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Photo: Courtesy of Neal Brennan
Photo: Courtesy of Neal Brennan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Inspector Calls

Stage and Screen: December 2018

THROUGH DECEMBER 23

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

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

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

MONDAY, DECEMBER 3 – SUNDAY, JANUARY 6

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

TUESDAY, DECEMBER 4 – SATURDAY, DECEMBER 22

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

TUESDAY, DECEMBER 4 – SUNDAY, JANUARY 6

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

WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 5 – SUNDAY, DECEMBER 9

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

WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 12 – SUNDAY, JANUARY 6

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

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 © 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

Trevor Noah

2018-2019 Performing Arts Guide: 25 Must-See Performances

Scattered among the hustle and bustle of DC’s bureaucracy, there are creative hubs of everyone from singers and actors to directors and writers, practicing day by day to give you exceptional shows this performing arts season. From upscale date nights at the Kennedy Center to intimate performances at Signature Theatre, we’ve collected some of the most enticing and need-to-know shows for lovers of the stage.

This year, there are the usual themes of love and Shakespeare adaptations, but have you ever seen Shakespeare set in a 1980s Manhattan dive bar where the love is as fluid as the music? Gender-bending and upbeat, you can catch Illyria at Gunston Arts Center. Or stick a little closer to the classics at National Theatre with the heart-fluttering magic of Finding Neverland, based on the Academy Award-winning film. We’re also excited for DC comedy this season, including Bentzen Ball returning this month with a wonderfully diverse lineup of the funniest voices out right now.

If you’re missing your summer vacation, you can catch a wave with Arena Stage’s Anything Goes, set on a ship in the Atlantic Ocean and starring Disney Channel’s Corbin Bleu. True crime nerds and future lawyers won’t want to miss the behind-the-scenes investigative journey of Netflix’s Making a Murderer at Lincoln Theatre. This season’s stories are like a bouquet of Edible Arrangements: completely enticing and with a performance for everyone. Don’t wait to pick your treat!

October

THURSDAY, OCTOBER 18 – SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 18

Illyria
This WSC (Washington Shakespeare Company) Avant Bard production set in the 1980s is a colorful and music-heavy tale where gender is an afterthought. Illyria is freely adapted from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, a story in which seemingly straight characters fall in love with someone despite their projected gender identity and not because of it. Ezra Tozian will be playing Viola in her cross-dressing performance as Cesario, taking the act to another level as a performance within a performance. What are the subtle mannerisms that she’ll take from gender to gender? What is it about Viola and Cesario that their admirers will fall in love with? The titular Illyria dive bar in Manhattan will intertwine the lives of multiple identities, all while bumping the music of love. Gunston Arts Center’s Theatre Two: 2700 S. Lang St. Arlington, VA; www.wscavantbard.org

FRIDAY, OCTOBER 19 – SATURDAY, OCTOBER 20 & FRIDAY, OCTOBER 26 – SATURDAY, OCTOBER 27

Trevor Noah
You have no excuse to miss one of the fiercest names in comedy this fall. The South African comedian and The Daily Show host will make multiple appearances at DAR Constitution Hall in October, where he’ll continue to use his platform to discuss race and social justice in his home country and here in the U.S. We can’t think of a better way to round out your weekend than with Noah’s wit and wisdom. DAR Constitution Hall: 1776 D St. NW, DC; www.dar.org

TUESDAY, OCTOBER 25 – FRIDAY, OCTOBER 28

Bentzen Ball Comedy Festival
Comedian Tig Notaro has curated three nights of comedy just for DC. First up is Phoebe Robinson, from HBO’s 2 Dope Queens and Netflix’s Ibiza. Stick around for Amanda Seales’ presentation of “Smart, Funny, & Black.” You’ll know Seales from HBO’s runaway hit Insecure. And I can’t wait to hear what kind of funny disaster stories will be shared during “#Adulting” with Michelle Buteau and Jordan Carlos. Unfortunately, the exuberant jokester Jonathan Van Ness (of Queer Eye fame) is already sold out. You can still enjoy performances by the previously mentioned though, as well as Cameron Esposito and Rhea Butcher. I love the idea of a festival full of diverse talent who are passionate about bringing their comedic style center stage. The Lincoln Theatre: 1215 U St. NW, DC; www.thelincolndc.com

SATURDAY, OCTOBER 30 – WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 9

Billy Elliot
Ballet. Coal mining. Labor strikes. Following your dreams. An infectious soundtrack, courtesy of Sir Elton John himself. What do all of these things have in common? They’re all part of the iconic tale of the boy who loved to dance, coming to Arlington’s award-winning, intimate space at Signature Theatre. The singalong tale will run through the holidays, providing the perfect opportunity to show DC’s magnificent productions of classic theatre to your houseguests. Or sneak out and enjoy this feel-good, toe-tapping tale on your own. Signature Theatre: 4200 Campbell Ave. Arlington, VA; www.sigtheatre.org

Anything Goes 2

November

FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 2 – SUNDAY, DECEMBER 23

Anything Goes
As the SS American carries away its passengers from London to New York, it also sails a little secret across the ocean. There’s a passionate love stowed away between Billy and the countess Hope Harcourt. She’s meant to get married to the wealthy Lord Evelyn Oakleigh (please pronounce in your snootiest voice – it’s probably an accurate descriptor of the character). Of course, Billy doesn’t have the riches, but he does have determination and that has to count for something, right? He manages to get some fellow passengers on board (ha) with his mission, and the rest is for you to find out. I’ll be rooting for Billy mostly because he’s played by a familiar face, Disney Channel’s own Corbin Bleu. Arena Stage’s Fichandler Stage: 1101 Sixth St. SW, DC; www.arenastage.org

MONDAY, NOVEMBER 5

Inside Netflix’s Making a Murderer
The documentary series centered on Steven Avery’s wrongful conviction of sexual assault and attempted murder at the age of 23 offers a deeper dive into the stories from the lawyers in the courtroom with him. Avery spent 18 years in prison before his exoneration, only to be convicted of another murder two years after his release. Anyone who gets a thrill from cold cases will love this discussion, with time for audience questions. Attorneys David Rudolf and Jerry Buting will share the ins and outs of their work on the cases, reminding us all that true crime stories aren’t just tales for our entertainment. These cases are the culmination of investigation, interviews, anxiety and a search for truth spanning decades. The in-depth event will be moderated by NPR Justice Correspondent Carrie Johnson. Doors at 6:30 p.m. Tickets are $35. The Lincoln Theatre: 1215 U St. NW, DC; www.thelincolndc.com

SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 10 – SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 11

Comedy Get Down
Four of the biggest names in comedy – Eddie Griffin, George Lopez, D.L. Hughley and Cedric The Entertainer – reunite to bring their individual comedic talents to one night of comedy at MGM Theatre. The incredibly accomplished lineup returns for two nights of laughs after their wildly successful, sort-of-scripted (but always real) series based on the 2017 version of the tour aired on BET. No matter your preferred brand of comedy, you’re guaranteed a good time at one of these performances. The Theater at MGM National Harbor: 101 MGM National Ave. Oxon Hill, MD; www.mgmnationalharbor.com

Elf the Musical

December

FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 9 – SUNDAY, JANUARY 6

Elf The Musical
Everyone’s favorite modern Christmas classic hits the stage just in time for the holiday season. In case you’ve never seen Will Ferrell’s magnum opus (just one gal’s humble opinion), this absurd and endearing comedy sees an orphaned boy raised in the North Pole by elves venture to the Big Apple in search of his father during the most wonderful time of the year. A night of wholesome, wintry laughs is guaranteed. I’m so excited I could cram 11 cookies into my VCR. Olney Theatre Centre: 2001 Olney Sandy Spring Rd. Olney, MD; www.olneytheatre.org

TUESDAY, DECEMBER 4 – SUNDAY, JANUARY 6

The Panties, The Partner and The Profit
German playwright Carl Sternheim is an unsung hero in the art of satire. Playwright David Ives and Shakespeare Theatre Company (STC) are bringing meditations on the middle class to the U.S. with this adaptation of Sternheim’s trilogy of plays about the Mask family – this time set across America and spanning the 1950s to the 1980s. In addition to bringing this adaptation stateside, Ives will collaborate with STC Artistic Director Michael Kahn for the final time as he rounds out his 30-year role with the theatre company. Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre: 450 7th St. NW, DC; www.shakespearetheatre.org

TUESDAY, DECEMBER 18 – SUNDAY, JANUARY 6

The Play That Goes Wrong
This is a classic case of whodunnit that will make you…laugh? The play’s premise has a group putting on their own play, The Murder at Haversham Manor, and the cast is about as great as if your uncle wrangled his five kids and your grandmother together to perform at the holiday party. The murder mystery is less thrill and suspense, more bizarre and meant to make you cry of laughter rather than fear. The production describes itself as the illegitimate Broadway baby of Sherlock Holmes and Monty Python, and satirizes the idea of a terribly untalented production of actors through purposeful missed lines and breathing “corpses.” Fire extinguishers put out a person – not a fire – and doors hit actors and fall off the hinges entirely. The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts: 2700 F St. NW, DC; www.kennedy-center.org

Nell Gwynn

January

FRIDAY, JANUARY 18 – SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 17

Twelve Angry Men
The American justice system exists in tumult, and this classic play shows us that it has been in that state for a long time. For those of you who somehow made it out of a high school government class without watching the movie adaptation of Twelve Angry Men, the story follows 12 men who are identified only by their juror numbers as they contentiously deliberate the fate of a young Hispanic boy accused of killing his father. Race, justice, age and community are examined in this classic and evergreen story. Ford’s Theatre: 511 10th St. NW, DC; www.fordstheatre.org

SUNDAY, JANUARY 20

Step Afrika! 25th Anniversary Celebration
Traditional stepping has origins in South Africa and has since made its way into American pop culture and the traditions of historically black fraternities and sororities. Despite centuries-old history, Step Afrika! is the first professional stepping company. Combining influences from other dance forms, their high-energy and heart-pumping performances tell a story through stomps, claps and synchronized techniques. Though their moves seem on par with Olympic-level gymnastics, some dances are impressively elevated when performed in business wear – belts, vests and all. This year’s performance is special in more ways than one for the company, as 2019 commemorates 25 years since President Nelson Mandela’s election. $34-$75. The Music Center at Strathmore: 5301 Tuckerman Ln. North Bethesda, MD; www.strathmore.org

TUESDAY, JANUARY 29 – SUNDAY MARCH 10

Nell Gwynn
At first blush, this is the tale of the life and times of one of King Charles II of England’s many mistresses: the titular Nell Gwynn. Dig deeper and you’ll find a glimpse into the transformative history of women breaking boundaries while cracking jokes. Nell is caught heckling performers at a play, and instead of being cast out for her behavior, it leads her to be one of the first women cast as a player in the King’s company. This eventually finds Nell in the arms of the King, but her personal journey is more captivating than any love story. If someone in 17th-century England can concede that women – even ones who heckle – are funny, we can surely stop arguing about that today. Don’t miss Nell’s remarkable ride this winter. Folger Theatre: 201 E. Capitol St. SE, DC; www.folger.edu

BLKS

February

MONDAY, FEBRUARY 4 – SUNDAY, MARCH 3

BLKS
Sex and the City has a way different meaning for Octavia, a New York City native who had a serious STD scare. Like any rational 20-something undergoing a stressful, possibly life-changing trauma, she decides she’ll need the help of her best girlfriends, June and Imani, to navigate her next steps. The trio experience much of what you’d expect when gallivanting around the city after dark: interactions with attractive men and women whose words and personalities ruin any romantic and sexual pursuit. The way the girls’ encounters interact with their identities is a prominent message in this production. They’re women, they’re millennials and they’re black – and even though they’re close, this one night has them jumping over hurdles that will either strengthen their bond or completely break through it. Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company: 641 D St. NW, DC; www.woollymammoth.net

FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 8 – SUNDAY, MARCH 10

The Heiress
It is an unfortunate worldwide truth that money cannot replace the love of another person. Catherine Sloper, the heiress in question, is a prime example. She’s been raised in 1840s New York and is monetarily wealthy but poor in affection. Any shred of her father’s warmth has been guarded since her mother died during childbirth – and she’s never been one with many admirers. She’s socially awkward – much more relatable than inherited wealth – and not obviously beautiful. Catherine has long learned to be complacent with what she has, until a cute guy takes interest in her and she finally feels the adoration she’s missed her whole life. This live love story may or may not make you cry. Arena Stage’s Fichandler Stage: 1101 6th St. SW, DC; www.arenastage.org

SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 23 – SUNDAY, MARCH 3

Finding Neverland the Musical
With just a bit of faith, trust and pixie dust, playwright J.M. Barrie gave us the classic, dreamy tale of Peter Pan and Neverland – a sweet escape from bedtimes and lecturing fathers. Finding Neverland the Musical offers a behind-the-scenes look at Barrie’s inspiration, introducing the real George, Michael and Peter in his life. Just when Barrie stopped believing, he met the family that sparked the magic he needed in his own career as a writer. There’s something heartwarming about the story that sprouted imagination in so many children being born from the real make-believe games of young boys. If there’s anything that connects us all through time and geography, it’s our longing to see more than what appears and create new worlds. Don’t miss the spectacular reimagining of the story behind the story. Tickets $54 and up. National Theatre: 1321 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, DC; www.findingneverlandthemusical.com

Queen of Basel

March

TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 26 – SUNDAY, MARCH 31

Vanity Fair
Playwright Kate Hamill takes William Makepeace Thackeray’s “novel without a hero” to the stage with new eyes for the character’s complex, vivacious inner lives. This adaptation sees good friends Amelia and Becky make their way through the world in a society that’s unforgiving to women regardless of appearance, wealth or status. At the heart of Hamill’s take is the beauty and strength of female friendship that allows the women to overcome the patriarchal boundaries that attempt to restrict them. And while the original novel was written in the mid-1800s, the story is just as relevant today. Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Sidney Harman Hall: 610 F St. NW, DC; www.shakespearetheatre.org

WEDNESDAY, MARCH 6 – SUNDAY APRIL 7

Queen of Basel
Anyone rich and famous on the Sunshine State’s coast is partying away for the week-long Art Basel. It seems like a high point for Julie, whose father’s savvy hotel property investments got her the extra star treatment in a swanky room. She’s engaged, it’s her hotel and nothing can go wrong. But before the party ends, she’s single again and stuck in a tight space with hotel employees. Julie learns of the other side of Miami from Floridians who live in the slums – still the luckier side of the coin compared to Venezuela, where employee Christine fled from political dangers. Julie never expected to celebrate Art Basel hiding from her loved ones, but what she gains from speaking with Christine is more valuable than what a price tag can note. Tickets $20-$80. Studio Theatre: 1501 14th St. NW, DC; www.studiotheatre.org

SATURDAY, MARCH 9 – SATURDAY, APRIL 6

Hands on a Hardbody
This new take on a truly American experience deals with relationships, immigration, transportation and more. Ten Texans from all different walks of life vie for a truck in a “hands on a hardbody” contest in the hot summer sun. As they fight for a new set of wheels, this off-the-wall environment brings truths about the contest, each contestant and their community to light. Based on a documentary of the same name that premiered in 1997, the story feels every bit as relevant more than a decade later. Tickets begin at $52. Keegan Theatre: 1742 Church St. NW, DC; www.keegantheatre.com

Grand Hotel

April

THURSDAY, MARCH 28 – SATURDAY, APRIL 20

Columbinus
It’s been 20 years since the Columbine High School massacre, and tragically, the United States has not seen improvement in keeping students safe from school shootings. A new wave of teens from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School are continuing to push the fight forward. This docudrama comes at a compelling time to remind us all of where we started, and how it hasn’t gotten better two decades later. Among all the difficulties and growing pains that characterize “teenage angst,” it’s unimaginable to feel the way the Columbine and MSD students did. Columbinus combines real interviews from the time of the shooting with survivors, the parents and others in the community. For those involved in the debate or who are passionate about reform, this is likely to generate new discussions on the matter. 1st Stage: 1524 Spring Hill Rd. Tysons, VA; www.1ststagetysons.org

TUESDAY, APRIL 2 – SUNDAY, MAY 12

Grand Hotel
Berlin in the 1920s was a precious period of creative and economic prosperity. What better way to peek into the lives of Berlin’s personalities than visiting a hotel? The Grand Hotel sees many swinging its doors and booking rooms, causing lots of mix-matches to collide and mingle – like the ballerina who jetés into the hotel and has unlikely interactions with a bookkeeper, as well as a typist and a baron. This musical will feature some special performances including discussion nights, a pride night and a performance with open captioning. Signature Theatre: 4200 Campbell Ave. Arlington, VA; www.sigtheatre.org

WEDNESDAY, APRIL 24 – SUNDAY, MAY 19

Oslo
This three-hour play is based on the true story of a husband-and-wife diplomat team who, unbeknownst to the proper channels, organized instrumental meetings between Israel and Palestine during the Oslo Accords in the early 1990s. As the conflict between those two countries rages on nearly 25 years later, this play provides eloquent insight into a very real and very modern attempt to solve one of the most complicated conflicts in human history. Round House Theatre: 4545 East-West Hwy. Bethesda, MD; www.roundhousetheatre.org

Capture

May

WEDNESDAY, MAY 1 – SUNDAY, JUNE 2

The Children
Two retired nuclear physicists live on an island and require stringent routines to get through each day. They’re seemingly making it work, surrounding themselves with healthy food and yoga practice – despite the fact they’re living in a post-apocalyptic world in the aftermath of a nuclear explosion. The couple’s calculated days are brought to a screeching halt with the unexplained appearance of a former coworker, who comes bearing a nasty nosebleed and an even nastier secret. A slow-burning meditation on humankind’s responsibility as stewards of the earth, there couldn’t be a better time to experience this critically acclaimed modern tale. Studio Theatre: 1501 14th St. NW, DC; www.studiotheatre.org

WEDNESDAY, MAY 15 – SUNDAY, JUNE 16

Sooner/Later
With To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and other rom-coms dominating the film industry, it’s still unlikely to follow the dating life of a woman who is the single mother of a teenage girl. We usually view the story solely from the teen perspective. This production gives Gilmore Girls vibes, with the charming closeness of a mother and daughter who have a friendly, supportive relationship rather than a strictly parent-child one. But enter one more character who kind of disrupts the dynamic: the man, the love interest, the newcomer. Mosaic Theater Company describes its production as navigating the pains and pleasure of romance, marriage and parenting with a “metaphysical twist.” You’ll want to watch this play sooner rather than later (ha). As a lesser-heard type of story, Sooner/Later needs support to get more stories like it onstage – and maybe you can even bond with your own mom at a performance. Atlas Performing Arts Center: 1333 H St. NE, DC; www.mosaictheater.org

FRIDAY, MAY 17 AND SUNDAY, MAY 19

An Evening of Verdi
The Maryland Lyric Opera has brought numerous works to the DC area since its founding in 2014, and its 2019 season will be no exception. The opera’s talented cast brings the works of famed Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi to the Music Center at Strathmore’s halls. The performance is the perfect outing for opera lovers or those just being introduced to the craft. The Music Center at Strathmore: 5301 Tuckerman Ln. North Bethesda, MD; www.strathmore.org

Photo: Zack DeZon
Photo: Zack DeZon

A Day in the Life: Maria Manuela Goyanes

There won’t be an ice age at Woolly Mammoth anytime soon. The theatre company’s new artistic director, Maria Manuela Goyanes, is DC’s latest creative transplant from New York. She’s bringing a decades-long theatre career and her first-generation, Latinx-American perspective to champion Woolly’s inclusive mission and edgy productions.

While artistic direction usually entails reviewing performance options for the upcoming season and executing creative decisions, my interview with Goyanes was one of her many scheduled meetings during the first few weeks in her new role. On our call, intermittent laughter made its way between her words. She answered immediately and honestly – and without taking herself too seriously. But Goyanes is absolutely serious about her passion for Woolly and what it means to succeed the company’s co-founder, Howard Shalwitz.

On Tap: What do you think has really prepared you for this role?
Maria Manuela Goyanes: Does anyone ever feel really prepared? [Laughs] I think I stand on the shoulders of giants, there’s no question [about] that. I think one of the things that makes me uniquely connected to Woolly and [our] mission is that I have both the experimental, innovation side with the work that I did with 13P [Thirteen Playwrights, Inc.], which is a playwrights’ collective, coupled [with] having been at the Public Theater for 15 years.

OT: What aspects of a story are you immediately drawn to when selecting productions for the upcoming season?
MMG: I’m looking for two different things. The first is trying to push the art form, so plays that are really  interesting, exciting or new – pushing the aesthetics [or] experimenting with an idea in terms of structure or language. But then on the other side, I’m also really looking for something that is going to be challenging or provocative to an audience. The reason why I feel so aligned with Woolly Mammoth – I’m really pinching myself, I’m the luckiest person in the world to have this job – is because I am a huge fan of all of the writers that Woolly has [featured].

OT: What’s different about your perspective and influence at Woolly compared to your predecessor, Howard Shalwitz?
MMG: I love Howard, and this has been the smoothest transition probably in the history of American theatre. But I will say, I am  a short Latina from New York! [Laughs] What I experience and how I walk through the world is very different from Howard. I think that my perspective is going to stem from my own life and what I care about. Who gets to tell what story? Does it really reflect the world around us? Is it pushing the boundaries of theatre and what people expect? How can we make the biggest impact?

I’m really excited about the mission statement of Woolly. It’s about galvanizing artists and audiences. “Galvanizing” is so powerful and aspirational, and something for us to live up to and attempt to make happen for every single one of our shows and every single one of our experiences.

OT: I’m also a first-generation American, and it’s exciting to interview someone with this identity who is making an impact.
MMG: It’s important for me that people know I do identify as a first-generation American. It’s a big wave, a big change happening in the American theatre and culture right now, and my hope is that the people who are leading these arts organizations all across the country are going to start to reflect the diversity of the country. I know that I am part of that wave, and I feel that responsibility and the excitement about that too.


Maria Can’t Live Without

Her husband and partner Dave
He keeps everything real for me with his witty sense of humor.

FaceTime
This is how I stay in touch with everyone I love, especially my family in NYC, Spain and the Dominican Republic.  

Theatre
Some of the most transformative experiences of my life have been in theatre. I believe in the power of theatre to deeply impact our lives and shape our relationship to the world around us. 

Producing
I love connecting people and artists, creating events and works of art, and generally making sh-t happen. It’s in my bones. The possibilities are endless! 

Pema Chödrön, a Buddhist teacher, author, nun and mother
I began meditating because of her books. Her words ground and center me. I actually bought 100 of her books to give as gifts to my favorite people. You know I like you if you get a Pema Chödrön book.


OT: Why is it important to be a leader in the DC theatre scene?
MMG: I am just now getting to know the DC theater scene. I just had a great dinner with [Arena Stage Artistic Director] Molly Smith, who is the bomb. Everyone has been so welcoming and generous with their time and words, so it’s made me really excited to be here and get to know everybody. It feels like a really tight-knit community, which is exciting too. I’m going to be doing a lot of listening and getting to know the artistic community [and] the people in our audience, and understanding what it is about DC’s arts and culture [scene] that might be missing that we need to tap into. Woolly stands for being alternative to the mainstream, and the mainstream is starting to do more provocative plays. How can Woolly stay at the vanguard and leading edge of provocative, challenging and explosive work?

OT: Tell me about Woolly’s October production of The Fever by theatre experimentalists 600 HIGHWAYMEN.
MMG: It is a [performance] that the audience actually has to participate in to create. I think there’s some people who think of that interactivity as really scary. There is nothing difficult, embarrassing or confessional about what [the audience does]. It is actually about the power of the collective and our humanity and responsibility toward each other. It’s beautiful. It’s nothing like anything I’ve ever experienced and I’m so excited to bring this to Washington, DC right now. It’s not just about changing minds but also changing hearts. What this piece is attempting to do is lead from the heart before leading from the head, and that is a really interesting thing to experiment with.

The Fever runs from October 23 to November 4. Tickets are $20-$35. Learn more about the daring production, and the rest of Woolly’s
2018-2019 season, at www.woollymammoth.net.

Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company: 641 D St. NW, DC; 202-393-3939; www.woollymammoth.net

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

robinsonfinal-720x498

Phoebe Robinson Finds Truth in the “Trash”

“I write in my own voice, with my own abbreviations. I’m a pop culture junkie, and I fully embrace it. That’s what made her notice me.”

Phoebe Robinson is speaking on the importance of being herself, including her signature comical abbreviations like “soc-meds” for social media, and the operative “her” is none other than Oprah herself. The comedian and author is explaining the MO of her career that eventually led her to pen a New York Times bestseller titled You Can’t Touch My Hair, adding Oprah and thousands of others to her fanbase.

You may also know Robinson as one-half of the 2 Dope Queens podcast, where she and Jessica Williams host and showcase the talents of comedians and actors from diverse backgrounds. And as the host of her own podcast Sooo Many White Guys, Robinson chats with an equally talented array of people from other creative industries. She’s hosted huge names like St. Vincent, Roxane Gay and Gloria Steinem, just to name a few.

In the midst of the runaway success of her first book, hosting two popular podcasts and garnering multiple acting credits, Robinson penned another book: Everything’s Trash, But It’s Okay, out on October 16. This collection of essays sees Robinson attempting to balance the cosmic scales of the current messes surrounding feminism, dating, politics and more.

“Trying to find the humor in things really helps because right now, things seem really tough,” she explains. “So many people are trying to make things better. On a grand scale, is global warming melting all of us? Yes, 1000 percent. But it is really cool to see people who just had a regular office job and then decide they want to get into politics because they care about education or women’s or trans rights. [That’s] a reminder that not everything is lost. We fully have the potential to take control and right the ship any way that we want to.”

She’ll bring her book to life on October 25 at the Bentzen Ball Comedy Festival, organized by Brightest Young Things and curated by comedian Tig Notaro. Lincoln Theatre’s stage will be graced by both Robinson and Notaro at the festival’s opening show as Notaro “laughs at whatever nonsense I’m saying and makes fun of it,” Robinson speculates. She and fellow Dope Queen Williams are no strangers to the Bentzen Ball’s stacked lineup – they made an appearance in 2013 and grew a relationship with Notaro from there.

“When Jess and I were tossing around directors for our 2 Dope Queens HBO specials, we decided that we definitely wanted a woman to direct. We felt like so many times this opportunity goes to a guy. We both immediately thought about Tig and how that could actually work because her style of comedy is very different than ours, so that can enrich the process. That’s how we really got to know Tig and hang out with her. It feels really good to know that someone I admire and respect and think is really talented is becoming a friend.”

A common theme at the Bentzen Ball, and in all of Robinson’s work, is the mutual support and respect amongst creatives that allows voices not always given the mainstream time of day to thrive – and inspire others to do the same. Robinson emphasizes that with any kind of creative work, it’s essential to allow yourself the time to find your voice and create your own path rather than trying to fit in.

“While it’s good to want to do a late-night show or standup, or be mentioned in a magazine or have your book published by a certain publisher, I think there’s also something to trying not just to get a seat at the table but to creating your [own] table – making your own lane and traveling on that. The coolest stuff happens when you create your own lane and stay true to yourself.”

See Robinson open Brightest Young Things’ Bentzen Ball on Thursday, October 25 at Lincoln Theatre. Doors at 5:30 p.m., show at 7 p.m. Tickets are $45 and include a copy of Everything’s Trash, But It’s Okay.

Learn more about the comedian at www.phoeberobinson.com or follow her on Instagram and Twitter at @dopequeenpheebs. For more on the Bentzen Ball Comedy Festival, visit www.bentzenball.com.

Lincoln Theatre: 1215 U St. NW, DC; 202-888-0050; www.thelincolndc.com