11 shows and 1 movie I’m glad I saw

I had to slow down a bit after having heart surgery the end of February, so I carefully selected shows I thought I’d have a great time seeing and for the most part I chose wisely. The critics have spoken (and you can read their reviews here) but here’s my take.

(l-r) Joshua Morgan as Danny and Derek Kahn Thompson as Reuven (Photo: Stan Barouh)

Theater J’s The Chosen at Arena Stage

Being raised in an Orthodox Jewish home – this was the production that I was waiting to see. How could they ever capture the intensity and passion of Chaim Potok’s novel onstage?

Aaron Posner is a genius and of course he didn’t disappoint. Aaron had lots of help from an amazing cast and brilliant designers. Joshua Morgan (whose No Rules Theatre Company was just awarded The John Aniello Award at last week’s Helen Hayes Awards ceremony, Edward Gero, and Rick Foucheux acted and looked more Jewish than me, and Derek Kahn Thompson, who is a fellow Hebrew, also looked more Jewish than me.

Seriously, all four of these wonderful actors gave outstanding, moving, and emotional performances and I hope the Helen Hayes judges don’t forget this production and these performances when next year’s nominations are announced. Special thanks to Arena Stage for allowing Theater J to mount The Chosen in the Fischandler. It gave the story even more power and allowed set designer James Kronzer to build an ingenious set which put the audience in the middle of Danny, Reuven, David Malter, and Reb Saunder’s world. It was magical.

Synetic Theater’s King Lear at the Lansburgh Theatre

If anyone wonders why Paata and Irina Tsikurishvili and the actors, actresses, and designers who are the Synetic family win a slew of Helen Hayes Awards every year – they should have seen King Lear. Visually stunning, hauntingly beautiful and exciting, athletically eye-popping, and wordless – with a fabulous new score – and the hardest working cast in town. I especially loved Ben Cunis’ wonderful performance as Edgar, Philip Fletcher’s Edmund, and Chris Dinolfo’s Cordelio. The Landsburg Theatre was filled with wonder.

And the Curtain Rises at Signature Theatre

Thanks to Signature Theatre and The Shen Family Foundation for funding and bringing us new musicals. I enjoyed Giant and loved Sycamore Trees, but And the Curtain Rises was another story. OK, I got sick of the character Charles Barras, the playwright whose play William Wheatley is producing for all the wrong reasons, screaming at the top of his lungs through the excruciating First Act, but the Second Act was filled with hummable songs and sheer fun. For the 8 people in my row who didn’t return after intermission, you missed something wonderful. Kudos to the talented cast, including Nick Dalton who is one of my favorite Philadelphia actors. I especially enjoyed watching Broadway vets Erick Devine and Alma Cuervo steal the show. With some workshopping, some rewriting, and less kvetching from Barras – this could be a great musical.

Ricky Ian Gordon

Orpheus and Euridice/Green Sneakers at UrbanArias

I admit I am biased when it comes to Ricky Ian Gordon. I think he is one of the most talented composers who walk this earth, and audiences cheered at UrbanArias after watching his two brilliant and emotional short operas Orpheus and Euridice and Green Sneakers. Ricky describes the two operas here.

The singing of Soprano Elizabeth Futral and playing of clarinetist Todd Palmer, in Orpheus and Euridice, and the singing of baritone Ian Greenshaw in Green Sneakers was sheer beauty.

I’ll never forget it.

Rags at Theatre Lab

You all know that promoting and writing about young actors is my passion and when I was invited to an audition for Rags, I jumped at the opportunity. I urge all of you to attend a Theatre Lab production because you will see wide smiles and joy oozing from the actors and actresses and musicians and backstage volunteers during their shows. Rags was no exception. In the cast were a combination of Theatre Lab alumni, a local theatre veteran, current students, actors from previous productions, and newbies who always wanted to be on the stage. And how wonderful to watch everyone blending in so well and having a great time with a very difficult musical. And the biggest joy for me was to hear my favorite Maggie Roos sing the title song. Now that was heavenly.

Kudos to Director Deb Gottesman, Musical Director and keyboardist Buzz Mauro and his two terrific fellow musicians Alex Tang on piano and Benjamin Walter on clarinet for introducing Charles Strouse’s lovely score to a new generation of theatre goers.

Washington Performing Arts Society’s American Songbook with Michael Feinstein at The Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall

They don’t call Michael Feinstein “The Ambassador of the Great American Songbook” for nothing, and here he was in The Concert Hall singing songs from his “Sinatra Project.” He said it was his way of “Thanking Frank for his kindness to me at the start of my career”. Feinstein is ‘smooth’ and has a velvety voice and this night there were times he sounded like a young Sinatra, and captured that special Sinatra intonation in songs like Cole Porter’s’ “Just One of Those Sings”, “The Real McCoy”, and “Begin The Beguine”, Michel Legrand and Alan and Marilyn Bergman ‘s “How Do You Keep the Music Playing from the 1982 film “Best Friends”, and George Gershwin’s “I’ve Got a Crush on You.” And of course, you couldn’t go home until you heard “Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn’s “All the Way’ and “For Once in My Life” – Feinstein told us that Sammy Cahn wrote 88 songs for Frank – and Rodgers and Hart’s “The Lady is a Tramp”- some of Frank’s biggest hits. One thing about a Michael Feinstein concert – not only are you always entertained, but you learn a lot about the history of the Great American Songbook. I did just that and had a great time too.

Geoff Packard as Liberty Smith and Kelly Karbacz as Emily Andrews (Photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Liberty Smith at Ford’s Theatre

The critics were pretty unfair about Liberty Smith. I had a great time. It is what it is – a fun history lesson with silly jokes and a crazy pretense that Liberty Smith thought up all the great ideas that others like Benjamin Franklin were give credit for. OK, it’s silly, but the audience the night I saw it loved it. And I enjoyed Michael Weiner and Adam Abraham’s score. It sounded very American and had a lot of hummable songs and captured the flavor of the times. And what a cast of local favorites: Christopher Block was a funny Benjamin Franklin. Geoff Packard who last week won a Helen Hayes award for playing Candide at Shakespeare Theatre Company made a wonderful frustrated young Liberty Smith and Drew Eshelman played the older version with humor and grit. James Konicek got to show off his beautiful singing voice as the treacherous Benedict Arnold in a very Snidely Whiplash-way. And Bobby Smith played the frazzled Thomas Jefferson and got a lot of laughs from the audience.

It’s the perfect Ford’s Theatre musical and just right for the many tourists and visitors who come to Ford’s to learn more about our nation’s history. Most important, I got to see young Noah Chiet perform the role of Child Actor. He sang, danced, played the drum – while looking like a seasoned veteran actor.

The Color Purple at National Theatre

It’s not my favorite musical – it tries to cram in too much story into two and a half hours, the music is pretty generic, and the last thing I really wanted to do was sit through all the physical, mental and verbal abuse Celie endures throughout the show.

But it was the women in the show (Sorry guys!) who made me forget all that. Dayna Jarae Dantzler (Celie), Taprena Augustine (Shug Avery), and Pam Trotter (Sophia) commanded the stage, sang the hell out of their big numbers, and stole the show from the other performers including local WPGC 95.5 FM’s radio host Lil’ Mo – who was featured as one of the church singers – and who shamelessly tried to steal the spotlight from Dayna during the final reprise of the song The Color Purple. Nice try Lil’ Mo. It didn’t work!

Ruined at Arena Stage

I am still emotionally spent after seeing the powerful production of Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-Winning Ruined at Arena Stage. As of today, the reviews have begun trickling in with the arrival of raves by The Post’s Peter Marks and DCTS’s Debbie Jackson. Let me add my ‘Bravo!” to theirs. I cannot remember when a play has moved me more. The performances of Jenny Jules as Mama Nadi and Rachel Holmes as Sophie shook me to the core of my being. Frankly, I can’t say anything more except you must see this production and experience it.

The ensemble for No Rules' The Stephen Schwartz Project (Photo: Brian Sutow)

The Stephen Schwartz Project at No Rules Theatre Company

What a way to follow-up their honor at The Helen Hayes Awards by bringing its North Carolina reworked production of The Stephen Schwartz Project, which had other local productions at MetroStage and Musical Theater Center, to a small venue at Edmund Burke School in DC. And what a wonderful production it was – filled with vibrant additional arrangements by Musical Director Zak Sandler and local arranger Taylor Williams, and along with original arrangements by John L. Cornelius II, it provided an afternoon filled with amazing singing and new renditions of many of Stephen Schwartz’s Greatest Hits.

The cast, Carolyn Cole, Chris Critelli, Emily Jenda, Ryan Roets, and Crystal Moesser, along with No Rules’ Joshua Morgan  - This guy can do it all – sing, direct, kibbitz, and dance! – were fabulous and not only sang their songs, but through the clever staging and direction of Matt Cowart, they told the story of each song as they sang it. My favorites? “Wizard and I” with Carolyn Cole and Emily Jenda, “Meadowlark” sung by Crystal Mosser and “Chanson” sung by Joshua Morgan.

(Photo: Joan Marcus)

Memphis – Direct From Broadway at AMC Mazza Gallerie

I am a big fan of last year’s Tony Award-winning musical Memphis, and I’ll admit that I was a little leery about watching the filmed version of the show which was shown around the country from April 28th to May 3rd. My doubts were laid to rest when the exciting opening number “Underground” shot off the screen and filled the theatre with passion and excitement. And to have the opportunity to watch the original Broadway cast up on the screen was truly a joy.

Most important, we were all treated to the energetic, powerful performances of Tony Award nominees Chad Kimball as radio DJ Huey Calhoun (with his unique accent), and Montego Glover who played his love interest Felicia Philips, an African-American singer, who falls in love with the white Huey during a time in our history when doing so was a dangerous thing. Hearing Chad sing “The Music of My Soul” with Montego, “Tear the House Down”, and “Memphis Lives in Me”, and Montego sing “Someday” and “Love Will Stand When All Else Falls” – well it was musical theatre heaven!

It was so nice to see so many close-ups of the actors, their facial expressions, and the sweat pouring off of the hard-working dancers in the show, which I could not see when I saw Memphis in NYC. There also was a wonderful ‘look-behind-the-scenes’ look at filming the show in performance before the musical began.

The sound for the filmed version was enhanced so most of the time it was gorgeous and clear, but there were other times when the sound sounded ‘fake’ or muffled. But, on the whole, it was an exciting night and the audience members – many of whom had never seen the musical before – told me that they would definitely make the trip up to NYC to see the show live. As much as I admired and enjoyed this version – nothing duplicates the tension and joy I felt watching Memphis at The Shubert Theatre. But this came real close and I am grateful to Broadway Worldwide for bringing Memphis to DC and other theatres around the country, even if only for a few days. Congrats to Director Don Roy King, and sound producer Matt Kaplowitz on their fine work.

Watch the Memphis – Direct from Broadway trailer here.

Washington area theatregoers will be able to see the National Tour of Memphis at The Kennedy Center ‘s Opera House from June 12-July 1, 2012.

My Interview with The Chosen’s Joshua Morgan and Derek Kahn Thompson
Susan Galbraith: UrbanArias Festival defines a new kind of opera. Will musicals fans follow? (and reviews of Orpheus and Euridice/Green Sneakers)
My interview: They ‘pushed da button’: The Color Purple’s Dayna Jarae Dantzler and Taprena Augustine
Lorraine Treanor on the recipients and 27th Helen Hayes Awards ceremony.
The Helen Hayes Awards Red Carpet Interviews
The Helen Hates Awards Ceremony Highlights


  1. Wade Corder says:

    Thanks Joel, I enjoyed this.  I saw Liberty Smith and Memphis in HD too.  I agree with you about Liberty Smith, wholeheartedly.  I took my Mom, and we laughed together so much that it is always going to be a special memory.  I do hope they bring it back often at Cherry Blossom time.  I’m all for them making money, and Liberty Smith should rake it in.

  2. Thanks for this mention, Joel! We’re proud of the work everybody did on that show. It’s great to be in such illustrious company here. And thanks for the great article you wrote on our educational process earlier. It means a lot to us to have your support.



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