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Opera: Girl drama

Angela Mead, Norma, Washington National Opera, gay news, Washington Blade

Angela Mead in a promo photo for ‘Norma.’ (Photo by Dario Acosta; courtesy WNO)

Kennedy Center Opera House
2700 F St., NW
Tickets: $25-$300
202-467-4600
kennedy-center.org

This spring at Washington National Opera, the fairer sex will be the talk of the capital’s operatic scene. From stars to directors and the repertoire itself, women rule the stage, with exciting company debuts as part of the stable.

First out of the gate, opening Saturday, is “Manon Lescaut,” starring Washington favorite Patricia Racette in the title role. Last seen on the Kennedy Center’s opera stage in 2011 for “Iphigenie en Tauride” and “Tosca,” Racette (a lesbian) will be tackling the role of Manon Lescaut for the first time in the revival of gay director John Pascoe’s 2007 production.

Patricia Racette, Manon Lascaut, Washington National Opera, gay news, Washington Blade

Patricia Racette in the title role for ‘Manon Lescaut.’ (Photo by Cory Weaver; courtesy WNO)

Written by Giacomo Puccini and premiered in 1893, “Manon Lescaut” was a risky undertaking for the composer. Almost a decade earlier, Frenchman Jules Massenet had unveiled a wildly popular version of the same story, simply titled “Manon.” Up to this point in his career, Puccini hadn’t been particularly successful, but “Manon Lescaut” put Puccini on the operatic map.

For many of his operas, Puccini’s heroine is the crux of the drama, and “Manon Lescaut” set the bar for this winning equation. At the opera’s start, the young and achingly beautiful Manon is on her way to a convent at her family’s insistence. Her carriage stops in a small town for a rest, where she meets the young and handsome Des Grieux. After he professes his undying love for her, she decides to run away with him, whether for love or a convenient escape is up for debate.

At the start of the second act, time has passed and Manon has cashed in her chips for money and comfort instead of love. She’s now the kept woman of an older wealthy man, and although she has everything she could ever dream of, she pines for Des Grieux. Eventually, the young pair manages to reconnect with disastrous results, including an appropriately operatic death scene for Manon.

One of the greatest tests of an operatic soprano is the titular role of “Norma.” Divas from Rosa Ponselle to Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland have made the Druid priestess their calling card, and now, rising soprano Angela Meade steps up to the plate for her first full production of this titanic role.

Audiences and critics have long been anticipating this moment with a mixture of hopeful curiosity and timidity. In July of 2010, Meade sang the role in a concert version, and while the reviews were generally kind, many felt it was too much too soon for the young soprano. Cut to February 2012 when a more seasoned Meade, on the heels of winning the Beverly Sills Artist Award, received glittering notices for her performance at the Metropolitan Opera in Verdi’s “Ernani.” Starting March 9, the soprano makes another run at Norma in a new production, directed by out theater and opera director Anne Bogart.

“Norma” is a tale of betrayed love and, ultimately, redemption, headed by the priestess of the title. The ancient Celts, under Roman occupation, are biding their time to destroy the southern interlopers until Norma gives her consent.

She’s been delaying, though, because she’s fallen deeply in love with the Roman general and has secretly born him two children.

As men are wont to do, the Roman falls in love with another priestess, leaving Norma in the emotional lurch. The opera ends in a spectacularly heartbreaking climax between Norma, her former lover and her father who is shocked to learn of Norma’s transgression. Written by Vincenzo Bellini and premiered in 1831, “Norma” has persevered in the repertoire because of its interpreters. This spring, we’ll see if Angela Meade makes it her own.

Later in spring, comes the final offering of the opera’s season, the American musical “Show Boat,” a piece that has long straddled the line between opera and musical theater. This new production, opening May 4, will be directed by Washington National Opera’s new artistic director, Francesca Zambello, who started her tenure as artistic director in January.

Jerome Kern’s musical masterpiece features songs that have become woven into America’s cultural identity, including the show stopping “Ol’ Man River.” Zambello, who is gay, is no stranger to Washington’s operatic stage, having directed much of Wagner’s Ring Cycle for the company along with another great American opera “Porgy and Bess.”

28
Feb
2013

Theater: Stories and stages

Edward Gero, Nancy Opel, Ford Theatre, Hello Dolly, gay news

Edward Gero and Nancy Opel in Ford Theatre’s upcoming production of ‘Hello Dolly.’ (Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy Ford’s)

For local LGBT theatergoers, the spring season promises a wide selection of both fresh and familiar offerings, some light and others more compelling.

At Arena Stage, Robert O’Hara is directing “The Mountaintop” (March 29-May12), playwright Katori Hall’s “bold reimagining of the last night of the historic life of Dr. Martin Luther King.” Talented, multifaceted and gay, O’Hara is currently playwright in residence at Woolly Mammoth Theatre.

Arena (arenastage.org) is also mounting gay playwright Jon Robin Baitz’s newest play “Other Desert Cities” (April 26-May 26). While spending Christmas at the beige Palm Springs home of her aging Reaganite power couple parents, fragile adult daughter Brooke drops a bomb — she’s writing a tell-all memoir. Complications ensue. The New York Times’ Ben Brantley compared “Other Desert Cities” to sophisticated plays from the past. It’s like those “literate, thoughtful, well-tailored topical dramas in which people spoke with a fluency, wittiness and sense of timing we only wished we could command in real life.”

This spring will age MaryBeth Wise far beyond her years. She’s cast to play Mary in Round House Theatre’s (roundhousetheatre.org) production of “How to Write a New Book for the Bible” (April 10-May 5), playwright Bill Cain’s autobiographical work about a man who returns home to care for his dying mother. “It’s kind of a memory play,” says Wise, who is gay. “My part requires going from age 40 to 80, and back and forth.” She predicts a “funny and intense journey.” Ryan Rilette is directing.

Triple threat Bobby Smith will be spending a lot of time at Arlington’s Signature Theatre (signature-theatre.org) in the coming months. First, Smith (who is gay) plays Peter, a possibly gay man living happily with ex-wife Susan in Eric Schaeffer’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Company” (May 21-June 30), the award-winning musical about a marriage-phobic bachelor’s search for meaning. The show’s spectacular score includes “Being Alive,” “Side By Side,” “Little Things You Do Together,” “Another Hundred People” and “Ladies Who Lunch.”

And this summer, Smith is evil Richard Riddle in Signature’s “Spin,” a world premiere musical based on a Korean cult classic titled “Speedy Scandal.” Smith describes his character as a sort of Rex Reed-style gossip columnist villain.

At MetroStage (metrostage.org) in Alexandria, John Vreeke is directing “Ghost Writer” (April 25-June 2). When a famed novelist drops dead mid-sentence, his typist, Myra (Susan Lynskey), continues writing his unfinished book as if taking dictation from the great beyond. MetroStage’s artistic director Carolyn Griffin says Vreeke, who is gay, is brilliant at finding “the perfect tone and balance for gemlike plays with delicate scripts in which very special relationships are portrayed.”

At Folger Theatre on Capitol Hill (folger.edu), prolific gay set designer Tony Cisek is again collaborating with British director Robert Richmond — this time on Shakespeare’s gender bending comedy “Twelfth Night” (April 30-June 9). The cast features local favorites including Joshua Morgan (also gay) as Valentine, the gentleman attendant to Duke Orsino.

In Tysons Corner, 1st Stage (1ststagespringhill.org) is presenting gay playwright John Logan’s “Never the Sinner” (March 22-April 14), an erotically fraught telling of the real life Leopold and Loeb case in which a pair of affluent Chicago teenagers attempt to commit the perfect murder. The talented Jeremy Skidmore directs.

As part of the Kennedy Center’s Nordic Cool 2013 (a month-long celebration of Scandinavian culture), Stockholm’s Royal Dramatic Theatre is presenting the U.S. premiere of “Fanny and Alexander” (March 7-9), its much ballyhooed stage adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s beautiful Oscar-winning feature film.

Also coming to the Kennedy Center: “The Guardsman” (May 25-June 23), a revival of the 1920s Broadway comedy hit that starred the famed married acting team Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne as game-playing newlywed actors. Known for years as the first family of the American theater, Lunt and Fontanne, both gay, were married primarily for reasons of business and friendship. (kennedy-center.org)

On the Ides of March, Ford’s Theatre (in co-production with Signature) is rolling out that musical comedy chestnut “Hello Dolly!” (March 15-May 18) (fordstheatre.org). Based on gay playwright Thornton Wilder’s comedy “The Matchmaker,” the 1964 fun musical boasts a memorable score by gay composer Jerry Herman that includes enduring tunes like “Before the Parade Passes By,” and, of course, “Hello, Dolly!” The title role — most notably performed by Carol Channing in New York and on tour for what seems several centuries, and Barbra Streisand on the silver screen — will be played by Broadway veteran Nancy Opel. Terrific local actor Edward Gero is cast as Dolly’s grumpy romantic quarry Horace Vandergelder. Signature’s gay artistic director Eric Schaeffer is directing.

Philip Fletcher is taking on the lead role of the wronged Prospero in Synetic Theater’s (synetictheater.org) “The Tempest” (through March 24), the ninth installment of the fabulously innovative movement based company’s “Silent Shakespeare” series. Fletcher, who’s gay, won a Helen Hayes Award for his outstanding supporting actor effort as one of three witches in Synetic’s “Macbeth.”

Olney Theatre Center (olneytheatre.org) is mounting Jeff Talbott’s racially charged comedy “The Submission” (May 9-June 9). Here’s the premise: Using the pen name Shaleeha G’ntamobi, a nascent gay white playwright writes a about a black family dealing with ghetto life. When his play is selected to be produced by a prestigious theater festival, the playwright hires a black actress to stand in for him. Guess what? Things don’t go smoothly.

28
Feb
2013

Interrogating circumstances

‘Contractions’
Through Jan. 27
The Studio Theatre (Studio 2ndstage)
1501 14th Street, NW
$30-$35
202-332-3300
studiotheatre.org

Holly Twyford, Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan, Contractions, Studio Theatre, theater, gay news, Washington Blade

Holly Twyford (left) and Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan in ‘Contractions.’ (Photo by Scott Suchmann; courtesy of Studio Theatre)

With “Contractions,” British playwright Mike Bartlett takes the horrors of corporate servitude to the nth degree.

Now making its American premiere at Studio 2ndStage, Bartlett’s workplace satire is laugh-out-loud funny and menacingly dark at once. It unfolds through a series of increasingly uncomfortable meetings in which Emma (Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan), a newly hired sales professional at an unnamed corporation, is relentlessly and methodically questioned by a bizarrely inquisitive manager (Holly Twyford). Both clad in sleek black suits (pants for the manager and skirts for Emma) and super-high heels, the pair review employee regulations giving special attention to the sections pertaining to romantic and sexual relationships among employees.

Any suspicions that the manager’s obsessive inquiry into the most minute details of Emma’s sex life is driven by prurient interests or perhaps her lustful designs on the new, younger employee are rather quickly put to rest when it becomes abundantly clear that her every move — even the most perverse — are done to benefit the company’s bottom line.

More and more, the manager’s inquiries and directives grow ludicrously outrageous. Initially Emma is her superior’s match, but not for long. Volleys build into one-sided brutal attacks and it’s soon evident that Emma can’t compete with a company-backed opponent. After being frequently reminded about the sluggish job market and that there are more than a hundred applicants ready and willing to fill her corporate position, Emma surrenders to HR’s demands. She devolves from confident and sexy to broken and bereft. At one point, Emma asks the heartless boss if she bleeds. And while we never get that answer, we do become acquainted with some of Emma’s bodily fluids. And no wonder with the battering she goes through.

British director Duncan Macmillan ably helms the top-notch production and Twyford and Wilmoth Keegan both deliver knockout performances. With a frozen smile, glazed eyes and hilariously placed pauses, Twyford (who is gay) is at the top of her game as the corporate automaton. Wilmoth Keegan is equally terrific and wonderfully natural as Emma.

“Contractions” is not the first time Twyford and Wilmoth Keegan have successfully joined forces. In the fall of 2011, Wilmoth Keegan played the victim of a brutal gay bashing in “Stop Kiss,” Diane Son’s play about women friends turned lovers. The well-received No Rules Theatre Company production marked Twyford’s directorial debut.

Bartlett, the playwright, is best known for “Cock,” his hit play (in London and New York) about a happily partnered gay man who falls in love with a woman.

“Contractions” is set entirely in the manager’s stark office. Designed by Luciana Stecconi, it’s a minimalist’s wet dream: white walls, white floors, white light (compliments of Colin K. Bills), and two white office chairs positioned at opposite ends of a long, white conference table. Discreetly built-in cabinets contain scarily detailed personnel files. No clutter. No art. No signs of life at all really. It’s a sterile space, perfectly suited for surgically excising what makes an employee human.

10
Jan
2013

In the ‘loop’

Stefanie Powers, gay news, Washington Blade

Actress Stefanie Powers is set to fill in for Valerie Harper on a revival of ‘Looped.’ (Photo courtesy of the Hippodrome)

Emmy Award and Golden Globe nominee Stefanie Powers plays actress Tallulah Bankhead in the comedy “Looped” starting Tuesday at 8 p.m. until March 17 at 6:30 p.m. at the Hippodrome (12 North Eutaw St., Baltimore).

Powers steps in for an ailing Valerie Harper who was nominated for a Tony in the role and played it in Washington a few years ago. Powers has a strong connection to the material — she was Bankhead’s co-star in “Die Die My Darling,” the film for which Bankhead is looping a scene in “Looped.” Powers said she has fond memories of Bankhead and got to know her well.

Bankhead was known for wild partying and was for unconventional liberal causes that broke away from Southern Democratic traditions. The play takes place on a sound studio in 1965.

Tickets are $43-$92. For more information, visit baltimore.broadway.com.

28
Feb
2013

Gem from another era

‘The Show-Off’
Through Feb. 2
American Century Theater
Gunston Performing Arts Center, Theatre II
2700 South Lang Street, Arlington
$35-$40
703-998-4555
americancenturytheatre.org

theater, The Show-Off, Joe Cronin, Jenna Berk, Lee Mikeska Gardner, American Century Theater, gay news, Washington Blade

From left, Joe Cronin, Jenna Berk and Lee Mikeska Gardner in ‘The Show-Off.’ (Photo by Johannes Markus; courtesy of the American Century Theater)

Everyone’s met an Aubrey Piper, the obnoxious title character in George Kelly’s 1924 comedy “The Show-Off.” Loud, boastful, desperate for attention, Aubrey is a nightmare in an obvious toupee and a liar to boot. But lucky for most of us, unlike the Fishers, the good folks featured in Kelly’s play, we don’t have an Aubrey marrying into the family.

At 90, Kelly’s play is windy but fundamentally funny precisely because it deals in familiar, time-resistant types. “The Show-off” got its start as a big Broadway hit and subsequently enjoyed revivals and was adapted to the screen more than once. Currently, it’s in production at Arlington’s American Century Theater, a company committed to promoting 20th century plays as a vital part of today’s cultural dialogue.

The show opens with Mrs. Fisher (Lee Mikeska Gardner) dishing the dirt with her sensible, well-married daughter Clara (Jenna Berk). It seems Aubrey (David Gram) has been coming to call on the Fishers’ younger daughter Amy (Erin E. McGuff) every Wednesday and Sunday evening without fail. Not content to woo his giggly girlfriend privately in the offstage parlor, Aubrey brings his corny jokes, tall tales and off key singing center stage to the living room where Amy’s parents and her inventor brother Joe (Evan Crump) are trying to pass a quiet evening at home. A solid working class family with a comfortable house in northern Philadelphia, the Fishers can’t understand what their daughter sees in the phony low paid freight clerk posing as a Pennsylvania Railroad big shot.

By act two the Fishers’ worst fears are realized: Aubrey and Amy are married. By act three, it gets even worse, and finally a little better. At the end, Clara begins to soften. Locked in a lonely marriage, she is charmed by Aubrey’s sincere love for her sister. And though he doesn’t pull a big salary, Aubrey does go to work every day. In the end, despite — or more likely because of — his borderline con artist ways, Aubrey brings a boon to the family. Will he again in the future? That’s unclear.

Set in the playwright George Kelly’s native Philadelphia, the comedy is filled with references to streets and neighborhoods including the downtown area where Clara’s detached husband Frank (Nello DeBlasio) first spotted Aubrey (he’s hard to miss with jaunty fedora, walking stick and red carnation), and the busy intersection where Aubrey runs down a cop.

George Kelly was enormously popular in the ‘20s and early ‘30s. Today, aside from being movie star Grace Kelly’s uncle, he is best known for “The Show-Off” and his Pulitzer Prize-winning drama “Craig’s Wife,” a morality tale about a controlling woman who values a pristine home above family and friendship. (The latter was adapted for the screen in ‘50s as “Harriett Craig,” a juicy mid-career vehicle for none other than real life clean freak Joan Crawford). Kelly was also gay, and not surprising for the time, carefully closeted. He maintained a 55-year relationship with partner William Weagley.

Uniformed in her apron and rolled down hose, Mikeska Gardner’s Mrs. Fisher is a feisty but warmhearted and uncomplicated homemaker. Sometimes she plays her a bit simple but never a fool. Similarly, Gram’s Aubrey even at his most over-the-top, third rate vaudevillian weirdness, is no fool either. It’s a good thing too. The play wouldn’t work otherwise.

Ably directed by Stephen Jarrett, the talented nine-person cast is especially cohesive. Set designer Leigh-Ann Friedel’s living room is handsome and realistic, well suited to Kelly’s durable play. (Kelly had no time for the modernism and more experimental theater forms en vogue in his heyday). Showing great attention to detail, Erin Nugent successfully clothes the cast through numerous costume changes on a presumably not huge budget.

Once again, The American Century Theater has fulfilled its mission by plucking and mounting a charming seldom-produced show from the American repertoire. See it while you can.

17
Jan
2013

Powers channels Tallulah in ‘Looped’

Stefanie Powers as Tallulah Bankhead in 'Looped.' (Photo courtesy France Merrick)

Stefanie Powers as Tallulah Bankhead in ‘Looped.’ (Photo courtesy France Merrick)

The current production of gay playwright Matthew Lombardi’s “Looped,” which runs through March 17 at the Hippodrome in Baltimore, is a bittersweet affair. Although it’s a wildly entertaining show, an ailing Valerie Harper, who has acknowledged a cancer diagnosis, had to pull out shortly before it opened.

In her place and starring as Tallulah Bankhead is “Hart to Hart” actress Stefanie Powers. The sweet part is that she succeeds so triumphantly in the role — she’s equally as good as Harper, who played the part in Washington nearly four years ago, and produces an uncanny portrayal of Bankhead that’s so accomplished, after a few minutes one forgets one is watching Powers on stage. And it’s easier said than done — this is the kind of part that is easy enough to master on a drag queen or sketch comedy level, but to imbibe Bankhead with humanity, is a bit trickier. Powers succeeds in spades. Even more astounding, she learned the dialogue-heavy part in just two weeks.

It helps, perhaps, that she was Bankhead’s costar in the 1965 film “Die Die My Darling.” The setting of “Looped” is Bankhead — pretty looped herself at this point — attempting to dub a line from the film in post-production. She has trouble getting it. Hilarity and unexpected poignance ensue. Her foil is Danny, solidly played by Brian Hutchinson, and, in the sound booth, a deadpan Steve (Matthew Montelongo). Rob Ruggiero directs.

And though it would be giving too much away to divulge details, Bankhead’s notorious bisexuality isn’t the only LGBT theme in the piece.

Go here for tickets and show times.

11
Mar
2013

‘Cabaret’ goes to Church

Cabaret, Keegan Theatre, gay news, Washington Blade

The cast of Keegan Theatre’s ‘Cabaret,’ which opens Saturday. (Photo courtesy of Keegan Theatre)

The Keegan Theatre presents “Cabaret” at the Church Street Theater (1742 Church St., NW) opening Saturday night at 8.

This revival of the hit Broadway show takes place in the Kit Kat Klub, a place full of seedy nightlife on the eve Hitler’s rise to power. Based on Christopher Isherwood’s “Berlin Stories,” the story centers around a cabaret singer, a writer from America and the denizens of Berlin.

Tickets are $35 to $40. The show runs Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 and Sundays at 3 p.m. through Feb. 23.

For more information, visit keegantheatre.com.

24
Jan
2013

Dark waters

The Tempest, Philip Fletcher, David Istrate, Synetic, gay news, theater, Washington Blade

Philip Fletcher, left, and David Istrate in Synetic’s ‘The Tempest.’ (Photo by Johnny Shrycock; courtesy Synetic)

‘The Tempest’
Through March 24
Synetic Theater
1800 S. Bell Street, Arlington
$35-$55
synetictheater.org

As it if it weren’t already daunting enough to silently interpret Shakespeare through stylized moves and gravity-defying vertical jumps, Synetic Theater has now added water to the mix. For its current take on “The Tempest,” the celebrated movement-based company has transformed its Crystal City stage into a lake of shallow dark water with stunning results.

Because the sea is so integral to the island-set romantic dramedy, performing in ankle deep water doesn’t feel all that farfetched. The play opens with Prospero, the disposed Duke of Milan, and his daughter Miranda landing on a remote, strange island. Armed with a magical staff, Prospero conjures a storm, causing his political enemies/estranged family members’ ship to wreck, landing them on the island too. And like a body of water, the story is always changing, whipsawing from splashy merriment to dangerous mystery to contemplative calm.

Paata Tsikurishvili’s lucid staging along with Irina Tsikurishvili’s wildly inventive choreography performed by a cast of impressively fit and mostly graceful young actors, go straight to the essence of the bard’s work, capturing its spirit while invigorating it with sexy, very watchable action. Whether a fight to the death between Prospoero and Caliban’s scary mother Sycorax (Victoria Bertocci) or a big dozen-person brawl, the glorious acrobatic combat scenes are stunningly staged by fight choreographer Ben Cunis.

“The Tempest” is the ninth installment of Synetic’s ongoing Silent Shakespeare Series. No dialogue is spoken. In fact, except for a few grunts and one or two harrumphs, the actors are entirely mute. And while you won’t hear Prospero waxing poetic, “We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep” or treacherous young Sebastian barking “A pox o’ your throat, you bawling, blasphemous, incharitable dog,” you will feel the full of impact of the text. What’s lost in spoken word is made up for in the expressive comedy, anger and poignancy of the movement

Shakespeare wrote “The Tempest” late in his career, incorporating varied influences from his other works. Similarly, the seasoned Synetic rises to the occasion, using its full range of skill in the retelling of this epic tale.

As Prospero, out actor Philip Fletcher convincingly conveys his character’s journey from anger to forgiveness and acceptance. His quietly compelling performance complements showier turns by Vato Tsikurishvili as the wild-eyed, indigenous island red devil Caliban and David Istrate as Prospero’s tender favorite Ariel (played as magically manic with a dash of Nosferatu creepiness by the almost unrecognizable, head-to-toe platinum-painted Synetic regular). And Irinka Kavsadze charmingly plays Miranda as an awkward girl on the precipice of becoming a lovely young woman.

With its expanse of dark water backed by a huge rock with a derelict, water-streaming grand piano to the side, Anastasia Simes’ set is serviceable yet mysteriously dreamy. Ragged curtains suggested torn ship sails and at times seaweed. Andrew F. Griffin lighting design and Riki Kim’s projections effectively create a feel of constant motion, the movement of the sea. Moody and hard driving, Konstantine Lortkipanidze’s original score helps set the scene and propel the fast-paced action forward.

For DC theater-goers, water-filled stages are all the rage around town at the moment. At Arena Stage though Sunday, Mary Zimmerman’s Tony Award-winning adaptation of Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” is being performed in a pool, and like Synetic’s latest, it’s also soaking both actors and a few intrepid front row audience members. Get wet while you can.

14
Mar
2013

Brave ‘Balancing Acts’

Monte Wolfe, Brave Soul Collective, gay news, Washington Blade

Monte Wolfe (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Brave Soul Collective in collaboration with the D.C. Center presents “Balancing Acts: Tales of Triumph, Trial & Error” on Feb. 8-9 at 8 p.m. in honor of National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, which is observed on Feb. 7. The performance will take place at the Sitar Arts Center (1700 Kalorama Rd., NW).

The performance tackles a range of topics such as religion and spirituality, family, divorce, relationships, sex, dating and relationships through theatrical pieces and personal testimonies from people living with and affected by HIV/AIDS.  The theatrical pieces are new and original works written by Barbara Asare-Bediako, Alan Sharpe, Jared Shamberger and Monte J. Wolfe.

The first performance is “LGBTQ/ Gay Night” at the theater with outreach from the D.C. Center’s HIV Working Group.

Tickets are $15 in advance and $20 at the door. For more information, visit thedccenter.org.

31
Jan
2013

Old school jazz and blues

Yvette Spears, Lori Williams, Anthony Manough, Roz White, Sandy Bainum, Ladies Swing the Blues, MetroStage, theater, gay news, Washington Blade

From left, Yvette Spears, Lori Williams, Anthony Manough, Roz White and Sandy Bainum in ‘Ladies Swing the Blues.’ (Photo by Christopher Banks; courtesy MetroStage)

‘Ladies Swing the Blues, a Jazz Fable’
Through March 31
MetroStage
1201 North Royal Street, Alexandria
$48-$55
703-548-9044
mestrostage.org

Near the end of Charlie “Bird” Parker’s life, an attending doctor mistook the 34-year-old alto saxophonist to be in his 50s. A longtime battle with drugs and alcohol had taken a toll on the legendary jazz great’s body; but despite the tragic circumstances attached to his premature demise, Bird’s impact remained unbroken, leaving an inimitable, enduring mark on his musical genre and those who knew him.

With “Ladies Swing the Blues, a Jazz Fable” currently premiering at MetroStage in Alexandria, Thomas W. Jones II (book and lyrics) and William Knowles (arrangements and original music) again put the spotlight on an exciting chapter in 20th century African-American musical culture. Jones and Knowles who are also “Ladies” director and musical director respectively have worked together before  — past collaborations include vaudeville-era “Bricktop,” and ‘60s-set “Cool Papa’s Party.” This time it’s the ‘40s and ‘50s New York City jazz scene as personified by the genius Parker.

The action takes place in Manhattan’s legendary jazz club Birdland in 1955 on the day after Parker’s death. Four divas of jazz in the tradition of Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan and Peggy Lee, have gathered to celebrate the memory (warts and all) of their beloved downed comrade. As the ladies swap gossip, jazz lore, and, of course, sing bluesy, jazz standards, Parker walks among them unseen and appears in flashbacks from his fast and furious life.

With an easy smile, twinkly eye, nimble dance moves and fabulous voice, Anthony Manough as Parker sets the bar high for what unfolds as 90 minutes of first-rate entertainment. In turn, Roz White (Lady), Lori Williams (Ella), Yvette Spears (Sassy), and Sandy Bainum (Lee) — terrific, seasoned singers and actors all — prove themselves more than willing and able to command center stage. “Ladies” peaks when the jazz women (decked out in ‘50s cocktail dresses, rhinestones and wigs) take to the Birdland stage to pay musical homage to Parker, starting with low-key, blonde Lee’s heartfelt “Lullaby of Birdland” followed by unbridled Sassy’s powerful “Sometimes I’m Happy,” and worldly Ella’s show stopping scat-infused “Flying Home.”

Finally, Wisecracking and streetwise Lady takes the stage. “Slow this shit down,” she says before easing into an unhurried and salty “Billie’s Blues.”

Besides Lee, Bainum also effectively plays characters from Parker’s life including a socialite jazz-loving baroness and bebop-obsessed “On the Road” author Jack Kerouac.

In search of motivation for his characters’ seeking solace in jazz, Jones smartly plumbs the real life ladies’ rocky pasts which involved prostitution, sexual and physical abuse, bad relationships and addictions. Throughout the show, Lady funnily sips from a sparkly flask that she keeps handily nestled in her cleavage; but at a darker point she moves to the edge of the stage where she shoot ups in the shadows.

The show’s incredibly on point, five-man jazz band led by Knowles on piano is definitely a part of the show. Clad in black tie and placed very visibly onstage beneath an orangey-red neon Birdland sign, the band members enjoy solos and occasionally interact with the actors. “Ladies” features great stuff like “Fever,” “Round Midnight” and “T’aint What You Do” along with some original tunes by Knowles that hold their own in the company of the more familiar classics.

Earlier this season, MetroStage was transformed into a French café celebrating the poignancy of Jacques Brel’s Paris. And now with “Ladies,” it’s been convincingly morphed into a New York jazz club with all the gloriousness and pain that goes with that.

21
Mar
2013