C’mon, get on board with ‘Titanic’

Get on board! 1997's Broadway production (Photo by Joan Marcus)
Get on board! 1997’s Broadway production (Photo by Joan Marcus)

BUOYED. “Titanic: A New Musical” is set to drift back to Broadway next fall by way of Toronto this summer.  That glorious score by Maury Yeston (Nine, Grand Hotel, Phantom — no, the other Phantom), which helped the show score big during its 11-month 1997-98 original Broadway run: It won five Tonys, including Best Musical, score, orchestrations, book by the brilliant reanimator of history Peter Stone (1776).

My playbill from the original "Titanic," in March 1998, at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. I dragged my husband to it for our 10th anniversary.
My playbill from the original “Titanic,” in March 1998, at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. I dragged my husband to it for our 10th anniversary.

It even won for scenic design, in spite of such highfalutin, hitting-below-the-life-belt criticism lobbed at the ship (or non-existent ship — thanks, Forbidden Broadway). The show won for every category in which it was nominated.

Sinking feelings aside about why anyone would create such a musical disaster. … People, you have no idea how riveting this work is.

4largeAs Yeston attests, it was no small challenge to create a show in which everyone knows how things end. In 2012, ahead of the 100-year milestone since the Titanic tragedy, Yeston told Playbill: “The question was, ‘How do we get ahead of the audience?’ and Peter [Stone] had a great answer, which was, ‘The people on stage don’t know.’ So this show really begins with a secret that the audience knows that the stage doesn’t. And, that kind of tension is one of the best kind of things you can do in theatre.”

Yeston also knew that the story of Titanic is one of the greatest cautionary tales of the 20th century.

challenger-disaster-myths-explosion_31734_600x450“It is a profound warning story,” he told Playbill, “and shortly after Ballard found the Titanic, the [Challenger] blew up, because of an O-Ring, and that is when it really cemented in my mind, that this is a lesson we keep on learning. The Titanic was built to save lives — the idea was that the ship would be its own lifeboat.”

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As 9/11 was a wake-up call for Americans’ tenuous invulnerability, the Titanic disaster drew a dividing line smack-dab through history. They were all fooling themselves thinking they could do the unsinkable. Yet that thirst for taking on seemingly impossible challenges, striving for bigger and better, wanting to turn lowly lives into superlatives — that is what drives humankind.

It’s also what inspires Broadway producers.

The Titanic marked the end of the Edwardian age and splashed water on the faces of the snooty moneyed folk. The ship was a metaphor for a stratified society, with immigrants stowed like cargo and the upper crust dining on delicacies with the finest linen and china and taking in a free-flowing air of privilege.

Yet the blooming ideals among those immigrants, those hungry for a better life … it was their dreams that this “ship of dreams” floated on. Those Irish “Kates” went on to populate much of middle America; the Irish are the secret majority in this country. The Titanic’s underclass and upper-mobility middle class were on the journey of their lives, answering the call that makes any of us move forward. Compare that drive to the vanity of those elitist passengers who merely wanted to make a splash in the papers.

cityroom-titanic-2-a-blog480Make headlines they did. That’s what makes the story so irresistible. Such human miscalculation; the planets misaligned; the misfortune of even the most fortunate. The show captures it all, like a hymn to mankind, and brilliantly has ensemble members morphing from first class to second class to third class and back again, showing we’re all in the same boat, interlocked, interdependent, with little to separate these stations in life but an accident of birth, all told against the backdrop of a titanic accident of death.

musioffsOne reason I am so absorbed by the characters of that era is the men, those patriarchal but custodial men seen from a distance as gallant and noble (mostly) … and the optimism that rings through the show, against an undercurrent of hopelessness.

When people first hear there is a musical about Titanic, they chortle: Depressing. While it’s certainly a tear-jerker, it focuses on unflinching hope — the fabric of every American musical. How we choose to define our lives in the face of death is something we all must face, but few quite so dramatically.

“Class” doesn’t matter when you’re talking basic survival, and no matter how cock-sure we are of things or of ourselves, one can never predict life’s twists and turns, not when it involves split-second decisions that lead to inexorable consequences — as most decisions do. The zinger, of course, that you never know when you won’t have the chance to say goodbye, so best get those things out there and said and live with no regrets, as if there’s no tomorrow, because sometimes there isn’t.

That’s all packed into this show as well as, yes, comedy and dancing! And music to die for.

An assortment of "Titanic" playbills.
An assortment of my “Titanic” playbills.

My kids and I have been die-hard fans of Titanic ever since I first saw it on Broadway in March 1998 (just before it closed) and shared the soundtrack with them. Eventually we caught it on a national tour, then decided we would travel to see it wherever it played. Pipe dreams, given our lower-class funds, but we did catch a production at Media (Pa.) Theatre in 2006 — twice — and another at Toby’s Dinner Theatre in Columbia, Md., and most recently at Sandler Center in Virginia Beach on March 29, 2008. We even put on a little “show” of it ourselves at the last minute as a goof — a serious goof — for a benefit at the local high school. Whenever we take a road trip anywhere, Titanic must be played, LOUDLY. It has become a family tradition, comfort, indulgence.

ne_5082There was even that time we ran into Michael Cerveris in the audience at Arena Stage while he was in the midst of his Sweeney Todd triumph, yet all we asked him about was Titanic. (He played the architect, Andrews.) I’ll never forget his curled eyebrow over that. I did the same thing when I stage-doored with Vicki Clark and Ted Sperling at Clark’s cabaret at The Kennedy Center … well I might have thrown in a bit of The Light in the Piazza, too. They thought I was crazy. Crazy for ‘Titanic.’

Curious why all this revival steam didn’t happen two years ago, for the 100th anniversary of the event. Kinda missed the boat, did we?

Regardless, we unsinkable fans of Titanic the musical, not the movie, will be there, at the Avery Fisher Hall on Feb. 17 for the reunion of Cerveris and the original Broadway cast doing a concert version of Titanic, and then it’s on to Toronto this summer, we hope (check the passport, kids), and then back to Broadway next fall for its storied revival / resurrection.

We must get on that ship.

‘Étude’: A prelude to resurrecting art in Des Plaines, Ill.

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Twilight at the new dawn of Des Plaines Theatre in downtown Des Plaines, Ill. — on opening night of “Étude,” a new vampire musical by the Sigman Brothers. (Photo by Terry Byrne)
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The critic takes her stand. (Photo by Michael Byrne)

The construction along Miner Street in front of the Des Plaines Theatre is your first clue to a monster undertaking inside.

Over the past year, Mike and Jerry Sigman have been breathing new life into the 1920s-era art-deco venue, mounting an original musical about creatures that can suck the life outta you.

Twilight be damned, Étude the Musical is not another pedestrian tale of prowling vampires and vampire hunters. It cuts deeper as an allegory to undying love and man’s insatiable thirst for immortality — whether via religious pardon, dominance over disease or artistic ascension.

And it resurrects the legacy of an all-but-forgotten reclusive mid-19th-century Jewish composer, Charles-Valentin Alkan — much as the Des Plaines Theatre, targeted for demolition pre-2003, was reborn with this show.

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(Photo by Grace Swedberg)

Certainly there are no guarantees of success in creating a new work. Far easier to buy the rights for a tried-and-true chestnut, like Oklahoma! or Fame!, or adapt a hit movie with pre-fab fans, like Once or Bring It On, than try to plant grass-roots roots in a community starving for culture.

But the Sigman Brothers, raised in Des Plaines, Ill., and refined with peerless theatrical credentials, have come home to serve locals juicy and plain ballsy entertainment. Bring it on.

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From left, Sigismund Thalberg (Jimmy Jagos), Franz Liszt (Maxwell Burnham), Eugene Delacroix (Xavier Custodio) and Frederic Chopin (Nick Bonges) play supplicants to Alkan (Ryan Bennett), as vamps Colette (Elizabeth Stenholt) and Regine (Miki Byrne) stand by their man. (Photo by Grace Swedberg)

Reminiscent of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde — in which monsters lurk where you least expect them — and even Peter Shaffer’s 1979 play Amadeus, which fictionalized a heated rivalry between Mozart and villainous Salieri, Étude reimagines a dark force propping up a circle of genteel geniuses in post-revolutionary France. On the verge of succumbing to illness, Alkan succumbs instead to centuries-old vampress-seductress Regine Chanson and thereby cheats death. Composer-pianists Franz Liszt and Sigismund Thalberg, romantic painter Eugene Delacroix and novelist George Sand become blood brothers/sisters of sorts with Alkan and his pack of vampires, sharing an elixir of eternal inspiration. (Frederic Chopin is also represented but proves too noble to sell out.)

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Vampire hunters heed their calling, from left: Nick Bonges, T.J. Crawford, Adam Michaels, Bob Chesler and Frankie Cox. (Photo by Grace Swedberg)

But there’s more. A band of saber-rattling, righteous crusaders — dubbed “men of God” — are hot in pursuit. Led by the dreamy Duvall (played by red-hot-chili-pepper-rock-star Adam Michaels), there is dissension in the ranks (the commanding but comical Lloyd Young III has a star turn as the ambiguously bad and ambiguously Jewish Schecter) and femme fatale roadblocks (a sultry Elizabeth Stenholt as the nymph Colette complements Miki Byrne‘s regal, elegant, spine-tingling Regine). And that’s just Act I.

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Regine (Miki Byrne) has a hankering for a midnight snack (Jimmy Jagos, left, and Tom Flynn). (Photo by Grace Swedberg)

Alkan, sung with poise and raw power by a wan and skulking Ryan Bennett, must turn away from God to claim everlasting life — the first of many religious taunts in the wry, occasionally cornball book by Jerry Sigman. Alkan’s real-world compositions serve as a cast, not crutch, for Mike Sigman’s masterful, soaring score, which recycles melodies in an expansive signature style.

Against a haunting but frolicking overture theme, hooded figures emerge from the mist to get jiggy with their “sacred dance,” a pipy Celtic riff that’s repeated and adorned when the vampires meet for a rumble in the jungle. “The Composers” — sung as a plea with choir-boy appeal by Maxwell Burnham (Liszt), Xavier Custodio (Delacroix) and Jimmy Jagos (Thalberg) — morphs into the vampire hunters’ anthem, “Duvall.” The rangy, swooping “Demon Vanish,” “Darling One,” “Centuries,” “My Companion,” etc. get handed off among the principals in a resplendent relay.

It's love at first bite for Regine (Miki Byrne). (Photo by Terry Byrne)
It’s love at first bite for Regine (Miki Byrne). (Photo by Terry Byrne)

The soundtrack on sale in the lobby reveals the producers were cut-throat in trimming music to bring the show in under three hours. That’s a shame, because the music is purely intoxicating. Lyrical gems crystallize in Act II with “One More Night,” “Hunter” and “Preludes/Colette-Hunter Waltz.” Also a shame that no orchestra was hired (a casualty of failed Indiegogo fundraisers). Overall, the pre-recorded, synthesized soundtrack proves a drag on the production, which careens from classy classical to crass oom-pah-pah to glam rock.

At first blush, you wonder whether the formulaic silliness of Act I’s “The Drinking Song” is there just for pacing or to legitimize hiring a large ensemble — until you realize the parallels between a vampire’s thirst and a carouser’s lush life. The bipolar mood is  jarring, while underscoring the prominent theme of man’s duality and duplicity — the good and evil within, civilized vs. animal impulses. Indeed, we seem locked in a dueling dance.

Which brings us to a show highlight: serious sword play. Those aren’t real blades they’re wielding, yet sound designer Jay Walsh dares you to prove otherwise, so pin-perfect are his sound effects. Also adding a pro polish are Davide Pezzini, who keeps this dark show tastefully lit and adds mood with projections; Alex Artega‘s lively (if at times “Up With People”) choreography — if he is responsible for the combat sequences, he is a zen master; and the jaw-dropping costume design by Andy Caron.

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Colette (Elizabeth Stenholt) and Ian/Stevie Hunter (Adam Michaels) face a life-or-death choice. (Photo by Grace Swedberg)

Act II zooms the actors 150 years forward to the 1980s, when AIDS emerged to threaten mankind and make sex unsafe — a practice that, naturally, propagates life, except when vampires intervene.

The work seems to ask: Is the cure worse than the disease? Gaps in the story line, though, leave patrons asking a host of other things, like: Why are the vampires feeding on each other? How do they kill vs. “turn” a human into one of them? Where are my Cliffs Notes?

Among mind-boggling choices: What’s up with the faux Judeo-Christian war? And Act II opens with an overwrought music video edited by Mike Piane interlacing footage of Hollywood vampires with milestones of history and culture (Nixon, Manson, JFK, MLK, Elvis, Twiggy, Jackie Robinson, Jim Jones — are you suggesting they were all vampires?). The upshot is “Time passes” or “We sure do love our vampires” or something — but the jumbled images do a disservice to the dignified accompaniment, “March Into Tomorrow,” suggesting that vulnerability transcends vampirism. If the producers were looking to cut something from the show, this would be a good candidate — have the actors sing the anthem during curtain call. Or leave the song but add more springy choreography for the underused, uber-talented dancers.

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Featured dancers, from left, Julie Matolo, Jordan Yentz, Amanda Horvath and Sarina Gomez frame Adam Michaels and Elizabeth Stenholt’s embrace. (Photo by Grace Swedberg)

They say the darker the sky, the brighter the stars. And this cast — all 23 of them — would sparkle with or without glitter makeup (an excessive nod to Twilight, by makeup designer Gabrielle Post).

Adam Michaels and Elizabeth Stenholt perform a rousing ballet. (Photo by Terry Byrne)
Adam Michaels and Elizabeth Stenholt perform a rousing ballet. (Photo by Terry Byrne)

Vocal standouts include Bennett with his explosive baritenor; Michaels, whose foamy, piston-popping belt could fit in Les Mis as easily as Led Zeppelin (he channels both Owen Wilson and Bon Jovi in his Act II reincarnation as Hunter); Stenholt, a precocious high school senior who truly possesses an artist’s soul beyond her years; Young, a delightful devil’s advocate whose “day job” is a standup comic — figures!; and the bewitching Byrne (FULL DISCLOSURE: She is my flesh and blood. But anyone would tell you she kills in Act I’s sisterhood duet “Colette,” and again in Act II as wigged-out, rock diva Claire with soul-infused vocals). Special shout-outs are due players Jaymes Osborne (his glinty tenor superhuman), Alison Logan (whose economy as a gum-cracking waitress is priceless), Megan Boyle (another whip-smart high-schooler) and Sarina Gomez (whose dance moves light up every scene she graces; she also lent a hand in refining the choreography).

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Alkan (Ryan Bennett) arrives to answer the prayers of Claire (Miki Byrne) in the chapel during “My Companion.” (Photo by Grace Swedberg)

Perhaps it won’t grant the Sigmans immortality or help them snag a billion-dollar kitty like the producers of The Lion King, but Étude does a comparable job of reminding us of the circle of life — preaching that those who prey upon others often wind up as prey. That includes critics.

However you slice it, the Sigman Brothers seem well on their way to making an enduring artistic mark in Chicagoland. Des Plaines might never be the same.

Étude runs through Nov. 3, 2013, at the historic Des Plaines Theatre, 1476 Miner St., Des Plaines, Ill. Reserve tickets online or call 224-800-0997.

Rape-tra-la-la: How musicals treat assault, create a chorus of believers

Picture 3“Man of La Mancha,” with national touring sensation Howard Keel, was the first staged musical I remember seeing, at a ripe young age of 9 at the Valley Forge (Pa.) Music Fair’s tent-in-the-round in 1970.

Rape was not in my vernacular then, but I fell in love with the character Aldonza, a “kitchen wench” (aka prostitute), and somehow keenly felt her hardship, disillusionment, strength and wrung-out, twisted passion. I’d act out her part before the drapes in my living room — including a modified take on her gang rape scene. The brutalizing effect onstage was a mesh of music, lighting and dance, but the horror and anger spoke deeply to my prepubescent self. Unwittingly, it gave me a kind of a shield, an armor to grow into, to understand that a woman’s body is not all there is to her.

They say that those things children are too young to understand go right over their heads. I have to wonder. With the advent of the Internet, which defines and exhibits our every curiosity, I cannot imagine being a child of 9 against such a backdrop today. I might have started Googling and been gobsmacked by reality and grown terrified of theater — or men. My understanding of human relations might have been skewed if drama on the Internet, uncontrolled and unfiltered, were all I’d been exposed to — overexposed to, at that.

Rape is nothing new on stage and, surprisingly, is not an uncommon topic in musicals. In 1960, “The Fantasticks” made farce of the idea of a staged assault — with ringmaster El Gallo offering a menu of rapes in the thinly cloaked “It Depends On What You Pay.” Apparently, making light of sexual assault seemed ghastly to producers of the 2006 revival, who saw fit to clean up the lyrics, changing references of “rape” to “abduction” or “masquerade”:

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“ … An abduction that’s emphatic.

An abduction that’s polite.

An abduction done with Indians:

A truly charming sight.

An abduction done on horseback;

They’ll all say it’s distingué.

So you see the masquerade

Depends on what you pay. …”

The original repeated variations of “rape” in place of “abductions” seem an assault to the ears of a rape survivor today.

What happened between the Sixties and now to alter our view of rape in our culture? Is it merely that it has come to dominate so much of it? Or somehow it’s less shocking. Which makes it even more so.

There could be an element of commercialism at work, at least where “The Fantasticks” is concerned. Those who hold copyrights for these shows want to get them produced as often as possible, so why not tame or temper the material to dodge the censors or get them produced more often in high schools and by mass-appeal, general-audience church and community theatre troupes.

The most recent production of “Man of La Mancha” I saw was last year, by the McLean Community Players. Though Aldonza sang the pants off of her role, the assault scene was reduced to what looked like a game of Farmer in the Dell — although that might have been explained more by the portlier cast as opposed to changing sensitivities or morals (generalized portliness being another sign of the times). I’m not judging — just saying. It is, after all, a fairly operatic show, and you need some support for those big voices.

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A few years back, Signature Theatre in Shirlington premiered a work composed by resident artist Matt Conner, “The Hollow,” which he and book writer Hunter Foster adapted from the classic “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” They took liberties, certainly, with the story, inventing a climactic scene in which the object of Ichabod Crane’s affections is raped (offstage). It wasn’t until now, pondering themes of savagery in musical theatre, that it occurred to me the second half of Signature’s premiere double feature, “The Boy Detective Fails,” was also about serial kidnappings, assault and murder — albeit, our human failing to understand or confront the ultimate evil behind such acts.

To say theatre is cathartic is an understatement. Who among us has not entertained a rape fantasy?

As “The Hollow” director Matt Gardiner explained to a TBD.com reporter at the time: “As far as a female character goes, this is the worst thing that could happen. It’s so intimate. And yet it is frequently used.”

Directors are challenged to find a way to plumb the violence with care and concern, considering that many in the audience, statistically, have been touched and traumatized by rape in real life.

The TBD article made the point there were a heckuva lot of rape themes in current area shows. As more rape survivors become more vocal — as they should be encouraged to be — you wonder about the impact on our lively arts, and how we balance imagination/escapism with verisimilitude.

Signature followed up with a play by emerging talent Paul Downs Colaizzo, “Really Really,” inspired by the Duke lacrosse team assault scandal. It was supposed to be “edgy.” But, really, it was only too real.

“It’s challenging,” Gardiner told Rebecca J. Ritzel at the time. “You want the audience to feel uncomfortable — but not so uncomfortable that it takes you out of the play completely. It’s a delicate balance.”

We are all familiar with catching a show at the local high school, and, if weapons are part of the pretense, seeing a notice in the program, as required by the local governing board, vouching that the weapons used are fake. Or signs leading into the theater that warn patrons with certain delicate conditions that strobe lights, fake fog, startling noises or cigarettes (!) will be used — much like an amusement park ride warns pregnant riders what’s at stake.

Yet I don’t recall many “trigger warnings” being applied in theatre — advisories that depictions of rape, suicide, genocide and the like lay behind the curtain. Heavens to Betsy, if staged works had to list each trigger warning ahead of every production, programs might rival the DSM. Such a practice could wring out much of the drama or shock at the core of even the shlockiest of shows, let alone master works.

Along with a suspension of disbelief, I guess, when patrons enter a theater they must also enter into an unwritten agreement to suspend all defenses. Vulnerability, culpability, liability — that’s all part of the communal masquerade. Theatre is therapy. Theatre is safe.

And even though it’s a “lie,” theatre is honest. More honest, at times, than real life.

Its one true mission: to spur genuine dialogue.

Modern devices creeping into timeless shows

Electronic devices, the ones house managers beg patrons to silence or deaden, are increasingly navigating their way onstage.

Exhibits A and B are two shows I reviewed this past weekend for DC Metro Theater Arts: Jason Robert Brown’s chamber musical “The Last Five Years” at Signature Theatre and Donald Margulies’ “Dinner With Friends” by the Providence Players of Fairfax.

kindle-bedIn “Dinner With Friends,” the digital cameo was innocent enough. A long-married couple, Gabe and Karen, are reading in bed. Gabe has an old-fashioned book. Karen cradles her Kindle. Most likely this was director Tina Thronson’s way of emphasizing not only each spouse’s individuality but a touch of marital tension, showing them on different wavelengths. The play is about divorce, after all.

More intriguing was director Aaron Posner’s choice in “The Last Five Years,” a show also spinning on divorce. It bends time to chronicle a five-year, doomed relationship by starting the woman at the end and the man at the beginning. They take turns singing soliloquies, alternately time-traveling forward and backward, until they meet in the middle, in real time, for some kissing, dancing, marrying, parrying. During much of the show, though, they are singing to no one, using far-off focal points. In Signature’s production, it’s interesting when the female character, played adorably by Erin Weaver, Skypes a song via Apple PowerBook to her father.

11451676_037fc313eb_oClever! Especially for a show set in “present-day” or without a specified time period, what’s the harm in updating the properties list to help modern audiences relate? It’s done all the time with Shakespeare, amiright? Reinventing the Bard and making him thoroughly modern Willie is almost expected.

il_fullxfull.269366519“The Last Five Years” isn’t very old, just over 10 years. Still, Jason Robert Brown could never have imagined this Skyping twist when he wrote it. The problem I see comes when the play’s other pop-culture references, such as “Duran Duran” (1980s pop-rock group), “Leave It to Beaver” and “Mr. Ed” (1960s TV shows), clash with a video-chatting generation. Sure, nostalgia is always “in.” But at some point, this show will play to audiences who have no clue what those references are; they will seem quaint, like Cole Porter lyrics, and you will need more than a Yiddish glossary to follow along.

8559004_1For all we know, a 2064 production of “The Last Five Years” will find holographic performers onstage like something out of “Star Wars” — hey, Broadway theaters already dispatch the orchestra down the street and pipe them in; who knows when actors will be next?

Whatever the future brings in theater, whether we see robots doing kick lines or costumes being beamed on and off, inserting props into shows that pre-date their existence seems a slippery slope.

The day will come when prop shops run out of Princess rotary phones to do “Bye Bye Birdie” and we find all the kids texting during “The Telephone Hour.”

princess-phone-54464050334Imagine Col. Pickering in “My Fair Lady” ringing up Scotland Yard on his smartphone. Or the “wireless” used in “Titanic: A New Musical” interpreted as the sort of wireless we know today. Can you hear me NOW? ANYBODY?!?

It’s only a matter of time ’til Mark Antony heralds: “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your e-mails!”

Auditioning? DO pay attention to that man behind the piano

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Taking a page from an experienced auditioner’s songbook: MOVE AWAY from Jason Robert Brown’s “Moving Too Fast.”

After reading my recent review of Signature Theatre’s “The Last Five Years” in which I suggested the Jason Robert Brown show offered a buffet of audition material, an actor friend of mine broke it to me gently: “Are you crazy?!?! Nobody in their right mind auditions with a Jason Robert Brown song.”

Or one by Sondheim. Or Adam Guettel. Why not? Because their music is a killer to play let alone sight-read and, unless you bring your own accompanist, it’s a risk not worth taking.

You’d think you could earn points for degree of difficulty or by brightening the casting directors’ day with a little dark Sondheim or “Light” by Guettel. Instead, sigh, you must balance your abilities against those of an overworked, underpaid, who-knows-how-good pianist.

Fear of the unknown accompanist is among the more common actor phobias, it turns out. Cathy Hiatt, a struggling actress in “The Last Five Years,” deftly illustrates that point in “Climbing Uphill,” bellyaching:

“Why is the pianist playing so loud … Should I sing louder? I’ll sing louder!

“Maybe I should stop and start over. I’m gonna stop and start over. …

“Why did I pick these shoes?

“Why did I pick this song?

“Why did I pick this career?

“Why-yyyyy does this pianist hate me?”

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Erin Weaver belts it out as Cathy Hiatt in “The Last Five Years,” currently playing at Signature Theatre in Arlington’s Shirlington Village. (Photo by Teresa Wood)

Erin Weaver, in the role at Signature, milks the song, using one hand to conduct the unseen, unknown accompanist — slower, with feeling — to knee-slapping effect. Her grand-slam performance slams home the idea that theater is a collaborative process and its players co-dependent, from start to finish.

An actor is never on his own out there under the spotlight. Someone’s running the spot, after all. And he stands only on the strength of the playwright’s words. He leans on, prays for the seamless orchestration of each techie’s role, every costume change, the conductor getting her V-8 or Red Bull. Then the whole crew sits on pins and needles waiting for notices dissecting their group effort. A critic’s observations might even get worked into the anxious stew of the next performance. And the audience’s reaction may make the difference between a muted or amped-up monologue, a rave or a pan.

To learn that Sondheim, Guettel and J Bob works aren’t kosher at auditions, though: Confound it, how confining!

Believe it or not, this is the SIMPLIFIED version of "The Light in the Piazza," a soprano's dream song but an accompanist's nightmare.
Believe it or not, this is the SIMPLIFIED version of “The Light in the Piazza,” a soprano’s dream song but an accompanist’s nightmare.

Hail to the busy bodies in Signature-Ford’s dolled-up ‘Dolly!’

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Nancy Opel as Dolly dishes it to waiters Jp Qualters, Harris Milgrim, Kyle Vaughn (dance captain) and Alex Puette. (Photo by Carol Rosegg)

(NOTE: THIS WAS WRITTEN DURING PREVIEWS, BEFORE THE PRODUCTION WAS TWEAKED FOR ITS OFFICIAL OPENING NIGHT.)

When “Hello, Dolly!” first made a pit stop in Washington nearly 50 years ago — on a medevac mission after a Detroit flop — the insertion of Carol Channing’s infectious “Before the Parade Passes By” was among the fixes ensuring it be Broadway- and legend-bound.

The only parade fresh in folks’ minds back then, though, at the tail end of 1963, was the funeral procession for America’s crown prince of Camelot, JFK. The nation was glum.

Enter Jerry Herman’s glam gem about a widowed, entrepreneurial matchmaker who sets herself up for success while doling out solutions to everyone else’s problems. Her calling card is simple: Learn to live each day to the fullest.

Fittingly for its re-minted offering at the altar of the Americana musical, Signature Theatre has partnered with Ford’s Theatre, site of that other notorious presidential assassination on a solemn Good Friday (and one inextricably married to the theater in that the perp was a famed actor).

Cast of "Hello, Dolly!" (Photo by Carol Rosegg)
Cast of “Hello, Dolly!” The beloved show just keeps chugging along. (Photo by Carol Rosegg)

And what a shiny new penny it is. Set designer Adam Koch creates the shell for both an 1890s Yonkers train depot and the upscale Harmonia Gardens New York restaurant using copper-tinged architecture that gleams like antique punched tin. Oversize street lamps evoke both indoor and outdoor bustle — helping populate the scene despite an abridged cast of 16 — and a mammoth atrium window screens out the ebullient orchestra led by James Moore. It’s a vintage look quite at home in the historic venue, if a tad imposing.

The copper tones are carried through to the orange glow of Colin K. Bills’ sumptuous lighting and in the luggage piled onto moving box carts that transform into hat boxes and kiosks defining the millinery shop of yet another widow principal, Irene Molloy.

"Hello, Dolly!" ensemble (Photo by Carol Rosegg)
“Hello, Dolly!” ensemble (Photo by Carol Rosegg)

Costume designer Wade Laboissonniere stitches it all together with “we’ve got elegance” vestments that are stately yet trimmed in whimsy: Dolly’s opening ensemble is a Thanksgiving feast in crimson, cranberry, mustard and brass, topped with a turkey-roosting hat. (Or are those Redskins colors?) When the brassy Nancy Opel enters, the audience erupts in grateful applause. Later, in an emerald-and-blushing-rose ladybug vision, trimmed in bows and topped with antennae — obviously her means of honing in on other people’s business as the means of her business — her meddling MO hits high gear.

In every garb, Opel proves bold, bewitching and ultra-feminine. Yet in a show that gets half of its power from costuming — “Put On Your Sunday Clothes” stems from an era when people actually looked forward to one day a week to play dress-up and show off (given today’s casual church dress code and meteoric rise of non-believers, do people own Sunday clothes anymore?) — the power here is not so much in her day dresses but in her belt. Signature has raised the status of what is typically a Vegas showcase to operatic oratorio.

What the company lacks in quantity, it makes up for in quality: well-tuned, rich and rhythmic tones. Kudos to sound designer David Budries for erecting a wall of sound.

The “I Put My Hand In” prologue begins as a male solo, a lone herald awakening from his tipped-hat, Fosse-esque pose, teasing the audience in. The absence of any chorus is at first alarming. No lush harmonies or requisite stage crosses by quilted extras tugging at trundled children? Sacrilege! And only six ensemble members, count ’em: four boys, two girls. How will they pull off the galloping waiters’ scene, one frets.

Cast of "Hello, Dolly!" (Photo by Carol Rosegg)
Cast of “Hello, Dolly!” (Photo by Carol Rosegg)

Thanks to Karma Camp’s gymnastic choreography, they carry it off with grit and sweat, taking on the work of a dozen-plus men plus a couple of women in waiter-drag, and strident vocals to match. In quick shoe changes, they trade soft shoes for taps to stomp out a clattering-platter gambol and back again. Jp Qualters fills the softest shoes of all, prancing on velvety nubs and high-stepping to beat the band. It’s refreshing to see some beefcake (dance captain Kyle Vaughn) in the lineup, not all Tommy Tune clones, but the effect is moves that play more to high jinks than precision. An acrobatic hands-free flip while clutching a wine bottle gets patrons buzzing.

Nancy Opel's stunning "Before the Parade Passes By."
Nancy Opel’s stunning “Before the Parade Passes By.” (Photo by Carol Rosegg)

Busy bodies, all. But the big buzz of the evening comes with Opel’s “Parade” soliloquy. If we needed a sign she could compete with any Dolly that came before, this is it. Laconic and misty-eyed, she rouses goose bumps not with grandstanding but her defiance of loneliness. Rather than populating the stage with marching drones, ever “Out There” director Eric Schaeffer has the ensemble ride in on those transformer rails first as spectators then as besotted dancers in a ragtime ballet – romance blooms all around a plucky Dolly in bluesy silhouette.

Glorious.

And her money line, about spreading money around like manure, earns applause – because this show is that lyrical and the audience is primed to fawn.

Nancy Opel as Dolly Gallagher Levi feeds off of Edward Gero as Horace Vandergelder. (Photo by Carol Rosegg)
Nancy Opel as Dolly Gallagher Levi feeds off of Edward Gero as Horace Vandergelder. (Photo by Carol Rosegg)

Widows aching to remarry … certainly not a very modern theme. But in the 1890s, on the heels of the Civil War and with the suffrage movement in full swing, the nation was rife with widows who were looking not only for husbands but for equal footing in a fertile economy. What makes “Dolly!” farcical is that both the title character and Molloy have their sights on the same sugar daddy. Despite a well of individual passion, they bring little emotional investment to the prospect of actually hooking up with him. The counterpoint is whiny Ermengarde — a well-disguised Carolyn Cole, the Helen Hayes winner who wowed audiences as Tracy Turnblad in Signature’s 2011 smash “Hairspray” — who forsakes society’s matchmaking to plot her own destiny, but not without some grief as her roadblock is the same man, her uncle, who represents the ticket to Dolly’s success.

Edward Gero is not so exacting as moneyed prize Horace Vandergelder; in keeping with the operetta feel, he seems more befuddled fool than a lion to be tamed. The normally uproarious “It Takes a Woman” falls flat. But his campy costumes and properties add panache: pinstripes that don’t quit, glittering gold watch chain, a highly decorated Revolutionary officer’s uniform with toy drum and feathered headdress. Follow the hats and headpieces in this production for a rich subplot, including dignified hair and wigs by Cookie Jordan.
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Tracy Lynn Olivera captivates as adventuresome hat maker Irene Molloy. (Photo by Carol Rosegg)

The star player is gifted soprano Tracy Lynn Olivera (Molloy), who comes gift-wrapped in prim but loose-collared Victorian blouse and bodices cinched in bows. Though her business is hats, she’s rarely seen in them. Her rendition of “Ribbons Down My Back” is a feast for the ears as she glides effortlessly from brandy-cordial chest voice to eiderdown lullaby. She spritzes a typically forlorn song and character with rollicking romance and wit, which meshes well with the hard-to-pin-down widow’s adventure-seeking.

Lauren Williams (Minnie Fay), who received a Helen Hayes nomination for a  flippin’-cute Penny in “Hairspray,” apparently holds the monopoly on endearing sidekicks. She keeps pace with scene-stealer Zack Colonna (Barnaby Tucker), who turns a bumbling foil into an aesthetic dynamo and makes the role feel brand-new down to his twinkle toes. He comes off as the older clerk in both appearance and experience, outshining Gregory Maheu, a cute and capable Cornelius Hackl, whose chemistry with Olivera hobbles. During their “It Only Takes a Moment” moment, it seems Hackl is singing to himself; Olivera is not lit until the second verse, an odd choice. Might her magnetism pull our focus sooner? And without more players and more of a melee, it’s unclear why the “crowd” was arrested in the first place. The abrupt courtroom/jail scene comes as a non sequitur.

From left, Lauren Williams as Minnie Fay, Zack Colonna as Barnaby Tucker, Tracy Lynn Olivera as Irene Molloy, Gregory Maheu as Cornelius Hackl, Edward Gero as Horace Vendergelder, Nancy Opel as Dolly, Carolyn Cole as Ermengarde and Ben Lurye as Ambrose Kemper. (Photo by Carol Rosegg)
From left, Lauren Williams as Minnie Fay, Zack Colonna as Barnaby Tucker, Tracy Lynn Olivera as Irene Molloy, Gregory Maheu as Cornelius Hackl, Edward Gero as Horace Vendergelder, Nancy Opel as Dolly, Carolyn Cole as Ermengarde and Ben Lurye as Ambrose Kemper. (Photo by Carol Rosegg)

But the plot is incidental. Heroine worship is Herman’s calling card. From “Dolly” and “Mame” to “La Cage aux Folles,” his shows are big on big entrances. Which is why this scaled-down version is intriguing. It’s as if the arts, fallen on hard times, are being nickeled-and-dimed in a skeletal version of what’s typically a glittery show about gold-digging. There is no grand staircase to navigate. No runways dotted with lights jutting into the audience. The only boas are reserved for floozy Ernestina Money (a squeaky, cheeky Maria Egler).

A carpet tongue flexes, the center panel of the grand-central-station edifice flies up and Mrs. Dolly Gallagher Levi enters for her downsized “hello,” but still full of shine and full of sparkle as a flaming red valentine. We realize this too-short production is just that: a valentine to the good ol’ days when it made sense to chase after fanciful dreams with only hat in hand, a heart full of hope and a pocket of loose change.

“Hello, Dolly!” plays through May 18 at Ford’s Theatre, 511 Tenth St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20004. For tickets, call Ticketmaster at 1-800-982-2787 or order online.

Les misery of Russell Crowe still sticks in my craw

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Hey, Marni: Did you not see the casting call for Les Misérables?

Who can deny that Natalie Wood was a vision as Maria in the movie version of “West Side Story”? Or that Audrey Hepburn made a darling Eliza Doolittle in “My Fair Lady”? What did these two actresses have in common? Not singing.

Well, not exactly not singing. They were both dubbed less-than-accomplished actresses for needing help with their vocals in those movie musicals. They did sing their roles, though, fully … initially.

WestSideStoryNatalie Wood pre-recorded her songs for the 1961 Oscar-winning picture, per contractual obligations. According to Wikipedia:

“The producers had not originally thought of Natalie Wood for the role of Maria. She was filming Splendor in the Grass with Warren Beatty and was romantically involved with him off-screen. When Beatty went to screen-test for the role of Tony, Wood read opposite him as Maria as a favor because she had been practicing with him. The producers fell in love with the idea of Wood as Maria but did not cast Beatty. … When Wood struggled with the challenging soprano role, her voice was blended with Marni Nixon’s. Natalie sang the lower portions and Marni provided the higher vocals. … Wood filmed to the mixed vocal recordings. During production, she was led to believe that these versions would be used (with Wood singing the majority of the vocals), although music supervisors Saul Chaplin and Johnny Green had already decided her singing voice would later be completely dubbed by Nixon.”

Audrey-Hepburn-My_lAudrey Hepburn had lobbied to play Maria but was sidetracked by pregnancy. She finally got her chance to play — and sing — an iconic Broadway role on screen three years later, opposite the original rebel “rapper” (not quite singing) Rex Harrison in 1964’s Oscar-winning “My Fair Lady.”

Again, in steps Marni Nixon to save the day (per Wikipedia):

“Hepburn’s singing was judged inadequate, and she was dubbed by Marni Nixon, who sang all songs except ‘Just You Wait,’ where Hepburn’s voice was left undubbed during the harsh-toned chorus of the song and Nixon sang the melodic bridge section.”

Where was Marni Nixon when Russell Crowe took on the role of the vengeful Javert in 2012’s “Les Misérables”?! At 83, she could have croaked out a better effort than Crowe’s.

art-353-Crowe-300x0Surely director Tom Hooper’s vision in getting his actors to sing live on set, using no pre-recorded music, was admirable. Made the drama more credible; even made some of the music I never cared for more palatable. But PLEASE. Casting Russell Crowe? He ruined what could have been a masterpiece.

Did Crowe even come with credentials? Apparently. The guy fronts a band, 30 Odd Foot of Grunts. Grunts, yeah. Quelle apropos. As he told the U.K. “Mirror” in January 2012:

russell-new-353-200x0“Music’s always been a huge part of my life and my first record came out in 1981. But what I’ve been doing for a quite a while now is just writing songs. My last major tour was back in 2006, so when this movie came up, I wasn’t really prepared. [Ed: TELL ME ABOUT IT] There was a lot of work involved in reclaiming the voice I once had when I was younger. [Ed: YOU MEAN LIKE A BLEATING BABY’S CRY?] … I’d done stage musicals for quite a few years, starting with ‘Grease’ in Auckland. In fact, I was doing The Rocky Horror Show [Ed: HORRORS!] in Australia at about the same time they were talking about bringing Les Misérables to Sydney [1986-88].”

He says the audition “was in New York and I walked 25 blocks to it through pouring rain. [Ed: A LITTLE FALL OF RAIN NEVER HURT ANYBODY] I did the audition in soaking shoes and wet jeans, but I think it kept me sharp.”

Or flat, as it were.

Neither Hepburn nor Wood was nominated for an Oscar for their transfixing mixed performances. Crowe wasn’t either, thankfully. But this whole trend of movie stars doubling as singers, which took flight in the ‘Aughts starting around the time of Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 “Moulin Rouge,” possibly ought never have happened.

moulinrouge16I was enamored with Nicole Kidman and Ewan MacGregor in “Moulin Rouge.” Cheered Renee Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jones’ legendary 2002 “Chicago” movie adaptation, too. Was down with MacGregor, again, in “Down With Love” in 2003. Not so de-lighted with Kevin Kline’s singing in 2004’s “De-Lovely.” But the movie moved me.

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Daniel Day-Lewis profiles a serial philanderer in the movie musical “Nine.”

Kudos again to Kidman in 2009’s “Nine” plus all of the other bold actors in that perfect “10” project, especially Marion Cotillard and Daniel Day-Lewis. Yes. Daniel Day-Lewis, the “My Left Foot” song-and-dance man. While the critics were hailing his Lincoln, I was still swooning over his turn as Guido, a pathological Romeo, a role that apparently slinked under most movie fans’ radar.

These isolated successes aside, it’s time to crush the dreams of every other film actor out there who thinks they’re going to get cast in the next major movie-musical sensation. Jennifer Lawrence as Elphaba in “Wicked”? Golly no. But Lea Michelle of “Glee” could do it; she was, after all, a Broadway actress first, starring at age 20 in “Spring Awakening.” Before that, at age 9, she made her Broadway debut in “Les Misérables,” as a young Cosette. That’s called paying your dues, Mr. Crowe. Actors’ Equity union dues.

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Lea Michelle, here with Jonathan Groff, originated the role of Wendla in “Spring Awakening.”

With so many capable, trained musical theater actors to choose from, this miserable, vexing trend of forcing actors to wail must stop. Right now. Crowe and his blaring big mouth has nailed that coffin shut.

Subscribing to art’s best-kept secrets

A mystery surrounds “Next to Normal” — currently in production by the Reston Community Players. And it’s not the one you might think.

It seems that some well-meaning soul left a National Alliance of Mental Illness pamphlet detailing the symptoms of depression in my coat jacket while it hung guiltlessly in the lobby coat rack. Hmm. Is someone trying to tell me something?

Sure, I’m depressed. I’m depressed over the fact that other reviewers for other community theater websites — no names, because I don’t want you Googling and ogling their write-ups — gave away too much.

There’s a definite art to writing about art. And sometimes the onus is on us to play the artful dodger.

The_Crying_Game_33405_MediumWhere is it written, you ask, that writers can’t dissect works containing, for lack of a better term, “plot twists”? When “The Crying Game” came out in 1992, reviewers signed an unwritten pact to not reveal the big reveal. The buzz alone drew folks in. That film’s true heroes were not the reviewers (some did reveal its big secret, but not without a honkin’ SPOILER warning attached) but fellow patrons, who managed to recommend it by word of mouth without saying too much. What fun is there in castrating someone else’s fun?

Everyone loves a good surprise. Consider a zillion movies with cherished twists, from “Cabin in the Woods,” “Fight Club,” “The Village,” “The Sixth Sense,” “Primal Fear,” “The Others,” even 1960’s “Psycho.” When Alfred Hitchcock set about filming “Psycho,” he had his production assistants buy up every copy of the book it was based on so that virginal audiences wouldn’t guess the ending. Heck, 1939’s “The Wizard of Oz,” which may not have devised the “it was all a dream” device but perfected and popularized it, banked on conspiratorial capital at the start.

Over time, after everyone and their cousin have seen them, beloved creative works with well-kept secrets are ripe for the nit-pickin’. But, please, give it time.

WizardStatueFilms do it all the time — toy with their audiences. But how many stage shows can you name with secreted twists? “Next to Normal,” a powerful treatment on mental illness by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey, has been around only five years. All I can say is: shame, shame, shame on you, and you know who you are.

Suspense is defined as “a state or condition of mental uncertainty or excitement, as in awaiting a decision or outcome, usually accompanied by a degree of apprehension or anxiety.” How brilliant, then, to build suspenseful buzz around a stage show about mental illness? Just enough to keep people on edge, which heightens the experience.

There are a treasure trove of musicals we pretty much know the endings to before we go: “Titanic,” “1776,” “Jesus Christ Superstar” — well-known, predictable stories we find endless fascination in retelling. Then along comes an intriguing show where the plot is not well known, the subject matter seems a tad depressing and, I’ll give you, for which it seems hard at first to sell tickets. Theater troupes rely on reviews to drum up interest, yeah, but not to suck the life out of the work.

I know I feel anxiety every time I attend a production of “Next to Normal” with someone new. First, I research their life stories for potential triggers. Then I peek at the program and decide whether they should read theirs. In the case of RCP’s program, the answer was “no.” Then, I steer them away from Others, don’t allow them to make any friends in the lobby or bathroom. I keep them busy talking about something they are passionate about right up until curtain time. I pray that announcements by the house management will be brief. At last, the prelude begins, and my anxiety eases. I can sit back and enjoy the ride.

For those who have not yet seen it, but plan to go: Don’t read anything, for the love of art, just go. For all the rest of you: same deal.

And to the person who left the depression pamphlet in my coat pocket: I’m sure you meant well, unlike that misguided critic unworthy of being named, hence just another whatshisname spoil-sport.

(what was his name? what was his name? what was his namenamenamenamename?)

Going “pro”

And with this review, below, I become an “official” D.C.-area theater critic, joining the staff at DC Metro Theater Arts (DCMTA).

My review of “Copenhagen,” by Michael Frayn, at Rockville Little Theatre, March 8.

I may still post here from time to time about shows that fly beneath the radar or off-the-cuff ideas.

Oh, and here are favorite photos from the show — more striking than those accompanying the review. These offer a taste of the beautiful staging by director Heather Benjamin, lighting design by Jason Wells and costume design by Jacy Barber. (Don’t do the posting, only the filing.) Enjoy!

Photo by Caitlin Dennis
From left, Mary Ann McAllister, John Decker and Ben Swiatek in a scene from “Copenhagen.” (Photo by Caitlin Dennis)
Ben Swiatek as Werner Heisenberger, with Mary Ann McAllister and John Decker, in background, as Niels and Margrethe Bohr in a scene from "Copenhangen." (Photo by Caitlin Dennis)
Ben Swiatek as Werner Heisenberger, with Mary Ann McAllister and John Decker, in background, as Niels and Margrethe Bohr, in a scene from “Copenhangen.” (Photo by Caitlin Dennis)
"Copenhagen" stage design by Heather Benjamin (Photo by Terry Byrne)
“Copenhagen” stage design by Heather Benjamin (Photo by Terry Byrne)

‘Next to Normal,’ on steroids

Next_to_NormalIn the five years since Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt made their mark off-Broadway with Next to Normal, their peep show into how a dysfunctional family functions, audiences and critics have had bipolar reactions. A musical about mental illness? Crazy! How depressing.

But in the hands of director Andrew JM Regiec and the Reston Community Players, it’s an uplifting treatment of love and how to cope with its predictable loss. Next to nothing is wrong with this shining production of Next to Normal. It hurts so good.

Reston Community Players' fully functioning, rock-star cast of "Next to Normal," from left: Terrence M. Barr, Eric Hughes, Ashleigh Markin, Miguel Lopez, Harv Lester and Jolene Vettese.
Reston Community Players’ fully functioning, rock-star cast of “Next to Normal,” from left: Terrence M. Barr, Eric Hughes, Ashleigh Markin, Miguel Lopez, Harv Lester and Jolene Vettese. (Courtesy of Miguel Lopez)

The story of “the perfect loving family” — father, mother, sister, brother, each co-dependent but disconnected — is reflected in Regiec‘s simple, multi-leveled set: Sprawling stairs dominate, front and center, connecting the action, forcing actors to climb up, down, across, backwards, while avoiding an open pit downstage housing a rock-pelting orchestra polished by music director and pianist Elisa Rosman. There are no walls at all and yet you can feel the walls closing in as family secrets are revealed.

ABOUT THOSE SANDWICHES: “Theater’s sandwich generation”

While only the matriarch is burdened by a disease label, the rest of the brood suffers serious side effects. A self-sacrificing martyr of a husband. A son unhealthily close to his mom who becomes her confidant. A high-achieving daughter whose perfectionism is a means to escape the mad house. Watching its dissembling proves unnerving. And, a warning: Nobody watches their language.

From left, Ashleigh Markin, Terrence M. Barr, Harv Lester and Jolene Vettese, with Miguel Lopez in background.
The Goodman family, from left: Ashleigh Markin, Terrence M. Barr, Harv Lester and Jolene Vettese. (Courtesy of Reston Community Players)

Drugs also play a role, as the Pulitzer- and Tony-winning work explores Big Bad Pharma’s hypnotic hold on the American psyche, which can leave any family feeling flawed or fearing what troubles lie beneath … incubating.

The metro D.C. area’s community stages have been heavily buzzed by this show in the past year alone: Taking Flight Theatre Co. in Sterling, Va., did a cartoonish rendering last June; McLean (Va.) Community Players took itself pretty seriously last month with a sturdy, more seasoned cast.

What distinguishes RCP’s production, sprung fittingly in utopian Reston, Va., is its real-world accessibility. It’s not as slick or sly as the original but has just the right dose of capricious caper.

During a doctor consultation — Who’s Crazy/My Psychopharmacologist and IRegiec infests the stage with shades of Dr. Seuss as cast members cavort in Thing I/Thing 2 get-ups toting big-girl pills. The bold, goofy choice works. It hearkens back to the show’s workshop roots, when it toyed with more comic songs and dazzling production numbers — including the original opener, Feeling Electric, which was replaced by a more contemporary, suburban anthem, Just Another Day — and before crystallizing at D.C.’s Arena Stage in Crystal City in late 2008 with its proper gravitas, and starring the rip-roaring Alice Ripley.

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Terrence M. Barr comforts stage mom Jolene Vettese in the lilting “I Dreamed a Dance.”

RCP’s Jolene Vettese helps this critic quickly get over Ripley. Vettese seems honest-to-good normal. She caresses her role of manic mom, while burning with a feminist fire relatable to Everywoman. Her performance veers wildly from wry to wrenching, from child-like to primal defense of territory. And it all works. Just when you think she’s spent, she takes things to another level, such as with the country-rock I Miss the Mountains and a walloping You Don’t Know.

As her partner in doing time, Harv Lester plays a ticking-time-bomb husband with rigor. If his acting comes off as a bit awkward or antiseptic, even if he misses a lyric or two, no one minds because his singing is heaven-sent. His part in the A Light in the Dark vignette is stellar and unforgettable.

UPDATE AT 11:26 P.M., MARCH 9: Happened to see the show again, and Lester was on fire tonight. He had me in the palm of his hands, puddy, weeping, the show’s true emotional anchor. This was his opera. So I eat my words. The man was fierce, flawless.

Nimble-footed Terrence M. Barr is terrific as the son, showcasing razor-sharp instincts and a spirited emotional and vocal range, whether nailing heavy-metal raucous or chilling falsetto. Where is so much power stored in one so thin? Daughter Ashleigh Markin is perfectly captivating. She drips with angst-filled, rolling-eyed, weight-shifting, shuffling non-bullshit, so true to the soundtrack of our lives. The spotlight’s on her to deliver the title line, and it somewhat echoes those trendy PSAs by Adoptive Families: “You don’t have to be perfect to be a perfect parent.” Adoptive families. Adaptive families. Whatev.

Maintaining an even/uneven keel amid roiling family drama is a balancing act for anyone let alone director. But Regiec and assistant director Lee Slivka deftly nurture this fully functional cast’s talents. Creative staging drives home the fact that a daughter’s runaway instinct will get her nowhere. Upstage interactions between Natalie and boyfriend Henry, a charming but stiff Miguel Lopez, mimic and/or mirror those of the parents downstage, or on opposing sides of the stage. All productions use this stereophonic device to some degree, but the spectral distance and angle are what make it refreshing.

Ashleigh Markin and Miguel Lopez (Courtesy of Reston Community Players)
Ashleigh Markin and Miguel Lopez (Courtesy of Reston Community Players)

Comparisons of this work, which is mostly sung, to The Who’s Tommy are irresistible — even the opening chords evoke Pinball Wizard. The magnetic Eric Hughes, who doubles devilishly as Dr. Fine and Dr. Madden, will get your juices flowing in the vein of a male Acid Queen, with even better hair. The light crew’s timing works in concert with his electrifying jolts and easy charisma. The rockin’ six-piece orchestra sounds much fuller, as if on steroids. At times, though, there seems to be disagreement between singers and pit about who’s leading whom. One could argue these out-of-sync sound board moments also work with a theme of coming unbalanced. Not a deal-breaker.

Costumes (Melissa Jo York-Tilley) fit the characters so well they seem plucked from the actors’ closets. But lighting designers Ken and Patti Crowley are the ones who seal the deal. Not just because they shed enough light on the proceedings to spy blood-tinged water, gloom and foreboding.

It’s because this show is, ultimately, about light. The light in the eyes of love, a porch light patiently on ’til dawn, the warm glowing lights of home, a glaring light of truth, the inner light we must sustain, and, in our darkest hour, those distant beacons of hope.

Rating: Five stars, three hankies

Runs through March 23, 2013, at The Reston Community Center’s CenterStage: 2310 Colts Neck Rd. in Reston, Va. A talk-back with a psychologist follows the March 10 matinee. Donations gratefully accepted for the National Alliance on Mental Illness. For tickets, visit restonplayers.org or call the box office at 703-476-4500.