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Photo: Courtesy of Patton Oswalt
Photo: Courtesy of Patton Oswalt

NoVA Native Patton Oswalt Set For Kennedy Center Debut

Patton Oswalt can be described as something of a Renaissance man in entertainment. He’s found success as an author (both books and graphic novels), actor (in films and on TV), voice-over artist (video games, animation and TV) and on the comedy circuit.

The latter is where his true passion lies, as the comedian explains that everything he does is geared toward allowing him to continue doing comedy live in front of an audience.

“Acting in TV and film is just a way for me to increase my exposure and get the chance to do more stand-up,” Oswalt says. “I love the creativity of the business. It’s a happier life for me to live creatively, and it’s something I am always going to do.”

Raised in Sterling, Virginia, Oswalt attended the College of William & Mary where he majored in English. The idea to try comedy as a career came sometime between his freshman and sophomore year, and once the bug hit, he never looked back.

“It wasn’t my game plan when I started, but it developed organically and by senior year, it was all I wanted to do,” he says. “Back then, DC was a fun scene, but it was much more predicated on who was making more money and who was famous. Creativity didn’t really come first. It was more about status.”

Looking for bigger things, Oswalt packed his bags and started making a name for himself in San Francisco on its rising comedy circuit. From there, he headed to Los Angeles and hit the big time.

“The circuit in San Francisco was amazing – it was the opposite of DC. It was more about who was doing original stuff. Then I went to Los Angeles and there were different scenes within the scenes, which was fascinating to me.”

Since 2003, Oswalt has appeared on seven TV comedy specials and released eight critically acclaimed albums, with his 2016 Talking for Clapping recording earning him a Grammy.

On July 21, the comedian will play two shows at the Kennedy Center as part of the District of Comedy Festival, making his debut in the historic theater. Although he has memories of seeing comedy legend Gallagher and old film noir movies at the Kennedy Center when he was younger, he never dreamed that he would one day perform there.

“It feels good to be back in the area,” he says. “It’s a little surreal as I started doing comedy in DC in 1988. It’s going to be fun to be back in my neighborhood. At the time, my dreams weren’t big enough to think about playing at the Kennedy Center. I was only looking to get a solid 10 minutes.”

Oswalt is planning all-new material for the night, working on some of what he expects to be part of his next TV special. But don’t ask him for specifics, as he warns, “You should never ask a comedian what he’s going to talk about!”

His one hint is that his fans can expect some strong truths about what he’s seeing in the world.

“Being onstage in front of a crowd is just a great adrenaline rush. I love how everything I say came from nothing but now it’s a living thing outside of myself, living creatively. There’s nothing in the world like it.”

Although many people know him from his first TV guest appearance – Seinfeld’s classic “The Couch” episode – his biggest claim to fame early in his career was playing Spence on the Kevin James CBS comedy The King of Queens.

“One of the co-creators of [The King of Queens] was watching an HBO special of mine, and just saw me as Spence. I felt very lucky to get that part.”

Oswalt will soon be headed back to California to begin work on two network TV shows he’s a part of. He currently stars as Principal Ralph Durbin on NBC’s comedy AP Bio, which was recently picked up for a second season, and he’ll enter his sixth season as the narrator for ABC’s The Goldbergs in the fall.

“Michael O’Brien created AP Bio, and his stuff is just on the outer rim of absurdity. The fact he gets to do it in the format of a sitcom is amazing, and I’m so lucky that I get to be a part of it. For The Goldbergs, I pop in about once a week and it’s really fun. It uses nostalgia as a Trojan horse into general emotion and empathy, and that’s what I really love about the show.”

Before his TV shows pick back up, catch him live when he headlines Kennedy Center’s District of Comedy Festival on Saturday, July 21. Shows at 7 and 9:30 p.m., tickets start at $49. Purchase tickets at www.kennedy-center.org and learn more about the comedian at www.pattonoswalt.com.

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

Photo: Doug Hamilton
Photo: Doug Hamilton

Give In to The Temptations

The latest in the line of anthology musicals, Ain’t Too Proud—The Life and Times of the Temptations opened its month-long stint at the Kennedy Center on Thursday night. Written by Kennedy Prize winner Dominique Morisseau, directed by Des McAnuff and choreographed by Sergio Trujillo, Motown’s most legendary act is once again thrilling a packed house.

Morisseau’s Detroit roots are on display as she frames Motown’s rise alongside that of the auto industry, as African-Americans from the South arrived in Motor City in search of work, bringing music with them. Through The Temptations, Morisseau tells the story of the musical revolution accompanying this migration; a uniquely African-American chapter of the great American story.

Guided by the earnest narration of Otis Williams (Derrick Baskin), the group’s level-headed but extraordinarily driven leader, the audience is taken on a journey from the Temptations’ origins on the streets of Detroit all the way to the top, featuring 31 songs throughout the two-and-a-half hour show.

Instead of settling for being a good-time singalong, Ain’t Too Proud also plumbs the dark depths that accompanied The Temptations’ meteoric rise and classic sound. Between showstoppers like “My Girl,” “Get Ready,” “Just My Imagination” and the titular “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” Morisseau explores the tension of a group trying to navigate personal strife and turbulent times.

While much of the conflict centers around the internal, personal tension between the steadfast Williams trying to maintain an egalitarian group dynamic (and his own family) over the protests of spotlight-hungry showman David Ruffin (Ephraim Sykes), the show also examines how The Temptations were viewed by the country at large, and the irony of their status as a crossover hit. In particular, the calculated business decision by Berry Gordy (Jahi Kearse) that the group avoid overt political messaging drove home the idea that appreciation from white audiences did not necessarily mean acceptance from white society. This added complexity elevates Ain’t Too Proud above otherwise similar jukebox musicals.

While the Williams, Ruffin rivalry takes center stage, each Temptation shines in his own right. Jawan M. Jackson’s Melvin Franklin, Jeremy Pope’s Eddie Kendricks, and James Harkness’ Paul Williams are each given an opportunity to lay their characters bare and fully capture the Temptations’ spirit, all while pulling off dance routines well worthy of the Classic Five.

Through their sterling catalog and Trujillo’s exquisite recreation of their iconic steps, Ain’t Too Proud both delights audiences and highlights the immense legacy the group has left for acts that followed. To borrow from one of Baskin’s monologues, the Temptations have always been greater than the sum of their parts, and DC (and soon Broadway) would do well to witness their legacy firsthand.

Ain’t Too Proud—The Life and Times of The Temptations runs through Sunday, July 22 at the Kennedy Center. Tickets start at $79; purchase them here.

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

Photo: Joan Marcus
Photo: Joan Marcus

Hamilton Lives Up to the Hype at the Kennedy Center

The last time the legacy of Alexander Hamilton crossed my mind was during my IB History of the America class, when I was given the task of analyzing one of the many papers Hamilton authored and its lingering effects on the structure of our country. I am admittedly a sucker for hype and excitement, and yet the impact of the wildly popular musical dealing with something that was also a subject of intense history class study seemed to evade me since its debut in 2015.

I wasn’t avoiding it – it just never seemed to pique my interest enough for me to look into it further. My aforementioned, decidedly unsexy association of the Founding Father with the arduous IB exam season as a junior in high school certainly did not help either.

So, I went to Hamilton at the Kennedy Center last night totally blind. I was even unaware that the composition of the music was different than a traditional Broadway play, incorporating elements of hip-hop, pop and even brilliantly constructed rap battles into its score, until my (extremely excited) mother mentioned it to me right before the show began. 

Whether it be to catch your favorite band live or take in the DC debut of an 11-time Tony Award-winning play, there is something remarkable, maybe even unforgettable about soaking up art that you’re excited about. And yet, there is something equally memorable about attending a performance with zero expectations and an open heart, as I did for this production.

And I was completely and utterly blown away. Every single member of the cast brought an exceptional level of talent to the show, and I have never seen actors so invested in their individual characters. I felt Hamilton’s (Austin Scott) hunger for power mature into a fiery desire to leave this new nation better than he found it in its fledgling years. Eliza Schuyler Hamilton (Julia K. Harriman) grew from a lovestruck lady of wealth to the cornerstone of her family’s name, holding them up with strength and grace even in the absence of her beloved husband and son.

The serious tones of the production were perfectly offset by the humor of Thomas Jefferson (Bryson Bruce), especially when he appears onstage in Act II with “What’d I Miss,” complete with a sparkling grin and hilariously cheesy dance moves. And who can forget King George, who balances providing historical context with a large dose of comic relief perfectly?

I’d be hard-pressed to find an audience member who wasn’t brought to tears by “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story” at the end of the show. The song served as a reminder that while on the surface the show may be about someone often considered a smaller player in the larger story of the founding of America, it’s truly so much more than that. It’s a story of ambition, love, loss and redemption – things all Americans face, in the 1700s and today, Founding Father or not.

Perhaps the best part of this particular production is something more unexpected, though. As parts of the story itself take place just a short drive from the Kennedy Center, there was a special kind of magic in seeing the play in our nation’s capital. Attendees have the privilege of being transported to the time when the tough conversations that led to the formation of America took place while sitting in the heart of what resulted in Hamilton and company’s efforts. Witnessing this unfold before your eyes through Lin-Manuel Miranda’s expertly crafted story at the Kennedy Center is an experience unlike any other.

For those familiar with the phenomenon of Hamilton, this particular cast and production will only add to the spectacular legacy the show has built for itself over the past several years. And for those like me going into the show with little to no knowledge of the show, prepare to carve out a little (let’s be real, a lot) of room in your heart for the play. It is certainly something that will stay with you forever – and erase any history exam-related memories you may have on the subject matter.

Hamilton runs now through Sunday, September 16. Go here for more information about the recently announced ticket lottery.

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

Photo: Scott Suchman
Photo: Scott Suchman

WNO Honors Bernstein with Candide

Add the Washington National Opera to the list of those celebrating what would have been the year of the 100th birthday of Leonard Bernstein, as it presents the composer’s notable take on Voltaire’s biting satire, Candide through May 26 at the Kennedy Center.

Featuring classic tunes such as “Make Our Garden Grow” and “Glitter and Be Gay,” this version of Candide marries a triple threat of theater, dance and opera. Bernstein wrote a piece with so many different layers, many compare it to his personal love letter to Europe.

Eric Sean Fogel is the associate director for the show, and has also served as choreographer on the project since 2015. He says the best way to describe the performance is to talk about how not to describe it.

“We start right off the bat by not categorizing the production; we don’t say it’s an opera, operetta or a musical, or a dance piece for that matter,” he says. “It’s kind of everything, and that’s how Bernstein and his collaborators wrote the piece. It’s a world onto its own.”

However, Fogel shares, what audiences can expect to see are 12 massive production numbers and a journeying piece of a young man trying to figure out who he is by exploring the world and searching for both his love and his reason.

This current production is the fifth remount of the show. It all began when Fogel would meet with Francesca Zambello the director, Jennifer Moeller the costume designer and Jim Noone the set designer, once a month for a year to slowly go through and talk through the piece to figure out how to tell the story of 13 locations effectively on stage.

“It does have a cinematic, huge sweepy feel to it that takes a lot of time to plan out scenically and costume- and design-wise,” Fogel says.  “After a year, we settled on this base look of a French warehouse that can be transformed by moving trunks and platforms into any scenario we would like — from boats in Venice to a Bavarian battlefield.”

Throughout the show, there’s also a mish-mash of different period costume pieces for the ensemble, so they could quickly put on a jacket or necklace and represent a different character in a different county.

“We decided the most facile the design could be, the more brevity we could have in the storytelling,” Fogel says. “This is a story that’s already incredibly dense, so you want to keep it moving along and not weigh it down with additional design element. It’s almost like we’re doing the stage version of ‘It’s a Small World’ because it’s such a massive journeying piece and you just want to get different flavors of all the different cultures you go through.”

The show is comprised of a company of 34 singers, actors and dancers and unlike most opera productions, everyone sings, acts and dances like a true Broadway ensemble.

DC’s own Denyce Graves plays the character of “Old Lady.” Although she’s never done a Bernstein production before this, Graves does have a history with him as when she was 14, she made a PSA commercial with the legendary composer.

“I didn’t really know who he was at the time, but of course, over the years I learned he is one of our greatest musical giants,” she says. “This being the centennial, when I was offered the role, I thought it would be a wonderful opportunity. I had known the music of course, but had never seen the work and was curious, interested and excited.”

Regardless of whether people are fans of opera or theater, Graves feels people are really going to enjoy this show.

“It has a lot of the melodies that people have heard throughout the years—everyone has heard ‘Glitter and Be Gay’— and this production is so spectacular,” she says. “It’s so detailed, so funny and I the audience will have a wonderful time.

The production also features Alek Shrader as Candide, Emily Pogorelc as Cunegonde and Wynn Harmon as Pangloss, Voltaire.

Fogel believes that when audiences leave, they will contemplate how to make the world a better place.

“It’s such a beautiful message of someone finding their purpose,” he said. “It’s poignant, has a lot of heart and offers great humanity throughout.”

For information and tickets to the show, click here.

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

Photo Courtesy of The Kennedy Center
Photo Courtesy of The Kennedy Center

Hamlet Comes to the Kennedy Center


hamlet picHamlet, the mysterious and brooding Prince of Denmark, is one of Shakespeare’smost iconic characters- but, 27-year old Paapa Essiedu takes this role to another level. 

Essiedu made history back in 2016 when he was cast as the first black actor to take on the role at Stratford-Upon-Avon. While his Hamlet still goes mad with grief after the death of his father, and the betrayal of his mother Gertrude, who then immediately marries Claudius, his uncle, Essiedu’s Hamlet is also loving , witty, funny, sarcastic, and charming … in fact, he drives the audience mad with his performance, as we decide whether we love him, hate him, feel for him, or if we just want to get on stage and slap him out of his lunacy. One thing is for sure- we can’t stop watching him.

Simon Godwin’s West-African inspired production of Hamlet is bright with color, humor, and heart. The play begins, quite literally, with a bang as a loud gunshot goes off at the moment Hamlet receives his degree from Wittenberg University.

We follow Hamlet as he transforms into a Basquiat-inspired graffiti artist who hatches a plan to reveal Claudius’ immorality, and later brutally rejects Ophelia (Hamlet really does prove that a good woman’s love cannot save a man from himself).

The focus of this production, which is brought to life by the Royal ShakespeareCompany, is much less on the politics of the play (although it is implied that Claudius is perhaps an evil dictator – he did after all kill his own brother), and much more about processing trauma. What people do to heal, what people do that hurts, the vulnerability, the longing for support and help, and the innate mistrust that happens when something as devastating as losing a parent occurs.

Watching Mimi Ndiweni as Ophelia sing sadly and rip out her hair in her madness after the death of her father is both terrifying and heartbreaking. My heart dropped as I watched Laertes come to the realization that his vibrant sister was gone forever.

Aside from the acting, the incredible set design by Paul Wills, and the music,dancing, and drumming keeps the audience enthralled in this West-African state of Denmark. This Hamlet feels at once contemporary and incredibly timeless. The play’s the thing … and you, much like our protagonist Hamlet, will be quite mad if you miss this production.

Royal Shakespeare Company’s Hamlet runs through May 6th at the Eisenhower Theater of The Kennedy Center

 

Photo: Courtesy of  Little Fang
Photo: Courtesy of Little Fang

Taylor Mac’s A 24-Decade History of Popular Music

As a disco ball dropped down from the theater ceiling, an 80s slow jam started to play and couples all around the room could be seen doing that awkward yet sweet middle school slow dance. The catch? We were in the middle of a performance at the Kennedy Center on Tuesday night when our wildly hilarious and eccentric host, Taylor Mac – dressed in drag with giant wings – instructed the audience to get out of our seats and dance with someone of the same sex.

It would be fair to say that most of us were a little uncomfortable – including me – having wrapped my arms around a short woman I had never even met. But Mac was not making us dance with strangers just for the fun of it; judy (sic, Mac’s chosen gender pronoun) had a point to make. It’s the same point that Mac’s whole show A 24-Decade History of Popular Music (1776-2016) was trying to make: the history of the U.S. has long seen those who are different – whether they are LGBTQ, black, Muslim, women, etc. – be shunned and belittled and has seen people look away at the things that make them uncomfortable. Mac’s performance shows you just how ridiculous some of these beliefs from our forefathers’ time are, how some of those beliefs are still around and encouraging the audience to face those things that make us uncomfortable.

A 24-Decade History in its original form is four, six-hour “Chapter” performances: 24 hours for the 24 decades the U.S. has existed with Mac singing a popular song from each year since 1776. In October 2016, Mac even performed the show for an impressive 24 hours nonstop (that’s 246 songs). While the show has been performed in many different configurations, we saw the abridged version, part of the Kennedy Center’s DIRECT CURRENT celebration – a 15-day lineup of shows through March 19 that highlight contemporary culture and looks to build up young, new audiences. Part drag show, part comedy show and part concert, Mac provides full theatrics with numerous costume changes, a full backing band and several audience participation activities (the aforementioned dancing with strangers), all while singing track selections ranging from “Amazing Grace” to Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam.”

My personal favorite, however, was Mac’s rendition of David Bowie’s “Heroes” that saw a marching band come through the back doors of the theater onto the stage. While each song was sung by Mac with fervor, “Heroes” somehow started big and ended even bigger with all the joy of the end of a movie where the guy gets the girl or the home team wins the championship.

Other standout moments included Mac’s costume stylist Machine Dazzle dancing across the stage at various intervals, guitarist Viva DeConcini slaying the guitar, selected males carrying Mac around like royalty and being serenaded to “Only You” and so many more that it would be impossible to list all the moments that stuck in my brain. And in that way, Mac was truly a success, as no one will ever forget a performance like A 24-Decade History and the lessons we learned while swaying with strangers in a sea of slow dancing.

To learn more about Taylor Mac and his numerous projects, click here.

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

Photo: www.kennedy-center.org
Photo: www.kennedy-center.org

American Ballet Theatre’s ‘Swan Lake’ Released an Ocean of Emotion

When I look at something beautiful, I tend to cry. I don’t overtly sob (I’m not that hormonal), but a silent tear or two will stream down my face as if it’s nothing at all to wash away the meticulously placed blush from my cheeks.

And it is something. My Naked blush/bronzer/highlight trio was not cheap.

The infamous trickle of tears happened when I first saw the Washington Monument upon moving to DC last June.

It happened when I saw Michelle Obama’s face at Trump’s inauguration, because she was throwing so much glorious shade.

And it happened last night in the opera house at the Kennedy Center, beneath the most gorgeous ceiling I have ever seen, when I witnessed the pure beauty that was the American Ballet Theatre’s Swan Lake.

Last night was my first time in the Kennedy Center, and my first time viewing Swan Lake since I was a dancer in my youth. Let me start by saying I was blown away as soon as I entered the building.

The opera house was stunning, with ruby red carpeted floors and golden detailing on nearly every surface. I knew from the get-go that I was in for a treat.

After I took my seat and fixed my eyes to the stage, I noticed a curtain made of scrim, and as it lifted after the prologue, the immaculate world where the dancers would play for the next two hours was revealed.

The ballet opened with Princess Odette (Hee Seo, South Korea) falling under the spell of an evil sorcerer, von Rothbart (Patrick Ogle/Thomas Forster), and accompanied by quite the impressive orchestra.

I have always been a fan of live orchestras during performances, and Swan Lake was no exception. The infamous score came to life in new ways under the direction of the conductors, and despite being familiar with the music already, it seemed as if I was hearing it for the first time.

The ballet continued with Prince Siegfried (Cory Stearns, New York), coming of age and searching for the woman he will marry, as he will soon become king. Despite the Queen Mother’s (world-renowned Nancy Raffa) best efforts to introduce him to eligible princesses, Siegfried escapes the party, where he ventures into a moonlit clearing in the woods and first discovers Princess Odette, who miraculously transforms from swan to princess right before his eyes.

Cory Stearns’ portrayal of Prince Siegfried was lovely to watch, and I found myself wanting more and more. He glided effortlessly through the air with every leap. Aside from his technique as a dancer, Stearns’ theatrical performance was pure. He reacted in a manner that was noticeably honest, without overdoing it as one could find to be easy to do in playing for such a large audience. He was a pleasure.

Act two was a tale of forbidden love laced with the undeniable beauty of both Stearns’ and Seo’s craft and onstage chemistry. It was clear the two longed to be together, but the passion came to a halt when von Rothbart returned whisking Princess Odette away into the darkness, and the audience was left to ponder both fates as we broke for a 20-minute intermission.

When we returned for act three, we saw Siegfried’s struggle to choose a wife at the ball, until Odile, the Black Swan (Seo), arrived and seduced him, and very well, I might add. He agreed to marry her, only to be fooled after he saw an image of Princess Odette grieving at the castle doors.

Hee Seo’s portrayal of the Black Swan was breathtaking. There was an added layer of personality thrown into the mix that we didn’t see as Odette. She was still poised and elegant, but her eyes were razor sharp and focused on her prey as she floated weightlessly around the stage, landing every jump and sticking every pirouette in perfect harmony with the orchestra. She would flash a conniving smile when she locked eyes with the prince. It was captivating and one of my favorite moments from Seo.

After rushing to the lake after Odette, and in a heartbreaking conclusion, Siegfried and the princess realized their fatal end as being the only way the two can be together as lovers. Because of Siegfried’s promise to marry Odile, Odette was forever doomed to remain a swan unless she took her own life. Siegfried promised to take his too if it meant the two can be together, and the curse would be broken.

The lovers took their owns lives, and the ballet ended with the two reuniting in life after death in what was the prettiest death scene I have ever witnessed.

The audience roared with applause and countless “Bravos!” And it was well-deserved. The principal dancers blew it out of the water, but the company as a whole was unstoppable throughout the duration of the ballet.

Although this was a grand production, it was the smaller gestures I appreciated the most, such as a slight smile from a dancer or a flick of the wrist or shake of the hips to signify the ruffling of a swan’s feathers. Every detail was rehearsed and perfected.

American Ballet Theatre’s Swan Lake at the Kennedy Center is not to be missed. Performances run through this Sunday, January 29. Tickets start at $59. For more information, visit www.kennedy-center.org.

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