WNO’s Princely ‘Hamlet’

November 3, 2011

 

-The problem with creating an opera around an iconic character and play, particularly by Shakespeare, is that only the characters remain from the plot. This is confusing for the public and has caused myriad responses to the opera. Expectations are for a literal translation of plot to music which is, of course, not possible. The surprise upon attending the Washington National Opera’s adaptation of “Hamlet,” performing through June 4, was how attractive and well written the music was. The evening, in fact, was full of surprises.

For a while, “to be or not to be” could have been the slogan for the production by French composer Ambroise Thomas — it almost didn’t happen. The part of Hamlet was to be sung by Spanish baritone Carlos Alvarez and Ophelia by German soprano Diana Damrau, both of whom had to cancel. We saw the second performance on May 22 wherein Michael Chioldi sang Hamlet and Elizabeth Futral, who had performed in the first performance, had to bow out at intermission and turn over the famous mad scene to Soprano Micaëla Oeste, in her second season with the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program.

Michael Chioldi sang a fine Hamlet. Until Elizabeth Futral had to leave at intermission, her singing showed no sign of the difficulties that were bothering her. However, Miss Oeste was definitely a find. She immediately continued the character of Ophelia for at least the 20 minutes of the mad scene with beauty of tone and intense and graceful acting. The audience showed enthusiastic appreciation.

Elizabeth Bishop sang a regal Gertrude with a matching rich sound. Samuel Ramey, an impressive actor performing Claudius, no longer has the voice he once had. I remember the wonderful impression he made when I first heard him. That voice is gone.

Finally, the notion of Stage Director Thaddeus Strassberger to change time and place to a fascistic regime with contemporary costumes distorted the consistency of atmosphere that the production demanded.

My final thought was how good the orchestra sounded under the baton of Placido Domingo. Having observed his conducting for many years, I have watched him grow in his command of the orchestra through the years. Superb.

Visit the Kennedy Center for tickets and scheduling information.

All That Jazz


It’s June. It’s summer. And you’re probably wondering: what happened to the annual Duke Ellington Jazz Festival? Isn’t it about that time of year?

It is. And the Duke Ellington Jazz Festival, sure enough, is on and going strong. Except that it’s not called the Duke Ellington Jazz Festival anymore. It’s called the DC Jazz Festival and right now it’s going on all over the city.

The name change is a big deal, along with a few other changes that are different from the previous five festivals, which have grown by leaps and bounds during that time.

The festival kicked off June 1 and runs through June 13, and includes new venues, new stars, an under-the-stars concert at Carter Barron, a tribute to James Moody and a major concert headlining major record star and jazz chanteuse Roberta Flack. It includes the ever popular and growing Jazz in the Hoods and the whirlwind presence of Cuban jazz star Paquito D’ Rivera, who will close the festival with what promises to be a unique concert at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater.

There’ll be big stars, major players, young up-and-comers, and Washington local artists, established and rising. Jazz will be in the air and in the neighborhoods, and the festival will draw on all the resources, audiences and institutions this city offers and which are unique to it.

I visited Charles Fishman, the festival’s founder, year-round promoter and jazz kibitzer, and formerly the producer for the late jazz legend Dizzy Gillespie in his basement office in his home in Adams Morgan.

“We’ve got an official downtown office now,” he said by way of greeting. “But I still do most of my stuff out of here.”

If there was such a thing as a “jazz” office, it’s right here. Fishman, a thinnish middle-aged man, is on the phone trying to arrange travel arrangements on his computer for Flack, “a dear, long-time friend” who was a last minute replacement for Dianne Reeves, who had to drop out as the headliner for the Lisner Auditorium Concert on June 13, which also features the Roy Hargrove Big Band and a guest appearance by Roberta Gambarini. “She did me a big favor here,” Fishman said.

In between answering his cell and looking at his airline Web site, Fishman explained the name change and other changes.

“Number one, the festival had been growing every year. It was getting a growing reputation as a destination festival, we were expanding, we kept adding programs that were really all about the city, like Jazz in the Hoods and the Rising Stars, and working and partnering with other groups and institutions like mad,” he said. “Duke Ellington, for that matter, is very specific to this city, but that’s too focused on one person.”

“What we wanted to do, we wanted to brand the city,” he said. Fishman talks like an enthusiast, a traveling salesman, the guy you meet on a train who pulls out pictures of the wife and kids he loves madly, proudly. You sense that Fishman’s big loves — wife, family, jazz, city, with the order changing depending on who’s around or what he’s doing — are all-encompassing. He thrives that way. The office is as cluttered as an improvisational sax riff from out of the clear blue something: there’s a Grammy he won with Dizzy on a wall, there are stacks of New Yorkers, a poster of a big-cheeked Gillespie and, right in the middle of the floor, a shiny set of blue drums that belong to his precocious five-year-old son Moses.

“Every festival worthy of the name is about the place, that’s the way you know it — Newport, Monterey, the big cities and so on,” he said. “And we’ve got so much to offer here as a jazz town.

“Look around you sometime, the place is flourishing again, there’s places that have jazz musicians playing, like the revitalized Bohemian Caverns and all of its history on U Street. We’ve got local legends here, not just Duke, who lived and played down on U Street, Shirley Horn, Buck Hill and all the rest, and new people like Thad Wilson. There’s a glorious history here we can draw on.

“We’ve got cultural institutions who have concerts, we have support from the tourist business, we have the embassies. It’s no news that jazz is huge overseas. We have our museums, the Kennedy Center. We have a local history. We have terrific local musicians, young and up-and-coming, and they play here, they add to the richness of the music.

“So, basically,” he said, “we thought the festival should be about the city, and that the name should be about the national and international impact of the nation’s capital. There’s no better place to showcase and celebrate America’s singular original art than in Washington, D.C. This is not to say that we won’t continue to honor the enduring legacy of D.C. native son Duke Ellington.”

Not with all those jazz players coming out of Duke Ellington School of the Arts, that’s for sure.

Fishman is co-artistic director this year with Paquito D’Rivera, who will, among other things, headline the Paquito D’Rivera and the Jelly Roll Morton Latin Tinge Project June 13 at the Terrace Theater, a unique evening that arose out of a grant in which trumpeter and arranger Michael Philip Mossman added a Latin flavor to some of the legendary blues giant’s pieces, such as “King Porter Stomp,” “Wolverine Blues,” “Finger Buster,” and “Pearl.” It was Morton who reportedly said that “If you can’t manage to put tinges of Spanish in your tunes, you will never be able to get the right seasoning.”

The concert will include D’Rivera, Mossman, Pernell Saturnino and the string ensemble Quartette Indigo.

For complete information on schedules, tickets, times and dates and performers go the festival website at www.dcjazzfest.org.

Reality TV craze strikes Washington Post


 

-The Washington Post has begun to dabble in the reality TV scene with the creation of a new online video series called “I Do! Washington Weddings.” The series, airing every other Thursday, will profile engaged couples living in the D.C. area from their first date to the walk down the aisle.

The first episode kicks off today highlighting Theresa and Alejo, a young couple that owns a wedding photography business together. The episode runs about four minutes long.

If you are engaged and want to share your love story with the world, send an e-mail onlove@washpost.com describing you, your fiance and your life together.

Ms. Ashley’s Profession


Elizabeth Ashley is back in town, and it’s about time.

It’s been eight years since the volatile, gifted and outspoken actress graced a Washington stage, and a lot has happened since then.

And yet, in some ways, as you visit her for an interview in the apartment on Massachusetts Avenue where she’s staying for the run of the Shakespeare Theatre’s production of Shaw’s “Mrs. Warren’s Profession,” a lot of things haven’t changed.

She’s as brash, direct, self-deprecating, emotive, blunt as ever, so much that you do what you’ve done in three previous encounters: you proceed gingerly, on the lookout for possible landmines, but with an anticipation that is not disappointed.

It’s been eight years since she starred as Regina in “The Little Foxes” at the Shakespeare Theatre Company. A lot has happened to Ashley since then, not all of it pretty. Her domicile in New York was destroyed in a fire, along with most of the contents within. “I lost everything,” she says. “That’s an experience.”

Later, she was injured in a boating accident. And, she recently turned 70.

“I don’t worry about it,” she said, nor does she noodle the subject. She seems to embrace it, which would seem to indicate a certain abandonment of vanity. “I did the wild, intense, youthful period, I embraced and left behind middle age. Maybe when I was young, you think about looks. I was a cute young thing, I guess. But if you spent your life worried about how you look, you’re going to be in trouble at this stage.”

She was more than cute, she had a way about her, pitch black hair, deep brown eyes, a challenging persona, and a tremendous acting gift which she nurtured with work, constant work, flourishing most effectively and sometimes brilliantly on stage, especially in a legendary production of a Michael Kahn-directed revival of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” in which she played Maggie the Cat and triumphed by way of reputation, performance and, of course, billboards.

Now, she sort of drapes herself on the couch in her split-level apartment, smoking cigarettes, wearing a loose blouse, slacks, hair in a ponytail, bare feet tucked under, her hands and arms doing a lot of talking. Two dogs are in tow, one recently adopted from a local shelter, the other a pug named Che Guevara.

“The name is meant to be ironic,” she says. “This is the least warrior-like dog I have ever seen in my life.”

Clearly, she loves him too, and the name probably has something to do with an affinity for outsiders and maybe even revolutionaries. Who knows?

In all the eventful times of the past few years, there’s been a constant that’s scattered throughout her life and career, and that’s a deep and abiding professionalism, a respect for the work, not just her own but her peers and fellow actors. She has not been still or shy, probably not ever: Callas in “Master Class,” Mattie Fae in the epic “August: Osage County,” a matriarch in the late Horton Foote’s “Dividing the Estate” and a small but recurring role in the highly praised HBO series “Treme.”

No matter what personal drama went on in Ashley’s life, no matter what amount of indulgence and excesses may have been initiated or experienced by her (three marriages, including an intense bout with the late Hollywood star George Peppard), the work was her grounding point, her rock. She went into everything with 100 percent effort, playing or acting hurt, if you will, and elevating many projects to a higher level. Her presence on episode television like “Miami Vice,” “Murder, She Wrote,” “Law and Order: SUV,” “Homicide” and the recurring role of the bawdy, loud, hypnotic member of the cast of the Burt Reynolds sitcom “Evening Shade” were all enriched by her professionalism and her gifts.

“You can’t just collect your paycheck,” she says. “I don’t do that. I don’t coast.”

She was a razzle-dazzler early on in the theater when Broadway sparkled at its brightest in comedies like “Barefoot in the Park.” She shone briefly in her youth in films like “The Carpetbaggers” with Peppard, but always there was the theater, the sail and life boat of her working life.

She sounds more like a pragmatist, one who still cares quite a bit, even though she describes herself as a cynic. She often talks in sports metaphors, especially of the pro football variety, and loves to talk about old football stars, many of whom she called friends, including the Oakland Raider quarterback Kenny “The Snake” Stabler.

And now she’s back, watching the tragedy in the Gulf unfold from a great distance, more or less, but also brought back by tragedy. She’s taking on the role of Mrs. Warren, which was originally to be done by Dixie Carter, who passed away recently from breast cancer.

“Dixie was a tremendously classy lady,” Ashley said. “She even thought she could do it although everyone knew she was ill. But when she went back to the hospital for tests, [the cancer] had gone everywhere.” Ashley worked with Carter’s husband Hal Holbrook on “Evening Shade.” “We all knew each other, were friends. Dixie was elegant, she was extremely intelligent, she was witty, wry, she was sophisticated without being affected, she was generous … she was the best of breed among us all.”

Her presence came as a result of following once again one of her credos: “When the mighty Kahn calls, I go.” That would be Michael Kahn, who asked her to take over, and she did with no debate or agonizing “In that kind of situation, you don’t negotiate, you don’t chit chat, you don’t hesitate. You go.”

In the Shaw play, she plays a woman who runs a number of high-class brothels, much to the embarrassment and dismay of her daughter. “Children,” she says. “I told my son Christian once that I wasn’t a very good mother, no Betty Crocker, no, but that now that he was grown up, I’d be very interesting company.”

It’s always interesting to listen to her talk about fellow actresses like Betty White, Vanessa Redgrave, Carter, Estelle Parsons, the local chameleon Nancy Robinette. She is unstinting and disarming in dishing out praise, respect and awe, a rare quality in the business.

These days, she talks of herself as a “mechanic, an old pro” or “a survivor,” although if you’ve ever seen her in action on stage, she is considerably more, and always has been. And if she’s without vanity these days, she’s not without great gifts or ego.

To me, it seems she’s always told the truth, which requires several things: trust, courage, and swagger, qualities that could fit both a Hall of Fame actress or quarterback.

“Mrs. Warren’s Profession” runs through July 11 at Sidney Harman Hall. Click [here](http://www.shakespearetheatre.org/plays/details.aspx?id=185&source=l) for scheduling and tickets. [gallery ids="99148,102807" nav="thumbs"]

The Duke Comes Home


Serendipity is a word with a lot of letters and a lot of flavors in it. It’s like a stew, a soup, an omelette, about things being brought together by luck, skill, chance, fate and nature itself.

There’s a lot of serendipity going on in and around “Sophisticated Ladies,” a big, splashy, stylish love letter to and about Duke Ellington, the man and the music, which commences its April 9-May 30 run presented by Arena Stage at the Lincoln Theatre at 13th and U Streets.

There’ll be a lot of ghosts hanging about and rich memories on hand for many of the participants in this productions, not pale, silent, wandering ghosts, but the kind where women in sassy evening dresses and old bling and big heels sashay down a staircase, where the music is so rich as to make you swoon from the sweetness, where a man in a white tuxedo might sit at a piano like a royal person, and where you might hear familiar songs and the splashing of tap shoes on wood.

All of that.

Mostly, there’ll be Duke Ellington, and he’ll be everywhere in the building, where, downstairs in the old Colonnade, the Duke first started playing and getting known, and he’ll be in the rest of theater, which first saw the light of night in the 1920s, and he’ll be in the big mural and in the places where he used to live and he’ll be for sure in all the songs that make up this musical paean to all things beyond category and the Duke.

The ghosts and memories will be there for choreographer Maurice Hines, who starred in the original Broadway production in 1981, when he joined his brother, the late Gregory Hines. They’ll be there for Mercedes Ellington, the Duke’s granddaughter, who also performed in the original production as a Juilliard-trained dancer alongside the great African-American dance diva Judith Jameson.

For that run, the neighborhood itself might just revert to what it once was: the place where Duke Ellington made his mark. That’s what “Sophisticated Ladies” is all about, it’s the Duke’s life as a journey through songs, music and dance, as directed by Charles Randolph-Wright, based on musical direction by Mercer Ellington from the original show. “This is a joyous celebration of Duke Ellington and D.C.,” Wright says. “Duke Ellington is D.C. This is where he grew up and where his career began.”

“I’d never actually seen the Lincoln Theater until I got involved in this,” Hines says. “It’s a perfect place. You can feel the atmosphere. But I remember the original, too. My brother Gregory was the star of the show, I was trying out at the Kennedy Center, and things got complicated. ‘You gotta get into the show,’ he said. Eventually I did, and we performed together in it. What an experience.”

Their father was a drummer, and he knew Ellington, who was by that time a “beyond category” American music legend. “I remember one time dad took us back stage and there was this man in a white tuxedo and a man was putting on a cape over him, and he was sort of above us and he looked down and saw us. ‘Why, you must be the Hines boys, yes, you are,’ he said, and it’s one of those things you never forget.”

Hines says that this was an opportunity to focus renewed attention on Ellington and his musical achievements. “I think we’ve kind of neglected his work in recent years,” he says. “That’s not right. His music is embedded in American culture, it goes beyond race, beyond everything.”

Mercedes Ellington — her father was Mercer Ellington, who led the Ellington band and suffered from being under the blinding light cast by his father — was an assistant choreographer as well as a dancer in the original production. She serves as an artistic consultant on the Arena Stage production, often talking to the younger members of the cast about the life and times of Duke.

“For the longest time,” she said in an interview, “I didn’t know what to call him. My mother said, ‘Don’t call him grand-dad. Ask him.’ So I did and he sort of looked at me, and said, ‘Hmm, let me think about that.” And finally he said, ‘I’ll tell you what, why don’t just call me Uncle Edward?’ He didn’t want people to know he was old enough to have a granddaughter.”

Mercedes Ellington often went on tour with the band, including the hugely popular Ellington visit to the Soviet Union. “We were in Leningrad and being trained in dance, it was wonderful for me to see the dancers there,” she said. “He was absolutely mobbed by women everywhere he went. It was astonishing.”

“I saw him before he died and he had all these flowers and cards in his room, from everyone — Sinatra, Count Basie, absolutely everyone. He had just about everything wrong with him but you don’t imagine him not with us. I read about his death in the papers on the flight home.”

“I’ll tell you what he did,” she said. “People stopped thinking about color, race, all of that, when they heard his music, when they saw him perform. He was sophisticated, he went beyond jazz, he composed symphonies, operas, great complicated wonderful pieces of music. He had style, great style, and he was a little vain, sure, but he had this way about him, this charisma. He made people think differently.”

The song list for the show alone is enough to make you want to dance, swoon, swing: “Mood Indigo,” “Take the ‘A’ Train,” “I’m Beginning to See the Light,” It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing),” “In a Sentimental Mood,” “Satin Doll” and “I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good.”

Hines, in addition to doing the choreography, will perform too. He’s never stopped cutting albums, performing, tapping, winning Tonys, doing “Happy Feet” with Earth, Wind and Fire, being Nathan Detroit.

“You know what tap dancing is about that,” he said. “It looks easy. It’s hard but it’s as smooth as anything.”

There are two young teenage boys in the cast of performers. It’s not hard to imagine Hines remembering himself and his kid brother, when they were young, tapping out a beat on a floor, remembering the sound of four feet tapping. “Sure I do,” he said. “I miss him every day of my life, I think about him all the time.”

In a way, everybody will be there down on U and 13th at the Lincoln Theater, the people who walked the Colonnade back in the day, the Duke at the piano, the big band playing, fathers and daughters and granddaughters and all of that, those sophisticated ladies parading. There will be ghosts there, it will be all serendipity.

“Sophisticated Ladies” runs April 9 to May 30 at the Lincoln Theatre. [gallery ids="99088,99089" nav="thumbs"]

‘American Buffalo’: A Slice of Chicago Style


For Joy Zinoman, Studio Theatre’s upcoming production of “American Buffalo” has elements of both a homecoming and a leave-taking.

David Mamet’s 1975 play has its roots in Chicago (it premiered at the city’s Goodman Theatre), and for Chicago-born Zinoman, the work holds a special resonance. “I’ve always loved the play,” she says, noting that it appeared “at a seminal time for me”— the period when Studio Theatre was just beginning.

Now, as Zinoman prepares to step down from her role as the theater’s artistic director, it will be the final production she’ll direct.

Zinoman programmed “American Buffalo” as part of this season’s trio of “Money Plays” at Studio, joining “Adding Machine: The Musical” and “The Solid Gold Cadillac” as works that explore themes of commerce and capitalism. For Zinoman, “American Buffalo” is “the best play ever written about American business.” More than three decades after its debut, the work has also taken on new levels of meaning. “Now it is a play about fathers and sons, loyalty and friendship. It reminds me of a certain Chicago style. It’s gritty, real, and unpretentious.”

The plot of “American Buffalo” centers on a crime that doesn’t happen, the heist of a supposedly valuable buffalo-head nickel. As Don, the owner of a secondhand shop and his young protégé, Bobby, spin out their plans to recover the coin from a customer who bought it, they’re joined by the volatile Teach, who offers to pull off the job himself. The scheme devolves into betrayal and violence, with shifting loyalties and suspicion undermining the trio’s relationships. Dark, often profane, yet deeply funny, “American Buffalo” has entered the canon of classic plays of the last century.

It’s also a work that offers rich roles, and Zinoman has put together “three amazing actors” to bring them to life. “I’m incredibly excited to work with Ed Gero,” says Zinoman of the well-respected local actor who plays Don. Bobby will be played by Jimmy Davis, who Zinoman had seen in a role light years away from the typical Mamet man: Juliet in the Shakespeare Theatre’s all-male production of “Romeo and Juliet.” At his audition, Zinoman “found his originality intriguing,” and he was selected for the part.

Teach is “one of the great American roles,” says Zinoman, and she’s landed an actor who, according to his mentors, “was born to play this part.” “I almost fell down dead” when viewing the video submitted by actor Peter Allas, she recalls. A Chicago-born son of immigrants, she describes him as “rehearsing his whole life” for Teach. It didn’t hurt that in his video the actor who created the role of Don in the play’s first production read opposite him. A Washington audition clinched the part for Allas, and it’s clear that Zinoman is looking forward to the sparks the three actors will create.

More than three decades after “American Buffalo” burst onto the scene, the play’s themes have deepened and new contours have emerged — just as the nation’s economic roller coaster rides during the same period have shifted how we look at money and business. “I think it’s a real, human story about petty criminals and their schemes to make money and the greed that drives and divides,” says Zinoman. “It’s also about honor, morality, and friendship.” It’s a play that explores “how good people can get to violent, greedy, and life-destroying places in the name of business.”

She hopes audiences “will come with an open mind” and see “American Buffalo” “freshly, as a new play.” “I hope they’ll come to laugh,” she says, since much of Mamet’s work in the play is funny. “And the language is just delicious.”

For all satisfaction Zinoman finds in this directing assignment, “American Buffalo” is also a particularly emotional experience. At the play’s first production meeting, she recalls, the director and her long-time design and technical team “found ourselves weeping” with the realization that this would be the very last time they’d work on a show together in the same way. (Zinoman steps down as artistic director on Sept. 1 this year.) “Everyone is highly aware of the significance [of the production] for us, and we appreciate being able to do it together.”

So what’s next for Joy Zinoman after the Studio Theatre? “The first next” is a four-month European sojourn in Italy and France, a chance to “create a real breathing space between this great, unbelievable life at Studio Theatre and what is next.”

Teaching at the theatre’s conservatory will still be part of Zinoman’s life, and she’s considering offers from other quarters as well. “What’s great,” she concludes, “is a sense of jumping off a cliff.” It’s certain that wherever Joy Zinoman lands after that leap, it will be an interesting place to be.

“American Buffalo” plays at Studio Theatre May 5 through June 13. For more information, go to [www.studiotheatre.org](http://www.studiotheatre.org).

‘[title of show]’


All right, musical theater fans, here’s a multiple-choice quiz to test your knowledge. “[title of show]” is:
a) a quirky meta-musical about two guys writing a musical about two guys writing a musical
b) a 2004 musical theater festival hit that went on to off-Broadway and Broadway runs
c) the production prompting calls to Signature Theatre to inquire what exactly is the title of the show being advertised
d) a work bold enough to asks its audiences to contemplate the concept of Paris Hilton starring in “Mame”
e) an unabashed valentine to musical theatre.

It’s partly a trick question, but if you answered “all of the above” you’re worth your weight in original-cast albums. If you’re still puzzled, don’t worry. Signature Theatre’s production of “[title of show]” begins April 6, and this question and more (such as whether or not the titles of forgotten musical flops like “Kwamina” and “Hot September” make good punch lines) will be authoritatively answered.

With music and lyrics by Jeff Bowen and a book by Hunter Bell, “[title of show]” follows characters named Jeff and Hunter in their quest to write an original musical. In the course of their work, they enlist a pair of actress friends, Heidi and Susan (originally played by Heidi Blickenstaff and Susan Blackwell) to fill out the cast. If you’re starting to feel a sort of hall-of-mirrors vibe to the whole project, you’re absolutely on target. “[title of show]” is indeed self-referential but, says actor James Gardiner, who plays Hunter in the Signature mounting, there’s a deeper theme to the work: “It’s really about why we as artists fell in love with theatre in the first place. Connections between people and the whole collaborative process are what the show is about at its core.”

Bowen and Bell have stuffed “[title of show]” with allusions to the whole dizzy, glorious universe of musical theatre. An entire song is crafted from the titles of legendary stinkers, for example, and there are affectionate shout-outs to Comden and Green and Kander and Ebb. Being a musical theatre aficionado isn’t required, though, to fall under the show’s spell. Says Director Matthew Gardiner (James’s twin brother), “Even though the piece is filled with theatre references that more than half of the audience won’t understand, at its root it’s about having a dream and following it.” Though it might seem corny, he adds, “it’s what everybody in the audience can connect with: people putting themselves on the line and making their vision come true.”

For Sam Ludwig, who plays Jeff, “[title of show]” is “a celebration of the medium” of musical theatre.

“This is a story about people who love that way of telling a story enough to want to tell a story about how much they love it.” Which seems to be a very “[title of show]” way of putting it.

Casting Signature’s production of “[title of show],” for which its creators were not only its original cast but also its characters, was a challenge for Matthew Gardiner. “We saw at least 60 people for all the roles.” One decision, though, was easier to make than others: “I think James was a very obvious choice from the beginning, because it’s a story that was very personal to him — he’s written a Broadway musical [“Glory Days,” which originated at Signature] and he knows what it’s like to follow that path.”

Gardiner found the rest of his cast late in the audition process: Sam Ludwig and Helen Hayes Award winners Erin Driscoll (Heidi) and Jenna Sokolowski (Susan) were called in together with James Gardiner, and the director found their chemistry “just jelled and worked.”

“One of the reasons is that the four of them know each other so well from working at Signature and there was already a sense of camaraderie that wouldn’t be false or fabricated” — a key essential for a show that’s about the bonds of creative friendship.

Erin Driscoll finds parallels with her character in her own theatrical life. “Luckily, Heidi and I are pretty similar” as musical theater actresses, she says. Driscoll has the show’s most touching song, “A Way Back to Then,” Heidi’s recollection of first being entranced with performing (“Dancing in the back yard/Kool-Aid mustache and butterfly wings/Hearing Andrea McArdle sing/From the hi-fi in the den”) and of setting off with a U-Haul for New York to make her mark on stage. “I definitely have that experience and know exactly what it’s like,” she says.

Though “[title of show]” is a decidedly offbeat project, its charms span both its risk-taking and its firm roots in musical theatre traditions. Sam Ludwig finds the integration of songs and scenes “so satisfyingly musical.” James Gardiner points out that “it follows the musical theatre formula but is so willing to break it every rule in the book while it’s following every rule” at the same time.

There’s even the requisite musical theatre romance — of sorts. The cast has joked that “Heidi and Susan are the love story,” says Erin Driscoll. Initially wary of each other’s differences (to Susan, Heidi is “so uptown, and fancy, and Broadway,” while Heidi finds Susan “so downtown and funky and sassy”), they “become good, good friends” in the course of the show. “Their relationship is the one that changes and grows throughout the piece,” she says. For Sam Ludwig, “the guys push the story along and the girls make it more interesting.”

In a sense, “[title of show]” serves as a kind of contemporary bookend to Signature’s production of “Showboat” earlier this season. That classic 1927 work also focuses on show folk, and holds up theatre as both a dreamy alternate universe and an escape from real life. “[title of show]” takes real life and makes it into the stuff of musical theatre. Bowen and Bell and company are as enamored of life upon the wicked stage as Kern and Hammerstein, and the depth of that affection gives “[title of show]” its heart.

For all its meta-musical smarts, “[title of show]” is for Matthew Gardiner “a simple, honest story about a friendship,” and he and the cast are counting on audiences to embrace the show on that level.

“Even if you don’t know the references, you will enjoy it. Guaranteed.”

And there will be no quizzes afterward.

“[title of show]” plays at Signature Theatre April 6 through June 27. Go to [www.signature-theatre.org](http://www.signature-theatre.org) for more information.

Justice is Served in Stevens’ ‘Thurgood’


If ever there was a moment in the theater that you could without a doubt call a real Washington moment, it occurred at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater on June 1, the opening night of “Thurgood.”

Here, at the end, taking bows was American Film Institute Founder, filmmaker and television director George Stevens, Jr., the author of the one-man biographical play about the legendary first African American Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.

Right next to him was actor Laurence Fishburne who, during the course of the play, simply disappeared and all but resurrected the grand civil rights warrior Marshall up close and personal.

There in the audience was Marshall’s widow, his two sons and enough Supreme Court justices to at least make a singing group: Chief Justice John Roberts, Stephen Bryer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, not to mention Washington insider and civil rights leader Vernon Jordan, who is a producer for the show.

Did we forget to mention that the timing couldn’t be more historically atmospheric? By now, everyone knows that Elena Kagan, President Barack Obama’s choice to fill the seat of retiring Justice John Paul Stevens, was a clerk for Marshall.

It doesn’t get any more Washington than that.

“For me, it’s so gratifying, so appropriate to bring this play to the Kennedy Center,” Stevens said in an interview with the Georgetowner. “This is where Marshall accomplished so much, it’s where he was a giant in front of the Supreme Court, arguing the Board of Education versus Brown case, and on the court as a major force.”

Stevens, the son of the late Oscar-winning director George Stevens, is himself a noted film director of major, much-talked-about television mini-series and documentaries. He’s a man whose life has been split between Hollywood and Washington, where he began his career being asked to work on the film division of the U.S. Information Agency in the early 1960s. A long-time Georgetown resident, he’s also the founder of the American Film Institute and producer of the Kennedy Center Honors.

A strong streak of fairness for outsiders runs through much of Stevens’ own work, including the mini-series “The Murder of Mary Phagan” and “Separate But Equal,” the 1991 mini-series about the 1957 Brown vs. Board of Education case which starred Sidney Poitier as Marshall and Burt Lancaster as the opposition attorney.

“I think a lot of that came from my father,” Stevens said. “If you look at his major works after the war — which changed him tremendously — there is a strong sense of justice and fairness in his films like ‘Giant’ and ‘The Diary of Anne Frank.'”

“When we did ‘Separate but Equal’ I thought a lot about the possibility of writing a play, but not a narrative drama necessarily,” he said. “The film was about a specific historical event. The play is Thurgood Marshall in full, so to speak. I wanted people to see the human being who was so important to the events and history of his time. I didn’t want people to go to the play so that they could feel good, to have a good moral feeling, with nothing but factual incidents.

“Laurence is perfect in the part,” he said. “When it debuted in New York in 2008, Marshall’s wife was in the audience. She loved Fishburne’s performance and kidded him, saying ‘I wish you weren’t married.’”

What Fishburne, who has a persona, voice and track record that’s instantly recognizable (Three “Matrix” films, the lead role in the current “CSI” series), does in “Thurgood” is to bury himself in the man. The characteristic Fishburne voice is gone, and what’s left of it has an old man’s grunt and growl to it.

“He’s also very funny,” Stevens said. “People are surprised that there are so many humorous moments.”

The conceit of the play is that it’s a rather casual address made by Marshall to a law school class at Howard, where he went to school, talking about his life and work, growing up, taking on cases that broke the all-white spell at the University of Maryland law school, taking on voting rights cases in Texas, meeting his first wife (who passed away) and his second wife, taking on the Board of Education case, the legal strategies and his ascent to the high court, which includes memorable stories about LBJ.

So emphatic and vivid is Fishburne that the arrival of a number of late-comers (because of traffic snarls on opening night) folded right in as Thurgood Marshall welcomed them warmly.

Stevens, meantime, is busy on his next project.

“You’ll like this one,” he said. “It’s called “Herblock of N Street.”

That would be Herblock, the late, great Pulitzer Prize-winning political cartoonist of the Washington Post.

We can’t wait.

“Thurgood” runs at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater through June 20.
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Studio’s ‘American Buffalo’


David Mamet’s “American Buffalo” premiered 25 years ago, assuring the playwright’s reputation as an American master, a man who had written an enduring theater classic.

Today, it still seems fresh in its language and feeling, in its inarticulate expression of the importance of the American business ethos in the nation’s life, even its dankest, smallest, lowest places. At the Studio Theatre, where outgoing Artistic Director Joy Zinoman shows again that she get the essentials of familiar material, in which the three petty thieves and low-lifes get to cry out and trumpet their own “attention must be paid,” their own plea for importance.

You’d think that in a contemporary play where a cellphone doesn’t ring, there would be a whiff of the anachronistic, that rust might have settled on the play. But in the 1970s world of Don, Teach and Bobby, ineffectual small-time crooks, thieves and hustlers, the time is now, and it’s not going to get any better.

By now, Mamet’s way of writing dialogue — repetitious, stinky with street debris, loss, and the fallout of small dreams ill considered, has acquired a cachet all of its own, it’s often imitated — like Hemingway’s sparse style and his tough private eye imitators Chandler, Hammett and Ross MacDonald. In fact, it’s often parodied. It sounds hard-nosed and earthy, virtually real, except that its rhythms aren’t real at all, and they have a kind of jazzy musicality to them.

Repetition is a way at arriving at the point of a conversation for this trio. Don is a small lookout for the next opportunity, not the main chance. He runs “Don’s Resale” shop, a place that’s half storage house for stolen goods, a quarter junkyard, and a quarter pawn shop, with a bit of accidental antique shop thrown in. The three — Don, slow, empathetic, patient; Teach, a jacked-up, nervous man with nothing in his life except for his time in the shop; and Bobby, the hyper junkie who acts as if he’s burning up all the time — are thieves of one sort or another. They operate on the fringes, and mostly outside the law.

But to them, boosting a truck, breaking into a house and working with other crooks is all part of the great American enterprise of going for the dollar, of a business where everyone’s entitled to a share of the proceeds. This one time, they’ve convinced themselves that a man who bought an American buffalo nickel from Don is loaded with rare coins which they plan to steal from his house.

Easier said than planned, let alone done. Theses are guys frozen with inaction, jealousies, insecurities, drenched in bad habits attained in poker games and too much time spent together. Their talk doesn’t get results, and they improvise bad notes like a drunk sax player.

Ed Gero, who plays the frustrated, often flummoxed Don, is the glue of this production. He’s the shaky sun around which the other two roll as they vie for his attention, for his approval, for the go-ahead. Gero has a soft solidity here, an exasperation that comes from owning junk, but also from love. Peter Allas as the gun-toting Teach looks like one of those guys who’s always stirring the pot where trust lies buried. And Jimmy Davis is disturbing as the needy, skinny, pushy junkie Bobby.

Russell Metheny’s shabby, rich set of a shop is a wonder. It looks lived in, like an ornamented prison.

Zinoman lets the actors have their way with the words, where the heart and shabby souls lie. “American Buffalo” is often funny, but it’s always tense, dangerous and touching, sometimes all at once. Try to imagine the “Seinfeld” cast of folks as low-lifes, and you get the idea. “Don’t forget, we gotta do the thing?” “The thing? What thing?” “You know, the thing, we gotta do it.” “Oh yeah, the thing. We gotta do the thing.”

Which isn’t exact. But you get the drift. It’s like smoke and music from the past coming into the here and now.

(“American Buffalo” runs through June 13.)

Michael Danek, Rock of Ages


Michael Danek comes to Washington frequently—he has friends and relatives here in the suburbs and it’s not that far away from New York where he lives when he’s not on the road, which is often.

But he hasn’t been at the National Theatre on Pennsylvania Avenue in a long time in a professional capacity.

Not since he was Harry.

Not since he was an actor in the legendary “Hello Dolly,” with the legendary Carol Channing back on 1978.

“You know the song, right,” he says in a phone interview, “the title song where everyone’s singing ‘Hello Dolly’ by way of greeting. Well, back then I was one of the waiters that comes on, guy named Harry, and she sings ‘Well, hello, Harry…’”

“That was pretty cool,” he says. “And Carol Channing, well, she was something, no question.”

Well Harry, that is, Michael, is back at the National Theatre, only this time, as stage manager for the touring company. He’s running the whole show – the show being “Rock of Ages,” the hit Broadway show about a bunch of kids finding love and music, 1980’s style.

Put another way, it’s a long way from “Hello Dolly” to “Hit Me with Your Best Shot,” the iconic femme rock song sung by Pat Benatar in the 1980s. It’s a long way from the music of Jerry Hermann to Styx, or for that matter, from bustles to Afros.

“Yeah, it’s different,” Danek said. “But one things the same, they’re both big shows, big hits.”

Danek, who switched from being a performer (including long runs in “A Chorus Line”) in the 1980s, to stage managing, from onstage to backstage, couldn’t be happier. “I had a good run,” he said. “Especially the Chorus Line gig, because that was one of the most original Broadway shows ever. There’s nothing like it, so many talented people in it.”

But as stage manager, he’s basically responsible for running the show on the road, the pacing, the calling, the scheduling, getting people squared away, making sure everything runs as smoothly as it should. “The director’s going to call in, but once a show, a play gets on stage, the director basically is finished,” he said. “It’s my job now that this tour, which is pretty hectic, goes smoothly, how the company and the sets and everything work in relation to the size of the venue. Every place is a little different.”

“I love this show,” he says. “I guess it’s sort of part of my musical memory. Sure, so the music is great, but everybody in it is super. This is a great cast, a great group of people, enthusiastic as all get out. I know sometimes in road shows you get performers that sort of coast or wing it. Not here. These guys and girls, they make it fresh every night, they work like fiends.”

“And then there’s the equipment,” he says. “There’s a lot of amps, you could say it’s loud, but then the music was loud and the hair was big. Bring ear plugs.”

He continued, “We’re unloading five trucks, including the sound stuff, and the amps, so yeah, it’s a lot to get down right. And yeah, there’s a lot of hair.”

“Rock of Ages” is huge in the minds of its fans, everywhere they go. “You’ve got to like living on the road,” he says. “Especially on this show. It’s a short run show, nothing more than a month, most of it less. We had a nice run in San Francisco, with a little more leisure time. But basically you’ve got to be cool about packing up, living in hotels, out you go again kind of thing.”

Constantine Maroulis of American Idol fame is the headliner in this version, which weaves comedy and romance with a young cast of actors, singers and performers through a rich bag of 1980s hits. It runs at the national through July 24. Kristin Hanggi, who snagged a Tony Award nomination for her work on “Rock of Ages” directs. “We’re in touch pretty much constantly,” Danek says. “If there’s a problem that she needs to deal with, we talk.”

The tour includes Seattle, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Des Moines, Kansas City, Fort Laudesrdale, Clearwater, Houston and Dallas among its 15 stops. “I’ve been with the show since January,” he said. “It’s been a great ride, no kidding.”

And “Rock of Ages” is soon – in 2012 – coming to a theater near you. You’ve probably seen the clips of Tom Cruise in bare-chest vest for the movie version. “He plays an aging rocker,” Danek said. “He came backstage during the tour. He was really nice, posed for pictures with everyone, very cool guy.”

Folks come for the love story, but mostly, and most likely for the music. Songs include the anthem-like “Anyway You Want It” and “Don’t Stop Believing” from Journey’s salad days, “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” by Poison “I Wanna Rock” from the wonderfully named Twisted Sister, David Lee Roth’s “Just Like Paradise,” Styx’s “Renegade,” Benatar’s “Shadows of the Night” and “Hit Me With Your Best Shot,” Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive,” Foreigner’s “Waiting for a Girl Like You.”

“I’m not sorry about not performing, I don’t miss it,” Danek said. “This is theater, too and it’s the life that I picked. It’s the nuts and bolts stuff. Every night and every place is different.”

“Rock of Ages” started out in Los Angeles, performed four times in two days at King, then was performed once at the Warner Brothers Soundstage in LA before formally opening in LA at the Vanguard Hollywood for six weeks. In 2006, it had a limited run at the Flamingo in Las Vegas, then hit off-Broadway in 2008. In April of 2009, it opened at the prestigious Brooks Atkinson Theatre on Broadway. It has since toured nationally, and opened in productions in Korea and Melbourne.

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