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We Love Arts: Sunday in the Park with George

Brynn O’Malley (Dot) and Claybourne Elder (George) in Sunday in the Park with George at Signature Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Brynn O’Malley (Dot) and Claybourne Elder (George) in Sunday in the Park with George at Signature Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman.

For persons wholly unfamiliar with the musical theatre canon of Stephen Sondheim, the Neo-impressionist artist George Seurat and his famous painting A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, or the work of DC-area director Matthew Gardiner, Sunday in the Park with George at Signature Theatre is worth seeing. For fans and admirers of Sondheim, Seurat, or Gardiner, seeing Signature’s production is absolutely essential. In fact, it’s vital. In the 97-year history of the Pulitzer Prize for drama, only eight musicals have won the coveted award and in 1985, Sondheim and book writer James Lapine’s fictionalized story of Seurat and his pointillist creation of A Sunday on La Grande Jatte became the sixth musical to achieve such an honor. Inspired by Seurat’s technique of applying a series of tiny, individual colored dots to form an image, Sondheim not only mimicked the style musically and verbally– through the use of staccato phrases, simple melodies, and clipped conversation—but he even named his female protagonist Dot. More than that, though, Sondheim and Lapine, in studying Seurat’s painting which depicts random people relaxing in a park on an island in the Seine River, wanted to give a voice to the one figure that seemed to be missing from the canvas: the artist himself. Sunday in the Park with George is written as two separate acts, whose individual stories merge at the end of Act II, to complete a thematic journey of art and love. Act I explores Seurat’s creation of the art and his struggle between passion for the work, and passion for his relationships, most notably with his lover, Dot. Three generations later, Act II features Seurat’s great-grandson George, an American artist trying to find his own passion, who eventually visits the island on the Seine River, depicted in Seurat’s painting, for inspiration, and ultimately ends up finding himself through his ancestry. Because the two acts are set nearly one hundred years apart, with completely different characters, styles of music, and seemingly unconnected plots, trying to seamlessly merge the two acts and complexity of the show’s themes is difficult. Particularly challenging is doing this without losing the pointillist nuances and simplicities in the script and musical score, all the while trying to give voice to the artists of the piece. In less than capable hands, Sunday in the Park with George can easily become droll, lackluster, and completely uninspired, rendering audiences bored, confused, and unmoved. Fortunately, Signature Theatre placed their production in the extremely capable hands of director Matthew Gardiner and the end result is breathtaking and awe-inspiring enchantment. Without adding too much unnecessary embellishment or frills to the piece, Gardiner flawlessly leads the audience through the complex world of the show by focusing on the show’s basic theme of allowing one’s passions to come from the heart and using that passion to make something beautiful. Gardiner seems to understand very well that those making this piece are, in essence, their own characters in Sunday in the Park with George and Gardiner’s heart and passion for the work are very evident in every aspect of this show. In fact, one of the reasons why Signature’s production is so beautiful is because everyone involved in the production seems to bring their full heart and passion to it. Claybourne Elder, in the title roles, first as George Seurat and then as 1980s artist George, carries the show gracefully, finding the perfect balances between artist and lover, relative and friend, passion and person, and tormented versus inspired. Never allowing his Georges to become sullen, moody, and unlikable, Elder remains sympathetic and heartfelt, even when his on-stage behaviors are self-destructive and disagreeable. To be able to do that, while creating two separate and distinct Georges, and then find a way to merge them together at the end of Act II is nothing but brilliant when done well and Elder’s portrayal is sheer genius. Similarly, Brynn O’Malley, first as Seurat’s lover, Dot, and then as 1980s George’s grandmother, Marie, (Seurat and Dot’s daughter), is incredible. As Dot, O’Malley remains grounded and keeps it simple, which is imperative for a character who, like the pointillist style she is named after, allows for the audience to see her fuller range of tones, from her solid comedic chops to her fine dramatic work. As the aged Marie in Act II, O’Malley’s transformation into a centenarian Grandmother is spectacular, wonderfully adopting the geriatric behaviors and nuances without allowing herself to become a caricature. No less impressive than Elder and O’Malley is a talented ensemble of actors who, like Gardiner and his team of gifted collaborators, clearly bring their full passion and love to this production. To see a show with such heart from all sides is truly special and rare, which is why Signature’s production of Sunday in the Park with George is so moving and so spectacular. It is the quintessential love letter to Sondheim, Seurat, theatre, and to art. Sunday in the Park with George performs now through September 21, 2014 at Signature Theatre, located at 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington VA 22206. Tickets start at $40. For more information, call 703-820-9771.

Entertainment, The Daily Feed, We Love Arts

We Love Arts: The Threepenny Opera

Polly Peachum (Erin Driscoll) and Lucy Brown (Rick Hammerly) vie for the love of Macheath in “The Threepenny Opera,” now playing at Signature Theatre through June 1, 2014. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Polly Peachum (Erin Driscoll) and Lucy Brown (Rick Hammerly) vie for the love of Macheath in “The Threepenny Opera,” now playing at Signature Theatre through June 1, 2014. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Meh. That’s the best way to describe Signature Theatre’s production of The Threepenny Opera. But I can’t blame them for it. After all, it was written to be that way. Sort of.

Playwright Bertolt Brecht, who lived in Germany through the mid 20th century, believed that theatre was meant to be a forum for political ideas, in the hopes that it would result in actual social and bureaucratic change. Most notably authoring plays such as The Caucasian Chalk Circle and Mother Courage and Her Children, he is also credited with establishing the genre of Epic Theatre, of which almost all his plays, including The Threepenny Opera, are a part of.

Epic Theatre is based on the idea that a play should not create any type of emotional cartharsis or cause the spectator to identify emotionally at all with the characters or action on stage. By denying the audience any type of impassioned feeling, he believed it would instead allow them to adopt a critical socio-political view designed to provoke self-reflection and be moved to effect real change in the world.

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We Love Arts: Beaches

Alysha Umpress as Cee Cee (left) Mara Davi as Bertie (right).  Photo by Margot I. Schulman.

Alysha Umpress as Cee Cee (left) Mara Davi as Bertie (right). Photo by Margot I. Schulman.

For a number of years, Broadway musicals based on their respective movies have been a staple on the Great White Way. In fact, more than one-third of the musicals currently on Broadway were films before they were ever stage productions. While some of these live adaptations fare very well with audiences, producers often find that taking a beloved film, musicalizing it, and then putting it on stage is a risky venture. One of the major reasons new productions are put through a series of workshops and premieres before opening on Broadway, in fact, is to gauge the potential success it will have and to edit and make changes along the way.

Signature Theatre has been instrumental over the years in assisting these budding new shows find footing by producing their world premieres in its Arlington facility, with almost 40 productions to date, including their current musical, Beaches. Based on Iris Rainer Dart’s 1985 novel, which the 1988 film with Bette Midler and Barbara Hershey was adapted from, Beaches follows two friends through a 30-year friendship. One a brash performer, the other a WASP-y blueblood, these seemingly different women forge a powerful companionship when a chance meeting on the beach as young girls in the 1950s leads to a lifelong friendship that tests the bonds of sisterhood and shows the strength of friendship. Continue reading

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We Love Arts: Gypsy

Sherri L. Edelen as Momma Rose in Signature Theatre’s production of Gypsy. Photo by Teresa Wood.

Based on the real-life memoirs of burlesque performer Gypsy Rose Lee, with book by Arthur Laurents, music by Jule Styne and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Gypsy has been a beloved musical of mine ever since I was 15 and was fortunate enough to be cast in a local production of it. I have seen a number of productions both on stage (including the 2003 Broadway revival with Bernadette Peters) and screen (with the 1993 film version with Bette Midler my favorite). I can honestly say that Signature Theatre‘s current production was, by far, the best one I have ever seen. It was breathtaking, rendering me speechless. Those who know me realize that is a huge feat.

Between an engaging script and two acts of captivating songs, Gypsy is more the story of Gypsy Rose Lee’s mother, Rose, than it is about her. Although the account of the famous stripper (real name: Louise) and her sister, June, is told—their history as child performers on the vaudeville circuit to June’s running away from home and Louise’s transition from novelty act to burlesque performer—it is only to highlight the journey Rose takes. The quintessential stage mother, Rose foregoes personal relationships, a stable career and home life, and financial comfort so that her children may be stars. It is only when her children and fiancé leave her, their vaudeville careers washed up, and with her life in shambles that Rose realizes all the toiling and strife done in the name of her children were really about fulfilling a dream of stardom for herself that will never come true because she was “born too early and started too late.” Continue reading

Entertainment, The Features, We Love Arts

We Love Arts: Crossing


The cast of Signature Theatre’s production of Crossing. Photo credit: Teresa Wood.

There was so much to like about Crossing at Signature Theatre, the world premiere musical written by the extremely talented writing team, Grace Barnes and Matt Connor, whose Nevermore was premiered at the theatre in 2006. From Eric Schaeffer’s beautiful, yet simple set design, the spectacular rain effects orchestrated by lighting designer Chris Lee, the lovely underscoring of the orchestra led by music director Gabriel Mangiante, to the phenomenal acting and vocal prowess of nine incredible actors, Barnes and Connor created moments of theatrical magic, punctuated by uncomplicated dialogue and enchanting melodies.

There was also much about Crossing that was problematic. Although it has enjoyed readings and a workshop, this is the first full production of Crossing and, like all new shows, it felt like it was still trying to find its footing. The challenge of producing new work is that the premiere production is part of the continued refining and improving of a show, which means that the initial audience is witness to some of the kinks and challenges that eventually are worked out until a show is a masterpiece. Understanding this, I applaud the writing of Barnes and Connor, who have a very solid framework in place, and am confident that Crossing will achieve the same success that their Nevermore and Connor’s The Hollow and Night of the Living Dead are enjoying.

Set in a train station in anytown and anytime USA, Crossing follows the personal intimate emotional journeys of travelers as they wait for a train, highlighting the concerns and fears that they can’t share with loved ones, but choose to share with strangers to whom they feel a kinship, in the same way many people do with others they are seated next to on an airplane or a neighboring bar stool. Although the characters are living in different decades of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, they interact with one another beyond time and comprehension, listening to, supporting, and uniting with one another, giving the audience the impression that regardless when or where we live or have lived, each human soul has a journey they have to make alone, but are afraid to do so. Continue reading

Entertainment, The Features, We Love Arts

We Love Arts: Pride In The Falls Of Autrey Mill


Photo credit: Margot Schulman

After Really Really sold out and wowed crowds at Signature Theatre last winter, up-and-coming playwright Paul Downs Colaizzo is back with another new play. This time instead of dissecting millennials, Colaizzo sets his sights on a more affluent crowd in Pride in the Falls of Autrey Mill. Starring Golden Globe and Emmy winner Christine Lahti, Autrey Mill is a powerful character-driven dramedy that explores conventional human needs in an unconventional setting: a luxury community where only the elite of the elite reside.

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We Love Arts: Miss Saigon

Signature Theatre’s production of Miss Saigon. Photo credit: Christopher Mueller

An impoverished woman who turn to prostitution to make a living in hopes of sending her child off to live a better life. The mostly good-natured man man who “saves” said mother and child. Signature Theatre’s Miss Saigon shares a few common traits with Les Miserables. Both musicals were written by the French duo of Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil, so it makes sense.  Both also set out to be prime examples of the epic blockbuster musical, one where every word is a song and big numbers are orchestrated to put the musical into musical theater. The barricades of Les Mis are matched by the swooping helicopters of Miss Saigon when it comes to iconic imagery.

On Broadway, famed producer Cameron Mackintosh made both productions into long-running hits. At Signature, Eric Schaeffer and company attempt to fit as much giltz and glam of Miss Saigon onto the small Max Theatre as possible. Unable to fit a whirly bird into the production, the show instead is dressed to the nines with ripped parachutes, barbed wire fences, and metal grating that creeps from the stage into the audience. The ensemble that takes to this rough and gritty stage is strong, but has noticeable holes that makes this rendition solid, but not show-stopping.

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We Love Arts

We Love Arts: Hello, Dolly!

Nancy Opel as Dolly Levi with Jp Qualters, Harris Milgrim, Kyle Vaughn and Alex Puette in the Ford’s and Signature Theatre co-production of “Hello, Dolly!” Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Nancy Opel as Dolly Levi with Jp Qualters, Harris Milgrim, Kyle Vaughn and Alex Puette in the Ford’s and Signature Theatre co-production of “Hello, Dolly!” Photo by Carol Rosegg.

When tourist season comes around and you own arguably the most famous theater in the country, it can’t hurt to play it safe.

That’s what Ford’s Theatre and Signature Theatre seem to think, anyway, as they’ve teamed up to bring Hello, Dolly! to the Ford’s Theatre stage right as the cherry blossoms and spring breakers roll in.

It’s not an entirely bad idea: the line to Tuesday’s performance stretched down the street outside; groups arrived by the busload; and the show – which won the 1964 Tony for Best Musical and/or production of the year at your high school – is a light, catchy romp.

If that’s what you’re looking for, Hello, Dolly! will do just fine; but this production has room to improve for those of us watching from beyond the tour bus.

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We Love Arts: Dreamgirls

Photo: Christopher Mueller

2012 has been a good year for Nova Y. Payton. Payton made a splash this time last year in Signature Theatre’s Hairspray, which netted her a Helen Hayes award in April. After Hairspray, Payton became a Signature fixture with roles in Xanadu and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. Now she’s ending the year on a note as high as the one she rode last winter. Payton is quickly becoming a hot name on the DC Theatre scene and her performance as Effie in Signature Theatre’s production of Dreamgirls will be one we will not forget come awards season. With a talented ensemble led by Payton, Dreamgirls will dazzle you with striking moments of a musical era of big hair, sparkling outfits, and skinny ties.

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Entertainment, The Features, We Love Arts

We Love Arts: Dying City

Rachel Zampelli and Thomas Keegan in Signature Theatre’s production of Dying City. Photo credit: Scott Suchman.

A month ago the nation paused to remember the 11th anniversary of 9/11. Even though the day was a sobering and emotional one for many, it was more low-key than the previous ten. Fewer families were on hand at public ceremonies and many events were smaller affairs than previous years. The day has not lost any significance; the level of mourning has simply evolved to more personal moments of reflection.

It is in this new era that Signature Theatre presents a more intimate view of the war on terror with Christopher Shinn’s Dying City. We have seen many takes of the war in film and on stage. From films such as Jarhead and The Hurt Locker to plays like Black Watchthe whole gamut from the horrors of war in the trenches to the lasting damage of those returning to the homefront has been covered. Here Shinn keeps the Iraq war in the background, focusing instead on comparing the complexities of war to the psychological struggles that plague one’s failing relationships.

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Page to Stage Fest This Weekend

Photo courtesy of Michael T. Ruhl
Hanging Lights
courtesy of Michael T. Ruhl

If you’re looking to round out your Labor Day weekend plans, how does free theater at the Kennedy Center sound?

The 11th annual Page to Stage festival runs this Saturday-Monday and features free readings, workshops, and rehearsals of new works by some of the area’s most talented artists and theater companies.

This year, Synetic Theater offers a training demonstration and preview of their upcoming wordless Jekyll and Hyde; groups like The Inkwell and DC-Area Playwrights Group plan to showcase short, new works in progress by local playwrights; Signature Theatre, Folger Theatre, and the Kennedy Center all team up for Ken Ludwig’s latest thriller; and the weekend features a number of family-friendly shows for the younger crowd.

Page to Stage also offers a rare chance to see shows in the Kennedy Center’s rehearsal spaces and smaller venues. With a casual and collaborative atmosphere, it’s a bit like the Fringe – except with more chandeliers.

Page to Stage runs September 1-3, 2012 throughout multiple venues at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. The Kennedy Center is located at 2700 F Street, NW Washington, DC 20566. Closest Metro stop: Foggy Bottom/GWU (Orange/Blue line). For more information call  202-467-4600.

Entertainment, The Features, We Love Arts

We Love Arts: God of Carnage

Photos: Scott Suchman

At the start of Signature Theatre’s God of Carnage, we find ourselves in the immaculate living room of the Novak family. The modern style and elegance of the whole scene looks as if it was ripped out of a catalog: fresh flowers, a beautiful city skyline, smiling faces from those that are inhabiting the space.

The serenity and beauty of the scene is but a fleeting moment in Yasmina Reza’s Tony Award winning play, the chaos that unfolds will leave the room in a completely different state: floor covered with papers, feathers, and shoes; cigars and glasses of liquor strewn about; actors with scowls that have been stripped of all manners and outward politeness.

This short one-act (approximately 80 minutes) is essentially a strip-show of political correctness where the characters take off layers of social manners piece by piece. What we end up with are subjects that bare-all to the audience.

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Theatre Spotlight: Really Really

Photo: Scott Suchman

Over on their website, this is how Signature Theatre describes their upcoming World Premiere of Really Really by Paul Downs Colaizzo:

“At an elite university, when the party of the year results in the regret of a lifetime, one person will stop at nothing to salvage a future that is suddenly slipping away.”

Many people have interpreted this description as a play loosely based on the Duke Lacrosse scandal, a description cast and crew members were quick to distance themselves away from. Colaizzo described the show as, “a play about a girl who wants a house.”

Even though there are some similarities: college elites, a big party, an accusation and scandal; after talking with several members of the cast the show has strong themes about how the Millennial generation is struggling to find what they want in today’s changing world.

In other words it’s right up my alley.

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Entertainment, The Features, We Love Arts

We Love Arts: Art

Photo by Scott Suchman

If you could take the premise Yasmina Reza’s “Art” and turn it into an episode of Seinfeld, it would have been a classic.

Just imagine George Costanza marching into Jerry’s apartment to see a blank white 5’ x 4’ canvas…

Jerry: George! Behold my latest acquisition!

George: What is it?

Jerry: It’s an Antrios!

George: Antrios?

Jerry: Antrios!

George: Never heard of him.

Jerry: Well he’s a classic- and this painting will be as well! I got it at such a steal!

George: How much?

Jerry: $200,000. What do you think?

George: I am speechless. I am without speech.

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