Photo: www.thenationaldc.org

Inside School of Rock The Musical with Lead Merritt David Janes

The iconic National Theatre is gaining a hilarious new musical for the month of January. Familiar to most, School of Rock The Musical features Merritt David Janes as Dewey Finn, who poses as a substitute teacher and turns a straight-edge class of students into rock stars.

School of Rock The Musical presents 14-new songs from legendary musical theater composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, bringing rock and roll to every stop of the tour. Merritt was in the original School of Rock The Musical cast on Broadway and is now touring North America – it also happens to be his National Theatre debut in DC.

On Tap asked his thoughts on channeling the character originally portrayed on screen by Jack Black, his own album Waiting in the Wings and what it’s like to perform with a cast primarily made up of young actors.

On Tap: Were you a fan of the film before it became a Broadway production? Are you a Jack Black fan in general? And how did you prepare to play a goofy character like Dewey Finn?
Merritt David Janes: I’m a huge Jack Black fan, and I was a huge fan of the movie when it came out. I have a lot in common with his character personally. I’m a little mischievous, I like to think of myself as a free spirit like Dewey Finn. I guess I’m not quite as lazy or sloppy but you know, in the end, neither is he.

OT: We noticed that you performed in some funnier shows in the past and now you’re playing the hilarious Dewey Finn. Do you prefer comedic roles?
MDJ: There is no preference – somebody asked me years ago, “what kind of roles do you want to play?” I said I want to play great roles at great theaters, venues and arenas. I guess the answer is just keep the party going the best way you can.

OT: What’s it like working and acting with primarily kids?
MDJ: It’s really a great pleasure, they have unique and big energy, and when that energy is all going in the direction of the show it’s fantastic. Young people have a perspective that the whole world is in front of them and it’s inspiring to see. They have a raw energy that most adults envy on a daily basis.

OT: What are some of your thoughts on the level of talent that these young actors and musicians have?
MDJ: The show is putting more instruments in the hands of kids across the country than any other show out there, and I’m particularly proud of that.  There were four active productions worldwide and more than 30,000 kids have auditioned for all of them. These are the one in 30,000 you’re seeing.

OT: Does the whole cast perform instruments live?
MDJ: In the show I play live guitar. Everybody plays live, and we do have a pit orchestra. There’s underscoring as in every musical, but when the kids are playing their instruments, they’re live.

OT: Tell us about Andrew Lloyd Webber’s compositions for this show?
MDJ: We have the perfect trifecta – some of the songs from the movie that you love, some great new original music from one of the greatest composers in musical theater ever, and you’re going to come see kids do stuff that’s never been done on Broadway before.

OT: What’s your favorite song from the show?
MDJ: “Teacher’s Pet” is a great song because it just comes at a time where we feel like we’ve made it. It’s a very hard show to do: it’s jumping, running, singing, screaming all the time and then you get to the end of the show and you get to do that song, and that’s where we feel we’ve accomplished something by getting there. Now we can celebrate.

OT: On a more personal note, tell us about your album Waiting in the Wings.
MDJ: When I started touring with shows, I started writing a lot of songs, and this album is a collection of songs I wrote about being on the road. It has a little bit of something for everyone in it, it has a little rock, a little country, a little folk and a little songwriter vibe. It’s about traveling our great country and life on the road.

OT: Were you more interested in performing in musicals or did becoming a recording artist cross your mind?
MDJ: I went to music school first and I learned about playing, writing and singing music; then I went to theater school. I’ve always wanted to be a recording artist.

OT: Being so busy with the musical, how have you been able to promote the album?
MDJ: I’m very proud of the fact that I’m the first actor Andrew Lloyd Weber has ever let promote their own album through the show. Every night at the end of the show, I stand out at the merch stand and sign albums. I have an upcoming EP with the original Broadway kids that’s all rock. That’s [titled] The Winter Guardians and I’m excited it’s coming out.

OT: How would you describe the overall production for people heading out to see the show?
MDJ: I think they’re going to remember the movie and everyone’s going to enjoy stepping into the world of the story, because they’re going to see kids doing something they’ve never done before on Broadway with music from the movie they loved.

School of Rock The Musical is at The National Theatre on Tuesdays through Sundays at various times until January 27. Tickets range from $54-$129 and can be purchased at www.thenationaldc.org. Discounted tickets for furloughed federal employees can be purchased with the promo code FEDERAL, and are available in the orchestra, mezzanine and front balcony sections for the following performances: Thursday, January 17 at 7:30 p.m. and Friday, January 18 at 8 p.m..

The National Theatre: 1321 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, DC; 202-628-6161; www.thenationaldc.org

Photo: Chris Lang

American Moor Sheds Light on Black Experience

After a devastating break-in over the holidays, the Anacostia Playhouse is bouncing back and happily welcoming playwright and actor Keith Hamilton Cobbs for his work American Moor from January 9 to February 3. Considered a significant play by the Folger Shakespeare Library, American Moor uses Shakespearean character Othello as a lens to examine the experiences and perspectives of diverse Americans. With television and film credits dating back 20 years including The Young and The Restless, All My Children and CSI: Miami, to name a few, Cobbs has a perspective that resonates. We caught up with him about his role in American Moor before the run begins this week.

On Tap: What is life like after two decades of acting in notable TV roles?
Keith Hamilton Cobbs: Well, life is the same except there’s not as much money in it [laughs]. The last [soap opera] I did ended in 2003, so there has been quite a space in-between. I have been writing and producing [American Moor] for the last seven years. It’s the life of any artist who is not necessarily the object of popular culture. For the object of popular culture, there’s a lot of work, tension and money. For the other artist, they’re just out there making art and living their everyday lives – and my life is a bit like that. I haven’t changed. I am the same, whether I’m the guy doing the soap opera or the guy you’re talking to. I am older, right? But life goes on. You start being an older actor and dealing with all the things older actors deal with.

OT: What story are you trying to tell with American Moor?
KHC: The story of humans, but certainly as Americans. It talks about our particular American dilemma with race, with biases and otherness with making art.

OT: Where did you draw inspiration from for this play?
KHC: This piece started out as an expression of my experience as an African-American actor trying to forge a career and how that related to my reality as an African-American man trying to shape a life. I realized at some point they were the same thing, and that realization created the first draft of the play. But something really profound and glorious happened. When we started to show the play and have post-production discussions, people started to get up and speak back to the play – relaying their experiences and reactions to the play. We realized the cross section of people who were speaking was extremely broad and diverse. Here I am, telling this story about me and my life, but they’re seeing themselves and their lives.

OT: How do you imagine the outcome of expanding narratives across all spectrums?
KHC: What my play is trying to suggest is here you have this person standing in front of you, and if you could expand your frame just a little bit, you’d see you were being offered something. You’re being offered perspective. You’re being offered authenticity. You’re being offered intellect. You’re being offered diligence in the form of this actor. You are being offered all these wonderful things that go into making wonderful theatre, and you are afraid to see them because they threaten what is for you. Were all of us not to be afraid, everything would change. We would begin to explore and discover all sorts of things about one another, certainly about art. Art would expand exponentially into what it would show of us, how it would represent us and what it could teach us.

OT: You portray an actor auditioning for the role of Othello, and you confront a director who expects you to fit into a narrow perspective of what an African American playing this role should be. Has this happened to you often in your career? 
KHC: Yes, it has happened several times in terms of reading for the character Othello or being considered in relation to that character. People would say, “Oh, you would make a great Othello,” and that’s like someone saying, “You would make a great basketball player.” Well, why? You don’t know anything about me. How do you know I would make a great Othello? All you know is what you are looking at. So yes, that has happened several times. But it has also happened in my life as a black American. As African males, we are seen in a particular way. Certain assumptions are going to be made about us walking in the room.

OT: Where do you believe the root cause of the problem lies? 
KHC: It is ownership of the American narrative. Who owns the narrative? It is still the property of white male Americans – European descendants. The story is theirs. It is about them. The rules are about them, it is skewed toward them. [It] favors them, and they’re going to say what works and what doesn’t. That extends to ownership of theatre. We take most of our theatre that we perceive as good and important from the white Western canon of work, Shakespeare included.

OT: How have the reactions of your diverse audiences impacted your script?
KHC: The work of rewriting this piece – honing and making this dramatic art more efficient – was already being done. But as I began to understand that this piece was about more than me, it allowed me to write in a direction that made the point clearer. This is everyone’s story.

OT: What distinction do you make between typecasting within the African-American male experience and other races or genders?
KHC: It’s an issue for everyone. I’m not making a distinction. As I say, the play is about all of us. It is about racial othering, sexual othering, othering by age. Othering is othering. It crosses all life spectrums. A little less than a year after writing the first draft – [after] the first public performance of this very raw new piece – the responses were from people, who in any simple comparison, were very much unlike me.

OT: How so?  
KHC: Well, there was a little Jewish high school girl who got up and said, “That’s my story. This is me. This is the life I live.” I thought, oh my goodness! Wow, alright! Well, let me look at that. Let me hear you. Let me examine. I began to listen very closely to what people had to say about their experience of this work. It expanded my thoughts and my mind. I realized this wasn’t so much about me, but about the experience of all of us. When you see the play, I feel it’s safe to say you will see yourself on some level.

OT: What’s are the consequences of limitation for character portrayals?
KHC: The consequences are that we don’t grow. As a culture, we do not evolve and we sit in what is comfortable. We sit in what we can define because it is comfortable. We fear change. We shun change and growth and deeper exploration of one another. We will not consider and explore other people’s ideas because so much of what we live now – so much of white male privilege – is based on what exists right now. If it changes, white male privilege becomes threatened.

OT: Why did you choose Shakespeare as the lens through which to tell this story? How did you get into Shakespeare?
KHC: I was studying English and realized when I started to see Shakespeare performed [that] the characters were able to express a depth of emotions as characters in a play that I as a black man was not able to express. The depth of my emotions was something people perceived as dangerous, which I could be shot for. Those characters would open their mouths and say the most beautiful things and express whatever emotions they wanted to express. I decided that I wanted to do that. This gives me a place where I can put all of these emotions.

OT: What impact do you hope American Moor has on American culture?
KHC: It’s already had impact, generating deep thought and conversation about these issues of race – whose perspectives matter, whose art matters – [and] about the nature of love and the declining qualitative nature of our American theatre. How do we fix that?

OT: How do you propose we fix this problem?
KHC: You start with awareness. You start with realizing it is broken. You start with the admission that it’s being made for many of the wrong reasons. You begin to try to think outside of your boxes of privileged perspective. You demand that your educational institutions training actors [and] directors do better and instill in them values that are appropriate to what theatre is supposed to do. These are big things that require individuals to take responsibility as individuals. Discern the truth, because you are the purveyors of truth.

American Moor opens Wednesday, January 9 at the Anacostia Playhouse. Tickets are $30-$40. For more information, click here.

Anacostia Playhouse: 2020 Shannon Pl. SE, DC; 202-290-2328; www.anacostiaplayhouse.com

Photo: www.kennedy-center.org

Miss Saigon: A Tragic Love Story and Grandiose Production

A resounding score, awe-inspiring sets and heart-breaking characters set the tone for the tragic love story of Miss Saigon, a new production of the renowned musical running at the Kennedy Center through January 13.

Currently on the U.S. leg of its tour, the events of Miss Saigon take place at the end of the Vietnam War and follows a Vietnamese woman, Kim (played by Emily Bautista), as she escapes her war-torn village. Afterward, she’s then forced to work at a bar in Saigon (modern day Ho Chi Minh City) and falls in love with American soldier Chris (played by Anthony Festa).

While attempting to return to the U.S. together, Kim and Chris are separated. The rest of the musical follows Kim’s tireless efforts to reunite with the love of her life.

A story set in a time of war, there are moments that will have you reaching for a tissue. However, the play is more than sad; comedic relief comes in the form of the Engineer (played by Red Concepción), the owner of the bar Kim works in.

A somewhat dodgy character, you can’t help but admire his tenacity and resourcefulness. His solo singing of “American Dream,” also proves a show-stopper as he dances on a convertible in front of a giant mask of the Statue of Liberty.

Other stand-out moments of the musical include the incredible set designs, which incorporate building structures that make you feel like you’re walking the streets of Southeast Asia, a helicopter that drops down from the ceiling and real footage of children orphaned during the Vietnam war.

As with their production of Les Misérables, Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg’s Miss Saigon is a grandiose production that will have you laughing, crying and entranced from start to finish.

Experience Miss Saigon at the Kennedy Center, running through January 13. Tickets start at $49. Run time is approximately 2 hours and 30 minutes. Learn more about Miss Saigon here.

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

Photo: Courtesy of Studio Theatre

Sarah Burgess Returns Home For Kings

Alexandria, Virginia native Sarah Burgess hasn’t spent much of her adult life in DC. As a burgeoning playwright who attended college in New York City, it made sense for Burgess to kick off her fast-rising career in the city that never sleeps.

At 35, her first-ever production Dry Powder was chosen by Public Theater Artistic Director Oskar Eustis, directed by Hamilton’s Thomas Kail, and starred Claire Danes, John Krasinski and Hank Azaria. Talk about a tough act to follow.

While New York may have put her on the map, you could say the playwright’s DC roots are responsible for her sustained success. Her second show Kings was inspired by her intrigue for the inner belly of Washington, and an article she read about fundraising retreats for politicians and lobbyists.

Where Dry Powder took a witty look at the cut-throat lifestyle of the elite in a New York private equity firm, Kings is “a lacerating comedy about a newly elected congresswoman who refuses to play by the rules of lobbyists – or her own party.”

While the themes of her work – corrosive money and power – do not seem to raise many eyebrows these days, her perspective has reinvigorated the conversation about what drives American progress.

Indeed, Burgess has made a name for herself when it comes to social commentary – so much so shes spun the phrase “art imitates life” upside down. Life imitated art when Kings inspired Washingtonian to create a real version of the play’s made-up listicle “Top DC Gay Power Couples Under 45.”

On Tap chatted with Sarah Burgess prior to the play’s opening about what it feels like to be a young, female playwright seated snugly at the table with Kings. Directed by Marti Lyons, the show’s second run – and first outside of Manhattan – is in production now through January 13 at Studio Theatre.

On Tap: Are you excited to have your work performed in DC where the show is set?
Sarah Burgess: I’m from Alexandria and this is my second play, so I was so pleased. Studio Theatre is such a revered institution and everyone nationally sees them doing interesting, cool, challenging stuff. For them to want to perform Kings, I was really excited. Having had friends who have had plays at Studio, it felt really great. It’s a play that presents challenges and I’m excited about it being at Studio.

OT: Since you’re now based in New York City, have you been shuttling back and forth a lot? How does it feel being in the area again?
SB: Actually, it’s great. I’ve been hopping on the train. I went down [to DC] yesterday just for a few hours to see a run-through. The play is being published and so as I’m continuing to grapple with subject matter that I actually found a bit more challenging than I expected, it’s been a good opportunity. Marti Lyons is directing this production and I got to know her when she came on board. It’s been so helpful to work with her on it, and then obviously working with these great actors, too. I love being able to come back down here.

OT: Tell us a bit about your reaction to Washingtonian’s response to your show. Did it strike a chord with you when a DC magazine created a list inspired by something you had conceived of in Kings?
SB: I was so excited. I remember I talked to Tommy Kale who directed the production in New York, and he’s also from Alexandria. He [said], “Washingtonian to me is like, I grew up with it in line in Safeway and it’s sort of an institution.” I’ve always thought of it as a national magazine, and it’s still part of the fabric of DC. I was bowled over. Like, it’s your hometown and you have the publication, but also there’s something about when you make up something offhand and then someone takes the time to make the actual thing. It was one of my proudest moments.

OT: It certainly speaks to the power of your art for inciting change. Can you walk us through what the past few years have been like for you as a young playwright toiling away and waking up to the dream breakthrough?
SB: Having your first play in New York is challenging because there’s a decent amount of competition and there are pipelines I wasn’t in, so it was a real life change to be a professional writer. It’s hard to make a living writing and to be able to support yourself at all. I feel very fortunate. I’m learning to adapt to writing on a different schedule [and] not having a day job. I feel very fortunate to have different opportunities to pursue, and I recognize that there’s really an element of luck. Artistic director Oskar Eustis, who was interested in the topic Dry Powder raises, was willing to take a risk on a completely unknown and unstudied playwright. There’s just luck in that.

OT: With your recent successes, are you feeling the pressure of expectations now?
SB: I mean, you have expectations for yourself. It’s not a question of returning to the way you were when you wrote whatever. It’s also recognizing that what you’re interested in changes and I think about that a lot. It’s a unique experience to have a play done and have them reviewed, and to be aware how they sell or don’t sell. It definitely is a separate category of experience from writing. I’m kind of an awkward introvert, so it’s a thing I grapple with. I don’t feel pressure or expectation. I don’t know that much is expected of me. I don’t have that from the outside. It’s more about wanting to be better. I think that has intensified since having my plays [produced].

For information about showtimes and ticket prices to Kings at Studio Theatre, visit here. Kings runs through Sunday, January 13.

Studio Theatre: 1501 14th St. NW, DC; 202-332-3300; www.studiotheatre.org

Thom Yorke at The Kennedy Center

Thom Yorke brought his series of live electronic performances to the Kennedy Center on Friday, November 30. There he performed songs with the help of Nigel Godrich and visual artist Tarik Barri, all spanning his solo works The EraserTomorrow’s Modern Boxes and Atoms For Peace’s Amok. Photos: Mike Kim

 

Photo: Courtesy of Neal Brennan

Do-It-All Neal Brennan Comes to 9:30 Club

My first question for Neal Brennan has almost nothing to do with him, and he’s used to it.

“Oh, let me guess, is it about Dave [Chappelle]?” he playfully asks.

He then fields my query centered around another famous comedian, Bo Burnham, who went on to direct indie flick and likely award winner Eighth Grade after working with Brennan and Chris Rock on the latter’s 2018 Netflix special Tamborine.

“I would say Bo is confident, but I don’t want to make him sound arrogant,” Brennan says. “He’s a know-it-all, and I am too, so it takes one to know one. He has opinions on everything, and that’s what you have to have to be a director. The thing about comedians is we have to do a bunch of jobs. We’re directing [and] writing ourselves, so I’m never surprised when a comedian can do stuff.”

It makes sense that Brennan’s expectation for a comedian mirrors his own do-it-all nature. The NYU film school dropout has done everything from write for tween 90s television shows like Kenan & Kel and All That to directing 2009’s The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard produced by Will Ferrell and Adam McKay. Perhaps most famously, he co-created and cowrote Chappelle’s Show, one of the most successful sketch comedy shows ever to air.

“When I was doing NYU, I went to the club at night and worked the door,” Brennan says. “The film kids were the biggest bunch of jerk-offs you would meet in your life. At the club, it was unknown Louis C.K., unknown Dave Chappelle, unknown Sarah Silverman – and that was every night pretty much. I liked those people better and I stayed there.”

In between his foray into onscreen productions, Brennan’s commitment to standup comedy has remained consistent. Despite all his film and television credits, the stage is where his career started – and it’s seemingly what he’s most focused on at the moment. Brennan and his Here We Go tour will stop at the 9:30 Club in early December.

“Standup is really popular, as well it should be,” he says. “The only people being honest are standup [comedians] and the upside is, there’s a lot of eyeballs on them.”

Brennan’s 2017 Netflix special 3 Mics allowed him to intertwine a more dramatic angle onstage for the first time. The format included three segments: punchy one-liners, traditional standup, and a discussion about depression and his relationship with his father.

“While I haven’t done anything strictly dramatic, I bring drama to standup – the place where no one wants it,” he jokes.

On tour now with a new narrative, Brennan declares he’s out of sad stories. With straight standup as his current focal point, he’s found comfort in getting back to writing jokes.

“It’s very premise-based. I’ll sit down and write it out as longform as I can, with as many beats as possible. A lot of times, the thing you think is the joke isn’t.”

With a man who has done so much at such a young age, it’s hard not to ask about the things he hasn’t done yet.

“Why not venture into dramatic filmmaking? Why don’t you have some kind of podcast like other comedians?”

He’s thought about doing those too, he says. For a dramatic film, he needs an idea. For the podcast, he’s working on something with fellow comedian Michelle Wolf.

“No format, just us talking,” Brennan says of his forthcoming podcast. “[Comedians] are very entertaining. We have to do these things, so we’re already opinionated and funny and talkative.”

Catch Brennan at 9:30 Club on Saturday, December 8. Doors are at 6 p.m. Tickets are available at www.930.com. Learn more about the comedian at www.nealbrennan.com.

9:30 Club: 815 V St. NW, DC; 202-265-0930; www.930.com

Stage and Screen: December 2018

THROUGH DECEMBER 23

A Civil War Christmas
During the most divisive (literally) time in America, there were still holidays and reasons for general hopefulness. In A Civil War Christmas, the play casts a wide net from battlefields in Northern Virginia all the way to the Capitol Building in DC, featuring stories from a number of intertwining lives demonstrating how glee can exist during a tough and embattled time. This play features numerous songs great for a winter date or your visiting family. Various dates and times. $15-$39. 1st Stage Tysons: 1524 Spring Hill Rd. Tysons, VA; www.1ststagetysons.org

An Inspector Calls
When an inspector knocks on your door seemingly at random asking about a murder, it’s probably going to leave you somewhat shook. For the Birlings, a British family enjoying a festive evening, this surprise guest begins digging up connections with the crime and finds cracks in their seemingly perfect lives. This thriller pleas for a just society and works to pull down the facade on people who aren’t as innocent as they seem. Various dates and times. $44-$102. Shakespeare Theatre’s Sidney Harman Hall: 610 F St. NW, DC; www.shakespearetheatre.org

Indecent
Art and censorship do not belong together. When art is restricted, it ceases to be art and is at best incomplete, at worst propaganda. In the 1920s Sholem Asch’s Yiddish drama God of Vengeance broke free from previous restrictions and offered an evocative story of immigration, anti-Semitism and other taboo themes. Arena Stage’s Indecent offer a behind the scenes style story about the Broadway breakthrough, and the people who risked their careers to perform in the show. Various times and dates. $66-$82. Arena Stage: 1101 Sixth St. SW, DC; www.arenastage.org

MONDAY, DECEMBER 3 – SUNDAY, JANUARY 6

The Second City’s She the People
The famed Second City sketch comedy troupe is back with this all-female cast providing two hours of laughter. Celebrating the group’s tenth anniversary of their first visit to Woolly Mammoth, this performance is entirely produced, designed, curated and performed by women, and necessarily puts patriarchal norms on blast. Whether the subject is government, homelife or what’s happening in the world, these women will give their opinions and make you laugh while doing it. Various dates and times. Tickets start at $50. Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company: 641 D St. NW, DC; www.woollymammoth.net

TUESDAY, DECEMBER 4 – SATURDAY, DECEMBER 22

Motown: The Reprise
If you’ve ever wanted to feel transported to the 70s, this might be your best opportunity outside of an actual mechanic time machine, and those don’t exist. Instead you’ll hear hits by Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, the Jackson 5 and others in a celebration of one of the most influential and prolific moments in music history. Providing the sounds is Signature Theatre’s Motown: Hitsville U.S.A. cabaret, and this new flavor of Motown sound will be unlike any other. Various dates and times. $38. Signature Theatre: 4200 Campbell Ave. Arlington, VA; www.sigtheatre.org

TUESDAY, DECEMBER 4 – SUNDAY, JANUARY 6

My Father’s Dragon
Based on the book by Ruth Stiles Gannett, this story follows an adventurous young boy, and his cat companion, who undertake a journey to rescue a baby dragon from a place called Wild Island. While there, he’ll be forced to think quickly and imaginatively to reach his goals. With Game of Thrones off the air until April of next year, you’ll have to rely on other sources for your dragon-themed fiction, and this wordless play might be enough to satiate you until we return to Westeros. Various dates and times. $20. Synetic Theater: 1800 S Bell St. Arlington, VA; www.synetictheater.org

WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 5 – SUNDAY, DECEMBER 9

Ballet West: The Nutcracker
Ever since 1963, Ballet West has performed The Nutcracker. The company from Utah is set to revisit the classic tale with reimagined designs, stunning production and, of course, breathtaking choreography. Before you take a holiday vacation, make sure to stop by the Kennedy Center to see some of the nation’s best dancers perform this enchanting story, alongside Tchaikovsky’s unreal score. 7:30 p.m. on all days, with additional 1:30 p.m. performances on Saturday and Sunday. $59-$215. The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts: 2700 F St. NW, DC; www.kennedy-center.org

WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 12 – SUNDAY, JANUARY 6

Kings
Written by Alexandria native Sarah Burgess, Studio’s latest political comedy finds newly elected representative Sydney Millsap riding a blue wave into DC, armed with idealism and a true sense of duty. Once there, she crosses paths with Kate, a lobbyist, who quickly dismisses her as a one-term rookie. Through laughs about money and power, this refreshing take on democracy in the U.S. depicts how relationships between lobbyists and representatives play out behind closed doors. Various dates and times. $20-$45. Studio Theatre: 1501 14th St. NW, DC; www.studiotheatre.org

Photo: Joan Marcus

Beautiful: The Carole King Musical at The National Theatre

Pop music lovers beware; this upbeat jukebox musical will have you moving and grooving to some of the greatest hits of all time. Beautiful: The Carole King Musical follows the personal and professional life of  Carole King, the wildly successful singer-songwriter, and presents a mesmerizing concert of 50s, 60s and 70s hits to the audience. Though the musical only covers a small part of her life – the late 1950s to the early 1970s – this two-hour show packs energy, musicality, character development and moments of shameless cheesy jokes that you can’t help but giggle at. Plus Alejo Vietti’s brilliant costume design and smashing choreography by Josh Prince really set the stage for the “doo-wop” era.

If you’re not quite sure who Carole King is, you’ll learn very quickly in the first act that she’s behind some of the most beloved “oldies,” such as “Some Kind of Wonderful” and “Will You Love Me Tomorrow.” The effortlessly talented Sarah Bockel portrays King in the most charming and mature manner, and honestly looks just like her. We see her grow from a young, giddy 16-year-old student at Queens College to an elegant, sophisticated artist behind the piano at Carnegie Hall, which is where we see her from the start of the first act to the end of the second act. Douglas McGrath’s script portrays King as a talented pianist and songwriter who gets her start at 1650 Broadway thanks to big-time publisher Don Kirshner, played hilariously by James Clow.

After meeting and collaborating with her handsome lyricist boyfriend-turned-husband Gerry Goffin, played by the studly Dylan S. Wallach, King’s career only skyrockets further and the audience is treated to an impressive number of their hits performed by The Drifters and The Shirelles — portrayed authentically by the insanely talented ensemble members.

Though Bockel does a thorough job capturing the charismatic nature of King’s character and contributes to the cheerfully cheesy jokes that had the crowd chuckling, it’s mostly songwriter Barry Mann, played by Jacob Heimer, that adds a huge chunk of humor to the show with his hypochondriac tendencies and abnormal but entertaining anxiety.

Mann and Cynthia Weil, another successful pair of hit-makers for artists such as The Righteous Brothers and The Crystals, are both competitors and best friends to Goffin and King. Throughout the first act, we see the two pairs battling for Kirshner’s approval with songs such as “He’s Sure the Boy I Love” and a personal favorite, “The Locomotion.” In addition to enjoying music that has paved the way for the pop and R&B genres, we get a chance to see the romantic relationships from both partnerships unfold, with King and Goffin’s ending on a low note (King has married three times since then), and Weil and Mann’s chemistry resulting in a long-running marriage.

The highlight of the musical was hearing Bockel belt some of King’s most beloved hits from her Grammy-winning album Tapestry, including “It’s Too Late” and “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.” At this point in the musical, King was becoming more independent and moving to the West Coast to create her self-sung album. Each Carole King solo, and every musical number for that matter, was received by a roaring, applauding audience as if it was really these famous singers and groups performing in front of our very eyes.

All ages can relate to the themes of the show — dream big and work hard to get where you want, show and give love, and most importantly, girl power. With wit, humor, grace and pure talent, Beautiful: The Carole King Musical is a must-see for those who love a good success story. The powerful vocals and energetic cast will leave you completely satisfied by this jukebox musical.

Beautiful: The Carole King Musical runs through Sunday, December 30 at The National Theatre DC. For tickets and show dates visit www.thenationaldc.org.

The National Theatre DC: 1321 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, DC; 202-628-6161; www.thenationaldc.org

Liam Redford (Billy Elliot) and ensemble // Photo: Margo Schulman

Better When I’m Dancing: Billy Elliot The Musical

“What’s this show with miners in tutus about?”

That’s a question many people ask about Billy Elliot, both when the film came out in 2000 and when the hit musical debuted five years later. In this case, it’s a question asked by Matthew Gardiner, the director and choreographer behind Signature Theatre’s winter production of the musical.

If you haven’t heard of – or seen – the movie or the musical, Billy Elliot tells the story of its titular character, an 11-year-old English boy who discovers a love of ballet while surrounded by a family of coal miners who don’t support his nontraditional passion – at least not at first. Hence, the miners and tutus.

After the film became a hit, Elton John was enlisted to write songs for a musical version that debuted in London’s West End in 2005. Next came productions in Australia and in 2008, on Broadway where the musical won 10 Tony Awards including Best Musical. And now, DC area audiences can catch the musical at Shirlington’s award-winning theater through early January.

Gardiner, Signature’s associate artistic director, has a personal connection to the story as he too studied ballet growing up.

“It was hard being a boy who loved ballet and musical theatre,” Gardiner says. “I was picked on a lot. But I felt safe when I was in the ballet classroom or in a rehearsal room. Those were the places I felt most like myself and most at home.”

It’s also an experience that the young star of Signature’s production, Liam Redford, can relate to. A native of North Hanover, New Jersey, Liam is 11 and a student of all types of dance at Philadelphia’s Rock School for Dance Education. Like Billy, he’s had to deal with people who don’t understand his passion.

“I have experienced many people who are not supportive of me in being a young male dancer,” the young actor says. “In school, many of the other kids looked down on me or did not think that what I loved to do was normal.”

However, both Redford and Gardiner have been able to overcome those past experiences and follow their dreams – a theme at the heart of Billy Elliot. When speaking with Redford, it’s clear he’s still riding the high of transitioning from playing Billy at a small community theatre in New Jersey to his current role in the Signature production.

“It feels amazing to know that so many other kids just like me can take on this role and relate to Billy in all the same ways as I do as a male dancer,” he says. “I am so lucky to be able to play this role that so many amazing people have played before.”

The production has two totally different casts of school-aged cast members performing in the show, including another Billy. In a nod to the show’s composer (and maybe West Side Story), the two casts are nicknamed the “Bennies” and the “Jets.” There’s no rivalry between the two groups, though. Redford says they hang out all the time.

“We are very close and love spending time with each other, and we have so much fun when we are together. We all hang out on Mondays when we are all off. Our young performing cast is like a little family.”

The talent and dedication of all the kids involved in the production amazes Gardiner, and he says he doesn’t change his style when directing the younger actors.

“I could never do what these kids are doing at their age,” he says. “I was good, but these kids are amazing. Their dedication and artistry are unbelievable. I play my part by encouraging them and treating them like I’d treat any adult actor. They are that good.”

The director says he was originally hesitant to work on Billy Elliot as he was only familiar with the film.

But when he read the script for the musical, he realized that it had an important message for today’s audiences.

“When I read the piece, I was taken aback by this story of loss and a community fighting for their voice – and ultimately, for the dreams of one little boy. In these trying times, we need more stories about the ways in which we unite.”

Don’t miss Billy Elliot: The Musical at Signature Theatre, now through Sunday, January 6. The run time is roughly two hours and 45 minutes with one 15-minute intermission. Tickets start at $40. Learn more at www.sigtheatre.org.

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

Photo: Courtesy of Keegan Theatre

Keegan Theatre’s Holiday Tradition Continues with An Irish Carol

It’s holiday time, which for patrons of Dupont Circle’s Keegan Theatre means a visit to a decked-out Dublin pub for a Christmas classic the way only the Irish can tell it, in the eighth annual staging of An Irish Carol. Written by real life Dubliner Matthew Keenan and directed by Mark Rhea (who also helped pen the script along with his wife Susan Marie Rhea), the play is loosely based on Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

“It’s more of an adult version and has lots of fun as well as poignant moments,” Rhea says. “In the end, it is about love and friendship and how both can help heal someone. We can all use some of that in our lives right about now.”

The show was first produced by Keegan in 2011, fulfilling a dream Rhea had for years – an Irish take on the Dickens’ tale set in a pub. Discussing his vision with Keenan over a pile of hot wings one night, the Irishman asked for a crack at it – and the rest is history.

Although Rhea and Keenan had some grand theatrical ideas, the more rationally minded Susan brought them down to earth and suggested “a really human version” without all the creepy sounds and big production elements.

From that came a charmingly profane story of a man transformed by love. The plot follows Dave, an ornery curmudgeon of a pub owner and Scrooge character, who is transformed through the words of his family and friends. Past, present and future are there, but in a more real sense.

“Originally, we weren’t sure how it would do in the DC area, but it was a huge success so we decided to continue it the next year and then it just kept being successful,” Rhea says. “The audience has continued to grow, so we’ll keep producing this little gem as long as they want to see it.”

Some casting changes occur each year to keep the show fresh, though the audience enjoys seeing the returning actors year after year – including Kevin Adams, who is back as Dave. Timothy H. Lynch plays Frank, a recurring role for the actor since the first production when he read an early draft and was immediately charmed.

“I’ll play this role as long as Keegan Theatre is willing to cast me and prop me up onstage,” Lynch says. “It makes me happy every year to start rehearsal and open the run. Matthew Keenan wrote a lovely play, one where every character matters. They’ve each been touched by Dave, and each touch him in their own, honest ways – ways that don’t get old.”

The actor says as the character continues to mature, he loves discovering new nuances about Frank.

“Year after year, I find a deeper connection to Frank,” he continues. “His arc through the play gives me so much to play with. His attitude, perspective and goals change over the course of the night, giving him an opportunity to reveal himself to Dave and the audience in an unexpected way. I just love the guy and am truly grateful to get to play the role.”

One of Lynch’s favorite things about being part of the production is listening to the stories of each character – the special moments shared each night between the actors and the audience.

“Every night, we [add] a new cast member [from] each new audience. Some can be uproarious, others quietly intense – still others are full of holiday spirit, happy to be together and having a great time. They make it an ever-fresh joy. We see many returning folks, and they bring new friends and family with them. It’s exciting to be part of a growing holiday tradition.”

In a season when most of the holiday fare is aimed at families, Lynch reiterates that An Irish Carol is for adults, which is welcoming to many.

“We’re feckin’ drinkin’ onstage. We’re spoutin’ feckin’ profanity onstage. We’re makin’ feckin’ fools of ourselves onstage. We’re working through honest emotions of people trying to make the best of their lives and trying to help a good, wounded friend. It’s written in an Irish vernacular by a native Dubliner. It’s truly funny and touching and has unexpected turns.”

Rhea shares that even after all these years, none of the actors onstage take it lightly. They’re all aiming for people to have a great time.

“We are pouring our hearts out there every year,” he says. “We love doing it and connecting with the audience each and every performance. It’s a special thing to have created a sort of legacy with this little gem of a show. Hell, it might outlast me, and I would be just fine with that.”

Catch An Irish Carol at Keegan Theatre from Thursday, December 13 through Monday, December 31. The run time is 85 minutes with no intermission. Tickets start at $40. For more information, visit www.keegantheatre.com.

Keegan Theatre: 1742 Church St. NW, DC; 202-265-3767; www.keegantheatre.com