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Photo © Tony Powell. Arena Stage "Anything Goes." October 5, 2018
Photo © Tony Powell. Arena Stage "Anything Goes." October 5, 2018

Anything Goes: Arena Stage Breathes New Life into Golden Age Classic

For a con man on a mission to stop the woman he loves from engaging in a romantic relationship with some Joe Schmoe from another world, anything goes. At least that’s what Arena Stage’s retelling of the classic play entails, with stowaway Billy Crocker on a mission to get to his beloved Hope Harcourt aboard a luxurious cruise ship using every ounce of his street knowhow.

Anything Goes runs from November 2 to December 23 on Arena’s Fichandler Stage, with the theatre’s artistic director Molly Smith at the helm of the production. During the SS American’s journey from NYC to London, Crocker must use various disguises and the help of his friends to win back his love.

“There’s the romance and the love,” says High School Musical’s Corbin Bleu, who plays Crocker. “What’s fascinating about this piece is the differences in class. Billy’s had to fight his way to the position he’s at in the world. He wasn’t born with a silver spoon in his mouth at all and this woman was, but [she’s] had it shoved in her mouth and [doesn’t] want her mother having a hand in everything.”

The musical is set in the 1930s, which local actress Maria Rizzo says is one of her favorite eras.

“It’s a vibrant time to sing music,” she says of the decade. “That’s what’s going to draw our audiences to the show, because there are so many songs people will recognize.”

Rizzo plays tough-talking Erma, balancing the character’s strength and independence with her playful demeanor.

“I feel comfortable playing characters who are big and exciting. I think it’s easy to slip into a stupid or flaky version of her, but I refuse to play a woman who’s dumb. There are so many women written well, like Erma. She’s street smart, even if she doesn’t talk like the classiest of broads.”

To get into character, Rizzo changed her accent by mimicking folks who say “New Joisey” instead of New Jersey. The actress says she shares a lot in common with Erma – namely her resilience and fascination with the here and now – although her character does love attention from the boys.

“So that and [her] voice were the two opposite qualities.”

For Bleu, navigating his role was more difficult because he is playing a character who is playing characters. Each of Crocker’s disguises requires its own mannerisms and voices.

“I know I am a hopeless romantic, and there is that aspect of Billy. He’s willing to go to the ends of the earth to win this woman’s heart, even after being continually denied. There’s several different accents and disguises, and while doing that you have to make sure it stays Billy.”

Bleu and Rizzo are both fawning over the choices Smith has made throughout pre-production, culminating in the new look and feel she’s bringing to this 1934 musical.

“What I love so much about Molly’s shows is that she typically casts cross-culturally, and it’s really reflective of what America looks like today,” Rizzo says. “Even though this show is from the 1930s, and the original cast would have been all white actors, that’s not the show you’ll see because that’s not the world we see right now. It gives the piece a more powerful voice.”

Smith also encourages performers to dig deeper, including the development of character backstories and experiences.

“We had to find ways to make [the script] justified, and we even brought backstories not in the text,” Bleu says. “We all had to come up with our own improvisations of our characters, [and what] the biggest turning point of your character’s life was. It was really, really interesting. I’ve never been part of a production where that process was so open to everyone.”

With fresh faces breathing life into beloved characters, this version of Anything Goes will undoubtedly emotionally engage audiences who span generations.

Anything Goes has a lot of potential for a lot more depth than most Golden Age musicals,” Bleu continues. “You have an incredibly talented ensemble and the choreography is going to be incredible, so there will be that excitement of having seen a great performance.”

Catch Anything Goes on Arena Stage’s Fichandler Stage from November 2 to December 23. Tickets are $92. For more information on the play, visit www.arenastage.org.

Arena Stage: 1101 Sixth St. SW, DC; 202-488-3300; www.arenastage.org

Artwork: Courtesy of Arena Stage
Artwork: Courtesy of Arena Stage

Arena Stage Presents World Premiere of Dave

The heartwarming movie Dave was released 25 years ago, and the Kevin Kline/Sigourney Weaver political comedy became one of the most popular movies of 1993. The film follows a high school teacher named Dave Kovic – who also happens to be a dead ringer for the President of the United States – as he’s thrust into stand-in mode to help the country avoid a national scandal when the real commander in chief gets ill.

A world-premiere musical based on the movie makes its debut at Arena Stage from July 13 to August 19. The show is written by a trio of heavyweights – three-time Tony Award-winner Thomas Meehan (Annie, Hairspray, The Producers), Nell Benjamin (Mean Girls, Legally Blonde) and Pulitzer Prize and two-time Tony Award-winner Tom Kitt (Next to Normal, If/Then) – and directed by Tina Landau. Drew Gehling, who originated the role of Dr. Pomatter on Broadway in Waitress, plays the demanding dual role of Dave and President Bill Mitchell, while First Lady Ellen Mitchell is portrayed by Broadway vet Mamie Parris.

“I love the film and was really excited to audition for this project,” Parris says. “It’s always interesting to hear when someone is inspired by something or adapting something and looking at a piece [to see] whether it sings. When I first saw this material, I knew the story really sang because it’s a fairytale about what a man can become. That really lends itself to being musicalized.”

Parris recently starred in the Cats revival as Grizabella, belting out “Memory” eight times a week. Other Broadway credits include School of Rock, Ragtime and The Drowsy Chaperone. One of the things she likes about getting to play the First Lady is not only is it a fun love story, but she also gets to play a powerful female character.

“It’s always thrilling to be asked to portray a strong, thoughtful, confident, independent, assertive woman because a lot of those roles aren’t written,” she says. “This is really a very human, multidimensional  and complex woman.”

Fans of the movie won’t be disappointed as many of their favorite scenes are represented in one way or another, but one doesn’t need to be familiar with the source material to enjoy it.

“It’s a wonderful film and incredibly funny, but at the same time, if you get a little too precious with that material, it may not translate quite as well for a stage production – especially one done 25 years after it was original written,” Parris says. “All the charm and story from the original is there, but there’s a new facet that really breathes new life into it.”

The musical also includes Broadway favorites Douglas Sills (The Scarlet Pimpernel) and Jonathan Rayson (Little Shop of Horrors), as well as a collection of talented regional and New York-based actors. Vishal Vaidya, a Burtonsville, Maryland native and American University graduate, is part of the ensemble and thrilled to be part of a new work so close to home.

“It’s always nice to be here,” Vaidya says. “The theatre community in DC is so strong, and so much great theatre is happening here. Personally, it’s been nice to come back and reflect on how I’ve changed as a person and also get to see how the DC theatre [scene] has evolved and changed.”

Vaidya made his Broadway debut last April in Groundhog Day, and local credits include Ford’s Theatre’s 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee as Barfee and Adventure Theater’s Frog and Toad as Frog, earning a Helen Hayes nomination. He was drawn to Dave because of the subject matter and people working on the show.

“I wanted to work with Tina [Landau] for a really long time,” he says. “She is such a great visionary. She wants everyone to be involved and on the same page. Tom Kitt and I have done a bunch of work in development together and I think his work is incredible. They were the main draw for me.”

Plus, the story is one that he believes is perfect for today’s political atmosphere.

“The moral of Dave is that it’s about how we can all make changes or do our part for the greater good,” he says. “Even if we think we are just a normal citizen, which is what Dave is in the beginning, we think we can’t make a difference – but he has to. He may not have the experience or connections, but he has to take action and he learns to do that.”

Parris adds that one of the things the script does particularly well is reflect a modern storyline while also standing completely apart from the current political climate.

“I’m impressed by that because I think that’s hard to do,” she says. “Dave is remarkably apolitical and I think it can be appreciated by both sides of the aisle, which the writers deserve a lot of credit for.”

Dave runs from July 13 to August 19 in Arena Stage’s Kreeger Theater. Tickets start at $96. Learn more about the production and ticket discounts and deals at www.arenastage.org.

Arena Stage: 1101 6th St. SW, DC; 202-488-3300; www.arenastage.org

Photo: Courtesy of Arena Stage
Photo: Courtesy of Arena Stage

Lights, Camera, Eco-Friendly Action: Arena Stage’s Solar Rooftop

For almost 70 years, Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater has impacted countless lives with diverse and groundbreaking work from great artists around the country. They’ve held programs, classes and events to inspire creativity and expression, reaching over 10,000 students every year through community engagement. And in February, they decided to show their love for the community by installing 1,145 solar panels on their expansive rooftop.

To Arena Stage Executive Director Edgar Dobie, being eco-friendly is one of the best ways the theater can serve their network of artists and theatergoers.

“We feel that we need to respect our relationship with our community and our environment,” says Dobie, who has been with Arena Stage for nine years. “We tell stories on our stage, and as an institution, we have stories to tell as well. One of those stories is that we want to be as efficient and respectful as possible to the resources – whether they’re environmental or financial – that are given to us.”

As part of Arena’s renovations from 2007 to 2010, the Southwest Waterfront-based space hired the late Vancouver architect Bing Thom to design a massive glass enclosure that would surround both historical theaters. He even fit a new, third theater in the enormous 200,000-square-foot design. Thom’s idea for using glass came from his environmentally conscious roots. A huge glass wall means lots of sunlight entering the space, and a natural thermal system to save energy. Dobie is certain that Thom would be thrilled with the solar panel design if he were alive today.

With their new 452.3 kW solar system, Arena Stage’s move toward a renewable energy resource is the equivalent to saving 45,231 gallons of gas annually, or taking 85 cars off the road. And to achieve their goal of producing 20 percent of their power supply purely from solar energy, Arena Stage teamed up with EnterSolar, a leading provider of commercial marketplace solar energy options in New York. Dobie says their reputable portfolio isn’t the only reason he’s thrilled to work with them.

“EnterSolar is doing great things, and we are proud to partner with them on this project,” he says. “On top of it all, I love their name. It’s like a stage direction!”

Dobie says that because they’re eventually going to save money with this new energy source, Arena Stage will most likely hire more actors and teachers in the future. Thanks to their initiative and forward thinking, this theater will not only help to save the environment but also step up their mission to bring people together through the arts.

Learn more about Arena Stage at www.arenastage.org.

Arena Stage: 1101 6th St. SW, DC; 202-488-3300; www.arenastage.org

Illustration: Courtesy of Arena Stage
Illustration: Courtesy of Arena Stage

Actor Carlton Byrd on Two Trains Running

In 1992, August Wilson’s Two Trains Running premiered on Broadway. It was, at the time, the latest in his The Pittsburgh Cycle – his take on documenting and portraying Black American life, decade after decade. Two Trains Running explores the 1960s in the rapidly changing neighborhood of the Hill District, a historically black neighborhood in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; more specifically, in Memphis Lee’s diner – a place soon to be wiped out thanks to something we now know as gentrification. Now, the play comes to the Arena Stage on March 30 amidst a political and social backdrop nearly 50 years after the events of the story. And yet, the events still echo the tumultuous time outside the doors of Memphis Lee’s diner.

Carlton Byrd makes his Arena Stage debut as Sterling, a man recently released from the state penitentiary and in search of work who arrives at the diner eager to ask Risa, the one female character in the play, out on a date. On Tap got a chance to speak with Byrd ahead of his DC performance about the legacy of August Wilson’s work, returning to the DC theater scene and how Two Trains Running still rings true.

On Tap: What’s it like being back in DC’s theatre scene?
Carlton Byrd: It’s great. [The] first time I was in DC was for Woolly Mammoth’s production of Antebellum the day before Obama’s inauguration, so there was a certain energy to the city then. I’m excited for another chance to perform in DC, this time doing my first August Wilson. 

OT: What drew you to Two Trains Running? Are there any similarities between you and Sterling, the character who you’re portraying? Do you know people like Risa and the other characters in real life?
CB: I was drawn to Two Trains because it’s a great play with great characters done by a great playwright. August Wilson writes in a way that is authentic to the African-American experience in this country. I know dozens of people who are similar to the characters in this play; some of them are in my family. As for myself and Sterling, I find similarities between myself and every character I portray. The work then becomes finding how we are different. That’s where the acting begins. 

OT: Seattle is a very different environment from DC. Does the environment that you’re performing in affect your approach to the performance? How will the DC production be different or similar to the Seattle Repertory production?
CB: I approach every performance the same [way]. It doesn’t matter where I’m performing, within what medium or in front of what group of people. [It] doesn’t matter if my mother is in the audience, some celebrity or a total stranger – the work and my work ethic are the same. Our DC run will be different because we have had time to settle deeper into our characters and learn from each other during our Seattle run. Also, the performance will now be restaged for the round. That’s a big difference.

OT:  How is this play still relevant to today, specifically to a place like DC that’s undergoing massive gentrification? And in the background, we have events like what happened in Charlottesville and the Parkland, Florida school shooting – events also tinged with racial violence and tension. 
CB: The play takes place in May of 1969 in the days leading up to Malcolm X’s birthday. I feel that most Americans like to gloss over Malcolm X’s contributions to empowering black people and providing in many ways the precursor for the Black Power Movement, which has been unfairly demonized through the rewriting of American history. Malcolm’s ideals and the Black Power Movement take center stage throughout the play with the character of Sterling. The play still rings true because many of the same issues are happening today. When the play speaks to specific instances of police brutality, gentrification, racism and the disenfranchisement of black people, it feels like they are speaking about 2018. The play speaks of people in transition; people at a crossroads in their lives. Since the election of 2016, I think our country is in a similar place of transition. And just like our characters, many Americans are tired of simply giving in to various forms of mistreatment – to put it mildly – and writing it off as the status quo. Our characters want to be treated with respect, among many other things. They also want the injustices that have become commonplace in their communities to change as well. I think that sentiment is shared today with the millions pushing for gun reform and the rise of the #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo movements. Like our characters, people are expressing their need for change. As was true in the 60s, those in need of change in 2018 are willing to fight, picket and protest to obtain it. 

OT: What is it about August Wilson’s work that still resonates with modern audiences? 
CB: He was a poet and a historian. Great poetry is timeless, and history tends to repeat itself. Thus, by very nature, his plays will continue to be relevant as long as the themes in his plays continue to be present around the world.  

OT: What are you most excited about in bringing this production to DC? What do you want audiences to take away from this performance? 
CB: I’m always excited to perform. That is a blessing in itself. I look forward to doing my best to tell my portion of the story. Hopefully in doing that with the help of my amazing cast, the audience will get what August wants them to get from the performance. I’m simply at service to the work and his words.

OT: Finally, to end on a lighter note: what is your favorite place or hidden gem in DC?
CB: I’m looking forward to attending the National Museum of African American History and Culture. It will be my first time.

Two Trains Running runs on Arena Stages Fichandler Stage from March 30 to April 29. Ticket are available here.

Arena Stage: 1101 Sixth St. SW, DC; 202-488-3300; www.arenastage.org