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Pearl Bailey…By Request
November 19 - December 20, 2009
Friday at 8 pm
Saturday at 5 and 8 pm
Sunday at 3 and 7 pm
Reviewed November 22 by Brad Hathaway

Running time 1:15 - no intermission
A pleasant hour or so of song and skit
Price $45 - $50


MetroStage brings back one of its series of musical tribute shows that attempt to give audiences the chance to come close to experiencing an evening with a famous person of the past. This is the one that, as you can tell from its title, offers a chance to find out what it might have been like attending a club date of Pearl Bailey's. Some of MetroStage's series have been more successful recreations than this one, and all have provided more serious biographical sketches of the subject in the process. But they all have been enjoyable and this one is too. Roz White does the singing and the "Pearling." She developed the story (such as it is) and concept (which didn't take much developing) and polished it up with the help of Thomas W. Jones II who gave us some of the earlier "evening with..." shows. William Hubbard returns as well, performing as the master of ceremonies and recreating some moments with Hot Lips Page. Put it all together and its a pleasant diversion for a winter's evening.

Storyline: A club-act style recreation of the songs and shtick of Pearly Mae.

Audiences came away from last year's Cookin' at the Cookery with a real sense that they'd seen Alberta Hunter. Similarly, they had a chance to experience evenings with Nat King Cole and Duke Ellington in 2006 and Mahalia Jackson in 2004. Roz White's performance as Pearl Bailey last year didn't seem to  work the same magic although it certainly hinted at what a performance by her subject might have been like. She's got her Pearly Mae down more convincingly now but still surveys the bare facts of her life while delivering the big numbers from her career. She more accurately catches the aplomb with which Bailey threw off asides, a characteristic that became more and more cartoonish as she became more a parody of her own distinctive personality in her later life. Thus, over the course of fifteen songs, White gives a fair sampling of Bailey's output including the iconic "Legalize My Name" which Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer wrote for her for the 1946 Broadway hit St. Louis Woman, a sample of the raunchy side of jazz performed with Hubbard, "The Hucklebuck," a tasteful repeat of  her early hit "Tired" and, of course, the two signature songs that have served every impersonator well when trying to "do" Pearly Mae - snippets from "Hello Dolly" and of "Won't You Come Home, Bill Bailey."

A strength of the evening is the work of the four piece jazz combo headed this time out by musical director and arranger William Knowles. David Cole repeats the tasty work on guitar that impressed last year and Greg Holloway is, if memory serves, even more inventive on the drums. Yusef Chisholm holds forth again on bass. Last year, White acknowledged their work but not by name, just asking the audience to applaud for "guitar man" or "piano man." Not so this year. Names accompany the credit where credit is do.

The combo and cast work on a fairly bare stage. A two-step platform on the stage gives White a pedestal on which to pose as Pearl and, later, an area for two chairs so that White and Hubbard can execute a nifty sitting tap and soft shoe routine. Steps down to the audience level on both sides of the stage let both White and Hubbard work the crowd, stirring up the enthusiasm and sharing an occasional brief dance with a patron. This year Janine Sunday gets credit for costume design and White shines first in blue and then in white that allows her smooth skin to set off her sparkling necklace with flare.

Book by Roz White and Thomas W. Jones II. Story concept by Roz White. Directed by Thomas W. Jones II. Music direction and arrangements by William Knowles. Design: Janine Sunday (costumes) Kevin Laughon (properties) Jessica Lee Winfeild (lights and stage management) Colin Hovde (photography). Cast: William Hubbard, Roz White. Musicians: Yusef Chisholm, David Cole, Greg Holloway, William Knowles.

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The Musical of Musicals: The Musical!
August 27 – November 11, 2009
Thursday – Friday at 8 pm
Saturday at 5 and 8:30 pm
Sunday at 3 and 7 pm
Reviewed August 29 by
Brad Hathaway

A Potomac Stages Pick for the return of a high-spirit 
laugh filled romp
A revival of the May 2007 winner of the
Ushers’ Favorite Show Award
Running time 1:50 – one intermission
Tickets $45 - $50

Click here to buy the CD

The more you know about musicals, the funnier you will find this spoof of the formulas of some of the big Broadway composers and lyricists. If you know all of the major shows of Rodgers and Hammerstein, Stephen Sondheim, Jerry Herman, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Kander and Ebb, you will "get" every gag in this fast paced, four person (plus pianist) send-up of those shows. The fun isn't just in the puns, or in all the in-jokes embedded in the material, however. The energy of the performers - all of whom you will recognize if you do some of your musical theatergoing in the Potomac Region - and the pure cleverness of the concept add to the pleasure. And, being a musical, there are many songs and dances which are staged with verve and performed not only with affection for the material, but with strong musical talent as well. Originally, the piece was performed by a cast of four with one doubling on the piano. Here, the piano is played by a fifth cast member, Doug Lawler, another well known Potomac Region musical performer/musical director.

Storyline: One simple plot is performed "in the style" of each of five major Broadway musical writers or teams. The plot is that old standby of melodrama involving the young girl who can't pay the rent, the evil landlord who would take advantage of her, the older and wiser woman who provides advice and the young man who rushes to the rescue. The show is done first in the style of Rodgers and Hammerstein (titled Corn! - devotees of Oklahoma! will note the exclamation mark). Then the same plot is given the treatment expected from Stephen Sondheim (A Little Complex), Jerry Herman (Dear Abby) Andrew Lloyd Webber (Aspects of Junita) and finally Kander and Ebb (Speakeasy).

Eric Rockwell and Joanne Bogart developed this affectionate but very funny lampoon. They began their collaboration at the very heart of musical appreciation: the BMI Musical Theatre Workshop which was established to foster the development of new talent in the field. Nowhere could the chemistry be more conducive to a hoot of a send-up of the genre. The show first played the tiny off-Broadway space in the basement of a modern church, the York Theatre on New York's Lexington Avenue. It was nominated for both the Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Off-Broadway Musical and the Drama Desk Outstanding Musical, Music, Lyrics and Direction Awards. This production was mounted by MetroStage in the Spring of 2007 and became a “must see” for musical fans in the region.

Under the tight direction of Larry Kaye not a minute goes by without a visual, verbal or musical gag, keeping the laughter flowing throughout. The young lovers are Janine Gulisano-Sunday, four time Helen Hayes Award nominee for West Side Story, Brigadoon, Danny & Sylvia and Jekyll & Hyde. Matthew A. Anderson is new to the cast, taking over the role of her young man and doing a smashing job of it. The evil landlord is Bobby Smith who milks just about every gag he’s given to get every laugh and chuckle its worth without once going too far or stepping on someone else’s gag. Speaking of laughs: Donna Migliaccio is just about as funny as she has ever been, and that is saying quite a lot. She's the "Aunt Eller" character in the Oklahoma! spoof, the star with name recognition but no talent in the Mame takeoff, and a Cabaret girl like you've never seen before in the Kander and Ebb Cabaret-ish Speakeasy. It is her contribution to the Sweeney Todd moments in the Sondheim spoof that are most inspired. She has just been cast in the Broadway revival of Ragtime and, so, will have to leave the cast here after the September 13th performance. Then Heather Mayes steps in for the balance of the run. A true musical fan might well consider seeing this show once before Migliaccio leaves and coming back again to see Mayes.

Music by Eric Rockwell. Lyrics by Joanne Bogart. Book by Eric Rockwell and Joanne Bogart. Directed by Larry Kaye. Choreographed by Nancy Harry. Music direction by Doug Lawler. Design: Allison Campbell (sets) Erin Nugent (costumes) Terry Smith (lights) Steve Baena (sound) Colin Hovde (photography) Jessica lee Winfield (stage manager). Cast: Matthew A. Anderson, Janine Gulisano-Sunday, Doug Lawler, Donna Migliaccio, Bobby Smith.

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April 23 - May 31, 2009
Thursday - Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 5 and 8:30 pm
Sunday at 3 and 7 pm
Reviewed April 26 by Brad Hathaway

t A Potomac Stages Pick for a short evening of charm, warm humor and fabulous acting
Running time 1:20 - no intermission
Tickets $40 - $45

Click here to buy the script

Some shows thrill you with spectacle, some with dramatic fireworks and some with uproarious comedy. Then there are those very few shows that can deliver all the satisfaction of those spectaculars of angst and hilarity without raising their voices, relying on pure charm. This is one of those shows and its secret is the skill of its three cast members, men who, according to MetroStage, have trod the stages of our theater community for a collective 105 years! Yes, there is a simple and simply marvelous script in a translation from Gerald Sibleyras' original French Le Vent Des Peupliers by famed playwright Tom Stoppard. It is a fine script, a well crafted piece with humorous remarks and witty rejoinders aplenty. But it is the way Ralph Cosham, John Dow and Michael Tolaydo deliver those lines, the way they build a sense of camaraderie among their former comrades-in-arms characters, and the way the three actors allow the three characters to earn places in the audience's hearts that sets this lovely piece apart from most everything else playing in Potomac region theaters today.

Storyline: Three aging veterans of "The Great War" while away their final days on the terrace of their old soldier's home, trading stories and planning one final adventure.

Here's a suggestion for Carolyn Griffin, Producing Artistic Director of MetroStage: give Michael Tolaydo an official title of "play finder" for the company. While MetroStage has had much success with their musicals (especially bio-musicals) and semi-cabaret musical shows, twice they have mounted tender, heart warming intimate straight plays that Tolaydo discovered and brought to their attention. Six years ago it was Sea Marks, a touching two character play that Tolaydo and Catherine Flye turned into pure joy under the direction of Nick Olcott. Now it is Heroes which Tolaydo, Dow and Cosham turn into pure charm under the direction of John Vreeke. (Oh, and Ms. Griffin - always cast Tolaydo in the plays he brings in!)

The original French play by a playwright with no name identification in the US has been translated by an English playwright with a marquee toping name. Not having seen (or been able to read) the untranslated original, this reviewer is in no position to say who gets credit for what. The script is simply what it is and what it is is nice. Nice, of course, doesn't draw audiences away from strong competition, and lets face it, there is a good deal of strong competition for your ticket buying dollar in the Potomac Region these days. It is the performances of Cosham, Dow and Tolaydo that turn a serviceable script into such a joy.

A fourth "character" is present on the single-location set of the terrace designed by Colin K. Bills. It is a stone statue of a dog which is the topic of one running thread of conversation. During the blackouts between scenes, black clad stagehands move the statue about. It is precisely this lack of theatrical design gimmickry that places the fortunes of the production right where they should be: on the oh-so-capable shoulders of Messrs. Cosham, Dow and Tolaydo.

Written by Gérald Sibleyras. Translated by Tom Stoppard. Directed by John Vreeke. Design: Colin K. Bills (set and lights) Ivania Stack (costumes) Jessica Lee Winfield (stage manager). Cast: Ralph Cosham, John Dow, Michael Tolaydo.

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February 5 - March 15, 2009
Cool Papa’s Party
Reviewed February 7 by David Siegel

Running Time: 2:15 - one intermission
Hoofers bring light to an entertainer’s life consumed by racism
Price range $40 - $45

Finding one’s own voice in life can be a very long, difficult journey, and death comes too quickly. For some, the struggles bring fame and glory with more than a tinge of loneliness as racism is always there to confront. Anchored by the tireless singing and dancing work of Jahi Kearse as the central character "Cool Papa," this is a tasty “fantabulous” evening of exuberant tap dancing, high-spirited hep steps, smooth slides, cheerful 60’s swim moves and the silky movement of upper body and arms that an adult crane might mate to as the audience is taken through the trials of being a black entertainer in the 20th Century. This world premiere with book and lyrics by Thomas W. Jones II and music by William Knowles has a jumping beat leavened with pain and wispy ballads delivered by a well-polished cast and very skilled 5-piece band. This is a dancer’s show, with the choreography of Maurice Hines front and center through-out. There is no mistaking his deft, precise “look” for those who have followed his career over the decades. The cast of proven professionals is always working at breathless, top speed, delivering the arc of the life of a Black entertainer who had to confront White America’s prejudices as well as his own internal demons. The ghost and traditions of Sammy Davis Jr. come through to those of a certain age. To others it will matter not who the depiction is of, but that the historical journey was so difficult. Beyond Kearse, the cast includes noteworthy work by Roz White and Lori Williams in multiple roles as central women figures with clearly differentiated singing and dancing styles. On the night this reviewer saw the show, Gary E. Vincent, in the role of Pappa, Sr., was a deeply affecting Black male presence in his son’s life.

Storyline: A musical odyssey through the 20th century through the eyes of “the last great American hipster.” A life defined by artistry and style against the backdrop of politics and race, chronicling the mythic life of an urban entertainer based on the lives of black performers such as Sammy Davis Jr.

Writer and director Thomas W. Jones II has directed, written and performed in more that 200 plays worldwide, and has worked with Alexandria’s MetroStage for the past 8 years (Pearl Bailey…By Request, Three Sistahs, Two Queens One Castle). The overall theatrical work and life experiences of the multi-talented Tony Award nominee, choreographer Maurice Hines, are on display as well. While the music and lyrics meld together into a mélange, the song titles easily give a sense of the production’s trajectory: "Ain’t No Life," "Sho’ Can Dance'" "World Will Change," "Ain’t No Hustle Like The Shuffle," "Test the Water," "Goodnight Camelot" and  "Lay Your Negro Down" as well as "Long Way Home." There are a number of key lines in the book and the lyrics such as, “when you sing, there is not color” or “wanting a more casual America” and “take your rage to the stage” as central points in the journey of Cool Papa. Even the scene work a-la the 1960’s television show Laugh-in and the repeated line in Act II, "Here Come Da Judge" is given a tremendous high electric jolt of a meaning when Cool Papa is confronted with how he tries to define himself with a Cuban mother and a Black father, having one-eye, being of the Jewish faith and loving white women - - among other attributes in his self-definition.

The cast brims with kinetic energy with some at a more smoothly honed level. It is not easy to find theatrical skill sets that include first-rate acting, dancing and singing in one package, and here the production shows some unevenness. The hoofing, though, is a high point of the production, arduous rehearsal work shows results. The singing skills of the cast are varied but the lyrics come through, including the rougher words and themes which could not be missed. In their work harmonizing, the sound was appealing and sometimes charming, as the tough belter (White), the honeyed vulnerable (Williams), and the rich baritones (Horen and Vincent) melded with the smoothness of  Kearse. With all the high energy of the acting, the audience should not overlook the band ready to strike up, cueing everyone, ever forward as members of the production ensemble. But this is also a straight drama in between the music and dance, and the cast strives to give nuance to their performances. And it is here that Gia Mora excels in giving a generous, exposed tinge in one of her characters, a Caucasian woman trying to save her marriage to Kearse, with many external forces against them.

The set is a mostly bare thrust stage with the band fully seen behind the actors except for the use of scrims and translucent drapes to separate the band from the action at times. There is a suggestive lighting design for indoor action and scenes taking place outside of a cabaret, including incandescent lights surrounding faux stage doors at the wings and a high voltage bulb lit sign spelling out "Cool Papa" above the set. Costumes run the gamut from neon blue corset tops and flowing skirts to fitted grey tops and skirts for the women and loosely fitting pants, white shirts and vest for the men, depending on the decade at hand. And one character (Benjamin Horen) is all Frank Sinatra-like, attired in thin lapelled dark suit and skinny tie topped with a “just-so” tilted forward fedora giving him that ‘50’s cool look.

Book and lyrics by Thomas W. Jones II. Directed by Thomas W. Jones II.  Music Direction and original music by William Knowles. Choreography by Maurice Hines. Design: Carl Gudenius (set) Kristina Lucka (costumes) Terry Smith (lights) Steve Baena (sound) Colin Hovde (photography) Jessica Lee Winfield (stage manager). Cast: Benjamin Horen, Jahi Kearse, Anthony Manough, Gia Mora, Gary E. Vincent, Rosalind ("Roz") White, Lori Williams. Musicians: Yusef Chisholm, Greg Holloway, William Knowles, Ron Oshima, Alvin Trusk.

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November 20 - December 21, 2008
Isn't It Romantic
Reviewed November 23 by Brad Hathaway

Running time 1:15 - no intermission
t A Potomac Stages Pick for the delightful match
 of lyrics and music 

It sounds so plain and simple to just say "Jimi Ray Malary and Lori Williams combine on a revue built on the romantic songs of Jerome Kern, Rodgers and Hart, and George and Ira Gershwin." Its a true statement, but it doesn't begin to capture the intelligence of the packaging, the craft behind the material or the charm of the performances. Director/writer David Hunter Koch has assembled 31 songs that are among the cream of the crop of the great American popular songs of the 1930s and 40s and he has programmed them in a logical progression that is effective both musically and dramatically. Music director William Knowles arranged them in short versions for two vocalists and a jazz combo of three. Bringing Jimi Ray Malary back to MetroStage and teaming him with local jazz vocalist Lori Williams, the show is a short but delightful evening of highlight after highlight after highlight.

Storyline: 31 songs by Jerome Kern, Rodgers and Hart and the Gershwins which deal with one or another aspect of romance are used to create a look at the life cycle of a love affair.

Malary took this stage two years ago in the persona of Duke Ellington for the bio-revue Ellington: The Life & Work of the Duke. Last year he returned as Nat "King" Cole in King of Cool: The Life and Music of Nat King Cole. This time out he doesn't have to be anyone but himself, the charming and dapper crooner whose love of a good tune is matched by his appreciation of a fine lyric, and who can deliver poetic introductory material with aplomb. He's joined by jazz vocalist Lori Williams, who appeared here three years ago in the Cotton Club style revue All Night Strut. Then she impressed with her energy but her enunciation was not always clear. Here, with so many lyrics deserving crystal clear delivery, she has no lack of enunciatory clarity at all. She joins Malary in reveling in the match of meaning and melody. They are backed by Knowles' own swinging piano and the sensitive bass support of Williams' husband, Yusef Chisholm, who returns to enhance the sound of his sixth MetroStage show. The drum work of Greg Holloway seemed a bit mechanical at times when compared to the easy swing of Knowle's and Chisholm, but he certainly had a fine way with the brushes for Rodgers and Hart's "My Funny Valentine." 

Koch links the songs together with narrative that uses quotes from lyrics or popular verse to place them into the chronology of a romantic relationship. He groups songs on the excitement of first love, the deepening of the connection, the creation of a partnership and the planning of permanence. But not all affairs work for all time, and he brings in songs about the rough times, the frustration of fading enthrallment, and finally, the pain of breakup. With only a bit over an hour, most of the songs get just one chorus, but that is enough to establish the point and Malary and Williams deliver them with great verve. They team for seven duets.

One aspect of the song selection that might be overlooked in the pure enjoyment of the performance is their almost uniform high standard in a characteristic of songwriting craftsmanship that is often hard to judge. Rhyme, rhythm, melody, tempo, originality of expression and memorable word play can all be easily defined, but "prosody" is a word few outside the academic world of analysts ever encounter. It refers to the way the words and the notes match in a reflection of the way the singer would actually say a phrase. It isn't just a question of being the same number of notes in the music as there are syllables in the words. It is the pattern of stresses, the placement of the emphasis, the use of pauses and how the music matches the natural acceleration or deceleration a speaker would use when saying the words. Whether Koch intended the concentration, or it is simply a reflection of his own good taste and knowledge of the craft of songwriting, it is hard to conceive of a collection of thirty pop songs of the 30s that more dramatically demonstrate this aspect of the art.

Written and directed by David Hunter Koch. Musical direction and arrangements by William Knowles. Design: Susannah M. Barnes (set) Jessica Lee Winfield (lights) Steve Baena (sound) Colin Hovde (photography) Jessica Lee Winfield (stage manager). Cast: Jimi Ray Malary, Lori Williams. Musicians: Yusef Chisholm, Greg Holloway, William Knowles.

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October 16 - November 9, 2008
Pearl Bailey…By Request
Reviewed October 18 by Brad Hathaway

Running time 1:20 - no intermission
A pleasant hour or so of song and skit
Price $35

MetroStage continues its habit of mounting musical tribute shows that attempt to give audiences the chance to come close to experiencing an evening with a famous person of the past. Some have been more successful recreations than this one, and all have provided more serious biographical sketches of the subject in the process. But they all have been enjoyable and this one is too. Roz White does the singing and the "Pearling." She developed the story (such as it is) and concept (which didn't take much developing) and polished it up with the help of Thomas W. Jones II who gave us some of the earlier "evening with..." shows. William Hubbard, who was part of the project as musical arranger, stepped in to perform as the master of ceremonies and recreate some moments from Hot Lips Page. Put it all together and its a pleasant diversion for a fall evening.

Storyline: A club-act style recreation of the songs and shtick of Pearly Mae.

Audiences came away from last season's Cookin' at the Cookery with a real sense that they'd seen Alberta Hunter. Similarly, they had a chance to experience evenings with Nat King Cole and Duke Ellington in 2006 and Mahalia Jackson in 2004. Roz White's performance as Pearl Bailey doesn't work the same magic. It hints at what a performance by her subject might have been like as it surveys the bare facts of her life and delivers some of the big numbers of her career. But it captures neither the strong musicianship of her early career nor the aplomb with which she threw off asides, a characteristic that became more and more cartoonish in her later life. Still, over the course of fifteen songs, White gives a fair sampling of her output including the iconic "Legalize My Name" which Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer wrote for her for the 1946 Broadway hit St. Louis Woman, a sample of the raunchy side of jazz performed with Hubbard, "The Hucklebuck," a tasteful repeat of  her early hit "Tired" and, of course, the two signature songs that served every impersonator well when trying to "do" Pearly Mae - a snippet from "Hello Dolly" and a longer version of "Won't You Come Home, Bill Bailey".

A strength of the evening is the work of the four piece jazz combo headed by Marvin Ford on the piano. He does a fine stride, which suits the needs of a Pearly Mae show, and gets into the gentle kidding of the club-like repartee. David Cole's tasty work on guitar comes to the rescue of the show at a few slow moments, inserting a touch of quality musicianship just when it is needed the most. White acknowledges his work but doesn't do so by name, just asking the audience to applaud for "guitar man." The same thing happens with tributes to "piano man" and also nameless references to Yusef Chisholm on bass and Greg Holloway on drums. Perhaps this is a nod to a peculiarity of Miss Bailey from her real-life performances, but, if so, it might better have been ignored in order to give name recognition to some high quality work.

The combo and cast work on a fairly bare stage flanked by two art-deco panels from Susannah M. Barnes' design for the show that comes in next month, Isn't It Romantic. A shimmering see-through curtain backs the stage and the combo sits to one side. More features will be added for that second show which is a good thing since the portion of the setting being used here is nothing of note. No one is given credit for costume design but someone must have decided on the zootish suit of pianist Marvin Ford and the lovely gown of White's that allows her smooth skin to set off her sparkling necklace with such flare.

Book by Roz White and Thomas W. Jones II. Story concept by Roz White. Directed by Shirley Basfield Dunlap. Music direction by Marvin Ford. Music arrangements by William Knowles. Design: Susannah M. Barns (set) Kevin Laughon (properties) Jessica Lee Winfeild (lights and stage management) Colin Hovde (photography). Cast: William Hubbard, Roz White. Musicians: Yusef Chisholm, David Cole, Marvin Ford, Greg Holloway.

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July 24 - September 7, 2008
Rooms - A Rock Romance
Reviewed August 10 by Brad Hathaway

Running time 1:30 - no intermission
t A Potomac Stages Pick for a lyrical rock romance
A co-production with Geva Theatre, Rochester, New York

Here's another example of how good a show can be when its creators know just how much story they have to tell, just how much show they can make sparkle and, since this is a musical, just how much musical inspiration they can muster. The creators of this one-act folk/pop and punk/rock musical fill their ninety or so minutes with highly polished material delivered by two highly motivated, talented and energetic players backed by five quality musicians - and then they stop. No (or nearly no) extraneous filler. No generically standardized potential hit song for that hoped-for-hit. Just a good story, well told to a consistently intriguing score. And, since the performances of Natascia Diaz and Doug Kreeger are both high on the intensity scale with a sense of personal chemistry and a strong feeling of evolving romantic attachment, the result is a totally engaging, memorable evening.

Storyline: A young woman in Glasgow is a struggling would-be-lyricist who dreams of stardom in the music business. She approaches a self-absorbed, hard drinking musician to write music for a song she's been commissioned to prepare for a Bat Mitzvah. So begins a relationship that deepens into romance and takes the couple to London where they get involved in the punk-rock movement, and finally to New York. Along the way, challenges crop up, both professional and personal.

The musical is the creation of Paul Scott Goodman and his writer/lyricist wife, Miriam Gordon. Being a somewhat autobiographical piece, it has elements in common with their own story. But it also has elements of traditional short stories, novels, movies and - yes - musicals. Structurally, it follows the well worn path of boy and girl find each other, loose each other, find each other again - the format in less sensitive times was simply referred to as "a boy meets girl/loses girl/wins girl" story. But the Goodman/Gordon effort doesn't treat the female character as simply an object to be found, lost and won. Instead, she's actually the more interesting of the two characters and the most thoroughly developed. She bears a great deal in common with Fanny Brice in that other early career bio-musical of a wannabe star with gobs of talent attracted to a man who has his own addictions: Funny Girl. It is not, however, a rip off of a previous success. It has its own viewpoint, its own voice and its own charms.

Playing that stronger-of-the-two characters, the success-driven lyricist, is Natascia Diaz. Yes, the same Natascia Diaz who was so luminously flamboyant as the title character in Kiss of the Spider Woman at Signature earlier this year. The same lady who was the fiery Anita in West Side Story at Wolf Trap and the seductive Swedish maid Petra in A Little Night Music at the Kennedy Center. What a range! Here she's a marvelous combination of insecurity and bravado that progresses through the relationship with all the complexities compressed into an hour and almost a half. Matching her in intensity as the often brooding, sometimes inebriated young musician is Doug Kreeger who also spent some time this year at Signature (he was in The Visit). Together they manage the not-insignificant feat of sounding authentically Scottish without laying on the brogue so thick that they are hard to understand. This is especially tricky when the music gets into its punk-rock mode in which vocal clarity normally takes a back seat to amplitude and attitude.

Designing a set for a story which plays out in locations across the British Isles and on both sides of the Atlantic in a host of short scenes is a challenge which scenic designer Adam Koch meets with a sure sense of style. All the action takes place on one stage before one wall within one proscenium. It switches swiftly from one locale to another through the simple but elegant device of a door on wheels which is rolled to different spots and placed in different positions either separating the characters or signaling their enclosure in one "room" after another. The wall has two platforms suspended half way between floor and ceiling with musicians on each one. They provide the expected strong rock rhythm backing (the subtitle of the show is, after all, "a rock romance") but they also provide a surprisingly melodic support both on keyboard and guitar for those segments of the score that require a more delicate feel.

Music and lyrics by Paul Scott Goodman. Book by Paul Scott Goodman and Miriam Gordon. Directed by Scott Schwartz. Music direction, arrangements and orchestrations by Jesse Vargas. Choreography by Matt Williams. Design: Adam Koch (set) Alejo Vietti (costumes) Herrick Goldman (lights) Daniel Erdberg (sound) Colin Hovde (photography) Jessica Lee Winfield (stage manager). Cast: Natascia Diaz, Doug Kreeger. Musicians: Jenny Cartney, David Cole, Jon Jester, Dennis Turner, Steve Walker.

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April 10 - May 25, 2008
The Stephen Schwartz Project
Reviewed April 13 by Brad Hathaway

Running time 1:25 - no intermission
t A Potomac Stages Pick for an evening of youthful,
 energetic performances

Michael J. Bobbitt seems to have solved the problem inherent in the "jukebox musical" type of revue, the problem of  keeping the interest level high despite the fact that songs written for a specific plot point have to be performed out of context. Bobbitt's solution? Assemble a cast with a wide range of talents and have them attack the material unrelentingly. There's nary a dip in the intensity in any one of these eighty-five minutes. There are peaks. Each time Felicia Curry steps on the stage the energy level spikes. There are no valleys, however. Even the quieter moments, such as Jobari Parker-Namdar's exquisite rendition of the heart-tugging "Cold Enough To Snow" are intense and demand your attention. When the entire cast lets loose on Bobbitt's stage-filling choreography, there is a sense of joy that compensates for any limitation of individual dancing skills. It is all full-out, just like the singing. All nine young performers attack the material with a combination of confidence and collegiality that makes this an infectious evening.

Storyline: A high-spirited revue presentation of a sampling of the songs of the composer/lyricist of Godspell, Pippin, The Magic Show, The Baker's Wife, The Children of Eden, Captain Louie and Wicked who was also the lyricist for Leonard Bernstein's Mass, Charles Strouse's Rags and the animated films Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Bobbitt conceived of this revue based, as the rather pedestrian title states, on the work of Stephen Schwartz. He selected twenty-seven songs Schwartz wrote between 1970 when he provided a new score for a project called Godspell and became an instant wunderkind, and 2003 when his latest Broadway effort, Wicked, became something of a phenomenon that continues to draw crowds. As anyone who has followed his career knows (or those who attended the ArtSpeak! evening when he came to Poe Middle School in Annandale to sing a few songs, answer a few questions and generally inspire the students and families with his love of the art of the popular song), many of his songs deal with the aspirations of individuals for better things - think of "Colors of the Wind" (with music by Alan Menken) or "Corner of the Sky" or "Defying Gravity."

Felicia Curry adds to her impressive list of performances leading an exciting “Ain’t It Good” (from Children of Eden) that goes from soulful solo to a rousing gospel sing, clap and stamp along that is the highlight of an evening full of highlights. She also is a standout on "Manchild Lullaby" with its lyric by Leida Snow. Florrie Bagel brings a clarity of enunciation as well as pitch to The Magic Show's "West End Avenue" and Amber Moorer delivers the lyric of "Colors Of The Wind" from Pocahontas with dramatic effectiveness. On the other hand, Andrew Sonntag's "Out There" (from Hunchback of Notre Dame) misses some of the meaning of the lyrics. Godspell's "Day by Day" is rendered in multiple languages (which avoids the boredom the song can engender as it endlessly repeats its three-word title). "The Spark of Creation" (also from Children of Eden) acts as a pair of bookends giving a jump start to the start of the show and delivering the final image before the curtain call. 

The small theater that is MetroStage, with its steep banks of seats gives everyone in the audience an unimpeded view of Bobbitt's inventive choreography including nifty uses of light sticks and sneakers with wheelies. The walls reverberate with the enthusiastic singing of the cast. The band led by Doug Bowles puts out a sufficiently supportive sound, but, strangely, the arrangements by John L. Cornelius II give more of a laid back jazz club atmosphere to the accompaniment at times when theatrical pizzazz seems called for. Alex Cooper's strikingly attractive set is dramatically lit at appropriate moments by Jason Arnold. For all the attractive setting and youthful performers, the visual impact of the show isn't all that it could be, however, because the costumes are a fairly unattractive mélange of layered outfits. Pity.

Music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz with additional music by Alan Menken, Charles Strouse and additional lyrics by Leida Snow. Conceived, directed and choreographed by Michael J. Bobbitt. Musical direction by Doug Bowles. Musical arrangements by John L. Cornelius II. Design: Alex Cooper (set) Emily Dere (costumes) Kevin Laughon (properties) Jason Arnold (lights) Jessica Lee Winfield (stage manager). Cast: Florrie Bagel, Priscilla Cuellar, Felicia Curry, Kerry Deitrick, Benjamin Horen, Amber Moorer, Jobari Parker-Namdar, Andrew Sonntag, Clif Walker. Band: Brent Birckhead, Doug Bowles, Jean Finstad, Vishal Panchal, Darius Smith, Danny Villanueva.

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Note: When this show first opened, it starred Ernestine Jackson in the role of blues singer Alberta Hunter. Brad Hathaway reviewed it on opening night. On February 9, Jackie Richardson took over the role. Since the performance of the star is so important to this two-woman show, David Siegel attended a performance with Richardson and has filed a second review. Here are both reviews:
January 24 - March 9, 2008
Cookin' at the Cookery
Reviewed by David Siegel on February 9, 2008

 Running time 2:10 - one intermission
A Potomac Stages Pick for a rocking good time


The goods were delivered by Jackie Richardson in her portrayal of the legendary blues singer and song writer Alberta Hunter in the bio-musical about Ms. Hunter’s almost accidental rediscovery by new audiences after a two decade silence when she performed  in 1977at the Greenwich Village night spot, The Cookery. With “hot sauce and fire” Richardson provided a sometimes scorching performance full of pepper and emotion. An earthy women with a large frame outfitted in a bright, blood red velvet dress, Ms. Richardson perched herself on stage and sang her lyrics, some sweet and others that were lovingly bawdy. She easily established a rapport with the audience with her incredibly appealing big peepers. She “played” to the audience and made them feel part of the act as she interacted with them whenever she could. With the bouncy and full of life Janice Larraine as the young Alberta Hunter, Cookin is a most lively evening when the singing is at the fore. And yet, the production as written by Marion J. Caffey often seems to veer closely to a cabaret act with historical and background details added as a connective tissue between songs and routines. The evening this reviewer saw the show there was often crackling and chatter from the microphones and the sound system. In this small house, one does question the value of micing singers who clearly have strong voices that can and will carry themselves throughout the venue. Then again, neither Ms. Richardson nor Ms. Larraine missed a beat or showed annoyance when the sound system failed them.

Storyline: In 1978, at the age of 83, blues singer Alberta Hunter staged a comeback after an absence from the club or concert stage of over 20 years. Once she had been the toast of the jazz age but for the prior two decades she had been a nurse in a New York Hospital. When she was forced to retire from nursing because of her age, however, she returned to the club scene with an engagement at The Cookery in Greenwich Village, where she again captured the spotlight until her death some five years later.

Playwright and director Marion J. Caffey has developed an appreciative, burnished look at Alberta Hunter through snippets of her very full life and about 20 different songs that were either important to Hunter’s long career or were written by her. The production premiered in 1997 and has been produced in 36 theatres across the country. The historical snippets provide subtext for her formative years in Memphis and her rise through pure perseverance and singing talent through the tough worlds of Chicago, New York and Europe from the 1920’s to early 1950’s. The audience learns of the critical importance of her mother, the affects of race and racism on her career and the more deeply personal aspects of her intimate life and her love for women that almost killed her career. Caffey tried to make these facts more than dry history by having the older Hunter interact with others important in her life throughout the production. While the information is so clearly critical, in some instances the history lesson faded from view quickly as the audience waited for the next song to be sung. But oh the songs that Caffey selected for Cookin’! A wonderful soupcon of down home blues, of early jazz, of church music and several bawdier late hour songs that really do bring the house down.

In the featured role, Jackie Richardson has “the world in a jug with the stopper in her hand.” She is not trying to be a reincarnation of Alberta Hunter, nor does she seem to try to impersonate Ms. Hunter. Rather, Richardson is who she is: an infectious, hands up-in-the-air, vigorous blues belter … a songstress who makes an audience of all ages and all cultural groups tap their feet and shift their heads from side to side. She has a deep, rolling voice that could call God down from Heaven. Her eyes are dramatic props that pop with life and feelings. She is unsurpassed in singing when she throws every body muscle, every arm moment, and every facial expression into dramatizing the words, no one can mistake the meanings and emotions behind them. She becomes almost possessed at these moments. The songs include those well known to all audiences - Sweet Georgia Brown, Darktown Strutters’ Ball, When the Saints Go Marching In. Then there are selections that may be less familiar to some such as the songs of a more intimate sexual nature like My Handy Man, Rough and Ready Man and The Love I Have for You.

This show is far from a one person act. Janice Lorraine is one lithe bouncy singer, dancer and impersonator of women and men, whores and church choir girls. She is a dazzling presence who stops the show, first with dead-on impersonation of Louis Armstrong, voice and all, and then when she twists her lips into a configuration that seems physically impossible. When they sing duets, Lorraine’s voice against Richardson’s is a joy. Finally the four-piece band under the musical direction of William Knowles does not miss a beat and is a live presence throughout the evening.

Written and directed by Marion J. Caffey. Musical arrangements by Danny Holgate. Musical direction by William Knowles. Design: Dale F. Jordan (set and lights) Marilyn A. Wall (costumes) Bettie O. Rogers (hair and wigs) Steve Baena (sound) Colin Hovde (photography) Jessica Winfield (stage manager). Cast: Jackie Richardson, Janice Lorraine, . Musicians: Tony Addison, Yusef Chisholm, David Cole, William Knowles.

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January 24 - March 9, 2008
Cookin' at the Cookery
Reviewed by Brad Hathaway on January 27, 2008

Running time 2:10 - one intermission
A Potomac Stages Pick for a rocking good time


Bio Musicals of some of the great songstresses of the twentieth century, structured as a hybrid of a club or concert appearance and a trip down memory lane, have been showing up around the region for a while now. When they are done well, they provide a great deal of pleasure. By "done well" we mean that the actress handling the role of the central character must be up to the task of capturing and retaining the affection and appreciation of the audience while delivering both a satisfying dramatic performance and singing the heck out of the subject's material. At least for the first two weeks of the run of this show, MetroStage has just that in the star, Ernestine Jackson. As a result, this is a rocking good time. On February 7 the starring role will be taken over by Jackie Richardson. Because the talent of the star is crucial to the success of this kind of show, we will return to the show and report on its success with a different star, but for now, Cookin' at the Cookery really cooks, and not just because of Jackson. The show also rocks because of the efforts of Janice Lorraine and a solid jazz quartet led by William Knowles who all stay with the show after the switch from Jackson to Richardson.

Storyline: In 1978, at the age of 83, blues singer Alberta Hunter staged a comeback after an absence from the club or concert stage of over 20 years. Once she had been the toast of the jazz age but for the prior two decades she had been a nurse in a New York Hospital. When she was forced to retire from nursing because of her age, however, she returned to the club scene with an engagement at The Cookery in Greenwich Village, where she again captured the spotlight until her death some five years later.

Alberta Hunter may not be as well known around the country as Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington or Billie Holiday who have all had shows of this type devoted to them. Ella is currently on view at Arena Stage's temporary home in Crystal City just three and a half miles from MetroStage. In fact, it is now possible to spend an afternoon with one and an evening with the other for a time-twisting jazz reunion of mind-blowing proportions. Arena also gave us time with Billie Holiday a few years back with Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill which featured the musical arrangements of Danny Holgate who provides the same service here. The genre can be a delight when done well, and this time out it is done very well indeed.

Two time Tony Award nominee (for her work as Sarah Brown in the all-black revival of Guys and Dolls in 1974, and again in 1977 for Raisin) Jackson originated the role of Alberta Hunter in this production when it premiered in Florida in 1997. It is clear that she knows the ins and outs of the piece so she can punch up just the right points and skip over some of the less-successful bits. With a wig that recreates Hunter's do circa 1978 and a dress that looks like it just stepped out of a YouTube video of the songstress making her comeback at The Cookery, the resemblance is uncanny. The key test with one of these musical reminiscences is the quality of the music itself, and here Jackson shines indeed. She sells these numbers with pizzazz and establishes a level of rapport and teamwork with her co-star, Janice Lorraine, that is a pleasure to witness.

Lorraine is a Washington native with a long list of national tours and regional roles. She teamed with Jackson to handle the role of young Alberta as well as all the other characters in the story during its 2002 production in Connecticut. She says she doesn't know how many times she's performed the piece but whatever the number, the level of her performance is a tribute to both determination and professionalism. She works just about as hard as an actress can, switching from comic vignettes where she impersonates the owner of The Cookery, Barney Josephson, to serious moments as Alberta as a child, and sings and dances as Alberta in the early days of her career, and even takes the microphone in the person of Louis Armstrong for a joyous duet with "Alberta" on "When the Saints Go Marchin' In." That is a musical highlight of the show but certainly not the only one. With numbers such as "My Castle's Rockin'," "I'm Havin' A Good Time," "The Love I Have For You," "Downhearted Blues," "Rough and Ready Man" and "I've Got a Mind to Ramble," all of which were written by Hunter, as well as "Darkstown Strutters' Ball," "Sweet Georgia Brown," "Always" and a frankly hilarious rendition of the randy "My Handy Man" the show is just pure good time.

Written and directed by Marion J. Caffey. Musical arrangements by Danny Holgate. Musical direction by William Knowles. Design: Dale F. Jordan (set and lights) Marilyn A. Wall (costumes) Bettie O. Rogers (hair and wigs) Steve Baena (sound) Colin Hovde (photography) Jessica Winfield (stage manager). Cast: Ernestine Jackson, Janice Lorraine. Musicians: Tony Addison, Yusef Chisholm, David Cole, William Knowles.

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October 11 - December 2, 2007
tick, tick ... BOOM!
Reviewed by Brad Hathaway

Running time 1:40 - no intermission
t A Potomac Stages Pick for a rousing rock musical
 with three fabulous performances

Click here to buy the CD

Memo to the producers of Jonathan Larson's Rent on Broadway: get down here and see Stephen Gregory Smith tear up the house at MetroStage in the starring role of Jonathan Larson's other musical. Then, the next time you need a replacement for the star on Broadway, you'll know where to find one. Smith has been a reliable and often marvelous supporting actor in musicals at Signature, Toby's, Ford's and Arena for the past five years. He even walked away with a Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Musical for his superb work in Signature's 110 In The Shade. Now he gets a starring role and does he gives it everything he's got! His isn't the only outstanding performance in this one-act, three-person rock music inspired musical. Holding the stage with him are the often impressive Felicia Curry, who continues her growth as a commanding musical theater performer, and a new face for local musical fans, Matt Pearson. The three establish a sense of partnership as they work their way through the dozen songs that constitute the heart of this touching musical.

Storyline: As his thirtieth birthday approaches, a struggling composer living in a dilapidated apartment in the SoHo district of Manhattan, waiting on tables at a Greenwich Village diner while writing songs for musicals he hopes will merge musical theater and rock music, despairs of having that big breakthrough. His girlfriend may take a job out of town, and his best friend may be succeeding in the world of high finance but faces a crisis of his own. What is that sound he keeps hearing? It seems to go "Tick, Tick ... Boom!" as time gets away from him and his world is about to explode.

This is a substantive musical with a message about using the life you have to the fullest. It is a message made all the more poignant given the history of its development and the story of its composer. A semi-autobiographical musical, it was written by Jonathan Larson as he approached (and then passed) his own thirtieth birthday struggling to write musicals that would use rock music in theatrical ways. He put it aside to concentrate on another project, the one that became Rent. It is now Broadway legend that a burst aorta caused his death just as he was on the verge of phenomenal success. His death actually came on the night of the final dress rehearsal of the off-Broadway production of Rent that was such a hit that it transferred to Broadway virtually unchanged and has run there since 1996. Not only did it win the Tony Award for Best Musical, it earned Larson a posthumous Pulitzer Prize. It is now the seventh longest running musical in Broadway history and it is still adding to its of (thus far) 4,785 performances. After Larson's death, David Auburn, the playwright who would later win the Pulitzer for his own play Proof, converted the solo-show that Larson had put aside into the fully formed musical we see today with its message of working toward your goals and being true to your mission in life.

MetroStage has mounted many satisfying small musicals, from the hilarious Musical of Musicals: The Musical to the rousing The Last Five Years, and revues from the outstanding Closer Than Ever to one-performer semi-cabarets like Ellington: The Life & Work of the Duke. With this one, it adds to the list and even tops much of what went before. Matthew Gardiner, the resident Assistant Director at Signature Theatre moves over for this show from Arlington to Alexandria and from Assistant Director to full Director duties. He paces some of the early scenes a bit slowly and allows a few distracting glitches. For example, for the song establishing the youthful sexual attraction between the composer and his girlfriend, Smith sings "The green green dress / 20 buttons and a strap / the green green dress / what a pleasure to unwrap." Yet the green dress Curry wears has no buttons! Early distractions, however, give way to emotionally involving staging as the show progresses, and the impact of the final four songs is impressive. It is all handled with the four person band on stage behind the three performers. The balance between all seven is such that the rock sound is strong and even heavy at the appropriate moments, but every word can be understood and every rhythm and counter-theme is clear. Kudos for much of this belong to both musical director Derek Bowley and sound designer Matt Rowe.

Curry, who just finished the limited run of Petite Rouge off-Broadway, has grown into a fine musical leading lady after some impressive work at Toby's Dinner Theater (especially her Helen Hayes nominated performance as Aida) Imagination Stage (The Araboolies of Liberty Streetand here at MetroStage (Three Sistahs). She has three roles to play in this show, the girlfriend, a member of the cast of the composer's musical who makes a play for him, and his agent. She distinguishes between them without overdoing it, and she handles both rock and ballad duties with flair. Her "Come To Your Senses" would be a highlight in any show. Matt Pearson plays the best friend/former roommate and has his own moments to shine. But perhaps the most impressive time for all three comes quietly in the lovely "See Her Smile" when Smith is in the lead but the vocal support from both Pearson and Curry is sublime.

Music, lyrics and book by Jonathan Larson. Script consultant - David Auburn. Directed and choreographed by Matthew Gardiner. Musical direction by Derek Bowley. Orchestrations and vocal arrangements by Stephen Oremus. Design: Adam Koch (set) Sasha Ludwig-Siegel (costumes) Mark Lanks (lights) Matt Rowe (sound) Colin Hovde (photography) Jessica Winfield (stage manager). Cast: Felicia Curry, Matt Pearson, Stephen Gregory Smith and the voice of Steph-- Sond----. Musicians: Derek Bowley, Jon Jester, Mike Kozemchak, Steven Walker.

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July 26 - September 9, 2007
Three Sistahs
Reviewed by Brad Hathaway

Running time 2:05 - one intermission
A musical of sibling bonding with a rock/gospel score

Does this basic story ring a bell? Three sisters - the oldest unmarried, the middle one unsatisfyingly married and the youngest as yet unfazed by adulthood's disappointments - gather together discussing their only brother, Andrei. Perhaps you've seen or read Anton Chekov's Three Sisters. Or, maybe you caught the world premiere of the musical Three Sistahs at MetroStage five years ago. The character list from this musical by Thomas W. Jones II and William Hubbard owes much to the inspiration of what Jones referred to as "Chekovian rhythms." Rather than argue with their brother in person, however, in this musical "based on a story by Janet Pryce," these sisters are brought together by his funeral. Jones made his comment about the Russian's rhythms in the program for the world premiere of the piece in 2002. Then, the show was listed as "inspired by Three Sisters by Anton Chekhov." Now the reference to the Russian has disappeared, but not the richness of the characters of the three siblings. Bernardine Mitchell is superb once again as the oldest sister, but now her two younger siblings are a sometimes sultry Crystal Fox, who was in the original production, and a constantly foxy Felicia Curry who is new to the role of the youngest sister.

Storyline: Three sisters are all that is left of the Bradshaw family of Washington, DC in the autumn of 1969 as they gather for the third year in a row for a funeral. Two years ago it was Mamma. Last year it was Daddy. This year it is their only brother. After the funeral they return to the family home, share some wine and some memories, learn more about each other and a few things about their past.

Mitchell is in fine voice here, and her smooth sense of dignity (leavened with humor and loosened just a tad in response to a shared bottle of wine) is impressive. She's also the tie that binds the two other siblings. The "sistahs", played by Curry and Fox, each have stronger emotional ties to their oldest sister than they do to each other. Each can get under the skin of the other and - as siblings often do - they do so with a touch of malicious glee. Each sings well and each has a number of solo moments that work very nicely. However, it is when two or more voices are joined together that the score really takes off.

The work of one third of the cast is not the only thing that is new here. The book has been revised a bit and the score has been re-worked as well. New songs - or at least different song titles - show up on the song list, and the order of some of the songs has been altered. Comparing a show with a memory is always difficult, but we have retained strong impressions of the premiere version we saw some five years ago. It was nominated for the Charles MacArthur Award for Outstanding New Musical. We designated it a Potomac Stages Pick and praised it for its sense of restraint. (Click here to read our review of the original production.) The adjective "restraint" doesn't come to mind in the current production.

Design elements are very different. The new set is less a recreation of a typical home in Washington, DC, than it is a suggestion of that home with windows but not walls and tree shapes "outside" both in silhouette and in focused light patterns. This lack of realistic specificity is carried over into the rest of the production. While the original specified its location as Washington DC and its time as Autumn, 1969, the new version simply hints at time and place. While Tony Angelini's sound design on the original boosted the vocals over the three-piece band with an attempt at natural sound, Steve Baena's approach for the new production is to impose echo even though the cast is accompanied by a single, less intrusive keyboard played by composer/music director Hubbard. Only Erin Nugent's new costume designs seem as specific as to time, place and character as in the original, and her costumes are very good indeed.

Music by William Hubbard. Book and Lyrics by Thomas W. Jones II. Story by Janet Pryce. Directed by Thomas W. Jones II. Music direction by William Hubbard. Design: Jonathan Williamson (set) Erin Nugent (costumes) Jason Arnold (lights) Steve Baena (sound) Colin Hovde (photography) Jessica Winfield (stage manager). Cast: Felicia Curry, Crystal Fox, Bernardine Mitchell. Accompanist: William Hubbard.

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April 4 - June 3, 2007
The Musical of Musicals: The Musical!
Reviewed by Brad Hathaway

Running time 1:45 - one intermission
t A Potomac Stages Pick for a high-spirit laugh filled romp
Winner of the Ushers' Favorite Show Award for May

Click here to buy the CD

The more you know about musicals, the funnier you will find this spoof of formulas of some of the big Broadway composers and lyricists of the past fifty or so years. If you know all of the major shows of Rodgers and Hammerstein, Stephen Sondheim, Jerry Herman, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Kander and Ebb, you will "get" every gag in this fast paced, four person (plus pianist) send-up of those shows. The fun isn't just in the puns, or in all the in-jokes embedded in the material, however. The energy of the performers - all of whom you will recognize if you do even some of your musical theatergoing in the Potomac Region - and the pure cleverness of the concept add to the pleasure. And, being a musical, there are many songs and dances which are staged with verve and performed not only with affection for the material but with strong musical talent as well. Originally, the piece was performed by a cast of four with one doubling on the piano. Here, the piano is played by a fifth cast member, Dan Kazemi who adds his own bright persona to the mix.

Storyline: One simple plot is performed "in the style" of each of five major Broadway musical writers or teams. The plot is that old standby of melodrama involving the young girl who can't pay the rent, the evil landlord who would take advantage of her, the older and wiser woman who provides advice and the young man who rushes to the rescue. The show is done first in the style of Rodgers and Hammerstein (titled Corn! - devotees of Oklahoma! will note the exclamation mark). Then the same plot is given the treatment expected from Stephen Sondheim (A Little Complex), Jerry Herman (Dear Abby) Andrew Lloyd Webber (Aspects of Junita) and finally Kander and Ebb (Speakeasy).

Eric Rockwell and Joanne Bogart developed this affectionate but very funny lampoon. They began their collaboration at the very heart of musical appreciation: the BMI Musical Theatre Workshop which was established to foster the development of new talent in the field. Nowhere could the chemistry be more conducive to a hoot of a send-up of the genre. The show first played the tiny off-Broadway space in the basement of a modern church, the York Theatre on New York's Lexington Avenue. It was nominated for both the Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Off-Broadway Musical and the Drama Desk Outstanding Musical, Music, Lyrics and Direction Awards.

Under the tight direction of Larry Kaye not a minute goes by without a visual, verbal or musical gag, keeping the laughter flowing throughout. The young lovers are real-life man and wife Janine Gulisano-Sunday and Russell Sunday, who are often seen together on stage at Toby's Dinner Theatre in Columbia. She is a four time Helen Hayes Award nominee for West Side Story, Brigadoon, Danny & Sylvia and Jekyll & Hyde while he was also nominated for a Helen Hayes Award for Jekyll & Hyde at Toby's where he has performed the leading roles in Miss Saigon, Aida, Kiss Me, Kate and Damn Yankeess, among others.

The evil landlord is Bobby Smith who is just about as very funny as he was as the snail in A Year With Frog and Toad at Roundhouse a year ago, only this time he has more to do, and thus, gets even more laughs. Speaking of laughs: Donna Migliaccio is just about as funny as she has ever been in these mini-musicals, and that is saying quite a lot. She's the "Aunt Eller" character in the Oklahoma! spoof, the star with name recognition but no talent in the Mame takeoff, and a Cabaret girl like you've never seen before in the Kander and Ebb Cabaret-ish Speakeasy. It is her contribution to the Sweeney Todd moments in the Sondheim spoof that are most inspired.

Music by Eric Rockwell. Lyrics by Joanne Bogart. Book by Eric Rockwell and Joanne Bogart. Directed by Larry Kaye. Choreographed by Nancy Harry. Music direction by Dan Kazemi. Design: Allison Campbell (sets) Erin Nugent (costumes) Terry Smith (lights) Steve Baena (sound) Colin Hovde (photography) Jessy Timmins (stage manager). Cast: Janine Gulisano-Sunday, Dan Kazemi, Donna Migliaccio, Bobby Smith, Russell Sunday.

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December 1 –  23, 2006
King of Cool: The Life and Music of
Nat King Cole
Reviewed by William Bryan

Running time 1:30 – 1 intermission
A musical review

It’s not a play and it’s not a musical. One might call it a Las Vegas review, if we were but in Vegas. MetroStage takes a step away from its traditional play and musical fare to bring The Life and Music of Nat King Cole as performed by Jimi Ray Malary. Mr. Malary, who hails from the Seattle area, was last seen on the MetroStage in Ellington so it befits that his return covers the songs of another great musician and singer. Supported by a very talented three man band, including Helen Hayes award winner William Knowles on piano (who is also the Music Director), the songs of the King of Cool slowly emerge, from his less well know beginnings (where he was as famous for his piano work as much as his voice) to the classics that have come to define him for generations of listeners. MetroStage invites the Potomac region to celebrate their holidays with the man who gave us "The Christmas Song."

Storyline: One man performs songs from Nat King Cole's lengthy and notable career.

Those expecting to see a performance along the lines of the movies Ray or Walk the Line where Ray Charles and Johnny Cash were brought to life on the silver screen will be disappointed. The history of Nat is provided though segments of rhyming verse that tie one song to the next. Mr. Malary never truly becomes Nat King Cole on stage, not for a lack of dressing smoothly as Mr. Cole was known to do, nor for the lack of a swinging backup band. Rather it’s the telling of the story of his life coupled with the singing of his songs, and nothing more beyond that.

This still leaves a lot of room for a very entertaining evening. Everyone knows these songs -- some ("That Sunday, That Summer") not as well as others, and others so well known that everyone is invited to sing along ("Ramblin’ Rose"). It’s hard not to get up and dance when the talented band takes the lead during classics like Route 66 and "On the Sunny Side of the Street," and every couple leans a little closer together when the strains of "Unforgettable," "When I Fall in Love," and "I Wish You Love" issue forth. Mr. Malary does have a good voice and his love of his subject is apparent, but he never quite achieves the sultry clear tones that made Nat King Cole the master of cool that he was.

Still, in the end, the show suffers from its masquerade. If it were purely a lounge act, or even a jazz club review, there would be more interaction between Mr. Malary and the audience, and this would have made for a much more fun evening. As it is, sticking to the script and the flow of the show, and keeping its premise of being a stage review of the life of Nat King Cole limits the amount the audience feels that they can become a part of the show, and this limits the enjoyment of the evening. On leaving, the strongest feeling you have is the need to go home and listen to these wonderful songs once more by the original master.

Music by Nat King Cole. Book by David Scully. Musical Arrangements by John Engerman. Directed by David Hunter Kock. Music direction by William Knowles. Design: Brandon Guilliams (set) Jason Mann (lights) Steve Baena (sound) UNKNOWN (photographer) Elaine Randolph (stage manager). Cast: David B Cole, Yusef Chisolm, William Knowles, Jimi Ray Malary.

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September 13 - October 15, 2006
Girl in the Goldfish Bowl

t A Potomac Stages Pick for a delightful script and a pair of outstanding leading performances
Running time 2:15 - one intermission
Winner of the Ushers' Favorite Show Award
for September 

Click here to buy the script

What is it with Canada and funny, touching, highly inventive fantasy? If you liked Michael Healey’s lovely The Drawer Boy at Round House, loved Stephen Massicotte's Mary's Wedding at Theater Alliance and fell under the spell of For The Pleasure of Seeing Her Again on this stage this time last year, you had best head back again for this marvelously written, well constructed and fabulously staged play is precisely your cup of tea. The play is the Governor General's Award for English Drama winner for 2004. Its appearance here for its United States premiere is yet another benefit of the partnership between the Canadian Embassy on Pennsylvania Avenue and the local theater community. Not only is the Embassy supporting the production, they sponsor the program that sends artistic directors and other creative talents from our area to Canada to become aware of what is going on north of our common border. MetroStage Artistic Director Carolyn Griffin was a participant in that program and just look what gems she has brought here as a result!

Storyline: A ten year old girl living on the western coast of Canada finds a man washed up on the shore just after her pet goldfish has died. Could this stranger who can't seem to remember who he is or where he came from be the reincarnation of her pet, and can he bring about resolutions of the problems of her dysfunctional family?

Gregg Henry directs this constantly intriguing, highly entertaining play by Canada's actor, playwright, director Morris Panych. The two lead performances are at one and the same time the strongest and the most memorable. The opening image of Susan Lynskey wearing swimmers goggles starts the piece off with just the right sense of whimsy as she creates the character of a precocious youngster of ten trying to cope with a troubled home life by expending her energies trying to understand the death of her pet goldfish. She's got an eye for detail, a memory like a trap and a sharp tongue. Lynskey manages to be both highly entertaining and very believable as a ten year old without being overly cute or cuddly. The character may be Lilly Tomlinish but the performance is pure Lynskey. Russotto is the strange man she discovered on the beach. Taking his cue from the way his story emerges slowly in the script, Russotto takes his time adding detail to his portrayal. Tiny movements become mannerisms and a blank stare is replaced by a knowing look over time, but he does not push it too fast. His quirkiness is a pure delight and these two leads work together marvelously.

Support comes principally from Kathleen Coons and Bobby Smith. Coons is the little girl's mother, who has just about had it with her husband, her home and even her daughter. Smith is the father who has withdrawn into his own private world of mathematics and geometry as a defense against having to actually interact with real people. The fifth member of the cast, Susan Ross, isn't given a lot to do as the tippling boarder in the household, and she over-does some of what she does have, but there's little damage from that and she does get to deliver some funny one-liners.

Most of the action takes place in a sparsely finished living room, but panels in the rear wall occasionally become transparent, revealing some key plot developments in the bedrooms and bath in the house. This allows Henry to smoothly transition to brief events behind the panels without disrupting the flow of the story. An extremely careful lighting plot with its occasional under-water ripple as well as some very nice touches in the sound design, including a gurgle here and a bubble there, keep the feeling of fantasy alive even as the storyline takes more dramatic, even somber turns. The cumulative effect is a delight.

Written by Morris Panych. Directed by Gregg Henry. Design: Nicholas Vaughan (set) Deb Sivigny (costumes) Kevin Laughon (properties) John Burkland (lights) William Burns (sound) Colin Hovde (photograhy) Elaine Randolph (stage manager). Cast: Kathleen Coons, Susan Lynskey, Susan Ross, Michael Russotto, Bobby Smith.

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July 14 - August 20, 2006
Ellington: The Life & Work of the Duke

Running time 1:45 - one intermission
An enjoyable biographical sketch
using the songs of the Duke

Smooth jazz, an even smoother voice and the smoothest of saxophone sounds make this bio-program enjoyable, but you can be excused for coming away thinking that one of America's greatest creators of music was a vocalist. Jimi Ray Malary does a superb job singing and speaking in a style that is uniquely Ellingtonian. In the dual role of narrator and vocalist, the blend is so complete that the roles seem indistinguishable and that the Duke, about which he speaks in the his trademark semi-rhymed patois, fronted his legendary orchestra as its vocalist. But, no, Duke was a composer, a band leader and a pianist - one of the greatest jazz pianists of his age. What he wasn't was a vocalist. William Knowles is at the piano during Malary's performance, and, while he is a fine accompanist, there's none of the flash or energy that marked the keyboard work of the Duke, and only some of satin silkiness of his sophisticated society sound.

Storyline: A roughly chronological presentation of the songs made famous by Duke Ellington illustrate the story of his career.

As an evening of standards from the mind of the Duke and his collaborators (including, most significantly, Billy Strayhorn) this two-act set includes all the highlights you would expect from the Duke's popular catalogue. From the well known ("Sophisticated Lady," "Duke's Place," "Drop Me Off in Harlem," "It Don't Mean A Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)," "Satin Doll," "Take the A Train" and "Lush Life") to the obscure ("Rocks in My Bed") with a few instrumentals along the way ("Azure," "In A Sentimental Mood") the music just keeps flowing. While there is a nod in the direction of the Duke's attempts at more serious composition - especially his sacred concerts - the concentration is on the big band material that was the core of his cannon.

Jimi Ray Malary, in a progression of sharp evening outfits that captures some of his subject's sartorial suavity, adopts the manner and style of the Duke who made smooth style a trademark. In the process, Malary becomes the Duke. Vocally, he seems a blend of the great singers who fronted the Duke's band from Al Hibbler to Herb Jeffries and even a touch of Joe Williams, although the voice that comes to mind most readily is that of Billy Eckstein. It is a soft silken sound that is at its best on the lovely "Something to Live For".

Musical backing is provided by Knowles on the piano, Yusef Chisholm on Bass, Gregory Holloway on drums and Ron Oshima on saxophone. Chisholm gives some heft to the blend, Holloway does some very nice things with mallets (although his rim shots are not always precise) and Knowles keeps things in synch with Malary. But it is Oshima's work that stands out, and, indeed, provides the real jazz of the evening. He can grind and groan, he can fill in behind a vocal or piano figure and he can swing. He does that and more in these two and a half hours.

Written by David Scully. Directed by David Hunter Koch. Musical direction by William Knowles. Musical arrangements by John Engerman. Design: Brandon Guilliams (set) Jason Mann (lights) Steve Baena (sound) Jay Westhauser (photography) Delia Taylor (stage manager). Cast: Jimi Ray Malary.

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April 19 - May 28, 2006
Becoming George

Reviewed April 30
Running time 2:15 - one intermission
A chamber musical on an historical theme

A new musical based on the life of radical feminist writer George Sand gets a colorful presentation with strong performances for its world premiere at MetroStage. The six-character piece, backed by a small off-stage orchestra, has the feel of a chamber musical which fits very nicely into this intimate theater. All six cast members are given musical moments that highlight their strong voices and the story is clearly told. It has satisfyingly commanding performance in the central character, that of the woman who scandalized the western world by writing novels, smoking cigars, wearing trousers and becoming romantically, but not matrimonially involved with the cultural icons of her day, including the poet/dramatist Alfred de Musset and pianists/composers Franz List and Frederick Chopin. The book concentrates on one year late in her life - long after she had "become George" - and is less than fully successful at mixing the political world of the time with the story of its heroine.

Storyline: In 1870 on her estate at Nohant in central France, the outspoken author who has risen to fame under the pen name George Sand, struggles with whether to speak out on the tumultuous events as the Franco-Prussian War breaks out, the monarchy under Emperor Napoleon II falls and a third French republic is formed. Her staff and houseguests, the actress Sarah Bernhardt, the author Alexandre Dumas the younger and a handsome young prince, provide all the entertainment and intrigue she really wants but she feels a duty as well.

Book and lyrics are by a Chicago-based team, Patti McKenny and Doug Frew. They have achieved more clarity in the lyrics than in the book. The lyrics use some traditional musical drama formulas to link themes together ("Where's the Fire?" opens and closes the first act, three settings of  the song "Tyranny" establish the dilemma that faces Sand, and a trio, "George Sand Silent," re-establishes the state of events to open the second act). The music by Linda Eisenstein samples a few musical styles from the historical period but relies more on modern show music formats. While there are a few musical references to Sand's one-time lover, Chopin, the score sticks with the more tried and true show tune most often. The melodies seem hefty enough to carry the scenes in which they are set, but the orchestration rarely provides the harmony or rhythmic elaboration that can turn a simple song into something more complex and fulfilling.

The songs get fine vocal delivery by the cast. Kat' Taylor commands the stage as Sand and has at least three very strong musical moments, "Go Where The Girls Can't Go", "Love is Green" and the title song. Brian Childers booms out "The Voice of the People" as the Prince, Meegan Midkiff has a lovely solo as Sarah Bernhardt on "A House This Fine" and Greg Violand, as the son of the author of the best selling novel The Count of Monte Cristo, does a fine job singing "Not Monte Cristo" although the song really would benefit from a bit more information on the fascinating Alexandre Dumas, the younger to get the the most out of  the wit of the song.

Sand was one of France's great cultural heroes of her age, an age that included many great French painters such as Cézanne. Still, the use of painting frames for the set is a bit obscure. Shards of picture frames are the principal motif of Jen Price's set with a door or a table sliding on and off as required. The costumes are evocative of the time and place of central France of the 1870s and they capture the social range of the characters from domestic servants to nobility. Designer Howard Kurtz provides Taylor with trouser outfits that emphasize the commanding posture she adopts. The placement of the small chamber orchestra off stage works well for this intimate theater, but director Brett Smock and his sound designer Steve Baena still opt for individual wireless microphones for each of the cast members. This allows the sound system to control the balance between vocals and orchestra but robs the audience of the direct experience of the voices which would be so satisfying in this small theater.

Music by Linda Eisenstein. Book and lyrics by Patti McKenny and Doug Frew. Directed by Brett Smock. Musical direction and orchestrations by Michael D. Flohr. Design: Jen Price (set) Howard Kurtz (costumes) Kevin Laughon (properties) Matthew J. Fick (lights) Steve Baena (sound) Greg Violand (fight choreography) Stan Barouh (photography) Rebecca l. Trotter (stage manager). Cast: Brian Childers, Jason Hentrich, Meegan Midkiff, Mary Jayne Raleigh, Kat' Taylor, Greg Violand.

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January 18 - March 5, 2006
Two Queens, One Castle

Reviewed January 28
Running time 1:55 - one intermission
t A Potomac Stages Pick for a rocking, emotional musical experience

Wow, this two hour show goes by fast! That must be a reflection of just how involving an experience it is. This is the Potomac Region premiere of a musical by Thomas W. Jones II, William Hubbard, J.D. and Javetta Steele. Steele is a composer/lyricist/singer whose hometown is Minneapolis where the Mixed Blood Theatre mounted the premiere of her musical. After a second production in Atlanta, it gets a romping, high energy production at MetroStage under the direction of its co-author, Thomas W. Jones, II and the musical direction of its co-composer, William Hubbard. Hubbard and Jones are building quite a resume of musicals here at MetroStage (All Night Strut, Harlem Rose, Three Sistahs) to which they now add perhaps their biggest audience pleaser to date.

Storyline: Success on all levels has marked the apparently charmed life of a young woman who has earned fame as a singer, launched a movie career, married a charming man and given birth to a lovely child. It all comes crashing down when her husband confesses that a homosexual affair has left him HIV positive.

This is the breakout performance we've been expecting from Felicia Curry since her first foray onto local stages, mostly at Toby's Dinner Theatre in Columbia where she starred in Aida, She starts the show with her wail of "So You Wanna Know About My Life" and her highlights just keep coming with "I Ain't Supposed to Be Here" and, most particularly, "Bed of Steele and Stone" tearing up the place. She's a striking presence and maintains a high energy level throughout in a role that keeps her on stage nearly all evening long.

TC Carson, best known for his role as Kyle Barker on Fox Television's Living Single, is a fine match for Curry in the role of the husband with a secret life on the "downlow" underworld of homosexual liaisons of men in heterosexual marriages . His biggest number, the impassioned final plea to save the marriage "I Choose You," tears at the heart. Gary E. Vincent is affecting as the husband's gay lover and leads a rousing "Don't Ask (Don't Tell)."

The book for the musical is rather predictable but proceeds well through its story, using song to advance the plot as well as to reveal the attitudes and thoughts of the characters. The choice of title, with its dismissive slang for a homosexual, is a strange choice in today's theater community. The score, however, includes a less simplistic view of the conflicts the characters have. And that score, as delivered by the high powered cast and supported by a rocking combo of keyboard, bass and, drums, drives those conflicts and emotions home. The drum work of Quincy Phillips is particularly notable.

Music composed by William Hubbard and J. D. Steele. Book and Lyrics by Javetta Steele and Thomas W. Jones II. Directed by Thomas W. Jones II. Music direction by William Hubbard. Choreography by Patdro Harris. Design: Dan Conway (set) Jim McFarland (costumes) John Burkland (lights) Leigh Mosley (photography) Karen Storms (stage manager). Cast: TC Carson, Felicia Curry, Roz White Gonsalves, Tracy McMullan, Monique Paulwell, Gary E. Vincent. Musicians: Yusef Chisholm, William Hubbard, Quincy Phillips.

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October 12 - November 27, 2005
For The Pleasure of Seeing Her Again

Reviewed October 16
Running time 1:30 - no intermission
t A Potomac Stages Pick for pure charm
Click here to buy the script

Here's a play with a perfect title, a thoroughly satisfying structure and casting that fits remarkably well. The concept of the play is the playwright's desire to have one more conversation with his late mother, the woman who was so instrumental in his becoming a playwright in the first place. The result is a pleasure for audiences. The casting of Catherine Flye adds a rich dimension, leaving you wanting to return to have the pleasure of her company again. Flye puts a distinctively British stamp on the part which was originally written as a portrait of and tribute to a French-Canadian Quebecois, the mother of Canada's highly successful playwright Michel Tremblay (author of Albertine in Five Times). British or French-Canadian, the bond between a mother and son can be so strong and so universal that cultural or linguistic distinctions become irrelevant.

Storyline: A playwright misses his late mother and wants one more chance to have the pleasure of her company. He recalls five different conversations he had with her at different times during his youth and finally finds a way to repay her in part for her role in developing his talents and interest in literature and the theater.

Flye is at the heart of this piece and makes it a very human heart indeed. The character she creates has enough capacity to frustrate and irritate her son to keep the portrait from being cloying, while filling the hall with the tenderness and love that his recollections bring to the fore. She's funny as well, delivering Tremblay's flood of tiny details and strong memories with energy and flair, but never descending into shtick.

As fine as Flye's performance is, it is well matched by Bruce M. Holmes in the supporting role of the son. Supporting is the proper term here, for his primary function is support for the actress playing the mother. He is a sounding board, the character to whom she is talking and his reactions trigger hers. He begins the evening as a narrator with the almost too cute opening explanation for the show, but segues into the memory play gracefully. He retakes a position of prominence for the final effect which is nicely rendered and terribly touching. In between, he sits to the side of the stage much as the dutiful son would do while Mum lectures, instructs, corrects and - occasionally - praises.  

Director John Vreeke has Holmes enter from the rear of the hall and deliver much of the opening explanation on his feet before he gets to his chair by the side of the stage. He has him return to the middle of the hall at the end as he unveils set designer Daniel Conway's final effect. These two off-stage transitions work well to draw the audience in and emphasize the fact that essence of the play is memory. It also concentrates the attention on Flye for the bulk of the evening. She hardly needs such an assist from the blocking, however. She takes the stage just as the stage directions in the script specify: "(she) takes over the stage the minute she arrives, she fills it, dominates it, makes it her kingdom. It is her space." Indeed, it is. 

Written by Michel Tremblay. Translated by Linda Gaboriau. Directed by John Vreeke. Design: Daniel Conway (set and lights) Rosemary Pardee (costumes) Veronica Lancaster (sound) Christopher O. Banks (photography) Kate Kilbane (stage manager). Cast: Catherine Flye, Bruce M. Holmes.

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August 20 - September 25, 2005
The Sand Storm: Stories from the Front

Reviewed August 19
Running time 1:00 - no intermission
A look at the experience of our
 troops in Iraq

Sean Huze enlisted in the United States Marine Corps on September 12, 2001 and served with a Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion in Iraq. Before his Marine service he was an actor in Hollywood. Afterwards he wrote this emotionally affecting short play. It debuted earlier this year in Los Angeles. Here it gets a slightly re-written second production, offering Potomac Region theatergoers the opportunity to connect in a very personal way with the experience of our troops as the struggle in Iraq continues.

Storyline: Ten American soldiers in Iraq tell stories of their experiences as an eleventh pulls them together in a narrative of the memories of the danger, duty, camaraderie, honor and horror of war zone experience. Some, but not all of the stories, involve an oh-so-routine mission to provide security for a shipment of mail to the troops, a mission that was ambushed half way to success.

Those expecting a blind endorsement of the current administration's policies in the middle east will be disappointed. Similarly, those expecting a diatribe over the same administration's policies will be disappointed. This isn't a treatise on our goals or our methods in Iraq, but rather, an examination of what we are asking of our troops. As site specific as its language and its desert-colored combat outfits may be, its emotional content applies just as much to Vietnam or any other conflict where young men are given overwhelming power and the authority to bring it to bear against an indigenous population of mixed loyalties.

Note that the description above involves just men. Nowhere in this one hour will you meet any of the women who are deployed to the desert. But the eleven men do represent a mixture of backgrounds, ranks and races from the young narrator on his first tour in danger to more experienced types, and from a private who fixates on a single severed foot in a field of carnage to the sergeant who describes the way sand and blood mix into a gruesome paste to the extremely green lieutenant who feels his responsibility for all the consequences of his decisions in a mission gone horribly awry. A solid ensemble cast brings each of the characters to life as each gets a few minutes in the spotlight.

Jen Price makes an interesting Potomac region debut as a set designer. It is almost too interesting, for her assembly of shapes behind a plain platform, as lit by Matthew J. Fick in his Potomac region debut as a lighting designer, is so intriguing and visually arresting that it distracts at times. The distractions don't last long, however, as the stories these men relate are strong enough to pull your attention back time and again.

Written by Sean Huze. Directed by Brett Smock. Design: Jen Price (set) Matthew J. Fick (lights) Debra Kim Sivigny (costumes) Matt Rowe (sound) Kevin Laughon (stage manager). Cast: Joey Collett, Michael Kevin Darnall, Benjamin Fernebok, David Greenfield, Jonas Grey, Craig Klein, Keven Robinson, John Slone, Theodore M. Snead, Darius A. Suziedelis. .

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June 15 - July 31, 2005
The Last Five Years

Reviewed June 18
Running time 1:30 - no intermission
t A Potomac Stages Pick for two great vocal performances of an outstanding musical score
Click here to buy the CD

Tracy Lynn Olivera and  Mark Bush sing the heck out of Jason Robert Brown's challenging score in Jane Pesci-Townsend's staging of this intriguing two-person one-act musical about a marriage that didn't work out. The quality of the vocal performances is a good thing because this is an almost completely sung-through musical, with no dialogue scenes at all, simply a few brief moments of unsung speech, most of which are underscored during a break in an ongoing song. Along the way Olivera and Bush create believable characters whose story is that they never really became a couple, their marriage never becoming a partnership. Their five years are chronicled in a unique manner, filled with highs and lows captured in songs that range from ballads to comic patter.

Storyline: Catherine reviews her five year marriage to Jamie in her memory from its end when she receives the letter in which he returns his wedding ring. With each song her memory goes back further - from breakup to attempted reconciliation, honeymoon to wedding, courtship to first meeting. At the same time, in alternating songs, Jamie's story is told in normal chronology - meeting, courtship, wedding, happy early years, frustrations, infidelity and breakup. Only in the middle - at the proposal/wedding - do the two come together to play out a scene together and sing a duet.

Jason Robert Brown is one of the most talented of the current crop of young musical theater composers. He set himself quite a challenge when he began to write this show: write a two-person, sung-through story told from two perspectives which run in opposite orders, only converge in the middle and retain a sense of balance and proportion throughout. It is an almost mathematical problem solving exercise, especially since he added the constraint of alternating between characters. (First her. Then him. Then her. Etc.) That he succeeded as well as he did is a testament to his tremendous talent. Each number serves its purpose exceedingly well and does so in often unorthodox and surprising ways. Brown, whose Songs for a New World made a splash when he was 26, and whose score for the Broadway musical Parade won him a Tony award at age 29, proves himself up to the challenge he set for himself as a composer and a lyricist, for there are delights a plenty in the sixteen songs that make up the show. However, the structure is so formal that, as a musical's book, it needs the help of a strong director to provide some clues to what is going on through the staging.

Jane Pesci-Townsend directs this production. She brings some of the same strengths to the project that Brown did, a great feel for the structure of a song, an appreciation for when to let movement or mannerism make a point, and when to avoid either as a distraction from a musical moment. What she doesn't do, however, is use the stage to help the audience understand the structure of what they are seeing. Given that the program doesn't explain the concept of the show, those who don't know in advance that this is two views of the same story told in opposite order will spend much of the first half hour of the ninety minute piece wondering just what is going on.  A simple "storyline" paragraph such as the one above can help a great deal. Pesci-Townsend's staging complicates that process as both characters use both sides of the stage rather than being confined to their own side except when they get together physically for the duet in the middle.

Still, Olvera and Bush provide fabulous vocal performances and also create clear characterizations of two young people who seem to have entered into marriage before they found out much about life. Olivera belts with exciting energy and Bush delivers patter with panache. From an acting standpoint, Bush has the easier task because the forward chronology of his story lets him show his attractive side first. His character is a talented young man on the rise who has learned to use charm to get his own way throughout life. Olivera, on the other hand, has a character who is shallower, perhaps less talented and whose story is told in a reverse chronology that shows her in pain before it shows the charms that captured his attention in the first place. Each fills the evening with musical thrills in front of the on-stage orchestra of piano, violin, cello, bass and guitar. That particular mix of instruments, especially in Mr. Brown's highly detailed orchestrations, gives the entire piece a richness that fills MetroStage's intimate space. Indeed, it makes a perfect case for establishing a new rule that you should never do a romantic musical without a cello. Olivera and Bush wear ear-mounted microphones not because they couldn't belt out the loud parts over the orchestra but because the quieter moments would be masked by rich strings. The balance achieved by amplification works well for this modern song-cycle.

Written and composed by Jason Robert Brown. Directed by Jane Pesci-Townsend. Musical direction by Howard Breitbart. Design: Jane Pesci-Townsend (set) Howard Vincent Kurtz (costumes) Colin K. Bills (lights) Matt Rowe (sound) Christopher O. Banks (photography) Alix Claps (stage manager). Cast: Mark Bush, Tracy Olivera. Musicians: Howard Breitbart, JiHea Choi, Jean Finstad, III, Edward Lewis-Smith, Jeffry Newberger.

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April 21 - May 29, 2005
Sophocles' Electra

Reviewed April 24
Running time 1:30 - no intermission
General admission seating
Sophocles was never so easy to follow

Click here to buy the script

This adaptation by Frank McGuinness of one of the oldest plays, a tragedy written 2,400 years ago, avoids the problem of most other adaptations or mere translations. It neither talks down to the audience as it explains the elements of the story, nor is it filled with dull periods of explanation. In 409 BC, Sophocles didn't need to explain a lot about the myths from which the plot was pulled. After all, not only was the myth of the family in which Electra was born part of general popular knowledge, it had been the subject of a play by Euripides which was a big hit just four years earlier. This adaptation was well received on Broadway in 1998 when it earned a Tony nomination for Zoë
Wanamaker who was noted for holding the passion and emotion back until it cracks. Here Jennifer Mendenhall takes a somewhat different approach, starting at a peak and remaining there until the point of release two thirds of the way through the fairly short evening.

Storyline: The story of Electra's captivity in the house of the murderers of her father Agamemnon (her mother Clytemnestra and her new step-father Aegisthus), and the final, awful vengeance wreaked by her supposedly slain brother Orestes, is set in a distinctly modern setting where Electra is kept in house arrest by an electronic anklet that triggers the gates to slam shut whenever she approaches.

Mendenhall has a way of combining rage with anguish to produce a feeling of emotional overload that certainly fits Electra's situation. Her torment is not just an intellectual exercise in mythology, it is an agony worn right on the surface. It is a good thing that this is a fairly short play, for such intensity can only be handled in relatively small doses. Indeed, before the joyous release triggered by her discovery that her beloved brother is not really dead, but has, in fact, returned to achieve the vengeance she has longed for, her pain begins to grate. She might have started a bit high on the emotion meter, but she certainly needed to be at the peak to make the release work as well as it does.

For a play supposedly spotlighting its star, it is notable that two of the supporting actresses manage to develop their parts with depth and individuality. Rana Kay is particularly at home in the modernistic setting of this production with its electronic surveillance devices, sirens and chain link fences. Her demeanor as Electra's sister is a sharp contrast with Mendenhall's initial fury, grounding the play at a more sustainable level in her briefer but welcome scenes. Maura McGinn is suitably brittle as Clytemnestra, who is brought down by her own hubris as well as by Orestes' vengeance.

The Orestes of this production is Ted Feldman, a stage presence strong enough to justify Mendenhall's grief over his reported death and virile enough to make his personal involvement in terrible vengeance believable. Brian Hemmingsen, who can be fascinating enough to steal an entire show, is surprisingly bland as Aegisthus, the personification of evil in Electra's world. That world, as envisioned in James Kronzer's skewed Greek temple/mansion/prison set, is often fascinating and well worth a visit.

Written by Sophocles. Adapted by Frank McGuinness. Directed by Michael Russotto. Design: James Kronzer (set) Deb Sivigny (costumes) Lisa Ogonowski (lights) Matt Rowe (sound) Christopher O. Banks (photography) Taryn Colberg (stage manager). Cast: Kate Debelack, Ted Feldman, Brian Hemmingsen, Keith N. Johnson, Rana Kay, Maura McGinn, Dallas Darttanian Miller, Debra Mims, Doris Thomas.

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February 10 - March 27, 2005
The All Night Strut

Reviewed February 13
Running time 1:50 - one intermission
General admission seating

Click here to buy the CD

Thomas W. Jones II, who gave MetroStage such hits as Three Sistahs and Harlem Rose,   directs and choreographs this revue with a Harlem tinged, Cotton Club-ish feel. The collection was devised by Fran Charnas back in 1979, drawing on the music of the likes of Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, and Cab Calloway as well as Jerome Kern, Frank Loesser and the Gershwin's. The show played a very brief stint Off-Broadway but has garnered some life through a licensing house that makes it available for professional and community theaters. The package they get from the licenser isn't that impressive, but the touch of a talented director and choreographer like Jones can give it some spark and the individual performers have plenty of opportunity to shine.

Storyline: A quartet backed by a jazz trio works their way through twenty-nine songs of the 1930s and 40s. Included are such hits as "In the Mood," "It Don't Mean A Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)" and "Minnie the Moocher" as well as such lesser known numbers as "Hit That Jive Jack," "Java Jive" and "I Need a Little Sugar In My Bowl."

The quartet of singers offer strong individual personalities and song styling techniques. William Hubbard sells his numbers with great good humor. Yvette Spears' thick sound is satisfying on the songs requiring a touch of soul, Lori Anne Williams makes up in energy what she sometimes lacks in clarity and no one works harder than Darryl Jovan who sparks many a number. The instrumental trio is sharp on the up-tempo pieces and funky when digging in to the bluest numbers.

Unlike so many revues which feature a string of solos by individual cast members with an occasional ensemble number, this show is composed almost exclusively of group arrangements, and under Jones' direction, they are highly choreographed throughout. At least at the start of the six week run of the show, these singers haven't developed anything approaching the sound of a group. Their harmonies don't yet blend and they sometimes sound like they are singing an arrangement of a song for the first time. Each knows his or her own part flawlessly and delivers it with assurance, but they are searching for a vocal unity that so far escapes them. As hard as they are working, however, it is clear that they will be much better later in the run.

Carl Gudenius places a strangely paint-splattered scaffold and wheeled construction staircase on his stylish set of patterned floor and a band stand. The wheeled staircase provides the opportunity to create different arrangements for different songs but has the drawback of having some of the cast frequently holding on awkwardly while the stair shimmies, shakes and slides around. Howard Kurtz' costumes are a creative compromise between the very strong styles of Harlem club society of the thirties and forties.

Conceived by Fran Charnas. Directed and choreographed by Thomas W. Jones II. Music direction by William Knowles. Musical arrangements by Tom Fitt, Gil Lieb and Dick Schermesser with additional orchestrations by Corey Allen. Additional arrangements and orchestrations by William Knowles. Design: Carl Gudenius (set) Howard Kurtz (costumes) Colin K. Bills (lights) Matt Rowe (sound) Christopher O. Banks (photography) Ariane Chapman (stage manager). Cast: William Hubbard, Darryl Jovan, Yvette Spears, Lori Anne Williams. Musicians: William Knowles, Gregory Holloway, Yusef Chisholm.

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October 21 - December 5, 2004
One Good Marriage

Reviewed October 24
Running time 1:05 - no intermission

John Vreeke directs the two young performers, Toni Rae Brotons and Marcus Kyd, with a light touch that never draws attention to the staging, and instead, keeps the focus right on the story the two are trying to get out. The difficulty getting that story out is not a failure of performance, it is a feature of the script. Indeed, the difficulty of facing a horrendous personal misfortune is what the play is all about. Author Sean Reycraft has his characters starting over again and again as they try to explain to the audience just how their first year of marriage progressed from such a catastrophic start. The audience doesn't know until the end just what that catastrophe really was. It isn't so much what it was as it is how these two unsophisticated, sheltered and anything but worldly wise twenty-somethings coped that makes the story. The coyness about just telling the audience what happened gets a bit annoying as the short evening progresses, but the charm of Brotons and Kyd keep it from becoming a serious problem.

Storyline: On their first wedding anniversary a young couple - she a high school English teacher, he the school's librarian - gather in the school's gymnasium with a group of acquaintances they hope will become their good friends. They need new friends because of a tragedy that is revealed in the course of the one-act play.

This is the U.S. premiere of this play by Canadian playwright Sean Reycraft. It was mounted last year at Toronto's Theatre Passe Muraille where MetroStage Artistic Director Carolyn Griffin saw it while on a Canadian Government-sponsored exchange program. (The Canadian Embassy is sponsoring this production.) The text is replete with the kind of false starts and incomplete details that are the mark of real life conversations under stress.

Brotons and Kyd make an attractive pair of newlyweds and the chemistry between them makes it easy to slip into the belief that they have, indeed, just completed a year's worth of forming the bond of man and wife while dealing with a tragedy of undisclosed proportions . . . undisclosed at least until the end after the audience has had the opportunity to get to know and like this couple. It makes the ultimate disclosure all the more affecting. But the play isn't really about the disclosure, it is about the process the couple has gone through attempting to absorb the enormity of it and finding a way to proceed with their lives.

The evening of the press opening the company had a technical difficulty which resulted in the performance being given on the attractive set that Tracie Duncan designed but without the embellishment of the lighting devised by Colin K. Bills. His lighting design was only used for about five minutes and it would be unfair to render a judgment, although the pre-show and early show glimpses were promising. The set is probably also better judged only when seen under the intended lights. But this is not a design-dependent play. Its value is in the text and the personalities of the two characters. In that it is fully satisfying in the hands of Brotons and Kyd whether under theatrical lighting or simply overhead work-lights.

Written by Sean Reycraft. Directed by John Vreeke. Design: Tracy Duncan (set) Kate Turner-Walker (costumes) Colin K. Bills (lights) Matt Rowe (sound) Ariane Chapman (stage manager.)  Cast: Toni Rae Brotons, Marcus Kyd.

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May 20 - July 11, 2004

Reviewed May 22
Running time 2 hours 20 minutes
t A Potomac Stages Pick for a rousing good time

That Bernardine Mitchell would get the joint jumping with the music of Mahalia Jackson is no surprise. After all, she got this same joint jumping in Three Sistahs last season and she rocked the walls at Arena Stage in Crowns. It should also not surprise anyone that William Hubbard, who was music director for both of those shows makes a major contribution to this one as well. What may surprise is that he isn't the musical director this time out, he's a marvelous on-stage talent whose performance includes not just musical numbers but an emotionally affecting delivery of the words of Dr. Martin Luther King. Another very pleasant discovery, if not surprise, is S. Renee Clark, the other talent on stage in this three-person show and the music director making her debut on Potomac Region stages. Together these talented performers bring this bio-musical to stompin', rockin' life.

Storyline: The career of Mahalia Jackson is the framework for an evening featuring her blend of gospel and spiritual music. Just enough biographical material is woven into the evening to keep this from being a mere revue based on her repertoire.  But you are never more than a minute or so away from another song.

Mahalia is subtitled "A Gospel Musical" and it lives up to its name. There aren't any new songs written for characters to voice their inner thoughts, although there is one "Jim Crow Blues" penned by the playwright which advances the story in the early going. The rest of the music is the music that Ms. Jackson performed in venues ranging from churches to Carnegie Hall. It is the rousing, emotional music that made her famous, and it is marvelously sung by Ms. Mitchell and her colleagues. The script is just detailed enough to give the audience a survey of the lady's life and work while Ms. Mitchell gives the audience a chance to feel that they know the lady as she was off-stage.

Carol Mitchell-Leon, who directed the piece in Georgia, mounts this version with a fine sense of pace, neither rushing too fast nor lingering too long on a point. While Mitchell is the lead character throughout the evening, Hubbard and Clark cover all the other roles - Clark is Jackson's aunt and also her longtime accompanist Mildred Falls, Hubbard is her cousin and the blind organist as well as Dr. King. They alternate between the stage right piano and the stage left organ in support of Mitchell's vocals.

Matt Rowe's sound design is particularly noteworthy even given the fact that Mimi Epstein's sound design for the Atlanta production of this show is cited as "original sound design." It is never an easy thing to take a design meant for a different space and make it work. Rowe, who has worked here at MetroStage before (Closer than Ever, Rough Crossing, etc) and is the House Sound Engineer for Signature Theatre, balances the voices, piano and organ in this irregular and rather echoey room with skill. Rarely does a voice seem to be coming from anywhere but the throat of the singer. As a result, there are few distractions from the impact of the music.

Written by Tom Stolz. Directed by Carol Mitchell-Leon. Music direction by S. Renee Clark. Design: Tracie Duncan and Carl Gudenius (set) Michael Reynolds (costumes) Dayana Yochim (properties) Adam Magazine (lights) Mimi Epstein (original sound design) Matt Rowe (sound) Christopher O. Banks (photography) Karen Storms (stage manager). Cast: S. Renee Clark, William Hubbard, Bernardine Mitchell.

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April 1 - May 9, 2004
Rosemary and I

Reviewed April 10
Running time 1 hour 10 minutes

Co-directors Nancy Robillard and Olympia Dukakis provide a lovely world premiere for this delicate one-act memory play by Leslie Ayvazian, who held forth on this stage in her solo-show High Dive last winter. Ayvazian leads a cast of four as the "I" in a gossamer-thin play. The "Rosemary" of the title, played with charm and warmth by Judith Roberts, is the mother of Ayvazian's character. 

Storyline: Ayvazian's character begins by assembling artifacts from her life with her mother - a comb or a bell or a diary. Each triggers a memory which brings to life her mother, her father and her mother's companion/accompanist from a career as a concert singer. The exploration of her relationship with her mother expands to include the relationship between her mother and her father and the relationship that might have developed between her mother and her mother's friend. It touches on the possible sources of her own personality, her ability to establish relationships and her sexual preference, but the concentration is principally on her effort to recall her moments with her parents.

As a playwright, Ayvazian seems averse to providing much exposition in the early going. She simply starts with "Starting with . . ." and launches right into the event. A number of false starts result in returning time and again to "starting with" as Ayvazian's character considers exactly what it is she wants to consider. Such, of course, is the way memory often functions, and it becomes a theme for the entire one act piece. The result, however, is that the "what is going on here" stage, which most plays attempt to handle in the first scene, extends nearly throughout the entire piece. Indeed, Ayvazian regularly returns to "starting with" for nearly an hour of the one hour and ten minute play, and only gets to "ending with" at the very end.

Ayvazian is surrounded by a cast that does justice to the gentle dialogue of the play. The affection and warm recollections shared by Roberts as Rosemary and Jewell Robinson as her friend from the past is natural, effortless and charming, while Sam Groom has a light touch for the humor which defines the character of the father. His assertion that he is important because he is "a central figure" becomes the moral of the piece as it asserts that everyone is "a central figure."

The four are not alone on stage. John Hodian plays his own musical accompaniment on a partially visible piano stage left with Bet Williams at his side handling the vocal duties which suggest the impact of "Rosemary's" background as a touring concert singer. The play is in no way a musical, but they provide a musical setting that matches the understated charm of the physical setting. James Kronzer's set involves diaphanous drapes and a single bench. Chris Lee's lighting is subtle and effective while Marilyn Salvatore has provided soft pastel costumes for the memory characters and a sharper mixture of burgundy and reds for Ayvazian.

Written by Leslie Ayvazian. Directed by Olympia Dukakis and Nancy Robillard. Original score by John Hodian, performed by John Hodian and Bet Williams. Design: James Kronzer (set) Marilyn Salvatore (costumes) Dayana Yochim (properties) Chris Lee (lights) Matt Rowe (sound) Delia Taylor (stage manager). Cast Leslie Ayvazian, Sam Groom, Judith Roberts, Jewell Robinson.

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February 11 - March 7, 2004
Filler Up!

Reviewed February 15
Running time 1 hour 25 minutes

Warning: Do not attend this show hungry. Schedule a pre-show dinner  rather than a post-show repast. However, even if you eat well before the show you may still be inspired to stop somewhere for an après-theater bite. All of this gastronomical attention is caused by the fact that the author/actress who delivers this one act program bakes bread on stage during her performance. If you are hungry, you may have difficulty concentrating on her story under the influence of the aroma of baking challah bread.

Storyline: Deb Filler, who describes herself as a member of a very exclusive group - the Jews of New Zealand - tells a string of humorous stories about her life and her family which add up to a poignant portrait of her relationship with her mother. She does it while she prepares and bakes a loaf of Challa bread. By the end of the performance, the loaf is ready to eat and, after her curtain calls, she leaves it on the lip of the stage along with a cube of butter for the audience to sample. 

Filler has an instantly likeable personality. She bonds with the audience almost before she finishes her first bit which is a quick rendition of the song "She's Too Fat For Me" which will provide the opportunity to begin regaling all with stories of her struggle with weight control (or, in her term, body image problems). She is just a bit presumptuous in calling for audience participation ("sing it with me!") so early in the festivities but soon she has taken up position behind a counter and begun the process of kneading the bread dough while apparently absentmindedly reminiscing about her days in the family bakery in New Zealand.

For a while, the show seems an ethnically adjusted version of a Julia Childe television cooking show. It takes a while for it to become clear that the seemingly stream-of-consciousness string of stories is something more than a pleasant chat with an outgoing, interesting woman. She rambles on about her grandmother's tendency to fat legs, her father's inability to bake just one loaf of challah bread, and how she inherited her mother's hair ("it's our prettiest feature - and our thinnest").

As the evening progresses -- and the rather intimate confines of MetroStage's theater fills with the aroma of baking challah --  the stories all start to relate to her relationship with her recently widowed mother. By this time in her life, Filler is living in the United States while her mother is still in New Zealand. Indeed, Filler brings the story right up to her phone conversation with her mother she says she had just before coming to the theater for the performance. How she, nearly nine thousand miles away from home, can cope with her mother's needs in old age is the crux of the issue and it raises universal issues of familial relationships in an honest, humorous and very human act of self revelation.

Written by Deb Filler and Lowry Marshal. Directed by Irinia Brown. Design: Tim Mascall (lights) Christopher O. Banks (photography) Marjie Hashmall (stage management). Cast: Deb Filler.

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November 13 - December 14, 2003
Noel and Gertie

Reviewed November 16
Running time 2 hours 15 minutes

Those who know that the names in the title could only be Noel Coward and Gertrude Lawrence will enjoy this bio-revue of sketches and songs by the team that gave New York’s Broadway and London’s West End a touch of class between the 1920s and the 1950s. Those who are encountering the sophisticated elegance of the pair for the first time may find the chronological format a bit confining and the effort by Sheridan Morley to turn a revue into something more than it is a bit exaggerated. Still, everyone will come away having enjoyed some or all of the evening.

Storyline: Noel Coward (1899 - 1973) and Gertrude Lawrence (1898 - 1952) had careers that intersected time and time again as he gained renown as a playwright, composer and actor and she rose to the heights of stardom on the musical and comedy stage. He wrote such classics as Private Lives and Blithe Spirit for himself to star in opposite her. She excelled not only in these, but in non-Coward works such as Lady in the Dark and The King and I.

As Gertie Lawrence, Tracy McMullan is the portrait of sexy elegance that Coward obviously wanted Lawrence to be. For much of the first act she’s a vision in a silver gown designed by Kate Turner-Walker, and that vision could well serve as a symbol for the essence of elegance between World Wars I and II. McMullan is a great deal better singer than Lawrence ever was and she handles the light comedy quite well indeed. It can’t be held against her that she doesn’t have the stage presence of the original - who does? 

Carl Randolph brings Noel Coward to life in a fine approximation of his 1930s self. This takes a bit of getting used to for those who know Noel Coward from his television and film appearances dating to the 1950s and 60s. He even affects the hand-in-the-coat-pocket pose that was Coward’s trademark in middle age.  He is at his best with Coward’s classic patter song, the admonition “Don’t Put Your Daughter on the Stage, Mrs. Worthington” and acquits himself nicely in the dialogue scenes from both Private Lives and Blithe Spirit.

The show plays out on a slightly re-designed version of the set MetroStage built for the last show, Rough Crossing. Tracie Duncan does a fine job of turning an art deco ocean liner into an art deco stage with the required balconies for scenes from Private Lives.

Devised by Sheridan Morley. Words and Music by Noel Coward.  Directed by Nancy Robillard. Music direction and accompaniment by Alfredo Pulupa. Choreography by Stefan Sittig. Design: Tracie Duncan (set) Kate Turner-Walker (costumes) Dayana Yochim (properties) Ayun Fedorcha (lights) Matt Rowe (sound) Christopher O. Banks (photography) Marjie Hashmall (stage manager).  Cast: Tracy McMullan, Carl Randolph.

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September 18 - October 26, 2003
Rough Crossing

Reviewed September 21
Running time 2 hours 10 minutes
Potomac Stages Pick

Rough Crossing offers smooth sailing for lovers of farcical comedy. It is yet another of the wave of comedies, most with a decidedly back-stage feel, now being offered on local stages. At Signature show folk cavort on a train. At Arena they frolic on a sound stage. Now at MetroStage they spar, finagle and conspire on an ocean liner. This particular liner is a stage-filling set by Jos. B. Musimeci, Jr. that rotates with one side the exterior deck and the other the interior of the ship’s nightclub.

Storyline: Two playwrights and a composer set sail on the SS Italian Castle from England bound for New York for the opening of their new musical comedy accompanied by the stars of the show. They have four days to re-write the ending but jealousies erupt as seductions are overheard and plots are uncovered. Through it all, the ship’s steward making his maiden voyage gets increasingly tipsy as he consumes more alcohol than he serves.

This is one of Tom Stoppard’s most easily understood and enjoyed plays. Every Stoppard play is filled with bright and clever dialogue but some require a familiarity with classical literature or at least with some of the obscurities of Shakespeare to fully appreciate the wit. Not so this play. Here, built on a framework borrowed from Ferenc Molnar’s Play at the Castle as refined by PG Wodehouse’s The Play’s the Thing, Stoppard brings his trademark precision to bear on the conventions of traditional comedy of manners to spoof the pretensions of theater people. No deep meanings here, just good brisk fun. It's the kind of frolic where you get lines like “I last worked at the George” - “Cinq?” - “No, it’s a hotel!”

That particular drollery, along with confusions over Starboard only being on the left when you are coming from the front of the “boat” or references to the smokestacks as chimneys come from Ian Gould as the newly employed ship’s steward who hasn’t quite got his sea legs and can’t quite get the terminology straight. His sense of comic timing is superb, not only for single lines which he delivers with aplomb but for longer lined comic bits that require prolonged buildups. In the early going, he’s the only one who seems to sway with the ship’s roll but later on, as the crossing runs into rougher weather, he seems the only one steady on his feet as his consumption of the passenger’s drinks has resulted in an inebriation that somehow matches the ship’s motion.

Michael Russotto and Jack Vernon team up as the writers who must manipulate the show’s co-stars, motivate the show’s composer and, at the same time, come up with a script that might actually work on Broadway. They are each delightful in their own way and they make a fine team together. Steven Tipton not only sets up some of the funnier gags of the first act with a speech pattern that creates confusion, he sings and plays piano as the show’s composer. Stoppard wrote lyrics for three songs for this show with Andre Previn providing the melodies. Tipton’s rendition of their “Where Do We Go From Here?” ends Act I and “This Could Be The One” provides a nice touch in Act II.

Written by Tom Stoppard, freely adapted from a play by Ferenc Molnar previously adapted by PG Wodehouse. Music composed by Andre Previn. Directed by Nancy Robillard. Design: Jos. B. Musumeci, Jr. (set) Michele Reisch (costumes)  Adam Magazine (lights) Matt Rowe (sound) Christopher O. Banks (photography) Jess W. Speaker, III (stage manager). Cast: Ian Gould,  Nichole Mestres McDonnell, Carl Randolph, Michael Russotto, Steven Tipton, Jack Vernon .

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June 25 – August 3, 2003
Closer Than Ever

Reviewed July 5
Running time 2 hours
Potomac Stages Pick

Few people write story songs as well as David Shire and Richard Maltby, Jr. as is abundantly demonstrated In MetroStage’s second revue of their songs. MetroStage opened last season with Starting Here, Starting Now which presented two dozen of them in a cabaret setting directed by Thomas W. Jones. Now they end this season with this twenty-two song revue in a more theatrical staging directed by Capitol Steps regular Brad Van Grack with each song treated as a mini-scene.

Storyline: A collection of unique songs which are actually short one-act plays set to music. Whether the subject is lasting friendship, the demands of career, the fitness fad, ever-present muzak, the mating habits of animals, the bond between a father and a son, or love between man and woman (or even man and man) these songs tell of people with strong personalities and real-life challenges.

The four singer/actors who perform these mini-scene songs each have more than one strong highlight during the evening. Tracy Lynn Olivera has at least four of them and each illustrates a different aspect of her talent, from pure comedy material such as the song of “Miss Byrd” back at her desk after a “nooner,” to the seductive in the “There” duet with musical director/pianist Howard Breitbart or the “Back on Base” duet with bassist Daniel Felton or her tirade at a boyfriend offering the classic breakup line to which she responds “You Want To Be My Friend?” with such emphatic rejection she sends him crawling off. Eileen Ward is no slouch in the comedy department either, as witness her lecture on the mating habits of such animals as "The Bear, The Tiger, The Hamster & The Mole."

The men hold their own with little difficulty. Russell Sunday’s strong voice anchors ensemble numbers and shines in solos including the very effective “What Am I Doin’” while Jamie Zemarel’s smooth styling creates a number of very touching characters including a faithful husband and a son grateful to his father for the gift of music. That last song is doubly touching when you know that Zemarel inherited much of his musical talent from his father, the late Baltimore tenor sax/big band leader Zim Zemarel. 

Adam Magazine’s lighting effects are sharp and effective but Melanie Davis Koontz’ costumes seem rumpled, suffering from a lack of attention to detail from shoe selection to Sunday’s unbuttoned shirt showing too much undershirt. Also, the volume balance between the onstage piano and the singers is better in the lower rows of seats. Tickets are general admission, so we suggest you arrive early enough to get a seat in the second or third row of the six-row center section. There really isn’t a bad seat in the house but these seats give you the best mix of vocal and instrumental sound for this show.

Music by David Shire. Lyrics by Richard Maltby, Jr. Directed by Brad Van Grack. Musical direction and piano accompaniment by Howard Breitbart. Bass player and additional vocalist Daniel Felton. Design: Carl Gudenius (set) Melanie Davis Koontz (costumes) Adam Magazine (lights) Matt Rowe (sound engineer) Christopher O. Banks (photography) Jess W. Speaker, III (stage manager). Cast: Tracy Lynn Olivera, Russell Sunday, Eileen Ward, Jamie Zemarel.

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May 1 - June 8, 2003
Bea’s Niece

Reviewed May 4
Running time 2 hours 20 minutes

Memory plays come in all shapes and sizes. This one dissects memory through a combination of flashback and hallucination, leaving it for the audience to figure out which is which. It has an intriguing twist and some cleverly descriptive dialogue. In the hands of a fine cast under Jessica Kubzansky’s smooth direction, this competent presentation emphasizes the strengths of the piece but can’t quite disguise the fact that the script, which has enough inventiveness to support a marvelous single act, thins out too much when stretched to a full two act play. The result is the kind of evening you enjoy but not the kind of evening you treasure.

Storyline: Bea’s niece is a successful novelist confined to her room in a mental institution, but her mind is free to roam – or, more precisely, to create visitors and flit from present to past and back again. Her task is to recognize which is which and begin to distinguish between reality, fantasy and memory. Has her husband died? When? How? If she at least pretends to accept her doctor’s view of reality, can she go home? What home is there to go home to?

Helen Hedman is good at both aspects of the central character, the flippant intelligence of an author who has made a career of writing stories with sufficient details to convince a reader of the reality of her creations, and the emotionally wracked patient who longs for the return of her happy past or, at the least, stability. “You want to cram my mind back into my head” she complains, adding “my mind has moved into a whole new realm of fiction.” Tom Kearney is solid in the role of the author’s late husband whose presence she simply can’t relinquish and Michelle Shupe, who can be relied upon to deliver a solid supporting performance, comes through once again as the psychiatrist.

It is the performance of Susan Ross that will stick in the memories of many who see the show. She’s the titular Bea, but she flits from one persona to another as a figment of her niece’s imagination and a staple of her memory. Throwing out zinger after zinger with a droll delivery, she can be whatever her niece imagines her to be while retaining enough consistency of character to keep you wondering if this time, just for once, she might actually be in the room.  

MetroStage is a marvelous space for a four-person, one set play like this one. The steeply raked audience seating wraps around the thrust stage just enough so that there is a sense of intimacy for everyone. The design team emphasizes that sense of connection with a set combining realism with fantasy, lights that pick up on every shift in the patient’s mind and sounds that clearly indicate which world each scene or event is in. Such visual and sonic cues help the audience keep the events straight even when they don’t notice them.

Written by David Gow. Directed by Jessica Kubzansky. Design: Joe Musemeci (set) Alex Jaeger (costume consultant) Kiersten Moore (properties) Jeremy Pivnick (lights) John Zalewski (sound) Christopher O. Banks (photography) Delia Taylor (stage manager). Cast: Helen Hedman, Susan Ross, Michelle Shupe, Tom Kearney.

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February 26 – April 6, 2003
Sidney Bechet Killed A Man

Reviewed March 2
Running time 1 hour 50 minutes
Potomac Stages Pick

When Nancy Robillard’s visually striking and consistently intriguing production of Stuart Flack’s intellectually challenging play ends, it comes as a surprise that less than two hours have elapsed. Sometimes time having stretched out is a bad sign for “time flies when you are having fun.” In this case, however, it is a good thing. The less-than-two-hours seem much longer not because you are bored, but because you are captured, forced to concentrate and contemplate the material before you.

Storyline: A heart surgeon who believes himself to be the best in the world at what he does, always felt his success at surgery was akin to the success of early jazz great Sidney Bechet whose work with clarinet and saxophone was as fearless and precise as the doctor’s work with scalpel and suture. His life comes to a turning point as the consequence of a long lasting illicit affair. As he explains his situation to the audience, he reveals his dreams, his pride and his fascination with both perfection and jazz. 

This play has been referred to as a dark comedy, and there are certainly light moments and gentle chuckles. But it may do the potential audience a disservice to promise a comedy. This is a serious drama masquerading in the garb of lighter fare. The main characters are all at the defining moments of their lives, struggling with the impact of all they have done and all they have left undone. The language is rich in imagery, thick in intriguing concepts and heavy with import. But, due in part to the craft of the author and in part to the skill of the lead actor, it never seems to bog down in that density. It moves forward with surprising momentum and is consistently fascinating.

Paul Morella is the doctor. His performance is as surgically precise and rhythmically fascinating as the kind of jazz his character idolizes. He moves between real-time moments, memory flashbacks, dreams and hallucinations with a subtlety that draws the audience into the hunt for truth, never giving away too much and never dwelling on a moment too long. Lawrence Redmond and Kimberly Schraf give solid support in key roles as the doctor’s financial advisor/friend/accompanist and wife, while Michael Jerome Johnson weaves a secondary fabric in multiple roles that have a common thread this reviewer won’t reveal. Part of the fun of the evening is to relate those parts to the whole.

Two key design contributions come from MetroStage regular Joseph B. Musumeci and MetroStage first timer Chas Marsh. Musumeci, who designed Sea Marks here, provides a spare but striking set essentially composed of corrugated metal sheets and a few pieces of furniture which slide effortlessly to multiple configurations. Marsh’s soundscape uses some of the jazz that the lead character loves so much but goes beyond that to draw connections between such things as the sound of scratches at 78 rpm and the sound of a pulse. He even seems to have found what an aneurism sounds like.

Written by Stuart Flack. Directed by Nancy Robillard. Design: Joseph B. Musumeci, Jr. (set) LeVonne Lindsay (costumes) Adam Magazine (lights) Chas Marsh (sound) Christopher O. Banks (photo). Cast: Paul Morella, Lawrence Redmond, Kimberly Schraf, Michael Jerome Johnson, Marie Page, Isaac MacDonald.

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January 16 – February 9, 2003
High Dive

Reviewed January 25
Running time 1 hour 20 minutes

There’s a time and a place for everything, audience participation shows very much included. After criticizing Dame Edna for less than inventive ways to draw the audience into her show, and lambasting Hershey Felder for the tawdry audience sing-along shtick that all but ruined his George Gershwin Alone, Potomac Stages is both pleased and relieved to have a chance to praise an innovative, thoroughly appropriate and quite charming show drawing the audience into a sense of common cause with the solo performer on that stage.

Storyline: Three weeks before her 50th birthday, New Jersey based solo performer and playwright Leslie Ayvazian finds herself on a high dive board over a swimming pool in Greece when her fear of heights overtakes her fear of embarrassment even with her husband and son watching from below. The story of her life flashes before her eyes while she struggles to decide how to get down – dive or climb back down the ladder.

Ayvazian tells her audience that this is a true story, and that all the details of all the stories that flash through her mind are true as well. Then she proceeds to convince the audience of the truth in the stories. They are entertaining, revealing, often funny and frequently touching. What is more, they are very, very human.

Before the show begins, she circulates among the waiting audience to enlist assistants. It seems that there are some 35 speaking parts and she’s the only performer who is going to be on stage. “Would you help me out by reading a line or two?” she asks. Answer yes and she’ll hand you a page of script. When she has enough volunteers, everyone heads into the theater for the show. (If, as at the matinee on Sunday, there aren’t 35 volunteers, a certain amount of doubling up takes place.)

The key to the success of this type of audience participation event is Ayvazian’s good natured approach. She’s asking for help, not victimizing the paying customers. She’s draws her helpers into the event (but not onto the stage). She seems to have as much fun as the audience does . . . and that is a lot.

Written and performed by Leslie Ayvazian. Lighting designed by Adam Magazine.

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December 10, 2002 – January 5, 2003
The Crummles Christmas Carol

Reviewed December 12
Running time 2 hours 5 minutes
t Potomac Stages Pick

One holiday tradition begins as another ends. Those who have counted on the Interact Theatre Company’s series of Christmas at the Old Bull and Bush in the Old Vat Room in the basement of Arena Stage to mark their holiday season may be disappointed that it isn’t being presented this year. Have heart and travel six miles south to the new home of MetroStage in Alexandria, where you will find the same spirit of British cheer with many of the same performers in what MetroStage and Interact obviously hope will be the new tradition for all the old fans and many new ones. They may well be right.

Storyline: The Crummles, the English theatrical family created by Charles Dickens in the novel "Nicholas Nickleby," travel to America to tour "these colonies on the far side of the Atlantic." (Never mind that the time is the 1840s, long after King George lost those colonies.) Finding themselves on the stage of a playhouse in Alexandria, Virginia, with an audience that expects a performance of A Christmas Carol, they oblige with a version they call "The Nightmare of the Nativity Eve, or Horrors of a Holy Night" but sprinkle loads of traditional English music hall features throughout the evening.

Author/director Nick Olcott takes his concept of having the Crummles – Mr. Vincent, "that Manager and Actor of no ordinary pretensions," his wife and two children (including daughter Ninetta, known far and wide as "The Infant Phenomenon") and his mother, the Lady Dowager Crummles to its logical conclusion. Hams that they all are, with jealousies and pretensions, they make a hash of the play but succeed in making a thoroughly entertaining evening out of the individual pieces.

Michael Tolaydo leads the company with all the gusto that Mr. Crummles would have exhibited even when his back is thrown out in an on-stage battle. Catherine Flye is a delight as his wife who carries on her competition with her mother-in-law while the show is all but stolen by venerable June Hansen as that esteemed lady, the Dowager Crummles. Hansen, is absolutely perfect as she celebrates her own 60th year on the professional stage in a role that lets her ham it up with brio.

The music hall material fans of The Old Bull and Bush shows have so enjoyed over the years are all still here. Albert Coia (who plays the son, Master Percy Crummles) is still singing about his Spotted Dick while the audience is cajoled into joining in on Good King Wenceslas with the men in the audience competing with the women to see which group can generate the most volume. They even manage to pull out a flag waving (the British flag, of course) for a segment from Gilbert and Sullivan. They brought over the Old Bull and Bush set from Arena and use it in the lobby to sell spirits and snacks. Everyone has a grand time!

Written and directed by Nick Olcott. Music direction by Lisa Gibbs-Smith. Choreography by Linda Garner Miller. Design: Jos. B. Musumeci, Jr. revising the work of Milagros Ponce de Léon (set) LeVonne Lindsay (costumes) Elsie Jones (properties) Adam Magazine (lights) Christopher O. Banks (photography). Cast: Michael Tolaydo, Catherine Flye, June Hansen, Albert Coi, Elizabeth Stripe, Margie Tampros, Lisa Gibbs-Smith.

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September 5 – December 1, 2002
Three Sistahs

Reviewed September 21
Running time 2 hours 25 minutes
Potomac Stages Pick

It turns out that a hundred-year-old Russian play by Anton Chekhov was a good source for Thomas W. Jones, II (Harlem Rose) to start with in building a new three-performer blues & pop musical about sibling affection and family ties set in the era tainted by Viet Nam, assassinations, riots and civil rights battles. The world premiere of the result is a stylish production filled with nice touches, fine performances and a lot of singing.

Storyline: Three sisters are all that is left of the Bancroft family of Washington, DC in the autumn of 1969 as they gather for the third year in a row for a funeral. Two years ago it was Mamma. Last year it was Daddy. This year it is their only brother. After the funeral they return to the family home, share some wine and some memories, learn more about each other and a few things about their past.

The three ladies are Bernardine Mitchell as the eldest, supposedly most worldly wise, Crystal Fox as the married middle sister who lives in Cincinnati and only seems to come to DC for family funerals, and Desiré DuBose as the youngster just about to leave the nest. Each is in fine voice and Jones as director leads them to satisfying performances where their differences are clear but not overly emphasized and their common bonds are felt but not excessively underlined. Indeed, restraint is the by word of the entire production which is exactly the right approach for a work with this much rich content and performers with this much talent.

The script they follow is by Jones who shares credit for the story with Janet Pryce. They have retained the structure of their Russian source but nicely captured the character of the DC family in revealing local details, and have given each of the three distinct backgrounds and personalities. The score consists of over two dozen contemporary blues-ish numbers with a touch of gospel, a dash of Roberta Flack or Della Reese and a smidgen of Supremes stripped of their Motown orchestrations. Jones wrote the lyrics while the music was written by William Hubbard who leads the three piece band.

Good work was done by the design team as well. Milagros Ponce de Léon’s nicely detailed setting has a number of features that Jones uses in his staging to great effect. Some of the walls are solid but others are thin painted cloth through which the audience can see what the sisters cannot. One of the nicest moments of the show has each sister holding a candle, seemingly alone with her own thoughts but lined up and connected by the softly lovely number they sing, "Temple of My Dream." LeVonne Lindsay’s costumes evoke time, generation and economic status for each of the three without overdoing the 1960’s feel. No Mama Mia! pink spandex or flashy polyester Nehru jacket excesses. Instead the feel is just right for the characters and time. Adam Magazine’s lighting design similarly avoids flashy excesses but delicately differentiates time and mood from scene to scene, while Alison Sigethy’s follow spot work is about as subtle and unobtrusive as has been seen on a local stage in a while. Tony Angelini’s sound design amplifies the voices, which seems extraneous given the strength of the three ladies’ voices in such a small room. But it appeared to be necessary to compete with the band which, although only a piano, bass and guitar, seemed to fill the space and might have crowded out the voices.

Book and Lyrics by Thomas W. Jones, II. Story inspired by Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters by Thomas W. Jones, II and Janet Pryce. Music by William Hubbard. Directed by Thomas W. Jones II. Music direction by William Hubbard. Design: Milagros Ponce de Léon (set) LeVonne Lindsay (costumes) Adam Magazine (lights) Tony Angelini (sound) Christopher O. Banks (photo). Cast: Crystal Fox, Bernardine Mitchell, Desiré DuBose.

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June 20 - July 28, 2002
Danny & Sylvia

Reviewed June 21
Running time 2 hours 10 minutes
t Potomac Stages Pick

It is not unusual to be able to go see an Oscar winning performance because movies are re-released. And, most Emmy winning performances are re-run. But a Helen Hayes award winning performance is usually a thing of history long before it even wins the award. How good it is, then, that this year’s Helen Hayes Award winning best actor in a resident musical, Brian Childers is repeating his role in this two-character musical that so marvelously spotlights his particular talent. He becomes Danny Kaye in a way that lets a new generation discover - and an older generation re-visit – a unique performer. Childers may not have quite as strong a voice as Danny Kaye did, and his enunciation may falter occasionally, but he delivers both the performance persona of that unique comic/crooner/clown/character and his off-stage charm, creating a touching portrait of a real person while channeling rather than merely impersonating an inimitable performance style.

Storyline: This musical, based on the career of the star of stage, movies and television, concentrates on his marriage to, and working relationship with, songwriter Sylvia Fine. It tells its story from the day a young, unknown Danny Kaye meets audition pianist Sylvia Fine, and chronicles their relationship through courtship, marriage and the strains of success as he rises to nightclub notoriety singing the specialty songs she wrote for him, Broadway stardom in Lady in the Dark, Hollywood stardom with movies such as "White Christmas," "Hans Christian Andersen" and "The Court Jester" and finally concert headliner at the London Palladium. The story is told using new songs written for the musical but includes the Ira Gershwin, Kurt Weill "Tschaikowsky" that was his first big Broadway hit, Cab Calloway’s "Minnie the Moocher" which became something of a signature song for him and the best known of the songs Sylvia Fine wrote specifically for him, "Anatole of Paris".

The musical is the work of Bob McElwaine who wrote both the script and the lyrics, and guitarist Bob Bain who wrote the music. Structurally the script plays smoothly as it avoids the twin pitfalls that afflict so many other bio-plays, boring the part of the audience that is familiar with the subject with information it already knows or leaving the rest of the audience in the dark by skipping over material it may not know. Having the Danny Kaye character narrate the story, addressing the audience directly in the friendly, inclusive style that came so naturally to Kaye himself, accomplishes the dual feat of letting us get to know the man and the man’s story. And this is, indeed, the man’s story. "Sylvia" may get equal billing in the title but the story here is the rise of Danny Kaye’s fortunes and the role Sylvia Fine played in his life.

Last year the role of Sylvia was played by Janine Gulisano and she earned a Helen Hayes Award nomination for it right alongside Childers. In this remounting of the play, Perry Payne handles that role during June and then Gulisano returns for the July portion of the run. Both women have good voices, are fine actresses and create a real sense of partnership with Childers during the performance. But Payne’s take on the role is quite different from Gulisano’s. Payne’s Sylvia seems more manipulative while Gulisano’s seems more smitten. But both make of the role something human, something understandable and something touching. With either on the stage, it is possible to root for the success of both characters, not just for Danny Kaye to reach fulfillment.

The lilting score is precisely right for the show business world of Danny Kaye between the 1930’s and the 1950’s. It includes two dozen songs that move the story along, recreate the feel of the times and the places and provide a glimpse now and then into the mind or heart of one or the other or both characters. Isn’t that what good theater songs are supposed to do? True to the demands of the time, many are catchy tunes, especially the lovely "I Can’t Live Without You" and the personal patter piece "You Got a Problem With That?" The three piece, on stage combo featuring pianist Alvin Smithson is all that this small house needs to properly support this lightly swinging score.

Book and Lyrics by Bob McElwaine. Music by Bob Bain. A joint production of MetroStage and The American Century Theater. Directed by Jack Marshall and Jacqueline Champlain Manger. Music director Tom Fuller. Arrangements by Loren and Daniel Plazman. Choreographed by Jacqueline Champlain Manger. Design: Mike deBlois (set) Jean Grogan (costumes) Marc A. Wright and Adam Magazine (lights).

Bill Wisneiwski (sound). Cast: Brian Childers and Perry Payne or Janine Gulisano.

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April 25 – May 26, 2002
Sea Marks

Reviewed April 28
Running time 2 hours 5 minutes
t Potomac Stages Pick

This lovely production of a touching play performed by two of the Potomac Region’s finest actors is not to be missed. It has heart, humor, dramatic interest and an abundance of charm. What is more, it cements MetroStage’s reputation for quality as the company returns to the ranks of the region’s producing professional theaters.

Storyline: A man of the sea from an isolated Irish island summons the nerve to write to a pretty Welsh lass he met once at a wedding. She left the farms of Wales long ago for a desk job in Liverpool. Their correspondence forms a romance built on his poetic observations of the life of those who go down to the sea in ships, and her longing for some beauty and solidity in her life. But he can’t be himself in a city and she can’t be herself in an isolated fishing village.

Director Nick Olcott has taken a script which was termed "dull" and "lifeless" with "a cash register where its heart should be" when it debuted in New York and found its emotional heart. In his hands, it becomes a thing of beauty performed by Michael Tolaydo and Catherine Flye with an unerring instinct for its poetic beauty.

Tolaydo is practically perfect for an Irish fisherman past his prime but still robust. He applies his actor’s love of communication to his character’s love of words. Tolaydo and his character, Colm Primrose, share a love of beauty and an eye for telling detail. Flye brings a touching longing for just that beauty as well as an unexpected sensuality to the role. After all, Tolaydo’s character confesses to virginity at age 54 while Flye’s is a divorced, and therefore sexually experienced, woman.

Olcott also handled sound design and the soundscapes of the Irish island and the Liverpudlian metropolis are as subtle but engulfing as could be wished. Add a simple looking but thoroughly thought-out set design and lighting plot and you have a compete package that has you leaving the theater with a "that was a wonderful evening" feeling.

Written by Gardner McKay. Directed by Nick Olcott. Design: Jos. B. Musumeci, Jr. (set) LeVonne Lindsay (costumes) Adam Magazine (lights) Nick Olcott (sound) Christopher Banks (photo). Cast: Michael Tolaydo, Catherine Flye.

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February 8 – March 10, 2002
Harlem Rose

Reviewed February 10
Running time 1 hour 25 minutes

Director Thomas W. Jones II conceived as well as directed this revue which he calls a "A Love Song to Langston Hughes," the African American poet who came to fame as part of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. The concept is a promising one but the result is something quite less than could be expected.

Storyline: This revue features a cast of five singing and occasionally reciting 24 selections, about two thirds of which are well known or appropriate numbers in the jazz or blues tradition. The rest are Hughes poems set to music by musical director William Hubbard.

In assembling this collection of songs and poems, Jones doesn’t seem to have settled on a single viewpoint and the evening is too short to accommodate a survey of different viewpoints. At times he seems to be telling the story of the life of the residents of Harlem, the black working class and the recent arrivals in the northward migration at the start of this century. At others he seems to be telling the story of the artistic class who made such an impact in the 1920s under the general heading of the Harlem Renaissance which incorporated the visual arts, music, poetry and dance. Occasionally, he seems to be surveying the music they offered to the white avant-garde who came to the north side of Central Park to sample the state of the art and experience a bit of illicit excitement. Any one of these stories would be a challenge for a one-act revue. The meshing of all three robs the production of any feeling of unity.

The cast members are all talented performers and some have given stronger performances in the recent past. But in this production they fail to connect as a unit. With the exception of Hubbard – who in addition to composing some of this music and acting as musical director, plays piano on stage and is a member of the cast – they don’t display much excitement in the early stages. By the time they get their energy level up it is simply too late to carry the audience along with them. When, in the final number, they exhort the audience to clap along on "Let The Good Times Roll" the audience does so more to avoid embarrassment than in a genuine release of rhythmic enthusiasm.

The recurring theme of Hughes’ writing of "a dream deferred" (from the poem of his that gave Lorainne Hansberry the title for her play "A Raisin in the Sun") is the ostensible thread of the evening. The high points occur when the issues raised in that poem are on display. For example, Hubbard delivers a gorgeous version of Billy Strayhorn’s "Lush Life" which emphasizes the astonishing lyric. Ron Oshima contributes his velvet sound on saxophone and the rest of the cast, identified as "Mister," "Missy" and "Madam" each have their moments. But these moments don’t string together to build any momentum.

Conceived and directed by Thomas W. Jones II. Music direction, arrangements and original music by William Hubbard. Design Giorgos Tsappas (set) Adam Magazine (lights.) Cast: Beverly Cosham, Desiré DuBose, Scott Leonard Fortune, Ron Oshima, William Hubbard.

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December 19, 2001 – January 20, 2002
The Thousandth Night

Reviewed December 22
Running time 1 hour 30 minutes

Here is an absorbing, involving and thoroughly entertaining one-man show. At times very funny, at times extremely dramatic and at times quite touching, it takes the audience through a range of emotions in rapid succession.

Storyline: At the height of World War II, the sole remaining actor from a French theater troupe that had been performing The Arabian Nights manages to escape from a Nazi train taking him to "somewhere in Poland." He appears before a group of French gendarmes (presumably from the collaborationist Vichy regime) and tries to convince them that his deportation is a mistake since the material he and his colleagues perform is in no way subversive. To prove it he performs some of the stories, taking all the parts himself.

The play requires a bravura performance to keep the focus on the actor and not on the somewhat thin set up and resolution. Here it gets just that in the work of Ron Campbell who starred in the play’s premiere production in California in 1993 and who has toured with it in the US and abroad, winning awards from the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle and the London (Ontario) Fringe Festival.

Campbell throws himself into no fewer than 38 roles in ninety minutes. Each role is a distinct physical presence, from hunchback to princess to old man to genie. Each has characteristic postures, mannerisms, expressions and vocal inflections. They come fast and furious and Carol Wolf’s script gives him plenty of opportunities to display his athletic as well as artistic ability.

Under the direction of Jessica Kubzansky, who staged the premiere as well as this production, Campbell seems to know just when to draw attention to the display of technique and when to shift the emphasis to the material. So many one-man shows turn out to be about the performer, not the material. Whether it is to Campbell’s credit or Kubzansky’s, this show avoids the excesses that so often afflict bravura pieces.

James Kronzer has provided a superb set for the piece. It is a back room in the train depot with the lights of the platform dimly visible through a wall of dingy windows. Adam Magazine’s lighting shifts moods to subtly support Campbell’s changes in character and pace. Toni Angelini’s sound design matches the visual with an aural reality without drawing too much attention to itself.

Written by Carol Wolf. Directed by Jessica Kubzansky. Design: James Kronzer (set) Adam Magazine (lights) Toni Angelini (sound.) Cast: Ron Campbell.

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October 31 - December 2, 2001

Reviewed November 4
Running time 2 hours 10 minutes

MetroStage starts its first full season in its new home in Alexandria in fabulous fashion with a stylish, affecting production of an intriguing new play that feels just right for their intimate 150-seat space.

Storyline: In a convent in seventeenth century Italy being investigated by the inquisition and divided by a power struggle over the succession to the post of Abbess, a nun violates the rules restricting musical activity to learn composition.

MetroStage has assembled a superb cast, half a dozen women playing nuns and two men playing the priest/confessor and the music teacher. Catherine Flye brings exceptional warmth and strength to the role of leader of one faction in the convent’s power struggle while Laura Giannarelli gives depth to the ambitious leader of the other. Michelle Shupe captures the rapture of the musically inclined nun so that her need to create is understandably compelling and not a frivolous endangering of her colleagues.

The script, by Jeanne Marshall, playwright-in-residence at New Jersey’s Luna Stage, tells its story strait out without digressions into flashbacks or subplots. This is very effective given the emotional nature of the central struggle. As a result, it catches you from the very start and carries you along with a palpable sense of momentum.

The play, and this production of it, feels very right in this particular theater. There is a good match between the size of the audience, the size of the playing space and the size of the cast. Everything seems in balance. Dan Scharder’s simple but not simplistic set and Adam Magazine’s lighting design which shines shadows of trees in the garden and gothic windows in the cloister are just right for this space.