WHAT A WAY TO WELCOME IN 2009!
Serendipity 4, Natalie Joy Johnson, The Wizard of Oz and Alice Ripley at Millennium Stage
New Year’s Eve with ‘Serendipity 4′
What’s a better way to welcome in the New Year, than by attending a haymishe (very comfortable and “homey”) Yiddish, Hebrew, Greek, Bosnian, Romanian, Russian Gypsy Bulgarian, French, Sephardic – song filled – before-the-ball- dropped – concert at Theater J. I have never heard ‘Serendipity 4′ perform before, although I loved, the musical wizardry of members pianist Tamara Brooks and accordionist Merima Kljuco, as they accompanied fellow-member Theodore Bikel during his wonderful performance in Sholom Aleichem – Laughter Through Tears .
This night was extra special for me, not only because I would hear Theodore Bikel – the great folksinger – but I was finally going to have the opportunity to hear European Yiddish and Hebrew singer Shura Lipovsky live, and hear her and Theo sing together. They didn’t disappoint. It was an evening of music and songs from around the world, nations united in song, with universal yearning for peace and love and respect and compassion. You didn’t need subtitles or surtitles to understand all the different languages that were sung. All you had to do was watch the faces of these performers, and somehow you understood every word.
I am a fan of the folk group The Weavers, and if any of you are old enough to remember them, you will remember that Lee Hays was the storyteller of the group. Every time I put on one of Theodore Bikel’s Elektra LPs of the 50’s and 60’s, I see and hear Bikel – The Hebrew and Yiddish Lee Hays. And on this New Years night, the jokes and quips were there for all to laugh and enjoy. As he was introducing a Russian Gypsy song about a young soldier who tells his friends that he will survive the war as long as he is drinking, Theo lifted a glass and said, “You think water is in here?” then explained that he learned the song from a Russian Gypsy – in Paris – and that this same Gypsy had taught him how to play the vibrato of the song by taking the guitar and shaking it, and plucking the strings very strongly during the chorus. Then Theo looked at the already howling audience and said, “This is a typical Russian love song – full of misery!”
And the highlights for me? Merima Kljuco’s incredible accordion playing – somehow imitating the horse galloping – during a Bosnian song about a young man who rides his horse late at night, so he can visit his love, Theo and Shura’s gorgeous duet of “Erev Shel Shoshanim” – “The Night of Roses,” my favorite Hebrew song of all-time, and Theo ending the concert with a rousing rendition of “If I Were A Rich Man,” from Fiddler On The Roof. L’Chaim! (no translation needed!).
Natalie Joy Johnson Rocks at Town Danceboutique!
How many talented artists make their DC cabaret debut, sponsored by a new luxury apartment building? Natalie Joy Johnson‘s performance was sponsored by the new Allegro Apartments, as she rocked Town Danceboutique (at 8th & U Streets in DC), at 11 PM on January 9th, where she performed a set of 6 rock and Broadway songs and tunes.
Natalie is currently starring at the Kennedy Center in the national tour of Legally Blonde, where she is playing Paulette Buonofante, but that night she performed a set of rock and Broadway songs and tunes. Members of The Ushers first saw Natalie when she performed the role of Enid Hoopes in the original Broadway production of Legally Blonde. I was introduced to this incredibly talented actress and vocalist when I saw her perform the role of Nadia – the “biting” sharp- tongued, overweight and mostly miserable sister of the lead character named Jason – in the Off-Broadway production of bare: a pop opera, which played the American Theatre of Actors in April and May 2004.Natalie stole the show with her heart-wrenching rendition of “A Quiet Night at Home.”I was mesmerized, and I knew I was in the presence of a rare talent.
Natalie appeared on the Town Danceboutique stage, after performing her Legally Blonde duties, following a drag show, where several performers of immense talent performed, including one wearing a green serpent costume with a long tail, who slithered across the stage and dance floor while lip synching to an aria.
Dressed in a glittery black dress and black heels, her dark hair tied in a bundle, Natalie boomed, “Let’s get this party started!” After receiving a rousing round of applause after telling the mostly young audience that she was a “Baltimore girl,” that her father was in the audience, and that she went to Mary Washington College in Fredericksburg, Natalie blew the roof off with her electrifying performance of Madonna’s “Papa Don’t Preach.”
Then, it was Broadway time! She sang “Maybe This Time” from Cabaret with incredible emotion. When Natalie yelled out the line, “Everybody loves a winner,” it was a powerful moment. But that was tame compared to her earthquake-like rendition of “Some People” from Gypsy You should have seen her smack her heels when singing the lines:
“Goodbye to blueberry pie.
Good riddance to all the socials I had to go to,
all the lodges I had to play,
all the shriners I said hello to.
Hey, L.A., I’m comin’ your way!”
Merman and LuPone would have been floored! They would have yelled out, “Go Get’em Rose!” To calm things down (it didn’t work), Natalie sang her own manic version of “I Kissed A Girl” by Katy Perry.
Next was Melissa Manchester’s “Don’t Cry Out Loud,” I was in heaven. It’s one of my all-time favorite songs. Sliding up and down several octaves, Natalie wrung every ounce of emotion out of this song, and I was a blubbering mess. I cried out loud. How do you follow that? You end the show with “Proud Mary”. Joined by a Tina Turner look-alike (who appeared in the earlier drag show) and two Legally Blonde co-stars, Natalie and her backup singers had everyone moving their hips, and clapping and singing “Rollin’ on the River.” It was a blast, and this woman has pipes!
An Adorable Wizard of Oz at Musical Theater Center (MTC)!
I can’t stop smiling when I think about the wonderful performances I saw at Musical Theater Center’s colorful and loving and funny production of The Wizard of Oz on January 10th at the F. Scott Fitzgerald Theatre in Rockville, MD.
Congratulations to Shai Tamari (Dorothy), Jonny Pearl (The Tinman), Noah Kieserman (The Scarecrow), Zachary Conneen (The Lion), Kelley Semple (Glinda – the Good Witch), Sophie Mezebish (The Wicked Witch of the West), Dillon Mitcham (The Guard), Michael McCarthy (Uncle Henry), Kailyn Gaines (Aunt Em) and Ari Goldbloom-Helzner, who played The Wizard (recently seen in Ace at Signature Theatre). And all the young actors who appeared in Munchkinland were equally fabulous! And let’s give an extra special doggie biscuit to Sunshine, who unleashed his charm as Toto (except when he escaped backstage before one of his big OZ scenes. Thank G-d for that leash!).
Unfortunately, I will not be able to see the rotating second cast who are performing on January 16th & 17th, but I am sure that they will be equally exceptional, so good luck to all of you!
It’s amazing how fast young actors grow, so when I walked into the theatre, 13 year old Jonny Perl’s Mom – Darcy – nudged me to tell me to watch how Jonny’s voice had changed, and how tall he had gotten. She was right! I could have sworn that I was looking down at Jonny the last time I met him at the theatre to review a show for DCTS’s Kid Stages, and now, here he was, looking down at me. And that glorious voice I heard at MTC’s production of Seussical, where he played Jojo, was now deeper and clearer with a gorgeous vibrato. He looked like those studio pictures of the original Tin Man – Buddy Ebsen – in the famous MGM version (Buddy was allergic to the dust of the paint used in the costume, and withdrew, making Jack Haley the new Tin Man). Jonny played the role like Jonny, sweet and loving with a big heart, and his rendition of “If I Only Had a Heart,” well, it was heartwarming.
Twelve year old Noah Kieserman’s Scarecrow jitterbugged his way into the hearts of the audience, with his lovely rendition of “If I Only Had A Heart.” The audience fell in love with this Straw Man instantly, watching him fall and dance and slide across the stage. It’s the first time I have seen Noah in a starring role, and I know there will be more starring roles to come. Noah’s a real charmer, with a gorgeous voice that could even melt the heart of the Wicked Witch of the West.
And then there is 10 year old Zachary Conneen. What more can I say about this multi-talented kid who I named one of my Scene Stealers this year for his performance of a Major Goose – or is that Goose Major – Greyleg – in MTC’s production of Honk?
What Zachary does with his performance of The Lion is a wonder to behold. I’ve seen actors six times his age perform this role, and none of them pulled off what Zachary did in this production. His comic timing was impeccable. His “If I only Had The Nerve,” – which he pronounced “NOYVE,” – was drop dead hysterical. And you should have seen what Zachary did with “If I Were King of The Forest,” rolling his “Rs”, while royally strutting across the stage, adjusting his new-found crown. I’m not lion – oops- lying – when I tell you that the audience was in stitches. I couldn’t stop laughing. And every time he held on to – or wiggled – his tail, or flopped or fainted on the stage, the audience lost it. The “Noyve” of you Zachary to make me laugh so hard!
Thirteen year-old Shai Tamary’s Dorothy was a twister of a performance. Here was a tough, assertive Dorothy, who wasn’t afraid of anyone or anything green. Her clear, powerful rendition of “Over The Rainbow” shook the theatre. It was nice to see Shai not trying to impersonate Judy Garland, but making Dorothy stronger, more assertive, and courageous, and more protective of the Straw Man, Tin Man and Lion, while still reminding us that she was still a kid, and was allowed to be scared. Shai gave a very mature and confident performance for such a young actress.
She had played the Wicked Witch of The West at MTC’s summer camp, but this was Sophie Mezebish’s first full production at MTC. Sophie was the scariest glasses-wearing Wicked Witch of The West I have ever seen on the stage. I’m not kidding you. Not only was this pint-sized young actress scary and evil as the Toto-taking Elvira Gultch, but her green witch was annoying, terrifying and hysterical – all rolled into one. Her piercing voice would have scared Margaret Hamilton! What an accomplishment! I still can’t get that voice out of my ears.
At intermission, I was looking for producer Laurie Levy Issembert to see if she could introduce me to Sophie’s parents, so I could ask them if I could take a picture of their daughter for this article. As I was looking for Laurie, Emily Madden’s Mom came up to thank me for naming Emily one of the best musical performers of the year for her performance of Natalie in MTC’s production of All Shook Up (which I also named as one of the best musicals of last year). She also told me that the article helped Emily land some work, As it turned out, Sophie’s Mom and Dad overheard Mrs. Madden and I talking about how great Sophie was, and they introduced themselves to us. After the show, I did meet the talented and charming Sophie, still in green and beaming, and much nicer than character she had just finished portraying.
So, bravo to all of the cast and production team of The Wizard of Oz. It was a lovely walk along the Yellow Brick Road.
The Wizard of Oz ends with 2 performances this Saturday, January 17th at 2 PM and 7:30 PM at the F. Scott Fitzgerald Theatre at The Rockville Civic Center – 603 Edmonston Drive in Rockville, Maryland. Tickets can be purchased by calling 240-314-8690.
Alice and Beth and Robin Meet at The Millennium Stage
What could be better than sitting down in Alice Ripley’s dressing room at Arena Stage and schmoozing about Next To Normal, Side Show and Alice’s career? You can hear the podcast here.
On Monday, January 12th, I attended Alice’s free concert at The Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage. It featured Alice’s band called Ripley, with Alice on guitar and vocals, Paul Schelleck on guitar, Skip Ward on guitar, bass, ukulele and penny whistle, and Shannon Ford on drums. The hour long concert featured songs from Ripley’s Cds , including “Violet Tree,” “Suburbia,” “Counting Sheep,” “Dear Jane” and “Sky,” and my favorite song from Next To Normal – “I Miss The Mountains.”
Before the concert began, I started talking to a young woman named Robin, who told me she is a big fan of Alice Ripley and had flown in from San Francisco to see this concert, Next To Normal and West Side Story. I invited her to sit with me and my friend Gary Fontaine, and told her I would ask Alice to take a picture with her after the show. She agreed. As I rushed in to get seats close to the stage, I noticed only one person sitting in the “reserved” seats in the front row. When the concert began, this woman was taking flash-less pictures all through the concert – non-stop.
After the concert, I went up to her, introduced myself, and asked her if she wouldn’t mind sending me some of the pictures she took for this article. When I gave her my business card, she said, “Hockeynut, is that you? I’m Jordangirl. It’s nice to finally meet you in person. I loved your podcast with Alice!” And that’s how Beth Strickland and I finally met after posting many messages on BroadwayWorld.com under the names Hockeynut and Jordangirl. See – who says you can’t meet other Alice Ripley fans online in theatre chat rooms?
After the concert ended, we waited for Alice, who of course, as usual, came back to thank us and her other fans for attending the concert. And a thrilled Robin smiled as Alice thanked her, and then took two pictures with her. Beth and I said goodbye to Alice and the band, and we took the Metro to Chinatown, devoured some homemade dumplings and noodle shop, shared some theatre stories, and I said goodbye to Beth as she waited for the Megabus to drive her back to her home in NYC. But we’ll see each other this Sunday, January 18th when I take The Ushers to see the final performance of Next To Normal at Arena Stage in Crystal City. Of course, you knew Beth wouldn’t miss that!
With 58 productions running between now and the end of February – check it out on Onstage Now – there’s plenty of good, affordable shows in town. See you there!