– It seems no production opens without longtime arts buff David Tannous sitting front row center. As the recipient of DC Theatre Scene’s 2011 Gary Lee Maker Award for Outstanding Audience Member, Tannous has brought boundless enthusiasm and a smart analytical eye to Washington shows for decades. On the eve of this year’s awards, DC Theatre Scene spoke with Tannous about his responses to 2011 musical theatre in the DC area. What follows is our distillation of his thoughts, culled from extensive conversation. Read his overview of the 2011 musicals here. –
Nancy Anderson did superbly in Side By Side By Sondheim. I’m very impressed by her.
Actresses like Nancy’s co-star, Sherri Edelen, give a really grounded and juicy performance. Naomi Jacobson does that too. But Nancy has a more quicksilver quality. Her delineations of a mood, or of a song, are so precise. She makes her point lightly, but her darts hit the target, so to speak. She was perfectly matched with Sherri and with Matthew Scott, because each of them had a different kind of attitude and physicality. In Nancy’s case, there’s a feeling of “now you see it, now you don’t.” Sherri, on the other hand, can get a little raunchier. We believe she can get down and dirty if she needs too. And Matthew Scott was wonderful because he can play both the suave, matinee-idol type as well as the crude frat-boy type. This trio really complemented each other in necessary ways. Boy, Matt Gardiner knew how to cast that one! It really worked.
In this category, Nancy stands out, but so do two more. And they were working with sterling material that showcased their abilities and achievements even more strongly. When you’re spinning gold, it works best to start with gold in the first place. One is Carolyn Cole in Hairspray, and the other is Jan Maxwell in Follies.
I am totally gobstruck by Carolyn Cole. It’s great that she’s moved to DC. And Tracy Turnblad was a role she’d wanted to play for a long time. Here was her chance, and she grabbed the opportunity and ran away with it. From the moment she entered she took hold of that music and infused it with her energy, her enthusiasm, and her ability to find all the colors of her character. Tracy is somebody who needs to discover, based on what’s within herself, that everybody else’s opinion of her was not correct after all. Part of what Carolyn did was to show that the twin feelings of amazement and joyfulness as she discovered what she had inside. Her absolute sense of delight is what carried the musical along, and everyone else in the cast fed off it. If the actress in that lead role is merely spunky, it would work but not inspire. Carolyn inspires. It’s like she has a nuclear furnace inside.
Jan Maxwell’s performance in Follies was extraordinary as well. The character of Phyllis is so interesting. She’s intelligent, insightful, experienced in life, she has moved in interesting circles, and on top of that she’s self-analytical. Jan Maxwell took the role and ran away with it. And by the second act, everything’s been laid out to spectacular effect. So where Carolyn brought enthusiasm and joyfulness, Jan brought rage and truth-telling and a decision to not go on playing the polite game anymore. Both Carolyn and Jan bring us characters that go through an unexpected voyage of discovery. Not a voyage that was premeditated or longed for, but was forced on them by circumstance. Jan’s a wonderful actress, and she did beautifully.
I liked Bernadine Mitchell in His Eye is On the Sparrow at MetroStage. She presented the story very well, and captured the rage of talented black performers who were for so long stuck in cookie cutter roles and squashed by stereotypes. Bernadine gave us a sense of how Ethel Waters’ outlook started to curdle as she got older, and how that affected her personal relationships. She felt, more and more, a sense of not having been given her due. It’s a bit like Euan Morton’s performance in Parade. So much of Ethel’s life, we learn in the play, was a dream deferred.
It makes me think of a particularly ridiculous myth in this country that’s still with us today: we sometimes try to comfort ourselves in our hyposcrisy and mistreatment of others by looking back and thinking that those who suffered tragedy and trauma are somehow ennobled by their experiences. Not so! And especially not during times of deprivation and discrimination. People don’t get wistful, they get angry! Ethel was so wounded because she knew what her talents were, and she was passed over.
I have some reservations about biography shows that focus in on a single person so closely. They are inherently limited, in a way. Often shows that do this become very episodic and a little fractured. First this happened, then this happened. That doesn’t make the strongest of plays. It’s more of a “this is your life” project. But it can’t achieve the dramatic drive of a really well-constructed full play. This is also true with Kelly Karbacz as Emily Andrews in Liberty Smith. Kelly did very well, but she had to run like hell just to stay in place, to make the most she can out of limited material.
Jessica Lauren Ball did very well as Maris in The Sound of Music. It’s better material. Certainly the songs are better. Jessica did a superb job of finding the nuances and quirks in a role that is, all too often, played for sweetness and lovability. Maria was not just a goody-goody in this production. I felt she handled it very well. I wish the book for the show gave her more opportunity to do that, to bring out the complexities of that character. She’s certainly capable.