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

Photo: Exploded View
Photo: Exploded View

Exploded View’s Anika thinks Berlin Winters are Rubbish

Anika’s (Annika Henderson) voice sits somewhere between Nico and Sibylle Baier: it has a classic, melancholic singer-songwriter bent. Unlike those two singers, she’s not from Germany, but from Britain, which may not be so apparent in the way she sings. The accent certainly comes across when she speaks. 

“Mexico City is the best place to escape the Berlin winters,” she says. “Berlin winters are rubbish.”

I’ve listened to her music since high school, when her solo record Anika (2010), was in a stack of CDs my sister gave me. To hear her voice on the other end of the phone tripped me up for a moment.

Since 2016 Anika’s been making music as Exploded ViewThe Exploded View material is quite different from the earlier stuff I grew up listening to, as her old music came prominently from a singer-songwriter tradition even if the instrumentation was post-rock.

For Exploded View, the post-rock experimentation comes to the forefront in both the sound and song structure, and folk comes through as an accent.

While Anika is based in Berlin, Germany her bandmates Martin Thulin and Hugo Quezada are based in Mexico City, Mexico.

Talking to both Thulin and Anika on the phone, I try to ask how they manage the distance. The answer isn’t clear, although I get a quick response as to why they play together. Anika tells me she was never able to find a band she really clicked with in Berlin, “surprisingly” she adds.

“It never felt right,” she says. “I’m looking for people who are just searching, who are not looking to create the next best record. People who are just looking to make music and see what happens. Music for me is about life and growth and it’s not about producing a record that will sell.”

When she went to Mexico to tour her solo material she found Thulin and Quezada while looking for a backing band. One day in rehearsal they were held up by a late fourth band member and decided to have a jam session while they waited. When they listened back on their jam session recording, they liked what they heard and Exploded View was born.

Fast forward to today and Exploded View is touring their latest release Obey, including the band’s first North America tour, which Thulin and Anika are excited for.

One of her favorite things about playing a show is seeing that spark of inspiration on a listener’s face, and she loves playing for those who are equally interested in learning. She says she doesn’t just perform for those who stand there cross-armed and “waiting for you to fail.”

“If you you look at a tree and think ‘oh I’ve already seen that before,’ that’s a sad attitude,” she says. “Of course you [have], but also you haven’t. They’re each their own.”

Exploded View plays with Brooklyn-based Forma and DC’s Luna Honey at DC9 Sunday, November 11 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $15.

DC9: 1940 9th St. NW, DC; 202-483-5000; www.dc9.club

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

Films Across Borders

Stage and Screen Events: November 2018

Through Wednesday, November 21

Films Across Borders: Stories of Women
As a frequent moviegoer, even I find it difficult to keep up with foreign films. Unless they are slated to be acknowledged during award season or carry a tremendous amount of hype, they are often lower on my priority list when it comes to choosing which film off the marquee to watch. However, the American University’s Films Across Borders series is an opportunity to head to several venues and appreciate a variety of stories. This year’s theme, Stories of Women, will showcase an assortment of films representing women from diverse backgrounds and represent the importance of “gender-balanced perspectives and parity” in our society. The festival includes screenings, panels and Q&As on a number of topics within the theme. Times, dates and ticket prices vary. Films Across Borders: Various locations around the DMV; www.american.edu.soc/films-across-borders

Through Sunday, December 2

King John
No folks, we’re not talking about the King in the North, John Snow. Rather, we’re talking about a different King John, and one who has less accolades than the bastard child of Winterfell. Folger’s King John takes audiences back to the days of the Magna Carta and represents a sly look at the politics of Old England. This winter, director Aaron Posner brings this chaotic combination of ambition and boneheaded decison-making to life.  Various dates. Tickets $42-$79. Folger Theatre: 201 East Capitol St. SE, DC; www.folger.edu

Saturday, November 3 – Sunday, December 2

As You Like It
After several people are forced from their homes, they escape into the forest of Arden, a place where you get lost in nature while simultaneously finding yourself. However, this is a Shakespeare retelling so the story encompasses themes like families at each other’s throats and lovers forced to feign the opposite. The New York Times declared this Shaina Taub and Laurie Woolery musical adaptation as one of the best shows in 2017, and the refugees who form this new community among the trees are all set to blow DC away in its District debut. Various dates, times and ticket prices. The Keegan Theatre: 1742 Church St. NW, DC; www.keegantheatre.com

Friday, November 9 – Saturday, November 10

Malavika Sarukkai: Thari – The Loom
Making her return to the Kennedy Center after a five-year hiatus, Malavika Sarukkai brings her mastery of the classical Indian dance style bharatanatyam with her latest production, Thari – The Loom. This performance is said to investigate the scope and legacy of the sari, a hand-woven garment famously from India, and how the changing mythos of the symbol “becomes a metaphor for life itself.” Show is at 7:30 p.m. on both days. Tickets $49. The John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts: 2700 F St. NW, DC; www.kennedy-center.org

Tuesday, November 13

Story District Presents: Cat-Headed Baby
Looking for a unique twist on storytelling? Then search no further, as Storytelling District continues its monthly tradition of having locals stand on a stage while delivering unusual tales about superstitions, hoaxes and other oddities. Though it sounds silly, these provocative narratives are more than just random thought bubbles from your DMV neighbors, as each seven-minute performance contains an original true story that aligns with the theme of the month. As if I need to sell you on it any harder, The Washington Post deemed Story District the “gold standard in storytelling.” Doors at 6:30 p.m., show at 7:30 p.m. Tickets $20. Black Cat: 1811 14th St. NW, DC; www.blackcatdc.com

Wednesday, November 14

Limetown Panel
A fictional town covered by a fictional version of NPR, this live podcast offers a true-crime story with a layout similar to Serial with subject matter inspired by The X-Files. Somewhere in Tennessee, 300 people go missing, and American Public Radio’s Lia Haddock is on the scene detailing its happening. This panel discussion will feature creators Zack Akers and Skip Bronkie, with author of their new prequel novel Cote Smith, as the trio discusses the new story involving Haddock’s intriguing past. Panel begins at 7 p.m. Tickets $16-$30. Sixth & I: 600 I St. NW, DC; www.sixthandi.org

Wednesday, November 14 – Sunday, December 16

Cry It Out
Parenthood is hard, sure, but you know what else is hard? Making friends as an adult. Without the built-in friend finder of school, navigating life as an adult takes up a ton of time, which sort of puts making new acquaintances on the backburner, and when you add children on top of all that – whew, good luck. Essentially this is where the characters in Studio Theatre’s Cry It Out find themselves, as two young couples separated by a few yards between their homes luckily strike up a friendship, bonding over all the tougher aspects of raising children. This comedy is sure to be a relatable story that examines parenthood and class in the U.S. Various dates, times and ticket prices. Studio Theatre: 1501 14th St. NW, DC; www.studiotheatre.org

Sunday, November 18

Frankenstein
Humans have always had a fascination with science fiction. Before we could even fly country to country or state to state, there were books about alien visitation, trips to the moon and time travel. With artificial intelligence and super computers constantly in the news (shout out to Skyne…I mean Google) one of the original fictional creators of artificial intelligence was Mary Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein, a scientist who sewed different body parts he found in the cemetery together to create a humanoid. However, the doctor was appalled by his creation and fled the scene only to be followed and accosted by his monster, and no, we’re not talking the bolts in the neck one from the Munsters. This play pays homage to Shelley’s novel, which tackled a plethora of ethical questions that our modern science is only now beginning to encounter in the real world. Talk about timely. Doors open at 7 p.m. Tickets $44. George Mason Center for the Arts: 4400 University Dr. Fairfax, VA; http://cfa.gmu.edu

Wednesday, November 21

Jackson Galaxy
The Cat Daddy himself is making his way to DC. Most famously known as the host of Animal Planet’s My Cat From Hell, Galaxy has also penned two New York Times bestsellers and has more than 25 years of experience working with our feline friends. For this presentation at the famed Lincoln Theatre, Galaxy will divulge how he found his mojo and how to get to know your cat, and the “raw cat” (aka his ancestor who was totally not a social kitty.) Doors open at 6:30 p.m. Tickets $45-$60. The Lincoln Theatre: 1215 U St. NW, DC; www.thelincolndc.com

Photo: Courtesy of Jamal Gray
Photo: Courtesy of Jamal Gray

Movers & Shakers: Who’s Behind the Music in DC?

DC’s music scene is an organism in flux. This is not so surprising, with several new venues recently opening – and several closing – and despite the city’s increasing population, it remains a relatively transient town. Still, DMV artists are finding more ways to build community and establish legitimacy on local and national levels, but not without hard work from some individuals behind the music who truly believe in the strength of the District’s musical past and the potential for its future. We caught up with a few of the movers and shakers making an impact on DC music.

Jamal Gray

DC native Jamal Gray is a musician-curator-organizer who founded the Uptown Art House – a creative incubator and activism-focused artists’ space “without borders” – and leads the avant-garde jazz troupe Nag Champa Art Ensemble. His projects often bridge the underground and the conventional in an effort to elevate the whole of DC’s music scene.

On Tap: How did you first come to be involved with music culture in DC?
Jamal Gray:
My personal connection with music is through my parents. They met working at WPFW 89.3FM, which is a local radio station in DC that focuses on jazz and public affairs. Both of my parents are from DC. My dad was a record producer and [eventually] started his own label. I’ve been around music my whole life.

OT: What major changes have you seen in the local music scene in the past 10 years?
JG:
Once things moved more toward [the] Internet, people were moving less toward trying to cultivate a scene and more toward trying to cultivate a persona. That’s where I think we are in music in general, and DC’s just a microcosm of that. A lot of people are spending a lot of energy to cultivate their persona.

OT: With your own music, the collaborations you work on and the performers you support, it seems you’re trying to counterbalance that and keep the “real” in the music. Is this your goal?
JG:
If I’m going to support an artist, I want to know what they’re going to add to the conversation. It’s got to be a dialogue, not a diatribe. You should create from yourself, but not only for yourself. You have to be able to jump inside people’s worlds, especially if you want to make an impact. That’s part of what I’m trying to do – push things forward. Art is always a vehicle for progress or change, because it’s usually the artists that will take that risk before other people. That’s what I’m about.

OT: What do you think DC music needs to push forward?
JG:
There’s a real conversation that has to happen between the artists themselves so we are held to a certain standard, and between the venues and artists so everyone can feel appreciated. A lot of people who want to leave [DC] say there’s no industry here [and] no infrastructure for musicians. I want our community to be globally minded but locally based. People passing through need to know you can come and see good music happening. We need documentation for it – platforms that are invested in the future of it. I’m an advocate, but I’m an artist too. The best thing I can do is continue to push forward good content and experiences, and help build spaces to incubate toward the next level.

OT: What projects are you most excited about right now?
JG:
We are working on a new Nag Champa record. I’m also really excited about my radio show on Full Service Radio called “Late Bloom” that airs live every Wednesday from 7-8:30 p.m. We feature a mix of new and obscure music, and interviews with locally based artists working to make global impact. The Uptown Art House project is continuing, but as a creative agency for artists, musicians, curators and activists.

Listen to Gray weekly on Full Service Radio at www.thelinehotel.com/full-service-radio and check out Nag Champa and Uptown Art House on Facebook: @nagchampadc and @uptownarthouse.


Photo: Sam Segal

Photo: Sam Segal

Peter Lillis

Not only did Peter Lillis help establish Songbyrd Record Cafe and Music House’s success as an intimate venue in Adams Morgan focused on local musicians, he’s part of the team behind independent record label Babe City Records, a member of DC-based band Den-Mate, and the marketing manager for Union Stage.

On Tap: You have been involved in many facets of the DC music scene for several years and taken on new roles as the energy has shifted. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Peter Lillis
: In the past five years and perhaps longer, DC was the center of the DIY music and house show scene and really focused on doing shows in nontraditional venues. I got involved around that time, around 2014 or so. I began throwing shows at similar places. I was inspired by the idea of active participation. I got disillusioned by the idea of covering music and wanted to be in bands and put on shows. It took me a few years of doing that to realize I wanted more, and the DIY community was a great opportunity to dive into that. I was inspired by everybody’s personal and communal interest [in] bettering themselves and the scene. There was an exciting movement happening.

OT: Do you think the DIY era is over?
PL:
There’s still a good amount of it, but DC is not getting more affordable. The spaces that were central to that experience are gone now – torn down or renovated and sold. But for me and my colleagues at the other collectives, everyone seems to have upped their game. DC has done a better job of investing in nightlife and entertainment options for people. There’s a lot of money and young people and new options for performers. The Wharf where I am now with Union Stage is a great space for people to play. Songbyrd does great work engaging locals. [Dangerously Delicious Pies] is open on H Street. The house show arc was necessary to get us here. We all got the practice we needed to develop empathy for promoters and bookers. The DIY concept doesn’t need to be confined to people’s homes; it’s not mutually exclusive from commercial venues. The fact that they are going away just means we’ve built something that people want, which is encouraging.

OT: You organize industry panels and meetups. What is the purpose of those?
PL:
When we opened Union Stage, [owners] the Brindley brothers had a very welcoming attitude, which is kind of rare. We concocted this effort to directly engage the music community and see what it would bring. The central idea is to give people a platform to meet and talk and see how everybody works together. The music industry is very connections-based. That can make it difficult for people who don’t have the knowledge or resources to be involved but want to be and are talented and motivated. The meetups and platforms we’ve organized have that in mind. It’s been successful so far, [but] there’s a lot of work left to be done. The city could support local arts in a more effective way. The only way we can communicate that to decision-makers is through collective action, so this is a small effort at doing that. We give people the initial tools and contacts to grow their business while keeping it concerted and learning from the community itself, and we can get feedback and learn how to run our business better.

OT: What do you think is unique about DC as a local musician?
PL:
It’s a somewhat small city but [a] very big media market, so it’s somewhat easy to navigate compared to some of the more entertainment industry cities where there’s a ton of noise. You can meet people and there’s a scrappy attitude, but being the city it is, we get more eyeballs and cred than a city of a similar size in a different location. [It’s] advantageous for local artists to live in our area and be able to play in Baltimore, Philly, NYC, Richmond – you can play any of those places and still be home in your bed at the end of the night. People need to get out of town and start evangelizing the community here, and that’s the only way we’ll become effective on the national, international level.

Join the DC Music Industry group on Facebook to get involved in Lillis’s community efforts. Learn more about Union Stage at www.unionstage.com and Babe City Records artists, including Den-Mate, at www.babecityrecords.com.


Photo: Alicia Raft

Photo: Alicia Raft

Sasha Lord

Sasha Lord has promoted, partnered and worked with numerous groups in the DMV. She has also managed tours for several artists, booking shows abroad and traveling with the musicians. Now based in Brooklyn, Lord is currently GM of the Market Hotel (Brooklyn) and Trans-Pecos (Queens) while remaining the primary booker at Connecticut Avenue-based music venue Comet Ping Pong.

On Tap: How did you get into the business of artist promotion?
Sasha Lord:
I have a background in community outreach and working with at-risk populations. I worked for an outdoor leadership school and I’ve always been community-oriented. In college, I worked at Black Cat and then got the opportunity to [work] at Comet Ping Pong. I also have a background working with people with disabilities, and that’s why I tried to make Comet as accessible as possible. I’ve combined my professional background and community work with my love of music to make a diverse, accessible venue for all ages.

OT: What did you see at Comet, in terms of artists and audiences?
SL:
Comet is beautiful because it’s very much a community. We have a variety of promoters so we have a broad range of types, ages, genres and diversity in music – and that makes it a unique space. My shows will sometimes have an older demographic [while] other promoters have a younger [demographic]. It’s very well-rounded and community-oriented.

OT: What should venue operators and promoters do to elevate DC as city where musicians want to come but also pay attention to the artists who are already here?
SL:
Taking care of artists and being mindful of their needs is crucial. Over the past 10 years booking [at] Comet, I was able to go to festivals [and] tour with people. I curated a showcase at South by Southwest, helped with two events [at] Art Basel and [participated in] art fairs. I toured so I could be a better promoter. It made me realize that Comet is a really good venue, and we’re really good to artists. It made me understand what touring artists go through when they arrive. Maybe they’re exhausted, maybe they spent their last $20 on the Baltimore [Harbor] Tunnel, maybe they’re hungry [and] slept on someone’s floor. I didn’t think about those things until going on tour. I realized how hard it is. So when bands show up, be mindful. I feel for the most part, most of the venues in DC do a good job at that.

OT: Now that you are based in New York, how will you stay involved in DC music?
SL:
I have shows booked at Comet through April and plan to continue to book there. A lot of bands reach out to me now wanting to be booked in both NYC and DC, and it’s awesome that I’m able to do that. I recently booked [80s indie band Beat Happening’s] Calvin Johnson in DC and New York, and have some other things in the works for the next year. I’m cultivating and curating in both cities, so bands will know that they’ll get a good experience at [multiple shows]. I’m not leaving DC. I’m hoping to contribute even more by bridging the cities together.

Read about Lord and her projects at www.sashalordpresents.com and learn more about Comet Ping Pong’s winter lineup at www.cometpingpong.com.

Photo: Courtesy of Ezra Furman
Photo: Courtesy of Ezra Furman

Ezra Furman is Excited About Lunch

Tomorrow, punk-ebullient artist Ezra Furman comes to U Street Music Hall with ex-Deerhunters and ex-Carnivores, Omni. Furman is still touring his 2018 record Transangelic Exodus, a work that rings of inspirations like Woody Guthrie and Bruce Springsteen. However, his take on Americana is queer and it’s the good time we’ve been looking for.

Furman played a wild show at Rock & Roll Hotel last March, one of the funnest I’ve been to, so I jumped at the chance to talk to him, even if only via email. Furman was a fun pen pal though, and I got to ask him about his latest single, a cover of Vampire Weekend’sUnbelievers,” touring life and what excites him (SPOILERS: LUNCH! Also, Furman’s “Unbelievers” kicks the ass out of Vampire Weekend’s original. The difference is that you can tell he’s having a ball.)

On Tap: Tell me about this current tour. How long have you been on the road?
Ezra Furman: Technically this is day three of the tour. But to accurately answer this question, I have to tell you about how tours seem to run together. One ends and you begin preparing for the next one immediately. One begins and it seems like the last one never ended. This is day three of the tour, but also I have been touring for 12 years. It’s a ragged and beautiful tour. It’s a lot of work and often incredibly satisfying, especially in the evenings.

OT: Is the upcoming show the only one you’re going to play with Omni?
EF: No! We started on tour with them last night in Columbus, Ohio. They are playing all eight of these shows with us and I’m delighted about it because they are quite good.

OT: How did you get connected with Omni?
EF: Someone recommended them, can’t remember who. I’d heard of them but not heard their music. I loved it, they were down to do some shows together, and lo, a terrible beauty is born.

OT: Let’s talk about your latest release, because I didn’t see a Vampire Weekend cover coming. Why this song?
EF: First of all, because it’s a very good song from one of my favorite albums of the decade. Second of all, because it’s a song in dialogue with religion, which I am always in dialogue with. I have such a push and pull with my religion, Judaism. I love it so much and find it so fascinating, and also, it often bites, burns [and] rejects me. It’s an untrained dog made of fire. Sometimes I just feel like screaming about it, which this cover gave me the chance to do. Third of all, I could hear the punk song buried inside the Vampire Weekend version. I wanted to dig it up because lately I am persistently in the mood to play punk rock.

OT: Do you play covers often?
EF: Yes. I love playing great songs. Also, I think it helps a band become better – to have some standard of excellence, to study great songs, to see how they’re made and what makes them work. We’ve covered tons of artists: Beck, Kate Bush, the Velvet Underground, Arcade Fire, Little Richard, Madonna [and] more. It’s delicious.

OT: How do you incorporate covers into your practice?
EF: We rehearse them and create our own version and then we play them live. Once in a while we record them. We made an EP of covers a couple of years ago called Songs By Others. I think it’s only on vinyl – there might be CDs. It might not be online.

OT: Do know Vampire Weekend personally? Hear any feedback from them?
EF: My old band and I (Ezra Furman and the Harpoons) heard about them in 2007; they were a college band like us and we were talking about doing shows together. We were messaging on MySpace, I think. Anyways, they put out their first album and blew up so we never played with them. I met them briefly some time around then and we’ve sent some Twitter messages, but we don’t know each other. I heard they liked our cover.

OT: Are you working on any more music?
EF: Always. Been writing and recording punk songs. [It’s] very satisfying. I hope to show you them sometime.

OT: Let’s talk a little about DC. I saw you last time you were at Rock & Roll Hotel. Is there anything that you like to do while in town?
EF: We tend to blow in to town, sound check, have dinner and play music, and then blow on toward the next show. We don’t get a lot of time. But last time we had a night off. It was Shabbat, and I went to services and dinner at a great Jewish congregation called Sixth & I. I highly recommend it, if that’s your sort of thing or even if it might be.

OT: What have you got coming up that you’re excited about?
EF: I’m having lunch really soon and I’m so excited. I get excited about very mundane things sometimes. They’re just amazing.

Furman will be at U Street Music Hall Thursday, November 1 at 7 p.m. Tickets $18. Don’t miss the party. And don’t miss post-punk trio Omni either.

U Street Music Hall: 1115 U St. NW, DC; 202-588-1889; www.ustreetmusichall.com

Photo: Jim McGuire
Photo: Jim McGuire

Banjo Legend Béla Fleck Part of Terrific Trio

With 16 Grammy Awards to his name, Béla Fleck is not your average banjo player. He’s known throughout the world for redefining the instrument, and sits proudly in the American Banjo Hall of Fame alongside notable players like Jim Henson, Steve Martin and Pete Seeger.

“I first heard the banjo on the Beverly Hillbillies theme,” Fleck says about the bluegrass stylings of banjoist Earl Scruggs, who famously played the tune. “Something about the sound hooked me as a little kid, and then my grandfather unexpectedly got me one just before high school. I became obsessed and still am.”

In 1973, Fleck began at New York City’s High School of Music and Art where he studied the instrument seriously. It didn’t take him long to discover he’d play the banjo for the rest of his life.

“I took no steps to do anything else once I got into it, so there was no escape,” he continues. “No colleges were submitted to, I trained for no jobs. I just came out of high school and right into bands. I was fortunate that my mom was surprised and distracted with a new baby when I was a senior in high school, otherwise I never could have gotten away with it.”

His group Béla Fleck and the Flecktones have been touring for 30 years and have released a plethora of music, most famously, the landmark three-disc Little Worlds. Recently, Fleck also moved into the teaching side, inspiring future youngsters to pursue the instrument professionally.

“I’ve just returned to teaching after not doing it for many years. I just hosted my first banjo camp  The Blue Ridge Banjo Camp – and it went very well, with 100 students.”

On November 10, Fleck will join forces with bassist Edgar Meyer and tabla performer Zakir Hussain for a trio performance presented by Washington Performing Arts at GW’s Lisner Auditorium. While each member of the group is expected to play some solo pieces, Fleck notes there won’t be any individual sets as they’ll perform as a band.

“We are adding a wild card this time: an incredible bansuri player named Rakesh Churasia. The music will be sometimes beautiful and sometimes very exciting. There will be a strong groove, with Zakir’s incredible percussive abilities, and a lot of melody and warmth coming from Edgar’s bowed bass and the rich sounds of the flute. And I’ll be fitting my banjo in there somewhere in the middle.”

The trio has known each other for awhile and play together periodically.

“Rakesh is new to the group, but Edgar and I go way way back, and Zakir and Edgar and I go back 10 years or longer. We got together to create a triple concerto to celebrate the opening of the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, home of the Nashville Symphony. After that, we loved playing together and toured quite a bit with the trio.”

They even found time to record The Melody of Rhythm: Triple Concerto & Music for Trio in 2009. The tour marks the first time they’ll reunite on stage since 2013.

“I would say that Edgar and Zakir have both impacted my music making immensely,” he says. “I can learn from everyone, and that always keeps me intrigued and on my toes.”

Once the tour ends in December, Fleck will start performing again with his wife, clawhammer banjoist Abigail Fleck, who recently gave birth to their second child in June. Together, the two won the 2016 Grammy for Best Folk album.

“I have lots of things brewing, too early to say much, except more touring with the Flecktones and Chick Corea. There is something very powerful about the experience of improvising in front of an audience. There are things that I can only pull off in front of a crowd. They are part of the collaboration.”

Béla Fleck, Edgar Meyer and Zakir Hussain will play the Lisner Auditorium on Saturday, November 10 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $40-$50. Learn more about the performance here, and about Fleck here.

Lisner Auditorium: 730 21st St. NW, DC; 202-994-6800; www.lisner.gwu.edu

Photo: Darren Cox
Photo: Darren Cox

Beetlejuice: The Musical! The Musical! The Musical!

It isn’t until the delightfully weird cult classic you can quote in your sleep makes its pre-Broadway debut in your city and the buzz rises to a deafening level that you realize there are thousands, maybe millions, of strange and unusual superfans out there. It’s no surprise that Tim Burton’s iconic, stop-motion aesthetic and penchant for rooting for the underdog resonates with so many of us, but bringing his first successful feature film to the stage as an original musical is indicative of the freelance bio-exorcist’s reach in today’s pop culture landscape.

Beetlejuice: The Musical arrives in the District on October 14 at National Theatre, the second world-premiere production to land at the historic spot in the past year following 2017’s Mean Girls debut. As my fellow Burton nerds and I prep for this epic production, we picked the brain of two-time Tony Award-nominated Alex Timbers (Rocky, Peter and the Starcatcher, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson) about taking the 1988 film to Broadway. Like so many of us, the 40-year-old director grew up watching Beetlejuice and was immediately drawn into Burton’s highly stylized world.

“[Beetlejuice] was the first time we were seeing Tim Burton unleashed, in a way,” Timbers tells me on a recent call. “And like a lot of people, I really connected with this story about a group of outsiders.”

A brief synopsis for those unfamiliar with the film (and if so, please go watch it immediately): a young, very vanilla couple, Barbara and Adam Maitland, are killed tragically in a car accident and get stuck haunting their idyllic Connecticut home and navigating the afterlife, complete with a handbook for the recently deceased that reads like stereo instructions. When my all-time favorite dysfunctional family, the Deetzes, move in (Charles is looking for a respite from NYC living, his wife Delia is repelled by the “giant ant farm” they’ve moved into and their teenage daughter Lydia is the brooding goth kid in all of us), the Maitlands panic and hire the ghost with the most, Betelgeuse (known to clients as Beetlejuice) to scare the disruptive trio all the way back to the big city.

While the Maitlands are the protagonists of the film, Timbers says the musical is centered more on the emotional life of Beetlejuice and Lydia.

“I love that Beetlejuice is cynicism through and through and Lydia is innocence masked in cynicism and sardonic wit. The two of them as foils for each other, I just always responded to that in a big way.”

Tony Award nominee Alex Brightman (Beetlejuice) and Lortel Award nominee Sophia Anne Caruso (Lydia) have been workshopping their starring roles with Timbers for over a year now.

“It’s been amazing to watch their relationship and rapport build throughout the rehearsal process,” the director says of Brightman (School of Rock) and Caruso (Lazarus). “They have a real friendship, but they also are great at teasing each other and getting under each other’s skin, [just like] Beetlejuice and Lydia.”

Timbers is particularly thrilled to have Caruso on the bill. The 17-year-old actress brings an authenticity to the role of Lydia given her age, plus an impressive resume that includes working with Michelle Williams in Blackbird.

The director describes Brightman as legitimately funny, citing his writing credits and improv background among his full range of talents, and feels the pair’s chemistry is exactly what’s needed for Beetlejuice to succeed onstage.

“Musical theatre has a long history of featuring characters that are great conmen or hucksters. Lydia and Beetlejuice are conning each other. The one-upmanship between the two of them is so smart and bold. They’re great musical theatre protagonists.”

The director also points out that because Beetlejuice is such a trickster, it’s a natural fit for him to break the fourth wall and interact with us.

“[Beetlejuice] can talk directly to the audience. We wanted to embrace that. How many films, in their DNA, have a character that is custom-built to lead you through a musical?”

Beyond the production’s expanded focus on Lydia and Beetlejuice, I have all sorts of geeky questions for Timbers about how true to the film the musical will stay – from brilliant one-liners to arguably the most memorable onscreen use of Harry Belafonte songs in film history. He tells me that he has high expectations for maintaining the wit and edge of Burton’s flick; he’s acutely aware that more outré films adapted for the stage can sometimes soften up, and he assures me that isn’t going to happen.

“The script obviously lines up with a lot of the story from the movie, but it also takes its own turns and surprises. We haven’t felt beholden to delivering the dialogue from the film. The writers have smartly paid homage to the things that hopefully you’ll want [to see], but they’ve definitely created their own piece of art.”

This sentiment expands beyond the script to the original score by Eddie Perfect (King Kong). Burton is famous for collaborating with composer Danny Elfman on almost all of his films, and Timbers says there are little nods to his signature sound throughout the musical.

“Eddie’s been really smart in paying tribute to the Elfman-esque sounds from the movie that you expect, love and associate with Beetlejuice, and also a little bit of the Caribbean nods that you hear in [Belafonte’s] ‘Banana Boat Song (Day O)’ and ‘Jump in the Line.’ It’s got the things you’ll expect, and then keeps carrying it forward to another level.”

Because he mentions “Day O,” I of course have to ask if the famous dinner scene will be included (for those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about, all you need to know is that it involves a hilariously choreographed calypso dance and surprise shrimp hands). He says it will, and we move on after (a few) exclamations of happiness from my end of the line. Perfect’s score allows the audience to go into the interior life of the characters, Timbers says, giving them new depth.

“We often say in theatre that a song functions in the same way as a closeup in a movie. [Eddie’s] done a great job of balancing the expectations one has for the sonic world of that [with] those elements people are going to love and expect, and then tearing off and creating a larger sonic world as well to voice these characters.”

Another driving force behind Burton’s work is the visual world he’s created. The musical’s creative team is working to draw from the director’s aesthetic rather than emulate it, giving the production an expanded palette and originality. Timbers says the team has been trying to push into “what the theatrical equivalent of the DIY, handmade Burton style that was so surprising and became so quickly iconic” is without saying, “We need to absolutely recreate this dress or that piece of wallpaper.”

“We’re definitely trying to think of what serves the theatre piece, but we’re embracing [Burton’s] oeuvre because we love it as much as the audience does.”

One optic element Timbers gives me a sneak peek of is the puppets created by designer Michael Curry (The Lion King).

“He’s created puppets that exist in the netherworld and in the real world that are really striking and surprising, and really have that Burtonian quality. Obviously, we can’t do stop-motion animation, so [we had to think through] the theatrical vocabulary equivalent. To be in the same room as those puppets in this highly visual, imaginative world is going to be one of the most exciting things about the theatre piece at the National.”

Not to mention that Timbers is psyched to house the musical in such a storied theater in the nation’s capital.

“You’re smack dab in the middle of the nation’s history, so to be a part of musical theatre history but also at the heartbeat of the country is really cool.”

Beetlejuice: The Musical runs at National Theatre from October 14 to November 18. Tickets start at $54 and can be purchased at www.thenationaldc.org. Learn more about the Broadway musical at www.beetlejuicebroadway.com and follow National Theatre on Twitter at @NatTheatreDC for updates.

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

Photo: Erin Brethauer
Photo: Erin Brethauer

Behind The Audio: NPR’s Yowei Shaw Brings Mystery to Pop-Up Stage

When Yowei Shaw attended her first Pop-Up Magazine show, she was so intrigued by the unique storytelling platform she knew immediately that she wanted in. The current NPR producer for Invisibilia was a freelancer at the time, so she was well versed in the act of pitching proper stories for the right outlets, but after proposing nonfiction after nonfiction stories, Pop-Up proved to be incredibly selective about its performers. Though Shaw is still figuring out the perfect pitching formula, a story based on her personal experience was approved for the fall 2018 issue and is on its way to Warner Theatre in DC on September 25 (she’s also performing in Portland and Toronto for Pop-Up’s international debut).

“I think it was a little bit of a fluke that I got through,” Shaw jokes, but as she describes her upcoming performance, it has all the traits to captivate a listener and keep them tuned in until the end.

The story is based on, “something strange [that] happened to me years ago when I used to run a tiny DIY youth radio project in Philadelphia,” Shaw says. During a workshop she taught to young people about creating radio stories for their communities, “something went totally haywire with one of my students and I haven’t ever been able to get it out of my head.”

Shaw was able to track down her former student who inspired the story, but that’s all she could share with me. Staying true to her background in long form audio content, the story involves an abridged investigation packaged for her live set. Through collaboration with Pop-Up’s team of the artistic and visually-minded, her story will feature animations and documentary photos.

At the time of our interview, Shaw hadn’t seen all the visual elements to her own story but is excited to see what the team comes up with. “Each story presents different opportunities and I feel like they’re always trying to maximize potential and try different things,” Shaw says.

Pop-Up ensures a diverse lineup, starting with shorter, comedic stories followed by heavier, longer stories toward the end. Shaw’s somewhere in the middle.

Shaw’s seen at least four or five Pop-Up shows now, explaining, “it’s really a magical experience. Every time it comes to town I have to go.” She adds that the Pop-Up team are masters of this new medium of storytelling and she’s very excited to meet her fellow performers and watch their own stories come to life.

“I’m a huge fangirl of [Ann] Friedman (Call Your Girlfriend podcast). I subscribe to her weekly newsletter, so that will be personally gratifying to meet her and see her story. I’m really excited to see what Albert Samaha (BuzzFeed) comes up with, Ed Yong (The Atlantic), really all of them. Almost all the rest of the lineup, these are people I admire and respect very much. It’s very strange to see my name [alongside their’s]!”

The storytelling performances are made up of avid note takers by profession – journalists from all media platforms. But what happens at Pop-Up Magazine’s live shows stays at Pop-Up: with its no-recording policy, audiences are left to sit through these performances and leave with just the memory of a night that draws from all bases of the human experience.

Working mostly in the radio world, Shaw was eager to collaborate with other types of journalists, making her both thrilled and nervous to perform a story live instead of producing it in a studio.

“Listening to the audio is a pretty solitary experience so I don’t know what people think really or how they experience it. I don’t know where people laugh, I don’t know where people sigh… I have performed before just a few times, and there’s a high you get from that kind of audience participation and reaction that you don’t get from putting out a podcast or radio show.”

As for what Shaw has planned next, she will produce a longer version of her performance for NPR’s Invisibilia, returning for its next season in spring 2019. “Imagining the audience and how they react in a much more intentional way, that is something I will be bringing back to my work with Invisibilia. Just the thrill of taking people by the hand and in the story and just giving them a ride and an experience.”

Pop-Up Magazine is coming to DC’s Warner Theatre on September 25. Find ticket information and see who’s performing here.

Warner Theatre: 513 13th St. NW, DC; 202-783-4000; www.popupmagazine.com