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Photo: Ryan Scherb

Amanda Gookin Discusses Forward Music Project

Classical music is not generally associated with political activism, but that’s what Amanda Gookin hopes to change with her Forward Music Project at the Dupont Underground. The project presented by National Sawdust Projects is a part of Kennedy Center’s ongoing DIRECT CURRENT programming celebrating contemporary music. Removing the stuffy connotations of classical music, Forward Music Project seeks to make the genre more accessible and use it as a force for good. Commissioning works from all-female composers, Gookin incorporates music, storytelling, chanting, staging effects and projection art to create a stimulating and immersive experience.

On Tap: Can you tell me about the Forward Music Project and how it came to be?
Amanda Gookin: At the end 2015, I started to incubate the idea of commissioning work by women for solo cello. Women are very sorely underrepresented in classical and contemporary programs, and I just wanted to do my part in helping to contribute [a] new repertoire that could get out there and be performed more often. I also started to ask myself the question of involving identity politics in music and why we don’t use classical music as a platform more often to speak out about human issues, social justice and political issues. I always felt that in music programing, we were conservative and not really taking those kinds of risks. So, as somebody who is very dedicated to social justice and women’s issues and gender issues, and those who might not fall into the binary, I wanted to give a platform for women to not only write music, but also to use it as an opportunity to share their personal story or to highlight an issue they thought was important to them.

OT: What can people expect to see at your performance at the Dupont Underground?
AG: At the Dupont Underground, I will be performing the first iteration of Forward Music Project. It’s a commission project that is ongoing. In the first year, I commissioned seven works and along with that is projection art created by Katy Tucker, who is my collaborator. I will be performing those seven pieces that were in the original show that premiered at National Sawdust in March 2017.

OT: Forward Music Project aims to use classical music as a means of political activism. What kinds of issues do you focus on on?
AG: I think the project is really centered around issues of women and girls, although it is expanding to those who engage with femininity. I would say the pieces, in one form or another, tackle issues of women or girls. Some of the women wrote stories that are very personal to them about their family heritage or being assaulted. Others shared stories that they did not relate to directly, but felt were very important to bring to the table such as sex trafficking and child marriage.

OT: In your TEDx Talk, you mentioned a lack of diversity and a sense of elitism that is present in classical music. Do you think that is changing?
AG: It’s slowly changing. I think the rate at which things are charging is very slow for where we would want to be at this point. A very low percentage of American orchestras are comprised of black and latino musicians. If we consider conductors, an even smaller percentage are people of color or women. So, it is still true that there is a very low representation of diversity in our orchestras. In my TEDx Talk, I was referring to your typical classical music audience. When you conjure an image like that, to me, I conjure an image that is primarily white and privileged. If you go to a great hall, the tickets in the front row are extremely expensive, and just by shear cost, it already signifies that only a certain type of person can sit in these rows.

OT: Your style is far from traditional. You chant, play cello, and incorporate digital elements into your performance. How did discover your unique approach?
AG: I think that was an organic process. I’d always been interested in the avante garde, and I’d always been interested in pushing boundaries. I grew up in a pretty conservative environment, and I was always considered the subversive one, even though I was wearing pearls, khaki and such. There was something edgy that needed to come out. As I started my professional career, I was lost in terms of what I wanted to do. I got into the Mannes School of Music, which is a really great conservatory in New York City. When you graduate from a conservatory, you feel like you have three tracks: you can be an orchestral musician, a teacher or a soloist. I felt like I was destined to do something really different and so I started to experiment a little bit. I saw an ad that was looking for a female violinist or a string player to compose and perform music for an all-female Romeo and Juliet production. So I responded to the ad and met with the director and they hired me. I had to figure out how to write music and how to improvise. That led to writing music for even more plays, and I just kept going. I had to create modern sounds and I was getting experimental with objects to create sounds and other percussion instruments so it wasn’t just me with the cello. I had a tambourine at my foot, a symbol next to me, I had bells, I had bottles that I would scrape.

OT: Have you ever received backlash from classical music purists about your style?
AG: Oh yeah, for sure. I really haven’t received any backlash about my style per se because there’s nothing out of the ordinary in terms of contemporary music. I’ve seen some performances that are even way beyond what I’m doing. I think from a musical standpoint I haven’t received much backlash. I have mostly received backlash about content. Some people have pushed back against classical music or any sort of performance music art classical instrument being political – that we should just perform music for music’s sake, which I think is beautiful too. I don’t always perform music that is heavy handed in social justice, but when I’m very outspoken about it, that’s when some people start to get uncomfortable.

OT: What do you want your audience to take away from this project?
AG: Well, everyone is different and I feel like this conjures a wide range of emotional responses. It depends on how the person is entering into the performance. If it’s somebody who identifies with some of the content of the pieces, I hope that it’s a hand that reaches out and says, “I hear you and I’m here for you. You’re heard and understood. This is a safe space.” If it’s somebody who is super into feminist ideology, I hope they would feel even more empowered to go forward and do more good work. For somebody who may be skeptical, I would hope that they would at least have an open mind and hear the music and maybe begin to think about things they hadn’t considered before. I feel a lot of my project is about planting seeds. While I do receive a lot of great feedback in the moment, I do hope that it has a longer-lasting effect on the listeners.

Check out Amanda Gookin’s Forward Music Project at Dupont Underground on March 29 at 9 p.m. Tickets are $20 and available here. Learn more about Forward Music Project here.

Dupont Underground: 19 Dupont Cir NW, DC; 202-846-1474; www.dupontunderground.org

Photo: Michael Coleman

Barrie Has the Best Time at Ground Control Touring Showcase

The first set I caught upon arrival in Austin, Texas happened to be Barrie, and I regret to inform all the bands I’ll see in the future, that they have big shoes to fill. I’ve only been keen on Barrie for about three weeks now, thanks to the modern miracle of the Spotify algorithm. While I much prefer finding music organically, every now and then the robots (are they robots? What IS “the algorithm?” a column for another day, perhaps) prove that they know me better than I know myself.

I’d been on a kick of lo-fi pop, mostly in an effort to summon the weather I associate with this kind of music: breezy, 70s, driving with my windows down. It must have worked, because I hear back home in DC you’ve had such fortune. You’re welcome. Anyway, back to the music! That’s why we’re all here, right?

Much in the vein of No Vacation or Hana Vu, Barrie bring an 80s bedroom-pop vibe to the ever growing alt-pop table. They’re more than welcome here, though, because their camaraderie oozes from their sound and made me want to go home and hug my friends (hey guys, I miss you!).

Bassist Sabine’s clearly having the best time, riffing her silvery lines off Barrie’s (the band’s namesake) guitar playing. Guess what? Now I’m having the best time too. This band’s proof that with the right group of people you can do anything, and anything can be fun. I hope they stick with each other and keep summoning the feeling of spring weather forever.

Photo: Courtesy of Black Girls Rock!

BLACK GIRLS ROCK! Comes to The Kennedy Center

After more than a decade since its inception, BLACK GIRLS ROCK! has become an unstoppable force in the fight to empower black women in the arts and in the world. In its latest venture, BLACK GIRLS ROCK! has partnered with The Kennedy Center’s Hip Hop Culture to launch the inaugural BGR! Fest beginning on International Women’s Day.

“I think it’s going to be pretty awesome,” says Beverly Bond, founder and CEO of BLACK GIRLS ROCK!. “It’s really a great gathering of black women artists. Black women don’t always get those mainstage platforms. The combination of everybody we have on the show, together in this one space during International Women’s weekend, is going to be a powerful statement.”

The three-day event features a free welcome party with celebrity DJs Mc Lyte and Bond herself, a book talk, panels, a concert with headliner Jazmine Sullivan, DC’s own Maimouna Youssef and more.

“The crazy part is that the panel sold out before the concert,” Bond says. “And Michaela Angela Davis, who is actually one of the panelists, had to stop for a minute and say, ‘You know what? I appreciate that the panel sold out before the concert! Black women are here to fix it!’”

Bond worked closely with The Kennedy Center’s Director of Hip Hop Culture Simone Eccleston while producing BGR! Fest. It wasn’t the first time they’d worked together.

“This is the second touch point with BGR,” Eccleston says. “Back in 2014, the center had a multi-week festival celebrating hip-hop culture known as the One Mic Festival. As part of the three weeks of programming, there was a collaboration with BGR to present Rock Like a Girl.”

After connecting at the One Mic Festival, Eccleston and Bond established a professional relationship and a genuine friendship. It was only a matter of time before they found a mutual cause to bring them together again.

“Within the Hip Hop Culture program, one of our specific areas of focus has been celebrating women,” Eccleston says. “We’ve continued with that throughline over the arc of the season, and it would only be fitting that Beverly Bond be back and for us to have BGR!Fest.”

The timely collaboration between BLACK GIRLS ROCK! and The Kennedy Center on International Women’s Day weekend signifies the recognition of black women and their contributions to arts and society.

“The goal of the program is to provide audiences at large with an understanding of the breadth and depth of the culture and its impacts, not only on contemporary society, but its role in

shaping culture,” she continues. “If we’re talking about communities that have shaped culture and sparked innovation, you cannot have that conversation without having black women at the center of it.”

While the BLACK GIRLS ROCK! organization has achieved great success and popularity, the movement has inspired black women and girls to assert themselves with its now famous namesake phrase.

“I want them to know that black girls rock,” Bond said. “If they’re taking away one thing, it’s to support our art, support our artists and to help elevate our voices.”

Join BRG! Fest at The Kennedy Center on March 10 at 8 p.m. Concert tickets are $59-$119 and available at here. Learn more about BGR! Fest here.

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

Photo: Gian Di Stefano

Kristin Chenoweth Brings Wicked Fun to Strathmore

They say good things come in small packages, and 4-foot-11 dynamo Kristin Chenoweth is a living example that the phrase applies to performers as well. Known for her incredible singing on Broadway, her quirky character roles in movies and on TV, and her oodles of charm in just about every performance she’s ever done, Chenoweth is beloved by people of all ages.

She won a Tony for her performance as Sally Brown in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown in 1999, though she’s best-known for her renowned run as Glinda in the Broadway smash Wicked. Other memorable runs on the Great White Way include roles in The Apple Tree, On the Twentieth Century and Promises, Promises. And there’s no role she hasn’t made a lasting impression with on-screen, from West Wing to Trial & Error to Neil Gaiman’s American Gods.

“I’m very proud of the work I’ve done and have been blessed with some amazing roles,” Chenoweth says. “The critics have always enjoyed these choices and that makes me understand I am on the same planet as everyone else. I know what I think is tasteful and funny and good, and that always seems to line up with them and that makes me happy.”

A veteran of the concert stage, the Tony- and Emmy-winning actress will perform at Strathmore on April 8 with a show any Broadway fan is sure to love.

“This concert is timed really well because my new album will be coming out around Mother’s Day, and I would like to start bringing some songs from that to my shows,” she says. “I don’t have a title yet, but I keep calling it For the Girls. It’s my way of giving myself permission to sing other women artists whose work has inspired me and changed my life musically.”

That means songs from performers like Dinah Washington, Judy Garland, Dolly Parton and Eva Cassidy.

“It’s really going to be a celebration of women. It’s important for me to recognize singer-songwriters like Chely Wright – who is a giant in the country music industry – and there’s an original song I wrote with her that I am excited to play for people.”

There’s a big part of Chenoweth, she says, that wants to be a mentor to younger audiences and teach them about some of these songs and singers who they may not be familiar with. It’s something she realized while doing an episode of Glee.

“Ryan Murphy had me sing ‘Maybe This Time’ from Cabaret, and I just assumed everyone knew that song. But so many people reached out to me on social media asking where the song came from. I just died because these kids don’t know. I want to let them know who came before me and even some who may be younger than I. Just because you like one certain type of music doesn’t mean you can’t research and learn to appreciate others.”

Her concert will also include plenty of Broadway tunes, jazz standards, gospel songs and even opera, plus tunes from her previous release of American Songbook classics The Art of Elegance.

“Of course I’m going to sing ‘Popular’ and some songs that I will never not sing because it’s part of my DNA, but I want to make it a new show every time,” she says.

Another song that’s sure to be on the set list is “Taylor, the Latte Boy” written by Marcy Heisler and Zina Goldrich, which tells the humorous tale of a woman who falls for her barista at Starbucks.

“I was a young Kristin Chenoweth doing Steel Pier at the time [in 1997] and there was a performance honoring Kander and Ebb [a famous songwriting team], and someone handed me this music. Marcy and Zina told me they had been writing the song with me in mind. I was so nervous because the show was the next day and it’s not a short song. I spent the rest of the night learning it, and as I did, I realized this is totally me. I sang it that night and wow, did it go over.”

Soon after, she sang the song on The Rosie O’Donnell Show and it’s been a staple of her performances ever since.

“As artists, we have to recognize and understand that when we don’t sing songs like this, it’s a let down to the audience. I know that because I once saw Barbra Streisand live and she didn’t sing ‘People.’ I learned a lot there.”

The singer is very familiar with Strathmore, having starred in the Music Center’s groundbreaking I am Anne Hutchinson/I am Harvey Milk production in 2016. Currently, she doesn’t have any concrete plans to go back on Broadway. But last October, Chenoweth and her original Wicked costar Idina Menzel reunited for the NBC special A Very Wicked Halloween, and the duo’s magic was reignited on an astounding version of the show’s “For Good.” She has a few things in the fire for 2019 and is looking forward to touring at concert venues around the country when not filming any TV projects.

“Currently, I’m in development season and there are three ideas I have that three different writers have put a treatment to. I’ve fallen in love with all of them, so I do believe I will be doing something new on television soon. I’d rather do something that is me and my taste. I’m always going to choose and do something a little offbeat. That’s who I am.”

A lesson she says she’s been learning over and over in the past year is not being so serious and just enjoying the moment. Last fall, she traveled to Italy and sang a duet with Andrea Bocelli to a pretty famous audience and screwed up a song. She stopped and started over and then just messed up again and decided to cut to the end.

“People were loving it. It reminds you that life isn’t always perfect and in some ways that was my favorite moment of the trip. I am a perfectionist and I can get myself wound up pretty high. I had to laugh, and I did. Sometimes that happens in concerts and I may forget a word and I’ll point it out. I like using those moments to show I am not a robot. I am not autotuned. I am an artist who is real and authentic.”

She promises that people who don’t know who she is when they come in the door at Strathmore will know who she is when they leave.

“I want people to come to this show and be in the moment and enjoy themselves. It’s a treat you give yourself when you do that. We think we’re doing the right thing when we’re worrying about something, but I want people to put all that aside and just go with me on this journey. It will be an extraordinary, fun night.”

Kristin Chenoweth will perform at Strathmore on Monday, April 8 at 8 p.m. Tickets start at $78 and are available at www.strathmore.org.

Learn more about Chenoweth at www.officialkristinchenoweth.com and follow her on Instagram and Twitter @kchenoweth.

The Music Center at Strathmore: 5301 Tuckerman Ln. North Bethesda, MD; 301-581-5200; www.strathmore.org

Photo: Tony Powell

Female-Empowered Vanity Fair on the Complexities of Humanity & Transcendence of Gender

With few exceptions, it’s music to a journalist’s ear when an interviewee says, “You’re asking my favorite question.” But it’s just icing on the cake when your subject is a feminist playwright whose focus is reclaiming female narratives, and you strike a chord that leads to a thoughtful reflection on gender equity in theatre, driving social change through the arts, and breaking down the walls between millennial audiences and the classics.

“I don’t believe that classics deserve to be museum pieces or laid in some beautiful, unmoving grave,” Kate Hamill tells me. “I think they should be able to run around, and we should be able to draw on those altars with crayon and see what they mean to us.”

Hamill’s interpretation of Vanity Fair, on Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Stage through the end of March, is the only female-written stage adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray’s epic 1600-page novel. When she started toying with the idea of reclaiming the 1840s text for a 2018 audience and was told it couldn’t be done, she accepted the challenge head on.

“I’m a bit of a brat,” she says laughing, “so the minute someone says, ‘You can’t do that,’  I’m like, ‘I’m going to do it.’”

The playwright creates a 12-year portal into the lives of friends Becky Sharp and Amelia Sedley, from when they graduate school at 18 to becoming grown women with children at 30. As the pair navigates their own individual paths in climbing the social ladder within a patriarchal society, Hamill tears down the archetypes of good girl versus bad girl and shows audiences that neither woman is perfect nor particularly condemnable. In fact, women are just human beings like everyone else.

“It’s imaginative and a spectacle, but rooted in truth so you’re not left with just a show,” actress Rebekah Brockman, who plays Becky, says of Hamill’s work. “There’s a pulse behind it and human beings behind it.”

Brockman says there’s a gradual grounding of reality that happens over the course of Becky and Amelia’s friendship as the two experience major milestones together, and credits Hamill with giving the characters more depth.

“You can’t be too quick to judge someone because there’s a reason people make bad decisions. There’s a reason people act the way they do.”

Brockman and Maribel Martinez, who plays Amelia, wax philosophical on the topic across the table from me, finishing each other’s sentences as eloquent phrases pour out of them.

“There’s more to be found in humanity,” Martinez says.

“More complexity,” Brockman continues.

The actresses are elated to be working together on a Hamill play, a feeling intensified by the fact that Shakespeare Theatre’s production is truly a feminist work. The director, Jessica Stone, rounds out the powerhouse female talent at the helm of Vanity Fair.

“I do think it’s really heartening that places like Shakespeare Theatre, which is dedicated largely to classical work, is producing so much work directed by women and made by women,” Hamill says.

Brockman and Martinez share the playwright’s vision for shaping their characters to be more multidimensional and creating a storyline that encourages empathy rather than judgment from the audience.

“I wanted to create a play which challenges you over and over again to challenge your own judgment, because I think when you judge these women it says more about you than it does about them,” Hamill says. “It’s really important to bring that story to DC.”

She hopes that by shifting the narrative to focus on how the women’s bond strengthens over time, audiences will see how Becky and Amelia are able to inch toward defeating the patriarchal system they live within. The playwright is also eager to do away with gender constructs onstage; many of her works promote gender fluidity.

“I’m interested in not only breaking down arbitrary gender roles, but also in creating more interesting work for female artists – I’m always happy to see a woman in a man’s role,” she says with a chuckle. “When you’re an actress, it’s nice to be asked to stretch in that way.”

Hamill played Becky in the original production in New York, giving her unique insight into how she envisions the story unfolding onstage. The current leads are in lockstep with the playwright, describing theatre as an agent for change. Martinez and Brockman say the gender switches in the production highlight the theme of fluidity in companionship, in all relationships even, that we all experience when the curtain closes and we return to reality.

The topic that seems to bond these three artists more than any other we cover in what are truly meaningful, fascinating conversations to me as a woman and lover of the arts is female empowerment in theatre; giving women a seat at the table in leadership roles is what will ultimately make change. Hamill notes that though there are statistically more women than men in theatre school, fast-forward 20 years and of those former students, significantly more men are offered lead roles and directorial opportunities.

“I’m not saying every female story filtered through a male gaze is a bad thing, but it’s a problem when that is the only kind of story we’re getting,” she says.

All three women feel the tides are changing, and they’re encouraged and excited. Though the hill is not an easy climb, the top is in sight and it’s women like them who will get us there.

“All of the different voices that the world has to give,” Martinez says with an infectious optimism in her voice, “we need them in higher positions so that it trickles down and we get all the exciting things that theatre can be.”

Catch Martinez and Brockman in Hamill’s Vanity Fair on the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre stage now through Sunday, March 31. Tickets are $49-$135 and can be purchased at www.shakespearetheatre.org. Learn more about the playwright at www.kate-hamill.com.

Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre: 450 7th St. NW, DC; 202-547-1122; www.shakespearetheatre.org

Photo: Kahn & Selesnick

Amanda Palmer Gets Deeply Personal with No Intermission

It’s no surprise Amanda Palmer tweeted a video of Rocky’s training montage from Sylvester Stallone’s franchise. This particular one isn’t the most famous – I think him running up the Philadelphia Museum of Art steps takes the cake – but the “Hearts on Fire”-led video depicts a bearded Rocky running up a mountain, chopping down trees and shouting “Drago!” Palmer isn’t a boxer, and she’s not prepping to rescue the world from communism in a 12-round bout, but she’s a f–king fighter, and she needed a little motivation this morning.

“To be f–king honest with you, that was the first [song] YouTube gave me,” Palmer says with a snicker. “I woke up with my list of sh-t to do rolling through my head, and I had to lift wood because I’m literally living in the [wilderness] and loading up on firewood. I’m training to fight patriarchy. It’s galvanizing me.”

Palmer has been shaking up the music world since 2000 when she and Brian Viglione formed The Dresden Dolls. In the nearly two decades since, she’s produced a variety of music ranging from orchestral mashups to eclectic covers of Radiohead to tributes to David Bowie. With a background in theatre and other forms of performance art, it’s rare that her music stays on the tracks as it typically bleeds into other mediums. Now she’s gearing up for a tour in late March focused on a mixed-medium release titled There Will Be No Intermission, which includes a full-length album, an artbook, videos and live performances with a stop at National Theatre on April 5.

“There was no question I’d take the show on the road,” Palmer says. “I’ve never had a cohesive show; it’s usually been a grab bag. This album, where it came from and what it represents to me, brings with it a kind of accountability where I don’t want to f–k it up. I’ve really had to think hard about how to be a guidance counselor for the audience as far as navigating this material and digesting it.”

Her career is very much built on the personal relationship she has with her audience, and Palmer’s upcoming tour features her most intimate revealings yet with songs about abortion, miscarriages and other powerful vignettes from her life story.

“This record was written in real time and while these things were happening. In a song like ‘Voicemail for Jill,’ I look at it honestly; it took me years to write. I sat down dozens of times, and I found writing about abortion incredibly difficult. You could look at that song and say it took 23 years to write.”

The music on the record and in her performance vacillates from whimsical to serious, dark to witty, political to personal. Despite the wide range of topics and emotions tapped, the piece never feels disjointed and everything is connected.

“You can’t separate the political landscape from the personal experience I’ve had the past few years,” the artist says. “My child was born when Trump became president. I’ll never be able to figure out which was the chicken and the egg, but all those things [led to] a sense of urgency. Even though this is the most personal, honest, inevitable record I’ve made, it feels the most political because the most powerful thing a woman can do right now is tell the truth about an experience.”

The album title represents a clever way of declaring that life never stops. Sometimes there are no breaks in the waves, no pauses for breath and no time to gather yourself in a tough situation. Despite the subtext of the name, the songs are broken up by peaceful interludes of instrumentation.

“There are intermissions – the irony continues,” Palmer says laughing. “They’re the breathing space in between the assaults. I wanted to give the entire album space. I’m really happy; it was a happy accident.”

She did toy with the idea of doing the performance straight through. However, because of the heavy subject matter and emotional relentlessness, she decided to reconsider after a test run where people wandered in and out of where she was rehearsing.

“It’s difficult, and I need to let them leave,” she says candidly. “I’ve tried to address people and no one’s ever angry, but I’ve had to develop a way to warn them about what’s onstage. You don’t go see Halloween 8 and expect a guy without a knife, just like you’re not coming to an Amanda Palmer show and expecting Disney songs and jazz hands.”

Luckily for Palmer, most of her fans are kept up-to-date by the artist herself. She’s constantly finding new ways to interact with the people who have enabled her to be a self-sufficient artist. Through membership platform Patreon and other fundraising methods, she has remained independent as a musician, allowing her art to be beautifully, brutally honest.

“I’ve never separated my evolution as songwriter and performing artist with the conversation I’m having with the rest of the world. If anything, those two things have become intertwined. It’s way less scary. I didn’t want to be an artist separate from a community, behind a wall. I got into making music because I wanted to connect with people.”

Connect with Amanda Palmer at National Theatre on Friday, April 5 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $39-$54 and available at www.thenationaldc.org. Learn more about Palmer and her tour at www.nointermission.amandapalmer.net.

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

Photo: Jeremy Daniel

Finding Neverland at National Theatre Hooks DC with its Cuteness

The talented company behind Finding Neverland is making a short but sweet stop at the historic National Theatre in DC. British playwright and screenwriter James Graham’s work comes to life with charming music, a dash of romance, heaps of comedy and adorable children. Though some theatre-goers may believe this musical focuses solely on the beloved Peter Pan, it’s less about pirates and fairies, and more about the inspiration behind the story’s famous playwright, J.M. Barrie, portrayed by a charismatic Jeff Sullivan.

Sullivan enchants the audience immediately with the opening monologue/introduction in Act I, and his gentleness and playfulness with the young actors is fun to watch. One of the easiest things to enjoy about this show is the connection between Mr. Barrie and widow Sylvia Llewelyn Davies and her four sons.

Sylvia’s son Peter, Barrie’s inspiration for the Peter Pan character, begins as the most mature of his brothers, portrayed as book-smart with a no-nonsense attitude. However, Peter eventually begins to indulge in the silliness that his siblings and Mr. Barrie provide. Collectively, these five characters hammer in the main theme of imagination with the performances of “Believe,” “Play” and the entirety of “The Dinner Party” scene, which gave the audience a good laugh, from the stuffy characters’ behavior to messing with a toupee.

It’d be foolish not to mention one of the musical’s main scene stealers, Charles Frohman, Barrie’s demanding producer, played hilariously and gruffly by Conor McGiffin. McGiffin doubles as Captain James Hook as well – the character who stems from the dark side of J.M. Barrie’s personality. Both characters McGiffin plays are loud, obnoxious and comedic, so all eyes and laughs are on him when he’s center stage.

The Disney magic, if you will, appears through the dreamy production and set design features, such as light projections, shiny fairy dust and twinkling starry nights. Some of J.M. Barrie’s imagination/dream scenes in the musical involved members of the company impressively choreographed in sync with both the music and the projections, which added to the musical’s creative strengths. A favorite subtlety of mine was seeing the cloud scenery change as time went on.

The entire cast is full of bright energy that keeps you smiling  throughout. There’s even a live dog that plays the Llewelyn Davies’ pet who gives the audience “oohs,” “aahs” and “aaws” at every appearance.

In addition to the show being a visual masterpiece, it’s clear the cast means business when it comes to the elegant singing moments, especially Sullivan’s graceful tenor voice married with Ruby Gibbs’ (the female lead character, Sylvia) stunning, lyrical vocals. Even the terribly precious young boys shine in perfect harmony during their performance of “We’re All Made of Stars.”

From the humor to the heart-warming and emotional moments, Finding Neverland is a musical that will resonate with any audience. See the musical at DC’s National Theatre now through Sunday, March 23. Tickets available at www.thenationaldc.org.

National Theatre DC: 1321 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, DC; www.thenationaldc.org

Photo: Courtesy of Tap Dogs Photography

Tap Dogs kicks off US tour with Kennedy Center Performances

Originating in Newcastle, Australia, a steel town outside of Sydney, the Tap Dogs fuses an industrial grittiness and precise choreography. The show has been touring the world since the mid 1990s, and is in the U.S. for the next several months. Justin Myles, one of Tap Dogs’ leads, toured internationally with STOMP for seven years, and has choreographed and performed in numerous settings the world over. Both Tap Dogs and DC are close to Myles’ heart. During a rare bit of downtime, he spoke to On Tap about the show that inspired him to dance professionally – a show so exuberant, so expressive and energetic that performers must wear custom boots because traditional tap shoes cannot handle the intensity of the choreography.

On Tap: You’re from the area, aren’t you? And you’ve performed at the Kennedy Center before, what’s it like?
Justin Myles: I was born in College Park, and moved to southern Maryland as a child. Since then I’ve lived in DC, and in Baltimore for a while. I’ve been travelling since the early 2000s, [so] coming back to DC is great. [The city] has always thrived musically, and it has spread into the dance community. There’s so much history in the Kennedy Center, and it’s always a very awesome time. Audiences in DC are stellar; they’re warm, welcoming and ready to be entertained.

OT: Can you tell me a bit about your role in the show?
JM: I play Rat. He wears a backwards cap, nags the other characters and generally provides some comic relief. We all have our own character roles, extensions of who we are in real life. The whole show has comedy wrapped around it, but at the end of the day, we all go to work. It’s rock meets construction meets tap meets comedy.

OT: What’s the cast like?
JM: The cast is great. It’s half Australian and half American, guys ranging from 21 to 38 years old. We have Tap Dogs’ creator Dean Perry’s son Reed Perry playing the role of The Kid. There’s a variety of experience levels, but an incredible level of energy across the board. [Tap Dogs] is powerful and impactful, people will be blown away.

OT: Tell me about your introduction to the show.
JM: I love the show. I fell in love with the show in my teens, at the point in my life when I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. [Tap Dogs] showed me tap dance can be strong, professional and powerful. It kicked me in the right direction.

I saw [Tap Dogs] on VHS and live. I saw it live and fell in love with it, then I had it on VHS and watched it all the time. I went to New York to audition for the show in my teens, I think I was 16. They said I was too young, but I held on and finally got into it when I was old enough.

OT: What is the staging like for the show?
JM: The six original cast members in 1995 all grew up in a big steel community, and did tap dancing. So they built Tap Dogs out of the concept of steelworkers tap dancing and built the set around a workman’s set. There are different platforms we dance on made of metal and wood, ladders, scaffolding, two musicians playing in band towers and more.

OT: What appeals to you about performing in Tap Dogs?
JM: In my work I try to fuse everything I’ve learned over my career. The show has a percussive drive, but Tap Dogs is also very rock n’ roll driven. There are no top hats and canes – that’s not all tap is.

Tap Dogs will be performed at the Kennedy Center, February 21-24. Showtimes and ticket prices vary. Tickets available at www.kennedy-center.org.

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

Photo: DJ Corey Photography

“The Master and Margarita” Paints Unique Picture of Soviet Union

The Constellation Theatre Company took a dramatic shift in their current season with their newest addition, The Master and Margarita.

Based on a novel by Russian writer Mikhail Bulgakov and adapted by Edward Kemp, the story was penned in the Soviet Union during Joseph Stalin’s regime. The plot follows the love affair of a playwright, known as The Master (played by Alexander Strain), and a married woman, known as Margarita (played by Amanda Forstrom).

Throughout the production, both characters and audiences grapple with a religious discourse that propels this daring and risqué play.

In an effort to avoid any spoilers, let’s focus on why you should see the performance.

It’s a romantic dramedy that will transport you to a time where censorship was a common method of oppression. The fact that it’s based in the Soviet Union, proves that these atrocious acts are still in affect today. However, in this tale the oppression is one of a comical nature, where you may find yourself rooting for a group you otherwise wouldn’t agree with.

Another is the included magic show that will dazzle even the biggest skeptic. Nicely coupled with a dance and song, the Devil and his crew shine in their spot-on red sparkling 1920s flappers’ attire. It’s moments like these that make you truly wonder what the secret behind a magician is.

Next, we have the poetic love language that causes all hearts to croon. One thing the Russian literary greats have certainly perfected is professing their adoration for loved ones. The streams of decrees fallen on willing ears captivate. This may leave you envious, wishing you too had the words to properly declare your love. Perhaps the only thing missing is a strong Russian accent.

Lastly, we have a talking cat and pig. Honestly, what more could you desire?

Frankly, while one of the many premises of this intricately layered play focuses on the plight of Pontius Pilate days before the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, the ensemble manages to keep things light and airy. Scenes often leave the audiences to ponder the appropriate reaction to the moments carefully played out in this intimate theater. It’s a complex story and if you’re not listening carefully, you could easily miss a key factor.

Fortunate for all, returning director Allison Arkell Stockman pleasantly produces a revolving door of antics to keep even the most effortlessly distracted person’s eyes glued to the stage. There’s a striptease, decapitated heads, non-revealing “sex” scenes, and, again, a talking cat and pig.

The Master and Margarita is showing through March 3 at Source Theatre. Tickets are $29-$45 and can be purchased at constellationtheatre.org.

Source Theatre: 1835 14th St. NW, DC; 202-204-7741; constellationtheatre.org

Photo: Courtesy of Shakespeare Theatre Company

Modern Shakespeare: Richard the Third at STC

“Now is the winter of our discontent.”

The opening line of Richard the Third would have you believe that all hardships are over and only good days are to come. But as theatergoers attending Shakespeare Theatre Company’s (STC) upcoming production of Richard the Third will soon realize, anything but peace lies ahead.

Directed by David Muse for STC and running from February 5 through March 10, Shakespeare’s Richard the Third follows the titular role of Richard on his ambitious quest for the crown. A spiteful megalomaniac, Richard (Matthew Rauch) will stop at nothing until he sits on the throne, and thus invites the audience into a world of murder, villainy and even dark fun.

“Yes, Richard does horrific things in this play,” Rauch says, “but my hope and David’s [Muse] hope, I think, is that at least for the first part of the play, the audience reaction will not be ‘Oh, what a terrible person,’ but ‘Oh, isn’t he just deliciously evil’ and it’s terrible, but it’s fun to watch.”

Rauch emphasizes that just because the title of the play is Richard the Third, it doesn’t mean the story is only about him.

“It’s very easy with a face on the poster and the title of the play, for people to think there’s only one person involved,” Rauch says. “The truth is there’s about a hundred people involved and all of them are crucial.”

Some of those crucial people are the women around Richard, including his mother the Duchess of York, Margaret of Anjou and Queen Elizabeth. Rauch points out that while Richard can brilliantly manipulate people and events, these particular women don’t bend easily to his will and disprove the outdated notion that Shakespearean women are damsels in distress.

But a fourth woman equally as important to the play’s development, Lady Anne of Neville (Cara Ricketts), is the person who perhaps best understands Richard.

“Richard sees himself in [Anne] and she sees herself in him, in a way that she probably feels like she may break through to him,” Ricketts says. “He pretends it’s a possibility and she falls for it.”

Bust because Anne is ultimately manipulated by Richard, this doesn’t make her simple.

“My Anne is not a pushover,” Ricketts says. “There’s nothing soft about these women. The foundation for these characters has never been soft women.”

Ricketts adds she is ready to play Anne the way an audience 70 years ago may not have let her.

“During the 50s, you had preconceived notions about what a woman was in terms of society so that’s what you got,” Ricketts says. “Now I’ve got a chance to let loose the girdle and make it rip, so that’s what I’m doing while respecting what that character is.”

These preconceived notions of Shakespearean women are not the only ideas cast and crew hope prove outdated. Perhaps one of the most famous scenes in the play is the “wooing scene” where Richard interrupts Anne’s mourning of her father-in-law.

Rauch stresses that while many feel the scene is “creepy” and Richard comes off as “sexually predatory,” this is not the way they plan to portray Richard.

“The only event that needs to happen in the scene is that Anne consents to come to Richard’s house. Nothing else is implied in that scene or on the page and my hope is that it will not come off as sexually creepy,” Rauch says. “David [Muse] and I were never interested in a Richard who was sexually predatory, not because it’s not politically correct, but because we didn’t believe there was anything in the text that supported that.”

Changes in the character’s tones will not be the only noticeable differences in STC’s Richard the Third production. About 40 percent of the original text – mostly obscure English history – has been cut for a streamlined production.

“The Shakespeare Theatre is, I would argue, literally the best classical theater in the United States,” Rauch says. “They know how to do this here and they have created such a web of support.”

Rauch adds that despite the play’s age, audience members will find a lot of similarities between the 500-year-old story and modern society.

“[This is] a story about a deeply complicated, manipulative, brilliant person who rises to power and the people who are complicit in his doing so,” Rauch says. “All you need to do is read the front page of the New York Times to find parallels to that story.”

See Richard the Third at Shakespeare Theatre Company from February 5 through March 10. Runtime is 2 hours and 30 minutes with one 15-minute intermission. Tickets start at $44. For more information, click here.

Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Sidney Harman Hall: 610 F St. NW, DC; 202-547-1122; www.shakespearetheatre.org