Photos will be added as they are made available.

 

DADDY LONG LEGS: A Period Gem

DADDY LONG LEGS: Life, Longing & Love at the Turn of the 20th Century

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: Swift Creek Mill Theatre, 17401 Jefferson Davis Highway, Colonial Heights, VA 23834

Performances: January 25 – February 22, 2020

Ticket Prices: $40 Theater only; $35 Seniors, Military & Students; $18 Dinner

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

Daddy Long Legs is a sweetly unconventional musical and love story, with music and lyrics by Paul Gordon (Jane Eyre) and book by John Caird (Jane Eyre, Les Misérables). As a musical Daddy Long Legs is unusual in that it has only two characters and the songs are not catchy show tunes but rather poignant ballads, solos that carry the narrative, and harmonious duets that allow the two characters to interact. Further, for most of the two-act play the story is moved forward through the epistolary device of alternately having Jerusha read from letters she writes to her benefactor, “Mr. Smith,” and “Mr. Smith” reading the letters in the privacy of his posh centerstage study.

Rachel Marrs (who recently appeared in The Mystery of Edwin Drood and Bright Star at the Mill) plays Jerusha Abbott, the oldest orphan in the John Grier Home. Jerusha is skilled at writing essays and catches the attention of one of the asylum’s trustees, Jervis Pendleton. Under the pseudonym of Mr. John Smith, Jervis, makes Jerusha an offer she can’t refuse; he offers to send her to college for four years, room, board, and a monthly allowance, on the condition that she write him a monthly letter providing details of her progress. Jervis is played by Matt Polson (Sweeney Todd/TheatreLAB, River Ditty/VARep). He is given the nickname Daddy Long Legs, the name of the 1912 novel on which this 2009 musical is based, because his elongated shadow, that Jerusha sees outside the window of the orphanage, reminds her of a spider.

Marrs’ voice is sweet and nuanced. Over the course of the four years of the play we not only hear her development in words both spoken and sung, but we see it visually in Maura Lynch Cravey’s lovely period appropriate costumes that range from a simple work pinafore to neat skirts with high necked white blouses to sleek business suits with ruffled blouses. Jerusha’s hairstyles also reflect the passage of time. Marrs is vulnerable yet fiery, making some ahead-of-the-times statements in support of women’s rights and offering an unconventional, fresh perspective on everything from life to love to literature.

Polson’s character is a tougher nut to crack. He’s the lead character and the play bears his name. But he is jealous and manipulative and deceitful. While he means well, after all, it isn’t everyday someone sends a stranger to college, all expenses paid, no strings attached. But Jervis is led to examine his own character and motives mid-way through the second act in the song “Charity,” where he questions the effects of charity on the giver and the recipient. Symbolically, Cravey has Polson strapped into an unforgiving three-piece suit – the vest of which looks more like a straight jacket than any suit I’ve ever seen. Jervis is harder to like than Jerusha, adding depth to the character and tension to the play.

The music and lyrics are sometimes gentle, sometimes warm and fuzzy, and sometimes soaring. The three-piece orchestra, under the musical direction of Paul Deiss, is partially hidden behind a scrim stage right (the audience’s left), so their presence is palpable but not intrusive. Artistic director Tom Width has invited guest director Steve Perigard to delicately guide this duo through their passionate yet halting journey. Guest designer Mercedes Schaum has designed a delightfully satisfying period set, with Jervis’s study commanding centerstage. There’s a sturdy desk, well-stocked bookcases, a solid classic typewriter, a classic candlestick telephone, and a beautifully ornate desk chair with what appears to be a woven wicker back. Other areas, from the orphanage to Jerusha’s dorm room, a rural mountain and the farm where Jerusha spends summers with her college roommates, are defined by a few large trunks, a small table and chairs, and one multi-purpose piece of storage furniture that holds props and Jerusha’s ballgown and provides a place to sit or stand as the action requires. Joe Doran’s mostly subtle lighting enhances the early 20th century ambience with soft illumination and welcoming shadows.

There were a few minutes, mostly in the first act, that seemed to drag a bit, but Marrs and Polson made these moments tolerable. (I think the slow moments were due to the script, rather than Marrs, Polson, or director Perigard.) Polson also manages to avoid the very real possibility of coming across as a predator – after all, he’s a wealthy man with a lot of money and Jerusha lives during an era when women did not have the right to vote and some considered a college education wasted on a woman. Yet these two manage to all in love because of her intellect and wit, rather than in spite of it. This along makes Daddy Long Legs remarkable. With its multi-dimensional characters, pleasant music, beautiful vocals, and visual appeal, Daddy Long Legs is quite a delightful evening. Even my most frequent theater companion, Albert, who rarely has much to say about the many shows we see together, enthusiastically declared Daddy Long Legs one of the best and most enjoyable shows he’s ever seen at The Mill.

BTW: I was curious, and you might be, too. The name Jerusha is a Hebrew name that means “her husband’s possession.”

 

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: Robyn O’Neill Photography

 

ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD: A Play That Balances the Philosophical and the Mundane

ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD: “Actors Are the Opposite of People”

Performances: January 26 – February 16, 2020

Ticket Prices: $35 Adults; $30 Seniors; $25 RVATA; $20 Students (with ID)

Info: (804) 340-1405 or quilltheatre.org

The night before attending Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead a well-meaning acquaintance winkingly advised me to be prepared to spend three hours in the theater. A visiting family member from out of town warily declined to accompany me. Quill artistic director James Ricks has wanted to present Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead since he was in high school. He, like many others, are intrigued by the word play and the Calvinist philosophy and theology with its perspective on human mortality.

From hearing the comments of others, it would seem to be a play one either loves or hates. But my own experience was somewhere in the middle. I enjoyed the wordplay, I appreciated the humor – both the slapstick, physical kind and the deeper, more thoughtful kind, but I also, like my aforementioned acquaintance, felt that perhaps some sort of warning or preparation – not spoilers but at least a nod to the nature of this work – needs to be given to potential attendees who are not familiar with the play.

Two minor characters from Shakespeare’s Hamlet interact in a setting redolent of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. The puns and jokes and wordplay are a non-stop delight, and that along with the delightful interaction between Tyler Stevens (Rosencrantz) and Adam Turck (Guildenstern) makes the three hours (with two short intermissions) pass more quickly than one might expect. But make no mistake; it’s all about the words and the ideas. Jane Raine’s simple set consists of a thrust stage, three beams (two vertical, one horizontal), three steps across the upstage area, a few wooden boxes and barrels in the third act, and some hanging lights. When Rosencrantz wants to give Guildenstern his full attention, he plops down on the floor/ground.

Visually, Anna Bialkowski offers some period and some fanciful costumes, but director James Ricks has kept the attention on playwright Tom Stoppard’s words and uses movement as kinetic accents to deliver the message.

The play begins with a long, and eventually monotonous (or mesmerizing, depending on your personal perspective) coin toss game in which the coins land heads up more than 90 times in a row. Stoppard makes liberal use of Shakespeare, inserting vaguely familiar lines like, “When the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw.” This just makes the listener feel all the more at sea when the characters say things like, “The toenails, on the other hand, never grow at all,” or when Rosencrantz screams “Fire” and then derides the audience because no one reacted, “they’d all burn to death in their shoes!”

“There’s so much to do just in the text itself,” Turck, a self-described existentialist, remarked at the Sunday afternoon talkback, during which he described his character, Guildenstern, as “an agent of chaos.” Stevens  evaluated Rosencrantz as being a little easier, less daunting. Director Ricks summarized the work as a young man’s irreverence leading to a new life form, but Joe Pabst, the lead Player of the Tragedians, interjected a bit of pragmatism into the discussion noting that much of what has led to dissertations being written and dissected on this play was “just Stoppard being a dick.”

Like all Acts of Faith productions, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead has at least one or two talkbacks scheduled. I think this is one in which a talkback is very helpful, since the play itself is not self-explanatory, nor was it meant to be.

In addition to Stevens, Turck, and Pabst, the cast includes Liam Storm as Alfred, a much-put upon Tragedian, Joel White as a moody Hamlet, Mia Richards as Ophelia (a victim of domestic abuse, but that’s a whole other story), Travis Williams as Claudius, Donna Marie Miller as Gertrude, and Bill Blair as Polonius. Cedar Curran, Joel Kimling, and Josh Mullins complete the cast as unnamed members of the touring band of Tragedians.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is not a play you just walk in on cold. While not required, it helps to have at least some familiarity with Hamlet and Waiting for Godot. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is a play that comes with prerequisites; one needs to prepare for it in advance:

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead Brief Notes

Calvinism: a branch of Protestantism established by John Calvin, it develops the doctrines of Luther, and emphasizes justification by faith, predestination, and the Grace of God

Existentialism: a philosophical theory that emphasizes the importance of the individual as a free and responsible, thinking, feeling human being capable of making choices

Theatre of the Absurd: dramatic works by European and American writers in the 1950s and 1960s that share elements of existential philosophy, such as human hopelessness; often include lots of word play and little or nothing happens to change the lives of the characters

 

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: Production photos were not available at the time of publication.

 

STUPID KID: It’s Not What You Think

STUPID KID: An Unwelcome Homecoming

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: January 23 – February 16, 2020

Ticket Prices: $35 General Admission; $25 Military & RVATA; $15 Students

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

I often choose not to learn too much about a new play prior to seeing it. I want to enter the space unbiased; I like to be surprised. Well, no amount of preparation would have fully prepared me for Sharr White’s Stupid Kid. The two-act play, making it’s east coast debut at The Firehouse Theatre, is populated with strong characters, filled with twists and turns, and offers a surprise ending that leaves as many questions unanswered as it resolves. Kudos to the cast and director Alison Devereaux for a physically demanding performance that made us laugh, gasp, cheer, and even boo.

From the start we know something isn’t quite right – there are secrets and things are not what they appear to be. When Chick Ford (Adam Valentine) arrives home a day early after being in prison for 14 years, his parents are not pleased. His father Eddie, played by Andrew Firda, pretends not to know him and his mother Jeanette or Gigi (Boomie Pedersen) greets him with an expletive. Well, most of her comments are bookended by expletives, so it may not be entirely personal.

The plot thickens when we learn that Chick was sentenced to life for murder, that his parents lives were shattered by the fallout, and his father has become disabled with back pain and has become dependent on painkillers. The details come slowly with the aid and sometimes despite the active interference of nosy neighbor Franny Hawker (Jeannie Goodyear) and Gigi’s brother Mike (Arik Cullen).

This may be the world’s most dysfunctional family, but White’s characters are mostly familiar, believable, and multi-dimensional. Eddie and Gigi seem to be constantly bickering but scattered among the expletives are pet names and hints of true concern and genuine love. Whenever Chick tries to talk about the crime he confessed to, he gets shut down, and no one believes there is any possibility he could be innocent – despite the fact he was released based on new DNA evidence. Uncle Mike is the story’s obvious villain. Vain, narcissistic, and sadistic, he was once the sheriff of the small unnamed Colorado town where the story takes place – and rather than trying to hide evidence of his prior and current corruption, he rubs everyone’s nose in it. I can’t say much more without giving away important and juicy plot elements.

So many of the cast members stand out. Both Boomie Pederson and Andrew Firda seem to land strong, often quirky, and interesting roles. Pedersen gives a satisfying and delightful performance in Stupid Kid, projecting sarcasm when needed but switching to a well-hidden tenderness that makes Gigi seem more authentic. Andrew Firda spends much of the play in a bathrobe and socks, bent over with back pain, yet still manages to display the strength and humanity of Eddie; Eddie has real problems, but there is something solid and dependable underneath it all. Firda never allows Eddie to become a figure of pity.

Adam Valentine portrays Chick as a young man whose life has been controlled by others – his parents, the prison system, his Uncle Mike – but has somehow managed to hold onto a sense of self. And then there’s Arik Cullen, who played Uncle Mike as a straight up bad guy with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. Some in the audience booed when he came out for his bow. Let’s not forget about Uncle Mike’s young ward, Hazel, played by Lorin Hope Turner.

A casebook study of child abuse, sex trafficking, domestic abuse, and more, Hazel’s mistreatment at the hands of Uncle Mike culminates in a shocking display featuring the show’s most violent and physically challenging scene. Jeannie Goodyear, as the nosy neighbor Franny watched all this, often with a bag of chips or some other snack at hand, as if it was a soap opera. Goodyear added a sense of the absurd and was a perfect counterpoint to the melodrama unfolding around her, even reporting the latest news concerning the town’s outrage over Chick’s early release.

There’s so much going on in Stupid Kid, but one thing is for sure; these people may lack what we think of as formal education, but they are certainly not stupid. There is much worthy of discussion, making this an appropriate choice as an Acts of Faith offering.

Alan Williamson designed an appropriately drab set that reflects the financial and emotional status of the Ford family. There is a large patch of duct tape on the living room chair and an impressive complete set change during intermission, from interior to exterior.  If anything, the outside of the house looks a little less shabby than the inside. Emily Laurelle Tappan designed the costumes to look like discount sticker day specials from the local thrift store.

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: Bill Sigafoos

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

Performances: January 24 – March 1, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mic Drop

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Check the Virginia Rep website for additional information on:

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

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

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

Performance Schedule

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

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

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

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

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