Regina Aquino (left, as Mrs. Page) and Ami Brabson (Mrs. Ford) // Photo: Brittany Diliberto.

Folger’s Merry Wives Bring 1970s Girl Power To Shakespeare Classic

When thinking of great feminist playwrights, William Shakespeare likely doesn’t come to mind. Despite this, his famed play The Merry Wives of Windsor is a comedy featuring smart and powerful women. The text was originally published in the 1600s, but the play’s strong heroines and themes of love, money and deception are so universal that it, like a number of Shakespeare’s other works, can be set in any time period. Need proof? For its final production of the 2019/2020 season, Folger Theatre is set to stage The Merry Wives of Windsor with a backdrop of the groovy 1970s. 

As part of his research, director Aaron Posner used his own memories from living in the decade, as well as listening to some of the top hits and revisiting family sitcoms like The Brandy Brunch. While the script easily lends itself to the comedic stylings of 70s sitcoms, it was actually Posner’s mother that inspired the vintage aesthetic.         

“[I was] talking about my mom who was a housewife in the 1970s as Mistress Ford and Mistress Page are in the play [and] talking about her in relation to the play was one of the things that landed us on the 1970s,” he says. “We’re really enjoying steeping the whole thing in the energy of the 1970s, which really fits the play very well. These merry wives are stepping up into their own power and choosing to take matters into their own hands. It fits the rebellious and fresh spirit, where new things are possible.”

In The Merry Wives of Windsor, Mistress Ford and Mistress Page plot against the villainous Sir John Falstaff as he attempts to seduce them for their husband’s wealth.They prove they are not to be trifled with by hilariously thwarting Falstaff’s plan. All the while, Mistress Page’s daughter Anne Page, is being pursued by three suitors, wherein she shuts down two, while angling to marry her true love.

Shakespeare was far ahead of his time when writing females characters, despite the fact that women weren’t permitted to act on English stages until the 1660s. Mistress Ford and Mistress Page are not one-dimensional characters who are written to advance a male character’s storyline. Rather, they have their own unique arcs. Part of what draws Posner to The Bard’s work is his ability to write deep and complex characters of both genders.

“In a number of his plays, the smartest, most aware, most clear-sighted people in the plays are the women,” Posner says. “I would say he’s a humanist more than a feminist, certainly because he will share the best and worst of all people. It does feel very contemporary in the way [the female characters] respond to what they take as an affront. They don’t withdraw, they don’t run to their husbands.” 

This is Posner’s 21st production with the company, but this play holds a special place in his heart as he portrayed Falstaff in his eighth-grade production. He notes that this production is one of Shakespeare’s more accessible plays.

“If I am evangelical about anything in the world, it’s that Shakespeare is accessible to everyone when done well. I try to make sure that while I hope Shakespeare scholars will enjoy the shows, I always feel that if a relatively intelligent 12-year-old can’t follow the play, moment for moment, then I haven’t done my job well. [The Merry Wives of Windsor] holds a lot of delight for anyone because it’s mostly in prose and not poetry, the language is rich but not dense. The plot is easy to follow. This is a perfect gateway drug to Shakespeare.” 

To go along with the show’s Girl Power theme, the theater is hosting Folger Friday: Hysterical Women on January 31. This program will feature DC female comedians, including Washington Improv Theater’s all-female identifying ensemble Hellcat, and performers Elahe Izadi and Kasha Patel. 

The Merry Wives of Windsor will be the final production staged in the historic Folger Theatre space before the Folger Shakespeare Library’s multi-year renovation. During the construction, Folger Theatre will be offsite at various DC theaters.

The Merry Wives of Windsor is on stage from January 14 through March 1. Tickets are available online

Folger Theatre: 201 East Capitol St. SE, DC; 202-544-7077; www.folger.edu     

Photo: courtesy of Step Afrika!

A Step Above the Rest: Step Afrika! Returns To Strathmore

Step Afrika! was created in 1994 by C. Brian Williams, who wanted to honor the African American ritual of stepping – a polyrhythmic, percussive dance form that uses the body as an instrument – and preserve, expand and promote the art form. 

“We were the first professional company in the world dedicated to the tradition of stepping,” says Williams, the group’s founder and executive director. “It’s a custom dance form first created by African American fraternities and sororities as a way of expressing pride in their organizations.”

Today, the Step Afrika! troupe is comprised of 14 full-time artists. For the past 25 years, the DC-based organization has regularly engaged 30,000 college students across the nation, taught teamwork and discipline to 200 kids as part of the Summer Steps with Step Afrika! summer camp and expanded culture-based arts education for more than 20,000 DC, Maryland and Virginia school students.

The group has also appeared on Broadway and will be returning to the Great White Way in 2020, offering the latest in lightning-fast footwork, percussive chants and incredible synchronicity.

“We take the art form to the next level and put it right up there with ballet, modern and tap,” Williams says. “Our showcase is one of the best ways to get introduced to stepping for those who have never seen it.”

On January 12, Step Afrika! will return to the Strathmore to preview its latest production, Drumfolk. The performance, which was commissioned by Strathmore, traces the roots of step back to the African American percussive traditions of patting juba, hambone, ring shout and tap. 

Drumfolk reflects on the harsh realities of the American South and celebrates the fortitude of enslaved Africans who practiced these transcendent musical forms,” Williams says. “We’re going to be taking this show on a 10-city tour throughout 2020. To have Strathmore get behind us and help us with this work has been super important for us.”

He explains that Drumfolk is based on very little known events in American history that Step Afrika! feels have had a tremendous impact on the country.

“There was a revolt in 1739 called the Stono Rebellion, which was led by Africans against the system of slavery,” Williams says. “These were some of the first activists before the country even formed. Even though it was not successful in overthrowing slavery, it led to the Negro Act of 1740 where Africans lost the right to use their drums. We started to see African Americans using their bodies as the drums, and so many of our art forms can find their origins in his historical moment.”

The Strathmore program will also include Step Xplosion, a showcase of the region’s finest step squads. 

“We’re going to hit the stage at the Strathmore for one of our biggest performances of the year,” Williams says. “This show is where we invite step teams from across the country to share the stage with us and demonstrate the different styles of stepping that can be found across the U.S. This is a uniquely American art form and this show gives audiences a bigger look at the form.”

Among the featured step teams will be Eleanor Roosevelt High School’s Dem Raider Boyz Step Squad; Howard University’s Cook Hall Step Team; Paint Branch High School’s The Eclectic Steppers; the Hype Queens from North Carolina; and Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity Inc.

A DJ will play music in between the performances and Williams describes the atmosphere as going to be like “a college step show on steroids!” 

“These teams aren’t competing for money, they are just having fun and exhibiting their abilities, style and forms,” Williams says. “The shows are fun. They are interactive and there really is no fourth wall between the audience and the artists. We encourage audiences of all ages to come out, make noise and connect with our performers.”

Prior to the show, Williams will hold a conversation in the Music Center Education Room 402 to discuss the creative process behind Step Afrika!’s Drumfolk program. The talk is free, but registration is required as space is limited.

“I think more people should see and learn about this art form because it is a uniquely American art form and one of the few indigenous dance forms created in the last 100 years,” Williams says. “If you’ve never seen Step Afrika!, it’s a DMV experience that everyone should see at least once. We are DC’s most celebrated dance company and no one else in the word has a company like us.”

Step Afrika! performs at the Strathmore at 5 p.m. on Sunday, January 12. Tickets $35-$75. For more information, visit www.strathmore.org.

The Music Center at Strathmore: 5301 Tuckerman Ln. Bethesda, MD; 301-581-5100; www.strathmore.org

Kittie Glitter and Elvis Presley // Photo: Studio Vision

Elvis Presley Cracks Jokes While Celebs Throw Punches (Sort Of)

On January 3 and 4, Astro Pop Events celebrated Elvis Presley’s legacy with their 10th Annual Elvis’ Birthday Fight Club at the GALA Hispanic Theatre. Presley, the King of Rock and Roll, is the kind of the star of the show, but people also enjoyed fights, improv and burlesque performances.

The first rule of fight club is to not talk about fight club. This review will slightly break the rule. While Elvis is the main attraction, the event loosely celebrates him. Before the show begins, patrons will hear his music and can grab merchandise. A man in the audience even wore a cape similar to ones Presley wore. Other members of the audience donned glasses that portrayed them with Presley’s iconic sideburns. His image was in the center of the stage, between two wooden cages where fighters would soon enter and exit. A woman in a sparkly dress, Kittie Glitter, joined a Presley impersonator at a table on to the side of the stage. Together they would emcee the show.

The performance stands out because it encourages some audience participation. During the middle of a skit, a member of the audience shouted out to the performers and rather than ignoring it, a member of the cast made a quick remark. The show does more than entertain the audience, but recognizes how important they are and actively engages with them. 

In the beginning, you meet Commodious, Presley’s toilet. Commodious is one of the few reoccurring characters. Commodious serves two purposes. His first purpose is to welcome the audience and begin the show. His second is to hold the traditional quaalaise toss. Audience members can purchase foam pills (noted as quaalaise), and their goal is to throw it into Commodious’ bowl. The cast held a raffle based on what got inside the bowl with the winner receiving a painting of Elvis Presley. 

The show was fun with the unique characters interacting with each other, and fan favorites returning for a royal rumble at the end. The diverse cast was brought to life with colorful costumes, and included real and fictional beings. For example, The Rocky Horror Picture Show’s Dr. Frank-N-Furter made an appearance. Dr. Phil also walked through the cage to fight, with the actor who portrayed the TV personality doing an incredible job.

Fights typically had themes. For example, one theme was about different doctors squaring up and throwing punches. There were jokes and even monologues on top of the simulated tussles. 

The show is unique and a break from traditional comedy, best viewed with a drink. The cast drags you out of your comfort zone and makes you laugh at goofy slapstick battles, complete with snarky comments. The performance can be compared to The Rocky Horror Picture Show, both of which have their own cult following. The cast of Elvis’ Birthday Fight Club recognized this and eagerly handed out a thank you prize and an awards card to returning patrons.

You can catch the performance in Baltimore, Maryland  at Creative Alliance on January 17-18. For more information about that show, click here. For more information about Astro Pop Events, click here.

Harrison Bryan as Christopher // Photo: C. Stanley Photography

Round House Theatre’s “The Curious Incident of the Dog In The Night-Time” Highlights Neurodiversity

The expression is “walk a mile in someone’s shoes,” but wouldn’t it be easier to just to take a peek inside of their mind? That’s what Round House Theatre seeks in their production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Based on the best selling book of the same name, the play allows audiences to see inside the mind of Christopher Boone. This coming of age story about a 15-year-old boy on the autism spectrum comes to life with stunning visuals and graphics.

Christopher is extremely smart and enjoys math (or maths as they say in England, where the play takes place,) video games, his pet rat Toby and being a detective. He doesn’t like figures of speech, being touched or strangers. When accused of killing his next-door neighbor’s dog, his curious nature comes in handy. Despite his father telling him to stop snooping, Christopher discovers that this case is much bigger than he thought. 

Christopher’s story is not one that’s often portrayed on stage. Representing the neurodiverse community was not a responsibility that Ryan Rilette took lightly. As Round House Theatre’s artistic director and co-director of the play, he wanted to portray Christopher as an accurate depiction of a person on the spectrum but also show that Christopher’s story is only one of many. 

“As we started to work on it, and with every play that we do, we try to figure out what is the community surrounding that play?” he says. “What is the right audience for the play? And more importantly, who do we need in the rehearsal room to help us tell the story? In this case, it was very important to us to make sure we had teens, as well as adults on the spectrum who could give us their feedback on the play.” 

“Throughout the whole building, one of the things you’ll see is that we’ve said over and over again the phrase ‘If you’ve met one person on the spectrum, you’ve met one person on the spectrum.’ So, we have art by other people on the spectrum that is upstairs, as part of a partnership with Visarts, and clings in the windows downstairs.”

Round House’s production of the play is unique from the Broadway or West End shows in the way that media is used. While known for its projections and high sensory lights, videos and sounds, Rilette and co-director Jared Mezzocchi didn’t want to overwhelm the audience as the original production attempted to do. 

Christopher is highly sensitive to touch and sounds. To address Christopher’s sensory processing disorder, something all people on the spectrum suffer from, Rilette used red scribbles or what he calls “billows” projected on the stage to visualize what it would look like if Christopher were to be yelled at or touched. 

The characters love of computer games is also used to visualize aspects of the script. At one point the giant clear screen, serving as the background for most of the projections, becomes a game of “Tetris.” A scene where Christopher is recounting his day could be seen as mundane but is transformed into a hilarious monologue in which Christopher is a Mario-like video game character. 

“We started to go, well he’s also a gamer. There’s a scene where he’s playing ‘Tetris’ and talks about computer games and his dad says ‘you like those.’ So we thought, given that he’s a computer gamer, what if we used first-person video games as a way to show some of these ideas. What if it’s just like he’s in his own video game inside his head, which can also help with the way in which the play jumps around in time.” 

Under the direction of Rilette and Mezzocchi, actor Harrison Bryan adapted the way in which he portrayed Christopher. He focused more on who the character is as a person. Playing Christopher the second time around at the regional level, Bryan’s portrayal was humorous, passionate and showed the many multitudes of Christopher’s personality. 

The Curious Incident may not  be typically thought of as a holiday show. There is no Santa or Christmas magic. However, the play’s ability to create empathy for its characters and appeal to audience members of all ages and abilities makes it a must-see show this season. Not only does it inspire the encouragement of others but also belief in your own abilities. At the end of his journey, Christopher asks: “Does that mean I can do anything?”       

“Some people who are neurotypical, who have not dealt with neurodiverse people before, can look at them like they’re damaged. They see the disability and not the ability. I feel like the beautiful thing about what we’ve done is we’ve shown how incredibly creative and rich Christopher’s inner life is.” Rilette says. “So, I would hope that [ the audience] would go away and look at other people who are not neurotypical like they are and see them in a different way. I hope neurodiverse audiences come in and can enjoy the show and say “That’s not exactly me because everyone is different, but I believe that this is a neurodiverse person. This is an interesting person that I see parts of myself in.”   

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time runs until December 22. For tickets or more information, visit here.

Round House Theatre: 4545 East-West Hwy. Bethesda, MD; 240.644.1100; www.roundhousetheatre.org

Astro Lab Alfie American Stout, Seasonal Barrel Aged Sagamore Spirit and the Figure of Speech at Round House Theatre's Fourth Wall Bar and Cafe // Photo: Kaley Etzkorn

Round House Theatre’s Fourth Wall Bar and Cafe Creates Community Among Theatergoers

I have a typical procedure when going to a theater. I like to get there early but not too early, I want the doors to the seats to already be open. Then, I pick up my ticket and take my seat. I feel this is pretty standard for most theatergoers. Except for when seeing a show a Round House Theatre.

When going to see their production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, I thought I arrived too early because no one had taken their seats yet. Instead, people gathered around the bar or were sitting at tables having actual conversations. The kinds of conversation between strangers that happened before people went on their phones and avoided eye contact.

This was Round House’s intention. Artistic director Ryan Rilette says the theater wanted to be a place for audience members to congregate and talk about performances while also being able to enjoy a drink or meal.

Spread Trio // Red Pepper Hummus, Spicy Whipped Ricotta, Spinach & Artichoke Dip // $9 // Photo: Kaley Etzkorn

“So much of what Round House does is about big C community, about trying to build community through our work. With every show we do, we’re reaching out to different groups trying to figure out what is the right kind of audience for this show? How do we build the community around the show?” Rilette asks.

“The idea of using our space to build community, we already have a space that a lot of people will rent, but how do we find a way to increase dialogue among audience members to make it a more comfortable experience and to really create more of a sense of community? This bar and cafe was the idea.”

Butter Chicken and Rice // Tandoori Chicken in Mild Tomato Curry // $10 // Photo: Kaley Etzkorn

I decided to order one of the specialty drinks for this production, a Figure of Speech
made of Linganore mead, Pimm’s No. 1 Cup and lemon juice. While I expected to be a wallflower, two ladies who were also sampling the cafe menu quickly join me. We chatted about our excitement and knowledge of the show. I had never had such an enjoyable pre-show experience.

After the show, the actors (including an adorable golden retriever puppy) came out and greeted audience members. While it was odd hearing them without the show’s required British accents, it was an intimate experience getting to revel with the cast.

“I feel like we as a society are so disconnected from each other,” Rilette says. “Our virtual connect through social media, email, phones and everything is our primary connection. It used to be that the church fulfilled this function for a lot of people as a place to gather, turn everything off and be able to communicate, but less and less people go to church. I feel like arts are a deep connection that asks big questions and is a chance to meet like-minded people and converse with them about what you just saw. To me, when that all clicks together, there is nothing better.”

Harvest Bowl // Wild Mushrooms, Sweet Potatoes, Roasted Cauliflower, Butternut Squash, Super Greens, Truffle Vinaigrette // $13 // Photo: Kaley Etzkorn

Rilette imagined a space that was inviting and created community, but it also needed to have really good food. Food and beverage manager Hudson Tang decided to take the Fourth Wall Bar & Cafe to the next level by including themed items as well as using all local purveyors.

“It can be hard to come up with ideas for a themed menu,” Tang says. “Since [The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime] takes place in England, it was a bit easier.”

The British-themed menu includes dishes inspired by Indian cuisines such as Butter Chicken and Aloo Gobi as well as traditional English treats like breakfast quiche, steak and stout pie and Beef Wellington. In addition to their Figure of Speech cocktail, they also have Toby consisting of Tenth Ward Autumn Liqueur, Tenth Ward Caraway Rye, Paromi Cinnamon Chai and vanilla syrup. For a non-alcoholic option, the strawberry float is a delicious combination of coconut milk, strawberry syrup and ginger beer.

Spicy Veggie Pie // $8 // Photo: Kaley Etzkorn

The menu rotates with each show but what remains is the bar and cafe’s commitment to supporting local vendors. Linganore Wines of Mt. Airy, MD, Lotus Grill & Bar of Bethesda, MD and Moorenko’s Ice Cream of Silver Spring, MD are a few of many local purveyors to be featured.

“It can be a challenge finding vendors with good food that holds, but it’s important that everything is sourced locally and thematic,” Tang says.

Astro Lab Alfie American Stout, Seasonal Barrel Aged Sagamore Spirit, and the Figure of Speech // $8, $13, $11 // Photo: Kaley Etzkorn

The Fourth Wall Bar & Cafe opens one hour prior to curtain. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time runs until December 22. For tickets or more information visit here.

Round House Theatre: 4545 East-West Hwy. Bethesda, MD; 240-644-1100; www.roundhousetheatre.org

Photo: Little Fang Photography

Machine Dazzle Puts Artistic Twist On Holiday Sauce Costumes

Being the decorator of a bonafide genius isn’t for the faint at heart. At least that’s what I imagine when considering the dynamics between Machine Dazzle and MacArthur Fellowship, unofficially known as the Genius Grant, recipient Taylor Mac, known for his genre-bending drag performances. 

Just weeks before their Holiday Sauce performance at the Kennedy Center on December 12, I spoke with Dazzle, Matthew Flower, responsible for envisioning award-winning masterpieces and costumes worn by Mac onstage, and by Diane von Fürstenberg and Cara Delevingne at the 2019 Met Gala.  

The holiday-themed performance is set to feature Mac upending traditional Christmas expectations with Dazzle, music director Matt Ray, a band of eight and NPR’s Ari Shapiro.

In the lead up to this week’s show, Machine Dazzle is the definition of booked and busy.

“I don’t have time to have goals because I’m already busy,” he says laughing.

Between shows at the Guggenheim and on tour with Taylor Mac, and a host of other engagements, time for him is truly a priceless commodity.    

Fortunately, while on location at Harvard University, co-directing and creating costumes for a queer cabaret show featuring six students who provide commentary on Harvard politics, I’m given time to hear of the artist’s thoughts on the holidays, why Holiday Sauce is a must-see and how Dazzle’s design style distinguishes from contemporaries. 

On Tap: How do you select your projects?
Machine Dazzle: Any opportunity to exercise the brain is good. I appreciate a challenge and I love meeting all these interesting people along the way and doing a project like this at Harvard allows me to do all those things. I am a yes person; I will always say yes. Unless I’ve worked with someone before and it just wasn’t great. I love new adventures and new people, but the job must be interesting and challenging. I need to be able to do what I want to do. I can’t have anyone who’s too precious about anything. There needs to be room for a layer of art, that may or may not necessarily exist in the script. 

OT: What’s novel or special about your contribution to the production on which you collaborate?
MD: I’m an artist in the realm of costume designers. What designers don’t really have is an agenda, they don’t necessarily have a story to tell. They are visual; they are engineers. An artist takes it further and tells a story and makes some social commentary. In other words, no one can tell me how to do my art. You can tell someone to make something for Bob’s character, but I bring a layer of art to the production.

OT: How do you explain the success behind your partnership with Taylor Mac?
MD: Taylor lets me do whatever I want. Never once has he told me what to do. He trusts me to bring something interesting to the table. A lot of people really love his costumes and that’s thanks to me, and thanks to him for letting me make my work. 

OT: What did Taylor Mac say when bringing Holiday Sauce to you?
MD: The first year, Taylor Mac came to me and said we’re doing a holiday show and we need two costumes. I knew that I wanted to distinguish these costumes from other costumes I’d made for [Mac] in other productions. I definitely wanted them to have a holiday flare, or my take on holiday. So, the first thing I thought of when thinking of the holiday was naughty and nice. I made one costume that was very naughty, and I made one that was kind of nice. DC’s show is different from the past two years, though, because he’s wearing four costumes this time. In addition to the other looks, I thought of two faces of the kitchen, one where you’re in the kitchen baking cookies, the other outside in a winter wonderland. 

OT: Are the holidays a special time for you?
MD: My birthday is during the holidays, it’s December 30.  People would always say, “Oh, no! You got cheated!” But they had it all wrong. When I was a child maybe it felt like that, but the truth is it’s the best time of year to have a birthday because everybody is in celebration mode. It’s a beautiful time of year to do anything. I’m not a religious person, I don’t believe in God. I believe the god is the self, the highest self-possible. We have the universe we have each other, we have microcosm and we have macrocosm. I believe in the winter solstice. I believe in the changing seasons. In the darkest day of the year, which lends itself to the season of giving, when people are in need. That’s what I think about during the holidays. [However] I love certain rituals and traditions. I love the decorated tree, I love leaves, I love lights, I love caroling, I love the onslaught of winter and preparing for the next year. It’s a really great time of year to have a party!

OT: What’s makes Holiday Sauce different from other seasonal productions?
Machine Dazzle: We keep building the show, every time we tour, we make it bigger and better. Plus, we’re bringing it to cities that we’ve never been to before. No one in DC has seen it before. There’s a choir in it and we want the choir to get bigger. I want the scenic elements to get bigger. The costumes are going to change and get bigger and better. It’s going to be more of an extravaganza. 

OT: What’s the secret sauce that has your audience or following growing with each additional year?
Machine Dazzle: You just have to keep coming back to see. It’s like the people who go to see the [Radio City] Rockettes show every year. It’s not that different every year. But you still go. They do it every year and people live for it. And if you can go and look at that every f**king year you can go to our show which is actually changing and getting better. 

Taylor Mac’s Holiday Sauce is showing at the Kennedy Center in the Opera House on December 12 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $39-$129 and here.

The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts: 2700 F St. NW, DC; 202-467-4600; www.kennedy-center.org

Photo: Rich Kessler Photography

Jazz Musician Mark G. Meadows Brings Spontaneity to Signature Theatre

A Jazz Musician

“I am a jazz musician,” Mark G. Meadows says matter-of-factly while sitting at a Blue Bottle Coffee table in a bright red embroidered jacket that helps him stand out among the commuters and passersby at Union Station. “Why do I need to audition for an acting role? I’m not an actor.” 

He explains how theatre first piqued his interest as a performer, and as soon as he begins recounting how he nabbed the titular role in Signature Theatre’s Jelly’s Last Jam in 2016, it becomes obvious that theatre was more interested in Meadows rather than the reverse. 

Instead of dipping his toe in the water, Meadows dove headfirst into the deep end in the form of a major production at one of the DMV’s most prominent theaters – forcing him from his comfort zone as an artist and performer. Since the successful starring role, he’s done nothing but increase his jazz and overall musical prowess through various titles at Signature, including as the Shirlington-based theater’s cabaret series artistic associate. 

 “I realize that sometimes you have to let go of your dreams and let what is happening help you find your niche,” Meadows says. “For me, my dream three years ago [was that] I’d be touring the world as Mark G. Meadows: The Movement. It hasn’t happened. But in a way, it’s almost even better because I stand out as this quasi-theatre/jazz guy.” 

Merry Motown

Meadows’ latest production is A Motown Christmas, a holiday special in Signature’s cabaret series. The show, which runs through December 22, allows the jazz musician a chance to revisit songs that evoke childhood memories of him and his father singing along to Motown hits while decorating their Christmas tree.

“It might seem selfish, but I chose the [songs] that related to me the most,” he says. “Not only because it’s what I like, but because I can teach them better. I can see my dad putting ornaments on the tree, blasting these.” 

Songs include The Supremes’ rendition of “Silver Bells,” Stevie Wonder’s “Someday at Christmas,” Marvin Gaye’s “Purple Snowflakes” and The Jackson 5’s version of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” which apparently includes rapping? Yes, rapping.

“On several tracks, they straight up rap,” Meadows says about the legendary Motown group. “They’re doing it with swag and everything, so we have some surprises for the crowd to make it feel current.” 

Despite the performance being a Christmas special, Meadows says there’s no added pressure to pick specific songs people are familiar with. But he does encourage crowd engagement. Though he laughed when labeled an “expert,” he does admit he’s been listening to holiday tunes since September and can match any crowd suggestions with one of his own.

“Talk to a white person, black person, old person, young person, whatever – they know Motown,” he says. “I want people to feel the Christmas spirit. I think obviously we’re going through some awful times with a sense of culture and connectedness, and we’ve lost a real sense of feeling. I hope that the music, Motown and Christmas can tie people together.” 

A Taste of Theatre

Meadows’ first inclination was to pass on the audition for Jelly’s Last Jam, and the decision would have stood had he not been persuaded by a friend from Dizzy’s Club in New York City.

 “I got back to DC, I met up with [Jelly’s director and Signature Theatre’s associate artistic director] Matthew Gardiner, I auditioned, and he told me if I accepted the role, I would be the lead. I still had no idea what it was. I was thinking like a small high school auditorium with a piano where I play a few songs and take a bow.”

 Instead, the spotlight and pressure were on him to deliver an all-encompassing performance as historic jazz musician Jelly Roll Morton. Though he hasn’t taken the stage in this capacity since, he was suddenly an established force in the DC theatre scene. 

“It was amazing. It was one of those stars aligning kind of moments,” he says. “Now all of a sudden, my foot is in the theatre world. It’s great because I’ve begun to be a music director for a lot of productions. It’s totally opened up my world to an audience who is even more appreciative of jazz than a jazz audience.”

Go with the Flow

For Meadows, the transition from jazz musician to leading man to behind the curtains has been seamless, and includes stints in some of Signature’s more music-forward productions like its cabaret series and the musicals Ain’t Misbehavin’ and Spunk. Though the jazz artist wouldn’t turn down another opportunity to be in the spotlight, he won’t lie and tell you he’s pining for it either. 

“I’m the kind of person [who] just goes with the flow. Whatever work comes my way is the work that I accept and focus on. [Acting] has not come up as much since Jelly’s Last Jam. It’s been more so from the music direction perspective, which is more my cup of tea. If something comes up again, I’d probably take it and roll with the punches. If I look at my life, music direction is more my forte. Acting is great and challenging. I had no idea what I was doing. I managed to do it, but I feel way more secure as a music director than as an actor.”

Theatre has also helped his burgeoning jazz career, introducing his style of music to an audience who otherwise may not have heard him. While theatre is generally more restrictive than spontaneous, improvisation-heavy jazz, Meadows’ “theatrical” lyrics and ability to adapt to the classical structure has led to a surprisingly fruitful marriage. 

“Signature has given me the freedom to have jazz energy while having structure and form,” he says. “The cool thing about being a music director is that I have the authority to extend a section or repeat something or do a longer intro. I feel that even though it’s leaning toward theatre, it doesn’t lose the spontaneous nature of jazz.”

With his go with the flow attitude, it’s tough to make predictions about what’s on the horizon for Meadows. Will he be a leading man onstage? Will he oversee the music for a future production? It’s hard to predict what a jazz musician will focus on next, because like the music, there are usually twists, turns and outright risks. 

“I still don’t understand how Matthew Gardiner took a risk on me,” he says laughing. “I don’t know what he saw. I don’t even think he saw me perform, but God bless him.” 

See Meadows in A Motown Christmas at Signature Theatre now through December 22. Tickets $38. For more information about Meadows and his artistic endeavors, visit www.markgmeadows.com. 

Signature Theatre: 4200 Campbell Ave. Arlington, VA; 703-820-9771; www.sigtheatre.org

Photo: Rich Kessler Photography

DC Actress Maria Rizzo Embraces Challenges, Finds Humor & Adds a Hint of Sass

Kicking and Singing

Maria Rizzo is quick to tell you she’s not a dancer. Her high kicks aren’t high enough, she says when flinging her leg effortlessly in the air for the On Tap cover shoot. 

“I’m in pain,” she says. “Great pain. My hamstrings are ruined. [Dancing] is absolutely horrifying and really scary to me, [but] it’s a wonderful challenge.” 

The challenge she’s currently tackling is playing Shelia in Signature Theatre’s A Chorus Line. During her audition at the Arlington theater, Rizzo made a point not to dance. That was never her strong suit, and it wasn’t going to be the reason for her casting. Instead, the Helen Hayes nominee relied on the aspects she loves most about acting: comedy and sass. 

“I was cracking jokes in there,” she says. “I was trying to be funny, trying to be charming. I love comedy so much. You can find humor in [characters] if you’re not taking them as seriously as they take themselves.” 

In the DC theatre scene, Rizzo is definitely taken seriously. She’s performed at many of the city’s most renowned theaters including Arena Stage, Keegan Theatre, Olney Theatre Center and Studio Theatre, among others. The actress has essentially taken residency at Signature this year, appearing in Grand Hotel, Assassins and the aforementioned A Chorus Line, running through January 5. 

“I mean I didn’t plan it, but they just kept asking. [Signature] feels like home. I know and respect the work that the directors and choreographers do, and I love vibing with those friends. I want to call them friends because of how much I love and respect what they do.”

Auditioning  to Play Auditioners

The winner of nine Tony Awards and a Pulitzer Prize, A Chorus Line is an iconic musical with a narrative about a group of hopeful dancers going through the process of landing a spot on the chorus line of a show. While the commentary could be meta for people in the theatre world, Rizzo was drawn to the play because of its underlying question of whether to hold on or let go of your passion. 

“When I started, I had a very different opinion of the show then where I’m at now. I thought it romanticized what we do and was just a bunch of dancers trying to get a part and be in this ensemble [with] this mean director asking them about their Rosebud or their childhood. Yes, it’s about performers, but it’s a coming-of-age story about letting go or holding onto your dream, your passion, whatever it might be. I really learned to appreciate this more.” 

And then there’s the dancing, as the play is physically exhilarating and demanding for the performers. While Rizzo – again, not a dancer – was excited to portray Sheila, she knew it would be a large undertaking. 

“An OG of DC theatre, Holly Twyford, said in an interview, ‘If it doesn’t scare you, what are you doing?’ If I’m doing the same crap all the time, how is it making me a better artist? It’s also really great learning from all the people who are in the show and do this 24/7.” 

Apart from the physical demands, Rizzo was also drawn to the character of Sheila from an emotional perspective. One of the more seasoned dancers in the audition room, she’s entitled, tough and a little bossy.

 “I think she’s jaded,” she says. “There are definitely people in the industry who are that way – not in our show, but in shows I’ve done in the past. Sheila’s not villainous in any way, but she’s tough. I think playing that is always more fun than playing the congenial type.”

 For the show, Rizzo is joined by one of the largest casts in Signature Theatre history. With the number of bodies moving around onstage and behind the curtain, it’s hard not to get caught up in the energy surge, whether you’re a part of the cast or audience. 

“There’s something about big dance shows, like West Side Story or A Chorus Line, that creates camaraderie,” she says. “I enjoy a surge of energy. It’s a 5, 6, 7, 8 power punch and you’re just going.”

The Bug

Theatre was always the obvious career choice for Rizzo, as she “caught the bug” after portraying Fran in a grade school production of Once Upon a Mattress. Eventually, her childhood passion turned into her area of study at Catholic University before becoming her profession. 

“I think I knew when I was really young, and luckily I have really supportive parents, a supportive family, who would let me do and study the craft,” she says. “What’s been the best is being able to bring them to these great theaters, to show them the work we’re doing. It’s full circle.”

 Rizzo says people always ask her what she would be if not for her career as an actress, and lately, because of the subject matter of A Chorus Line, the query has been fielded even more. 

“That stuff comes up all the time when I look at my bank account,” she says, laughing. “That question is coming up a lot doing the show because it’s about learning to let go of love or hold onto love. I’m sure there is [something], but I just haven’t looked in that direction. When something brings you this much joy, it’s hard to look away from it.” 

Despite jokes about her bank account and her reflections on her currently meta role, Rizzo has no reason to shift focus. There’s little doubt Rizzo will be on many a DC stage in 2020, bringing sassy characters to life while continuing to challenge herself as an artist. 

“Everything you do presents challenges and glory in different ways, but at the same time, everything is also very fleeting. You can’t take anything for granted and you can’t throw too much of it away. I’m always looking for ways to make it better, or [find] what’s the next. I’m never satisfied.” 

A Chorus Line is currently sold out but for updates about the show, visit www.sigtheatre.org. Follow Rizzo on Instagram @mariarizz9o.

Signature Theatre: 4200 Campbell Ave. Arlington, VA; 703-820-9771; www.sigtheatre.org

Photo: courtesy of the GMCW

Raising The Bar: The Gay Men’s Chorus Of Washington Promotes Inclusivity And Holiday Cheer

It’s evident that advocacy is ingrained in the fabric of the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington (GMCW), and that extends to their spirited The Holiday Show at Lincoln Theatre on December 7, 14 and 15.

“When people think of the holidays, they immediately think [of] Christmas,” says tenor and soloist Abel Jimenez, who is new to the chorus. “But no, this isn’t just going to be Christmas. There’s a lot of representation acknowledging different cultures, which I am very excited [about as] a Latino. Being able to sing in my first language with a group of people who are putting forth so much effort as well is very rewarding.”

If you peruse historical images of gay men choruses around the country, you’ll notice a trend of predominantly white, middle-aged men. But through intentional programming, the GMCW’s more than 250-member group grows more and more representative as each holiday season rolls around.

“Because of our location, we sometimes have greater opportunities to fight the good fight, to be in the trenches,” proudly states Michael Aylward, a tenor and soloist in his 11th season with the GMCW.

Aylward sees his role in the chorus as one of visibility, of “not being afraid to be front and center as an out and proud gay man.”

“I think what we do is important because we are in Washington, DC,” he says. “We have a responsibility as a gay chorus to be active and visible in moments when issues relevant to the gay population around the country are being discussed.”

GMCW Artistic Director Thea Kano places emphasis on actualizing the mission of the chorus: to inspire equality and inclusion with musical performances and education promoting justice and dignity for all.

“I consider what’s going on in the world [and] in the realm of social justice,” Kano says of her process for making song selections. “Our goal is always to be sure that audiences see a version of themselves onstage.”

Incorporating diverse voices remains an important means for facilitating inclusivity in the GMCW, while also staying current with what’s hitting the airwaves.

“We always try to have a mix of new music that might have been written recently,” she continues. “[This year], we are depicting different languages. [For example], a traditional Filipino carol will be sung in Tagalog, a language of the Philippines, [accompanied by] a traditional Filipino dance.”

While the concert’s lineup features songs in up to six different languages, Kano says, “The song list is mixed up.”

“It’s sort of like DC’s weather: if you don’t care for a particular one, just wait,” she adds. “Something for you is just around the corner. There are enough traditional songs sprinkled in – a little something for everyone.”

Expect everything from a little Mariah Carey to “Lo V’chayil” to Donny Hathaway’s “This Christmas,” and so much more. As the largest and most-often sold-out performances of the year, Kano says The Holiday Show is the easiest to program.

“There is so much good, fun music for the holidays,” she says.

Her only challenge? Ensuring that the sounds and performances are fresh and relevant. This year, the GMCW is keeping audiences on their toes with a 7-foot-tall Christmas tree in heels, among other yet-to-be-announced elements.

“People come expecting to be entertained,” she adds. “We’re known for putting on shows different from a standstill chorus.”

The artistic director’s enthusiasm is matched by Jimenez’s excitement to perform a solo in this year’s holiday concert. Not only does he feel very at home with the chorus, but his family will be at The Holiday Show to see the GMCW perform for the first time. When he first heard friends rave about the GMCW’s holiday concerts and went to see a few shows himself, he wasted no time in joining the ranks.

“You did not wait one second!” Jimenez laughs, reflecting on comments from his peers once he was named a soloist in his first concert months ago. “I wanted to jump in and do as much as I could because it’s my passion. Being a part of this community, being able to do good with my talents, it feels wonderful. I feel honored.”

Don’t miss the GMCW’s The Holiday Show at Lincoln Theatre on Saturday, December 7 at 8 p.m., Saturday, December 14 at 3 and 8 p.m., and Sunday, December 15 at 3 p.m. Tickets are $25-$65. Learn more and buy tickets at www.gmcw.org.

Lincoln Theatre: 1215 U St. NW, DC; 202-888-0050; www.thelincolndc.com

The Company of the First North American Tour of “Come From Away.” With a book, music and lyrics by Tony and Grammy Award nominees Irene Sankoff and David Hein and direction by Christopher Ashley, “Come From Away runs November 28, 2018 through January 6, 2019 at Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles, CA. For tickets and information, please visit CenterTheatreGroup.org or call (213) 972-4400. Media Contact: [email protected] / (213) 972-7376. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Stage & Screen: December 2019

Through Sunday, December 22

The Woman in Black
Stephen Mallatratt adapted this British play based on the horror book of the same name, and Robin Herford is directing this eerie production at Shakespeare Theatre Company leading up to the holidays. The play is about Arthur Kipps (Adam Radcliffe) who asks an actor (Dominic Price) to help tell his dark story, and each performance will take the audience from a Victorian theater to the creepy Eel Marsh House. Just remember to be cautious around the Woman in Black. Various dates and times. Tickets $39-$79. Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Michael R. Klein Theatre: 450 7th St. NW, DC; www.shakespearetheatre.org

Through Thursday, January 5

Eureka Day
Anti-vaxxers, pay attention. This play is about a mumps outbreak in a Berkeley school. Watch as the community experiences a diverse environment clash when mandatory vaccinations take center stage. The play also displays projections that show how people behave online when the subject matter is controversial. Everyone will enjoy a night of satire with this award-winning play that looks at mandatory vaccinations in a humorous way. Various dates and times. Tickets $10-$32.50. Atlas Performing Arts Center: 1333 H St. NE, DC; www.atlasarts.org

The Second City’s She The People: The Resistance Continues!
Your favorite all-female show is back. These comedians will offer a satirical view of what the world can be like for a woman, as the show pokes fun at stereotypes and how absurd things can be. This political sketch-comedy show is one that you do not want to miss. The Second City is a renowned comedy troupe with notable alumni including Tina Fey and Steve Carell, and many other talented comedians. Various dates and times. Tickets $20-$109. Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company: 641 D St. NW, DC; www.woollymammoth.net

Sunday, December 8

It’s a Wonderful Life
This classic film is a staple for the holiday season that audiences have enjoyed since 1946. The American Film Institute has recognized It’s a Wonderful Life as one of the 100 best American films ever made. The movie takes place on Christmas Eve when George Bailey is about to take his own life, but things change when his guardian angel Clarence gets involved. Watch Clarence show George what the town would be like if he had never been born. 3:30-5 p.m. Tickets $10. National Museum of American History: 14th Street and Constitutional Avenue in NW, DC; www.si.edu

Tuesday, December 10

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Joel and Clementine loved each other. But after a breakup, the couple opts to erase their memory of each other. Join the Embassy of France and watch this award-winning film starring Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet. The movie plays with flashbacks and a nonlinear narrative as the audience learns about the former couple’s love life. Enjoy this film from director Michel Gondry about people falling in love again despite doing what they could to forget the other. 7-10 p.m. Free to attend. The Embassy of France: 4101 Reservoir Rd. NW, DC; www.franceintheus.org

Tuesday, December 10 – Sunday, December 15

Fiddler on the Roof
Matchmaker, matchmaker, this is a good musical for you. Tony-winning director Bartlett Sher gives his spin on the 10-time Tony Award-winning musical. In 1905 Russia, Tevye tries to maintain his Jewish religious and cultural traditions while the world changes around him. This musical is a story of family, love and attitudes toward Judaism. The popular Broadway songs, the orchestra and the cast will put on a delightful performance that will prove why Fiddler on the Roof once held the record for the longest-running Broadway musical. Various dates and times. Tickets $54-$114. National Theatre: 1321 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, DC; www.thenationaldc.com

Tuesday, December 10 – Sunday, January 5

Come From Away
A true story of kindness inspired this musical. It started on 9/11 when 38 planes were grounded in Grander, a small town in Canada. The 10,000 residents of Gander welcomed the 7,000 passengers in one of the darkest days in modern history. During the short period of time, the residents and passengers formed a bond made of compassion and kindness. Music enriches the story, and the show will remind you that there is light in the darkest times. Various dates and times. Tickets $49-$169. The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts: 2700 F St. NW, DC; www.kennedy-center.org