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McNally, Fierstein, Lypsinka to light up spring theatrical season

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With spring comes a deluge of promising new productions, many of special interest to LGBT theater-goers. Here’s a sampling.

Gay playwright Terrence McNally is a lifelong opera devotee who has lovingly infused opera themes, characters, lore and trivia into some of his best plays. In honor of the multiple Tony Award-winning playwright’s passion, the Kennedy Center (www.kennedy-center.org) presents “Terrence McNally’s Nights at the Opera,” a five-week celebration featuring three of the playwright’s most opera-centric works, through April 18.

The mini-festival kicks off with McNally’s new backstage drama, “Golden Age” (through April 4). According to press notes, “Golden Age takes place backstage at the Théâtre-Italien in Paris on the evening of Jan. 24, 1835. The occasion is the premiere of Vincenzo Bellini’s opera “I Puritani.” Assembled are the composer and his faithful friend, Francesco Florimo, and the four singers for whom the opera was expressly composed known the world over as the Puritani Quartet. Bellini’s rivalry with his fellow Italian composer, Gaetano Donizetti, for French favor was at its height. This opera was to cement his supremacy. It was to be his last.” The production features Broadway’s Marc Kudisch and out actor Jeffery Carlson as Bellini. A talented stage veteran, Carlson is also known for his role as transgender Zarf/Zoe on the daytime soap “All My Children.”

Next up is McNally’s “The Lisbon Traviata” (March 20 through April 11) — a tragicomedy about opera obsession featuring longtime gay best friends and opera buffs played by celebrated out actors Malcolm Gets and John Glover. The McNally salute closes with Tyne Daly as Maria Callas in “Master Class” (March 25 to April 18), the terrific Tony-award winning play concerning la Callas and the classes she taught at Julliard. Daly, who garnered awards for playing TV detective Mary Beth Lacey and Mama Rose on Broadway, seems an improbable choice to assay the imperious diva. But considering both ladies’ known flair for the dramatic, it just might be a case of perfect casting.

Gayer theatergoers with deep pockets might like the Kennedy Center’s Spring Gala (May 2) in honor of the center’s founding chairman Roger L. Stevens, co-hosted by Liza Minnelli and gravelly-voiced gay actor Harvey Fierstein who will already be in town performing Tevye the milkman in “Fiddler on the Roof” (April 13 to May 19) at the National Theatre (www.nationaltheatre.org).

Through March 21, you can still catch “Andy Warhol: Good for the Jews?” at Theatre J (www.washingtondcjcc.org). In his engaging one-man show, Josh Kornbluth explores his relationship to gay artist Andy Warhol’s controversial portraits of 10 world famous Jews including lesbian writer Gertrude Stein. Coming up in May at Theatre J, out actor Sarah Marshall takes the plunge in Theatre J’s production “Mikveh” (May 5 through June 5). With an all-female cast, Hadar Galron’s play takes audiences inside the secretive world of the ritual bath practiced by Orthodox Jewish women and explores the feminist consciousness and evolving role of women in contemporary Israel.

In April, Signature Theatre (www.signature-theatre.org) presents the Washington-area premiere of “[title of show]” (April 6 through June 27), a musical by then-struggling writers about struggling writers writing a musical. Written and composed by a pair of gay southerners, Hunter Bell (book) and Jeff Bowen (music and lyrics), the wittily titled work is directed by Matthew Gardiner and features a young cast including two talented Helen Hayes Award-winning actors Erin Driscoll and Jenna Sokolowski.

Also in April, Ganymede Arts’ Jeffrey Johnson plans to slip into a dress and heels on at least three separate occasions. First on April 15, he’s scheduled to unleash his pink-haired alter ego Galactica for a free evening of song and sweets at ACKC, the cocoa bar café on 14th Street. Next, Johnson reprises his portrayal of Jackie O’s kookiest cousin in “Edie Beale Live at Reno Sweeney” for two nights (April 29-30) at Cobalt before taking the act to Joe’s Pub in Manhattan.

Ganymede (www.ganymedearts.org) is also mounting a production of “Naked Boys Singing” (May 7 through June 13) at the very intimate Playbill Café. The title says it all. This lighthearted revue whose casting is definitely crucial to its success features undressed men and a score that includes numbers like “Muscle Addiction” and “Perky Little Porn Star.”

The Shakespeare Theatre Company’s (www.shakespearetheatre.org) gay artistic director Michael Kahn is staging playwright David Ives’ adaptation of Pierre Corneille’s classic French farce “The Liar” (April 6 through May 23), and the company is also presenting George Bernhard Shaw’s “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” (June 8 through July 11), an amusing look at social problems of his day starring “Designing Women’s” Dixie Carter as the title character, an aging hooker.

Gay director/actor Jay Hardee is staging Washington Shakespeare Company’s production of “Every Young Woman’s Desire” (May 20 through June 20) at the funky Clark Street Playhouse in Arlington. The company describes the show as “a darkly comic psychological thriller first produced in Santiago in the final years of Pinochet’s authoritarian rule, [it’s] about a woman’s struggle with a mysterious and dangerous intruder and goes to the heart of the brutal dictatorship’s mechanisms for control: terror, seduction and security.“

On Mondays throughout May at Church Street Theatre, Factory 449 (www.factory449.com) inaugurates its annual play reading series, “Factory Made.” The plays – all of which under consideration for full productions in the company’s upcoming seasons – include “In the Flesh,” (May 3) a prison-set nightmare adapted from a short story by gay horror write and filmmaker Clive Barker; and “Wig Out!” (May 24), a dramatic foray into the compelling and fiercely competitive subculture of drag balls penned by gay playwright Tarrell Alvin McCraney’s (“In the Red and Brown Water,” “The Brothers Size”).

At the Studio Theatre (www.studiotheatre.org), John Epperson’s now-legendary drag creation Lypsinka takes on James Kirkwood’s campy saga of two aging divas desperate to revive their fading careers in “Lypsinka in Legends!” (June 16 through July 4). With her unique blend of artistry and postmodern genius, the undisputed queen of sync will no doubt breathe new life into Kirkwood’s rickety vehicle. First performed by Mary Martin and Carol Channing in the mid-’80s, “Legends” was revived three years ago with Joan Collins and former “Dynasty” co-star Linda Evans in a multi-city tour that included D.C.

Be sure to catch “Clybourne Park” at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company (woollymammoth.net) through April 11. The play is a powerful take on race and gentrification in 1950s Chicago. And when that wraps, “Gruesome Playground Injuries” debuts May 17 and runs through June 13. It’s the story of the relationship between two boys who meet at age 8 in the nurse’s office and then grow up, enduring heartache and raising the question of how far one friend can go in helping another.

And if you’re in the mood for a bit of musical comedy fused with political satire, check out “Dancing with the Czars” from Hexagon 2010 (hexagon.org), a charitable non-profit staging this show through April 10 at the Takoma Park/Silver Spring Performing Arts Center (7995 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring, MD).

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‘Evita’s Return’ offers different take on Argentinian icon

Posthumous look at mummified first lady’s travels is not fiction

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Fran Tapia (front) Back L-R Facundo Agustin, Luis Obed Velazquez, Tsaitami Duchicela (back) Oscar A.Rodriguez, Rodolfo Santamarina, and Sofia Grosso. ( Photo by Stan Weinstein)

“Momea en el Clóset (Mummy in the Closet): Evita’s Return”
Through June 9
GALA Hispanic Theatre
3333 14th St., N.W.
$50
Galatheatre.org

Whether alive or dead, Eva Perón wielded her own brand of political power. After her death in 1952, Eva’s cult of mostly poor and working-class followers remained devoted to their Santa Evita. Her husband, Argentina’s president Juan Perón, fostered adulation by having her wasted body painstakingly embalmed, and displaying the waxen corpse like the incorruptible bodies of sainted Roman Catholic luminaries. But when the anti-Peronistas took power, they had other ideas; storing her away far from sight seemed a better idea.

Typically works about Argentina’s first lady focus on her unbridled ambition and ascent from anonymity to fame, but the strikingly original “Momea en el Clóset (Mummy in the Closet): Evita’s Return” — now at GALA Hispanic Theatre — is different. The collaboration of GALA’s producing artistic director Gustavo Ott (book and lyrics) and Mariano Vales (music and lyrics) spotlights the events following Eva’s death from cervical cancer at just 33.  

At the center of this entertaining madness is winning out actor Fran Tapia as Eva, a corpse sporting a ball gown and the trademark platinum blonde chignon, standing stiffly in a closet, more a mobile cabinet actually. In death, she realizes a silent dignity with flashes of an unyielding passion for social justice. 

The Chilean award-winning Tapia possesses a stunningly emotive voice, quickly evidenced in the show’s first number “Evita, Evita,” when near death Eva bravely addresses the needy crowd whom she endearingly calls her descamisados (the very poor). Simultaneously, the smug anti-Peronists — bourgeoisie and military types — sing “cancer is homeland,” “cancer is love.” They relish the idea of her dying and are counting the minutes to her imminent demise. 

So, the scene is set. Eva’s shabby posthumous story unfolds – performed in Spanish with eloquent English surtitles. Sprinkled with humor and poignant bits, it’s a dramedy, reflective of then and today. 

Unlike Eva’s “Rainbow Tour” of 1947 when Argentina’s newly minted first lady was introduced to Europe with mixed results, her death journey is an obscure low-rent, outing. She finds herself in a Milanese cemetery with some particularly pesky souls, each who apparently strode the earth in different centuries (all cleverly costumed by Becca Janney). 

For a time, she lands with an increasingly cynical Perón (stentorian-voiced Martín Ruiz) in Spanish exile. With him are new wife Isabel (Camila Taleisnik), portrayed as a reluctant and inept replacement for Evita, and scheming political cum spiritual adviser López (Diego Mariani).

As crazy as it sounds, GALA’s current offering isn’t a work of fiction. At the top of the show, it’s made perfectly clear that any resemblance to the truth is factual. Director Mariano Caligaris’ inventive, fearless staging along with Valeria Cossnu’s exhilarating choreography, make for exciting storytelling. 

Music inspired by Latin rhythms of samba, reggae, bachata, tango, tarantella, and waltz (by way of Bavaria) is directed by Walter “Bobby” McCoy and performed live by a fabulous unseen seven-person orchestra. 

Grisele Gonzalez’s serviceable, multi-tiered set design affords the various prerequisite balconies and perches. An upstage scrim is perfect for the projections (Hailey Laroe) of grimy actual footage from Eva’s funeral and subsequent violent skirmishes involving fascists against the people. 

The cast is uniformly terrific. They sing, dance, and act with equal skill, and whether playing protesters, clerical staff, or handsome Argentinian soldiers, they look the part. Most are required to interact with the cadaver in differing ways from timidly to less than respectfully. 

Making his GALA debut, wonderfully able Rodrigo Pedreira shows off his versatility as Dr. Ara, the man tasked with making the dead woman presentable for public consumption, as well as a general whose butch exterior is belied by the occasional mincing walk and longing looks directed at his cute aide-de-camp (Luis Obed Velázquez).

As she travels, mummified Eva says “And once again the moving begins. They move me through offices, basements, garages. They cover me, package me, label me, and off I go traveling again! We come from fascism and toward fascism we go.”

Alive or dead, Eva was never able to successfully crack Buenos Aires’ famously tough high society, but she found fans elsewhere. 

Over about 14 years as a displaced dead body and beyond, Tapia’s Eva embodies the spirit of Argentina’s millions, the common people. They return the dedication: Candles are lit. Prayers are offered. Intercession is sought. Life goes on, but Eva isn’t easily forgotten.

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Celebrating the 2024 Helen Hayes Awards nominees

38th annual event returns next week ‘building on last year’s success’

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Justin Weaks as Belize and Nick Westrate as Prior in ‘Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches’ at Arena Stage. (Photo by Margot Schulman)

2024 Helen Hayes Award
May 20, 2024
For tickets go to theatrewashington.org

It’s that time of year again when the DMV’s theater pros and those who love them getdolled up and show up to celebrate the best of last year’s work. 

On Monday (May 20), Theatre Washington’s Helen Hayes Awards marks its 38th year with a splashy ceremony at The Anthem on the District Wharf. With two parts, a non-rushed intermission, and a lively after party, the program is long but the format allows time to celebrate award recipients, enjoy the entertainment, and talk about some serious issues without racing to the end.

Co-directed by Will Gartshore and Raymond O. Caldwell, the show features four terrific hosts — out actor Tom Story, Felicia Curry, Maria Rizzo, and Rayanne Gonzales along with an ensemble of five singer/dancers (dubbed the Fab Five) peppering the show with some fun numbers. 

“We’re building on last year’s success,” says Amy Austin, Theatre Washington’s out president and CEO. “Again, dinner will be served during the show à la Golden Globes on the first floor for mostly nominees and their guests, and the second floor offers lots more affordable stadium seating.” 

Austin’s approach harks back to the sumptuous Helen Hayes Awards of yesteryear, which she cleverly remembers as the “ice sculpture age.” Ultimately, the goal is to create something fun, memorable, and meaningful: “It’s such a collaborative community and that’s why the Helen Hayes Awards are special; it’s a reunion of people who’ve worked together.” 

Still, the doling out of awards remains the focus of the long evening. And that leaves a lot of nominees waiting on tenterhooks to see just who will go home with prizes named for the legendary first lady of American theater, Miss Helen Hayes. 

The awards selection process is no simple task, she adds. Recognizing work from 151 eligible productions presented in the 2023 calendar year, nominations were made in 41 categories and grouped in “Helen” or “Hayes” cohorts, depending on the number of Equity members involved in the production with Hayes counting more. 

The nods are the result of 49 carefully vetted judges considering 2005 individual pieces of work, such as design, direction, choreography, performances, and more. Productions under consideration in 2023 included 44 musicals, 107 plays, and 36 world premieres.

As one of this year’s nominees, out actor Justin Weaks says he isn’t about beating the competition. He concedes it may sound cliché, but it’s a privilege simply to be nominated, especially with all the work done in the DMV. And certainly, with three wins and multiple nominations under his belt, he’s in a position to know. 

And now, he’s nominated for Outstanding Supporting Performer in a Play, for his notable turn as Belize/Mr. Lies in Arena Stage’s production of Tony Kushner’s seminal masterwork “Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches.”

For Weaks, a longtime D.C. actor who relocated to New York in 2021, the “Angels” experience was singular: “It’s one of those great, very American plays that remains relevant, and that it’s centered on the gay experience and HIV/ AIDS makes it especially impactful for the queer community.”

Often noted for creating roles in new plays, Weaks enjoyed being part of a piece that so many hands have touched since its premiere more than 30 years ago. He was thrilled to work with the production’s Hungarian director János Szász who, Weak says, approached the piece as a new work, treating it like fresh text.

And does Weaks have a speech prepared? 

“The morning of the awards, I’ll journal about my experience with ‘Angels,’ and if my name is called, I’ll get up and give an abbreviated version of what I wrote. But mostly for me, it’s a reunion, a chance to be cute, get dressed up and celebrate the work.” 

In the Outstanding Lighting Design category, Brooklyn-based Venus Gulbranson is nominated for Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company & The Wilma Theater’s “My Mama and the Full-scale Invasion”. It’s the proud and out Filipino designer’s second nomination (last year she received a nod for Monumental Theatre’s “tick, tick… BOOM!”). 

“Lighting design is underrated in the eye of theatergoers,” explains Gulbranson who earned her lighting stripes as an Arena Stage fellow. “Scenic and costume design are somehow more tangible to them; they don’t often realize that it’s lighting designers who navigate the mood of the story. 

“It’s a very empathetic skill, and a good designer can take you there emotionally.  When you’re tearing up watching a scene, the lighting has a lot to do with it. We also spend a lot of time making scenes transition smoothly,” she adds. 

“We half-jokingly say ‘a compliment to set design is a compliment to us.’ We are the reason there are beautiful colors on stage. Scenery is our canvas.” 

Other queer nominees include Bobby Smith (Studio Theatre’s “Fun House”), Billie Krishawn (Arena’s “Angels in America”), Miss Kitty (Spooky Action Theatre’s “Agreste”), Michael Urie (The Kennedy Center’s “Monty Python’s Spamalot”), costume designer Frank Labovitz (Constellation Theatre Company’s “The School for Lies”), director Jason Loewith and set designer Tony Cisek (Round House Theatre & Olney Theatre Center’s “Ink”), and most likely more.  

Both the Helen Hayes Awards’ choreographer and a nominee, David Singleton is up for Outstanding Choreography in a Musical for NextStop Theatre Company’s “Ride the Cyclone,” a wildly entertaining dark comedy.

“The show’s score is eclectic, so I could do a little bit of everything. I had to find anchor points for each number where I draw most inspiration, and go with it. I have a strong jazz background, both street and musical theater jazz, but I’m also really into tap and some ballet.”  

Singleton began performing professionally in “Dreamgirls” at Toby’s Dinner Theatre in 2017, but he hit his stride with “really fierce” choreography post pandemic. 

A dancer first, Singleton says his energies are divided into thirds: performer, choreographer, and drag queen (Tiara Missou, an “incredibly vain but kind queen” who’s regularly featured at D.C. bars Pitchers and Shakers). When Singleton was 18, he volunteered to work the Helen Hayes Awards. He recalls thinking “I’ll be part of this one day, for what exactly I’m not sure” and now he says, “I’m here and I feel honored.”  

And what about a prepared speech? “Oh, definitely. I’m a rambler.”  

Break legs nominees! 

A full list of award recipients will be available at theatrewashington.org on Tuesday, May 21.

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Miss Kitty tackles classical mythology in ‘Metamorphoses’

Folger production seen through the lens of the African diaspora

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Miss Kitty (Photo by Sarah Laughland Photography)

‘Metamorphoses’
May 7-June 16
Folger Theatre
201 East Capitol St., S.E.
$20-$84
Folger.edu

Miss Kitty’s words are thoughtful and measured, occasionally punctuated by flamboyant flourishes and uplifting proclamations. Her tried and tested tagline is “live in fierce not fear.” 

She describes herself as “AMAB (assigned male at birth), nonbinary, genderqueer, transfemme” as well as “chanteuse, noble blacktress, and dancer.” 

Currently, Miss Kitty is testing her talents in Mary Zimmerman’s “Metamorphoses” at Folger Theatre on Capitol Hill. 

At 90 minutes, “Metamorphoses,” is made up of interwoven vignettes from classical mythology including the tales of Midas and his daughter, Alcyone and Ceyx, and Eros and Psyche. 

“It’s all stories that relate to the human condition: the follies, the happiness, the love, the loss,” Miss Kitty explains. “And a thorough knowledge of mythology isn’t a requirement for enjoyment.” 

The language is contemporary and with its 11-person ensemble cast – comprised exclusively of Black or indigenous people of color – they’re adding their own spin to its present-day feel, she adds. 

In Zimmerman’s famously staged premiere production, the actors performed in and around a pool of water. At Folger, director Psalmayene 24 has ditched actual aquatics; instead, he suggests the element by introducing Water Nymph, a new character constructed around Miss Kitty. 

Water Nymph doesn’t speak, but she’s very visible from the opening number and throughout the play on stage and popping up in unexpected places around the venue. 

“It’s a lot of dancing; I haven’t danced the way Tony Thomas is choreographing me in a very long time. At 40, can she still make theater with just my body as her instrument?

The name “Miss Kitty” was born over a decade ago. 

Miss Kitty recalls, “She was still presenting as male and going by her dead name. Someone commented that with the wig she was wearing for a part, she looked like Eartha Kitt whom she deeply admires.”

Her penchant for illeism (referring to oneself in third person) isn’t without good reason. She explains, “It’s to reiterate that however she might look, she’s always there; and if you misgender, she will let you know.”

Initially, the moniker was a drag persona at Capital Pride or the occasional fabulous cabaret performance at a nightclub.

But as time passed, she realized that Miss Kitty was something she couldn’t take off. She had always been a part of her. 

“She’s helped me to grow and flourish; she’s given me the strength that I never would have had before. I’m so proud of myself for realizing that before it was too late.” 

Bringing Miss Kitty into her theatrical career presented some concerns. Would theater folks be open to the new her, especially those she’d worked with before? 

Not always, but she’s found new companies who’ve welcomed Miss Kitty with open arms including Avant Bard, Spooky Action Theater, and now Folger. 

Last fall, Miss Kitty appeared in Spooky Action’s Agreste (Drylands), a stunning queer story penned by gay Brazilian playwright Newton Moreno. 

After being invited to audition and reading the script, Miss Kitty was determined to be a part of the production. 

A work dealing with love and being trans, and transphobia, and how people can turn on a dime once they learn the truth about someone, resonated deeply with the actor. 

“The play speaks to the idea that if people just let people be who they are and love who they want to love we’d all be a lot happier,” she says. 

For her sublime efforts, Miss Kitty nabbed a Helen Hayes Award nomination in the Outstanding Lead Performer category (winner to be determined on Monday, May 20 during a ceremony at The Anthem). 

It’s her first time nominated and first time attending. She’s thrilled. 

Miss Kitty grew up in Oxen Hill, Md., and now lives near Washington Harbor. Her entry into performance was through music followed by high school plays. She graduated from Catholic University with a degree in music/concentration in musical theater, and from there dove directly into showbiz. 

Looking back, Miss Kitty says, “being a person of color AND queer can be a double whammy of difficulty. You have to live in light and do the things you’re afraid to do. That’s the game changer.” 

Presenting “Metamorphoses” through the lens of the African diaspora (the cast also includes Jon Hudson Odom and Billie Krishawn, among others) helps us to realize that every story can be universal, especially for marginalized people — South Asian, Native American, or fully queer perspectives, she says.  

“Having an all-Black ensemble opens all new worlds for everyone.”

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