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Gay composer’s love letter to family

‘Sycamore Trees’ is candid, compassionate

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Four years ago on his 50th birthday, gay composer Ricky Ian Gordon won an Obie Award for his song cycle, “Orpheus and Euridice.” On that very same day, he also learned that he’d received a $100,000 commission from Signature Theatre to compose a new musical as part of the Arlington company’s “American Musical Voices Project.” The result of Gordon being selected by Signature is “Sycamore Trees,” an almost entirely autobiographical piece chronicling his family’s story from the mid-1940s through the 1990s.

Initially, Gordon thought he’d satisfy his sizable commission by collaborating with an established lyricist and a playwright on a new musical work. When that didn’t pan out, Gordon sensed the universe was telling him something: “Do the family piece!” Certainly the material was there: His mother was a Borsht Belt singer and his father a macho World War II veteran. He and his three older sisters, Gordon attests, were the result of their parents’ outsized passion. And while the postwar Jewish family’s climb from the Bronx to suburban Long Island wasn’t unusual, their rancorous battles and hardcore addiction issues were.

Gordon first began work on the libretto and score that would become “Sycamore Trees” in the 1980s. “When I started, I had a story about my family but not self,” he explains. “I first had to live, bottom out, lose a lover to AIDS, and get clean. Only after putting my world back together did telling my story make sense to me. ”

In a Signature press release, “Sycamore Trees’” director Tina Landau says, “The whole piece feels like a poem — some haunting combination of memory, music, and dream.” But it’s also sharp, biting and very funny with an eclectic, melodic score. This world premiere production features a talented cast of Broadway vets including Judy Kuhn, Mac Kudisch, Matthew Risch, and Diane Sutherland. Tony Yazbeck plays Andrew, the Gordon character.

About midpoint in the musical’s development, Andrew had a poem, essentially a paean to his father’s laud worthy penis. Ultimately, the passage was cut. (“There’s only so much you can ask from an audience,” Gordon notes wryly, “Especially when you tell them that they’re seeing a musical.”)

But another scene recounting young Andrew’s disastrous sexual experimentation with another boy remains intact. Many changes and edits were made throughout the evolution of “Sycamore Trees,” and none of them came easily, says Gordon. When it’s your own story, it’s especially difficult to leave something out.

At just 16, Gordon entered Carnegie Mellon University. In his freshman year, he realized he was meant to be a composer. For him, it was “like walking into the light.” Today, Gordon’s advice to aspiring composers is to listen to all the music they possibly can. Writing for theater demands that they call upon all that they know to make every moment as authentic as possible. To do that, it’s necessary to have a broad musical vocabulary at your fingertips. Most young composers have yet to acquire that. With him it was different.

“I’m a trash heap of information,” Gordon happily reports. “As long as I can remember my ambition was to become a great artist, so I knew all the poets; foreign film greats like Bergman, Truffaut, Godard, Antonioni, Fellini, and Mizoguchi; and so many composers, particularly Shostakovich, Rorem, and Sondheim. Consequently, I was very informed and totally imitative.”

“I feel compelled to write musicals that are both emotionally and psychologically like the foreign films that I grew up loving. That’s my aesthetic,” adds Gordon whose other works include the opera “The Grapes of Wrath” and the musicals “Dream True” and “My Life with Albertine.”

“I like to bring the close-up to the stage. There’s intimacy even in my more epic work.”

“Sycamore Trees” is a love letter to Gordon’s family. And while he exposes himself and his kin, warts and all, his candid observations are exceedingly compassionate and beautifully rendered.

‘Sycamore Trees’
Through June 13
Signature Theatre
4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington
703-573-SEAT
signature-theatre.org

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Theater

‘Midnight at the Never Get’ captures gay 1960s NYC

Virtual play from Signature tells story of young musical couple

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Christian Douglas and Sam Bolen in ‘Midnight at the Never Get.’ (Photo by Christopher Mueller)

‘Midnight at the Never Get’
Streaming through June 21
Signature Theatre
$35
sigtheatre.org

Signature Theatre’s latest virtual offering, “Midnight at the Never Get,” a terrific backstage musical romance set against 1960s New York City, tells the story of a young gay couple struggling to succeed personally and professionally in a world where being who they are isn’t always easy.

It’s relayed in mostly sung flashbacks by Trevor Copeland (Sam Bolen), a sassy, campy singer who goes to New York to be gay and pursue a career in music. He finds happiness – for a while – with reserved pianist and aspiring composer Arthur Brightman (Christian Douglas).

As an Iowa farm boy, Trevor repeatedly listened to the soundtrack of Judy Garland’s “A Star Is Born” in the barn. Little did he know then that “The Man That Got Away” would prove a major theme of his adult life.

Staged by out director Matthew Gardiner, the 90-minute show presents like a cabaret with two actors in black tie and baby grand on a small stage moodily lit by Adam Honoré and surrounded by small cafe tables topped with fringe shaded lamps. Filmed by Justin Chietb and produced and edited by James Gardiner, the story unfolds. There is no visible audience.

The guys meet cute. Trevor has left the Midwest for New York. After a string of hookups, he eventually cozies up to Arthur at the Checkerboard Lounge, a gay-friendly downtown bar where Arthur plays standards from the Great American Songbook as well as some of his own compositions.

From the start, Trevor and Arthur share clever banter and a frisson, but perhaps most importantly, they both love music.

The pair quickly becomes pretty much inseparable, though they don’t live together. At second rate nightclubs, Trevor sings Arthur’s songs, striving to make a name for themselves; and despite money being short, occasionally the couple splashes out on an evening at top notch cabarets like the Blue Angel or the Bon Soir to see headliners do their thing.

On a particular night at Café Wha? (a night spot best known as an emerging folk music space – not really Trevor and Arthur’s scene), the pair decide that Trevor will sing one of Arthur’s same-sex love songs without changing any pronouns.

Despite a few heckles, the song is mostly well received, and the evening leads to a standing gig at the Never Get, “a grimy gorgeous little nightclub” where gays happily gather to meet and drink. There, the guys introduce their act, Midnight at the Never Get, a sensibly named event that specifies time and place. At the Get, they’re given the freedom to explore their relationship and the current day politics through music.

In the mid-60s gay clubs were illegal. A place like the Never Get was technically “a bottle club” – essentially a members’ only spot run by the mafia. Typically, queer meeting places were raided twice a month, but usually paid-off cops would warn bartenders in advance who in turn would give a heads up to gay patrons who’d beat a hasty exit out the side door and find somewhere else to party.

As their act grows increasingly popular, the couple becomes more and more different. Arthur isn’t into rock music or protests. His fierce ambition takes him on frequent trips to L.A. where he writes jingles and later songs for singers like Connie Francis, Eydie Gormé, and Peggy Lee. Trevor remains in New York and befriends activists.

Scored and written by the tremendously talented Mark Sonnenblick, “Midnight at the Never Get” opened off-Broadway in 2018. With its torchy tunes, ballads, and upbeat numbers, there’s nothing farcical about the show. It vividly reflects an era.

At the end of the show, out actor Bobby Smith joins the cast as the older Trevor. In one beautifully sung song he captures the character’s life and longings.

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Theater

‘Blindness’ explores a terrifying new pandemic

Sidney Harman Hall production features immersive sound, light installation

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The audience takes the stage in ‘Blindness.’ (Photo by Helen Maybanks)

‘Blindness’
Through June 13
Shakespeare Theatre Company
Sidney Harman Hall
610 F St., N.W.
$44-54
Shakespearetheatre.org

Masks and social distancing, yes, but I never expected a return to live theater to include a stage without actors and an audience seated onstage. But that’s exactly how it went it down on a recent sunny Saturday morning in Washington.

We longed for something, and after a year of indisputably warranted darkness, the Shakespeare Theatre Company (STC) has obliged by reopening Sidney Harman Hall with Donmar Warehouse’s terrifyingly enthralling production of “Blindness,” an immersive sound and light installation anchored by Juliet Stevenson’s astonishing recorded vocal performance heard — jarringly, soothingly, eerily — through binaural headphones.

Adapted by Simon Stephens from Nobel Prize winner José Saramago’s same-titled dystopian novel, and staged by Walter Meierjohann (“The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time”), the London born, 75-minute tale begins with narrator Stevens matter-of-factly relaying the details surrounding the outbreak of a pandemic that causes blindness. What starts off as an alarming, isolated incident, rapidly devolves into something all-encompassing and petrifying.

Uncannily, Saramago’s 1995 book, both looks back to plague stories and prophetically toward COVID-19.
In addition to narrator, Stevenson (an Olivier Award-winning stage actor also known for films like “Truly, Madly, Deeply”) plays the wife of an ophthalmologist whose office is where patient zero spreads the disease to various other patients – a little cross-eyed boy, an alluring young woman hiding a case of conjunctivitis behind dark sunglasses, a thief, an older gent sporting an eye patch, and sundry others.

The doctor’s wife, who is immune to the new sight-stealing disease, is doomed/blessed to become the lone eyewitness to violence, injustices, and death as the situation becomes progressively scary, primitive, and dangerous.

Rather than darkness, the afflicted are submerged into a world of milky whiteness. The pandemic – a new pathogen whose means of transmission is unknown – moves quickly throughout the city, then the nation, and beyond. Early in the outbreak, the health ministry is reluctant to get too involved, choosing instead to minimize the seriousness of what’s happening. Sounds familiar, I know.

Like the story, Jessica Hung Han Yun’s lighting design becomes increasingly menacing as things move along. Originally playfully colorful fluorescent tubes suspended high from the ceiling, they turn stark white and are lowered to audience members’ line of sight. Then they are darkened altogether, interrupted by occasional bright colorless flashes.

Through headphones, the audience hears rain storms, harsh announcements, barricades being dragged, screams, sobs, footsteps, and gunshots. At times, Stevenson whispers in your ear. Once, I mechanically answered “Yes, I’m here.”

Masked, seated often in total darkness, headphones, it’s immersive, sometimes claustrophobically so. (If it becomes too much, there’s a flash light attached to the leg of each metal chair. Turn it on and an usher will escort you off the stage.)

During the pandemic STC has developed health and safety measures that include masks, air filtration, social distancing, etc.

For “Blindness” only 40 patrons are allowed per viewing. No one is seated next to someone outside of their own party, and a limited number of single tickets are available for purchase by calling the box office. Headsets, seats, and flashlights are disinfected before every performance, and all bathrooms and lobby spaces will be cleaned prior to the next seating group enters the building.

Exiting the Harman, you might think how odd it is to have been on stage before the actors’ union has allowed them to perform indoors before a live audience.

Outdoors, the warm wind feels invigorating against your face as you walk down the street. Still, the nearby upscale Mexican restaurant’s windows remain boarded and the half dozen people around you are walking determinedly, all — except one — wearing a mask.

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Theater

Theater that starts uncomfortable conversations

Theater Alliance director on ‘City in Transition’ — 4 plays about D.C.’s quadrants

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Caldwell, gay news, Washington Blade

Raymond O. Caldwell is the producing artistic director of Theater Alliance.

‘City in Transition: The Quadrant Series’

Streaming from April 24-May 24

Theater Alliance

Theateralliance.com

Recently, a Facebook post asked “Are there any activist theaters in D.C.?” A local actor quickly replied. “There’s only one,” she wrote. “It’s Theater Alliance.”

During a phone interview from his home in Anacostia last week, Theater Alliance’s producing artistic director Raymond O. Caldwell, addressed the social media query: “We keep our heads down and do the work. Well before the pandemic, we were trying to have conversations about race in America. Then it seemed niche work. Now that work is in vogue. There might come a time when it’s no longer stylish. But that’s OK, we’re ultimately doing it to transform people’s lives and start conversations.

“Our plays won’t change the world. Straight up. But we can start conversations that are uncomfortable and don’t have easy answers. And by partnering our productions with various nonprofits, we’re able to involve people in the movement whether it’s on the front line or stuffing envelopes.”

In residence at Anacostia Playhouse, Theater Alliance’s mission is to illuminate the experiences, philosophies, and interests of D.C.’s diverse population. When Caldwell, who is gay, took helm of the company in January 2019, the organization was already steeped in diversity. He’s worked to continue and expand on that, creating a cultural institution that’s invited in the surrounding, mostly Black community.

The company kicked off its virtual season in December with eight pieces about protest centered around the demands of the Black Lives Matter movement. Having started off nationally, they’re now moving locally with “City in Transition: The Quadrant Series,” a 90-minute intersection of theater and film directed by Caldwell.

Part of the multi-Helen Hayes Award-winning company’s Hothouse new play development series, “City in Transition” consists of four filmed plays about Washington’s quadrants, SE, SW, NE, and NW written by local black playwrights Khadijah Z. Ali-Coleman, Avery Collins, Shalom Omo-Osagie, and Leslie Scott-Jones.

The not long pieces are set in the present, past, and future. Topics include Black nonprofits battling to get funding via a game show; the meeting of hip-hop artists and violence set against the gentrified waterfront; a wealthy Black family debating whether to transform its landmark Black property into a trendy lounge for whites; and a white census taker discussing the changing city and current protests with a Black Washington native.

“Almost 13 years ago, I came to D.C. to be in Chocolate City but to my surprise, it wasn’t here,” says Caldwell, 37.

“When I think about a city changing and moving through gentrification, what concerns me is the loss of history, the stories of the folks who once lived here disappear.

“And interestingly, as D.C. gentrifies, we start noticing an uptick of murals and Black aesthetic of the city. It allows liberal yuppies to feel they’re in an urban environment but forgetting the rich history particularly for Black people in DC.”
He initially came to Washington for a six-month fellowship but stayed on. After six years at

Arena Stage, desirous to work outside of a white space, he began teaching at Howard University.

At Howard, his work centered on the universality of storytelling. “I pitched what folks would consider white work like Lillian Hellman’s provocatively lesbian-themed play, ‘The Children’s Hour.’”

“I’d ask my predominantly Black audience to imagine ourselves there as well, and they would.

The audience left thinking the play was written by a Black woman. It was additionally powerful because we in the Black community have trouble talking about homosexuality.”

As gay, Black, and Asian, Caldwell sometimes refers to himself as third culture: “Being who I am allows more space for me to see biases. I go into work asking myself what are the opportunities for transformation within me and the ensemble of artists I’ll be working with?”

Born in Germany to a German-Filipino mother and African-American father, he mostly grew up in Germany but spent summers with his father in the U.S. At 13, he went to live with his father.

“He thought I’d had enough of the European experience and wanted to teach me what it was to be a Black man in the world. And interestingly, that became the center of my activism.”

Caldwell’s American grandmother described him like this: “That boy can’t help but livin’.”

It’s true, he keeps busy, says Caldwell. He doesn’t turn down too many projects. “I’m honored to be creating art. There are so many ideas I want to push and propagate and now having a space and platform makes it especially hard to say no. It’s a good place to be.”

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