It’s the great story of theatre, isn’t it? A leading lady gets replaced after a production begins performances and with her leading man, they create something unexpected and magical onstage together. Those that witnessed Arena Stage’s enormously successful production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! in 2010 or its return engagement in the summer of 2011 know that this is exactly how the dynamic duo of Nicholas Rodriguez and Eleasha Gamble created such a stir in the Washington, DC theatre community.
The two Helen Hayes Award winners (for other productions) have enjoyed much success since Oklahoma!. For example, Rodriguez returned to Arena Stage for My Fair Lady and Gamble made a splash as the lead in Dreamgirls in Chicago and booked a role in the national tour of Disney’s The Lion King. This week, however, they return to the place where they first performed with one another – and where their friendship started – starring in their own cabaret act, The Power of Two, as part of Arena Stage’s new Kogod Cradle Series.
With direction by Signature Theatre’s Matthew Gardiner – who certainly knows one or two things about putting on a great cabaret show – Rodriguez and Gamble are ultimately successful in taking the stage as themselves, sharing stories of their great friendship, and showcasing their tremendous vocal talent. Covering everything from musical theatre and pop to some holiday fare, the event offers a little something for everyone.
With strong accompaniment from Gabriel Mangiante (music direction/piano), Steven Walker (guitar), and Robby Bowen (drums), they start the evening by playfully ‘competing’ with one another for the spotlight. Performing “Oh What a Beautiful Morning” from Oklahoma! and then segueing into Irving Berlin’s “Anything You Can Do” from Annie Get Your Gun, it was easy for me to see why both have enjoyed some success in a variety of musical theatre roles – ones that require a more legit singing voice and ones that require a comedic edge and a strong belt.
The strongest moment of the evening, however, comes when the charismatic pair makes a plea to any artistic directors in the room (I don’t know, maybe Molly Smith?) to consider them as the leading lady and man in other shows.
Adler and Ross’ “There Once Was a Man” (from Pajama Game) may be very different from “Happiness” (from Stephen Sondheim’s Passion) and “If I Loved You” (Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel), but their agile voices work well on all three numbers. Although this particular arrangement of “If I Loved You” incorporates a bit too much dialogue for a cabaret setting, it is certainly the best showcase of both of their voices. Though Gamble showed she was more capable of bringing unique phrasing and emotional depth to “Happiness,” I appreciated that, at this particular performance, Rodriguez let the lyrics inform his performance a bit more than in other musical theatre numbers, toning down his heightened musical theatre, showy mannerisms that probably work better in a larger space.
All of these selections – as well as others – certainly make the statement that their chemistry is undeniable.
As solo artists, Eleasha and Nicholas both have at least one standout moment.
Eleasha, with her ‘less-is-more’ approach to “I am Changing” from Dreamgirls, made me like a song that I usually don’t find very melodically or lyrically interesting. This number, as is expected, showcases her enviable technical vocal ability. Perhaps even more impressive than her vocal power, range, and precision – and what sets her apart from other favorites who have taken it on recently – is that she does not resort to histrionics and screeching to convey emotion. Instead of over indulging and only focusing on what she can do vocally, she lets the meaning of the song guide her performance of it. A breath of fresh air, indeed.
Although not as emotionally resonant, her performance of the pop hit “Saving All My Love” (featured in the West End’s movie-based musical The Bodyguard) also proves yet again why she’s among the best vocalists who got their start in DC theatre.
Rodriguez challenges himself when taking on Donnie Hathaway’s “This Christmas” – one of three possible selections that Gamble chose for him that are put to an audience vote – and Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You.” While he appeared less comfortable vocally and performance-wise with the non-musical theatre numbers, I appreciated the tenderness in his voice on both of these selections and his emotional warmth.
The Power of Two
Closes December 15, 2013
Arena Stage at the
Mead Center for American Theater
1101 Sixth Street, SW
Washington, DC 20024
1 hour, 25 minutes, no intermission
Friday thru Sunday
Details and Tickets
Whether singing duets – and yes, the pop number “The Power of Two” is in the show – or standing alone under the spotlight, both rise to the challenge of performing a more intimate cabaret. Admittedly, at times the banter can get a bit saccharine. However, the affection and admiration they have for one another came off as so real that it can be forgiven. In any case, it’s nice to see two friends getting to share the stage together and have a fun time of it.
As this is the first cabaret offering at Arena, I can only hope there are more. The intimate and well-designed Kogod Cradle space is a perfect location for such events even if, on occasion, the sound was too amplified at the performance I attended, particularly for the more vocally powerful Gamble. In future cabarets, it would be great to have some unplugged numbers so we can hear the artists’ natural voices in all their glory. However, I commend Molly Smith and the rest of the Arena Stage for taking a chance on exposing its large and committed audience base to cabaret.
Nicholas Rodriguez and Eleasha Gamble: The Power of Two plays through December 15, 2013 at Arena Stage. Direction by Matthew Gardiner . Production consultation from Martha Knight . Accompaniment by music director Gabriel Mangiante (music direction/piano), Steven Walker (guitar), and Robby Bowen (drums). Presented by Arena Stage . Reviewed by Jennifer Perry.