Tuesday, February 14, 2017

2016 in Review: The Shows Must Go On

Hi everyone,

I'm down and out with another cold, but I thought I better muster some energy to get out my 2016 reviews before springtime. In my next few posts, I'll share my memories about some of the best of last year's live entertainment.

Let's start at the theatre! I tend to forget how much I love going to the theatre until I'm there, and then I'm addicted, as you can tell by the length of this post.

I started off the year at the Kennedy Center, seeing Matilda The Musical, based on Roald Dahl's classic children's book about a girl living with horrible self-involved parents. She spends her time lost in books, feeding her imagination. I loved seeing this story through a child's eyes and how the production reflected that with cartoonish characters and colorful sets. I haven't read this book and didn't know what to expect. This show is a fun, heart-warming surprise.

I saw Kinky Boots, also at the Kennedy Center, mainly to hear Cyndi Lauper's musical score. Based on the 2005 British film about a shoe factory owner's switch from making classic men's shoes to footwear for drag queens in order to save the family business, Kinky Boots gives me the same heart-warming feeling as Matilda. Cyndi's great music aside, I love this show's message of resilience and acceptance of all people. By the last show-stopping number, performed by the great J. Harrison Ghee in the lead role of Lola, we were all cheering, ready to try on our own pair of kinky boots.

The title, Urinetown, The Musical, does not appeal to me. After reading the synopsis and learning that it won Tonys for best musical, book, and score, however, I gave it a chance. Suffering from a severe water shortage, city officials ban the use of private toilets, forcing unlikely citizens to take a stand and start a revolution. This hilarious satire, which pokes fun at everything from politics and capitalism to musical comedies themselves, has surprising twists and turns that keep the laughter going.

New to me, the 10-year-old Constellation Theatre Company put on this great show with imaginative direction, sets, choreography, and musical arrangements. Like Matilda and Kinky Boots, this cast offered some exaggerated and memorable performances. Voted Best Theatre Company in 2016 by City Paper and The Washington Post, I look forward to seeing more shows here.

When it was announced that Shuffle Along, or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All that Followed, was closing by the end of July after its short run on Broadway at the Music Box Theatre, my friend and I made an emergency trip to New York to see it. It was worth it! This adaptation tells the true story of the making of the popular 1921 black musical that launched the careers of Josephine Baker, Paul Robeson, and others. It delves into the interesting lives of its creators and the challenges that ended their successful partnership. Shuffle Along is also a jubilant celebration of tap dancing, with massive musical numbers and inventive choreography by the always-amazing Savion Glover that shook the building with its beats. I wish this show had lasted longer so that more people could learn the fascinating history of this show and revel in this exciting production.

I made another trek to see Jelly's Last Jam, all the way to Virginia's Signature Theatre. My dad bought these tickets but then couldn't attend, so my friend and I were stuck with perfect seats for this musical biography of 1920s jazz pianist Jelly Roll Morton. A pioneer of Ragtime music and the self-proclaimed inventor of jazz, Jelly Roll Morton had a healthy ego, but his fantastic music made up for his exaggerated claims. With a wonderful cast, Signature Theatre's revival of this Tony-winning musical is an immersive experience with seating arranged with tables for a night club setting and some performers, at times, dancing right next to us. As with Shuffle Along, we left the theatre wanting to hear more music and learn more about the fascinating historical figures who created it.

2016 wasn't all about musicals for me. I also saw three brilliant plays at Studio Theatre, thanks to their encouraging $20 deals for neighborhood patrons. First, I saw Constellations, which I had heard about when it was on Broadway, starring Rachel Weisz and Jake Gyllenhaal. This intimate performance is set in a circular space with audience members surrounding it, only a few steps away from the two performers. Marianne and Roland offer glimpses into their relationship through a series of scenes that are sometimes repeated from different perspectives and usually presented out of chronological order. From these vignettes, we learn how they fell in and out of love, the joys and challenges of their relationship, and their present-day circumstances. Somehow it all works with keen direction and impressive performances by Lily Balatincz and Tom Patterson, who – without the help of props – convincingly transitioned from moment to moment, sharing a range of emotions that we all felt.

Next, I saw Moment. This riveting family drama set in Dublin unravels when the reappearance of a long-absent son visiting his mother and sister sparks tragic memories, repressed emotions, and shocking revelations about the cause of the rift. Moment, wonderfully written by Deirdre Kinahan and directed by Ethan McSweeny, leaves an impression on everyone who sees it. Despite its surprising plot twists, the story is universally relatable, exploring the complicated consequences of past mistakes and murky layers to earning forgiveness.

The Object Lesson, created and performed by Geoff Sobelle, offered some much-needed comic relief. Set in a warehouse full of boxes and furniture, audience members were invited to sit on any available couch, chair, or box that allowed for it. This one-man show is a combination of storytelling and stand-up, as Geoff Sobelle discusses his relationship with things and how they affect his relationships with people. Reenacting scenes from life or speaking directly to the audience, he uses inventive techniques to revisit some of life's key moments, including starting out in college, beginning and ending personal relationships, building a career and family, and dealing with old age.

Both funny and poignant, each experience involves various objects that people tend to collect through life, and Geoff Sobelle contemplates the memories attached to them. Sometimes, finding these objects involves climbing up and over boxes (some of which were stacked to the ceiling) or audience members, who were pushed into scenes for some improvisational fun. (We were even offered snacks – French bread and goat cheese – when he mentioned and found them during one of his stories.) This immersive performance was unlike any I'd experienced before. Studio Theatre never lets me down.

All of these performances provided unique experiences, one of the hallmarks of live theatre. You never know what you're going to get, but it can be exhilarating and unforgettable.

Treat yourself to some tickets and see for yourself. I'll probably see you there!


Image copyright credits: Matilda the Musical: Joan Marcus; Kinky Boots: Matthew Murphy; Urinetown: Daniel Schwartz; Shuffle Along: Julieta Cervantes; Jelly's Last Jam: Margot Schulman; Constellations: Igor Dmitry; Moment and The Object Lesson: Allie Dearie

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