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Reprising Max

Gay actor Ed Dixon draws raves for ‘Sunset’ performance

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Actor Ed Dixon as Max in Signature Theatre’s current production ‘Sunset Boulevard.’ (Production photo by Chris Mueller, courtesy of Signature)

Ed Dixon’s emotional pendulum — as one might expect from an actor —  swings wide.

During an hour-long interview in the lobby of Signature Theatre where he’s on the boards each night as Max in “Sunset Boulevard,” Dixon laughs uproariously and heartily several times recanting tales and dropping names from his four-decade career. And though no tears appear, two of the stories he tells involve copious sheddings thereof.

One even came during “Sunset,” though it was during his initial encounter with the musical 14 years ago when he toured with it for a year with Linda Balgord as Norma.

“In the movie it cuts away from (Max) all the time, but on the stage he’s up there a lot of time in the background just suffering,” Dixon says. “At the end of act one there was a part where I stand behind a fringe curtain at the part where Norma pulls Joe down on top of her and I would just release the curtain down on my face. Well after standing there for six months or whatever it was in that condition, feeling this wretched, painful condition, it’s like your body doesn’t know you’re only kidding. It’s like you’re really experiencing that. This one night I just started crying and cried all during intermission. People were going, ‘Are you OK? I was like, ‘Uhh, not really.’ It had really built up over the run. So how do you deal with that every day for a year? It makes you kind of crazy.”

This production, which runs through Feb. 13 and has been the second-biggest hit in Signature’s 21-year history (after “Les Miserables”), hasn’t been as emotionally draining, Dixon says. But it has been taxing. Returning to the role has been rewarding and challenging, he says.

The lessons Dixon, 62, uses to coach actors and singers for auditions in New York, where he lives on the Upper West Side, have come in handy.

“It feels different doing eight shows a week than it did 14 years ago. I was really vocally stronger 14 years ago but I’ve also been very pleased to see how much agility I still have. … I went into daily training months ago.”

It’s the most vocally challenging part Dixon — who has extensive opera and musical theater credits — has done in years.

Dixon in the Signature lobby. (Blade photo by Joey DiGuglielmo)

The Anadarko, Okla., native and son of a Church of Christ revival minister, knew early on he liked boys, even before he had the language to articulate it. Asked at church as a pre-schooler whom he would someday marry, he matter-of-factly answered Jimmy DeLong, a boy from his neighborhood.

“They said, ‘You can’t marry a boy.’ I said, ‘Why not?’ I remember that, but I didn’t know that I was gay. I just knew I liked Jimmy DeLong.”

Later, he had no idea what taunts (“Hey, queer ass!”) in middle school meant.

He arrived in New York (“Oklahoma is a wretched place,” he says) in the late ’60s and never looked back. Never even to visit his parents, from whom he was estranged and only saw twice in adulthood.

His big break came in the chorus of “No No Nannette,” a popular musical revival in 1970. Even though New York, and especially the theater world, was filled with gays at the time, it wasn’t an especially gay-friendly environment.

“Things were so different then you can’t even imagine it,” he says. “Even in the theater, you didn’t really talk overtly about it. And I was even more behind the times because I was coming from the Dark Ages. I remember in the dressing room of ‘No, No Nannette,’ there was an old queen who only spoke to us in the voice of Bette Davis and used to scare the fuck out of me. I was just like, ‘Oh god, please don’t let me end up like that, you know?’”

Even as recent as his first run with the touring version of “Sunset,” a role he’d eyed since it debuted in London in 1993, there were hints of homophobia in the casting process for the straight part. He knew everyone in the room and was chatting them up between readings. Before the callback, he was tipped off to tone it down.

“I’d had a big career by then,” he says. “One night at a party one of them pulled me aside and said, ‘They really want to know that you were married to her.’ I thought, ‘Are you kidding?’ I’d just been laughing and joking and being myself, you know, before and after I read. So I stayed Max through the whole callback and got it.”

This run, Dixon says, has been draining but creatively satisfying. He and co-star Florence Lacey have worked together several times before and enjoy a special camaraderie.

“We’re like an old married couple,” he says. “You know, I always go spend time with her in her dressing room before the show. She always tells me she loves me. She calls me Daddy and I call her Baby. It’s really sweet. She’s just one of those people who’s so sweet you think, ‘Is that real?” And with her it’s totally real.”

The feelings are mutual.

“Speaking about Ed Dixon, I’m always a gushing mess,” Lacey says. “Ed is a man of extraordinary talent with a big voice and a heart to match. He has a laugh that makes the whole world join in and he can break your heart with a look. He’s tough and sensitive both as an artist and in his friendships. I feel proud to call him my dear, dear friend.”

He’s worked non-stop since he came to New York except for a stint in rehab in the ’80s when he beat a cocaine addiction. Dixon just celebrated 20 years of sobriety.

After “Sunset” ends its run, Dixon will tour with the musical “Curtains.” And a comedy he wrote called “Scenery,” which explores the inside tract of a showbiz Lunt/Fontanne-esque couple in which the husband is gay, is getting rave reviews in Cleveland where it just opened.

Dixon says a life-defining moment came watching his mentor, the character actor George Rose, from whom he learned much about acting and life.

“He was middle aged, this gay, effete, Englishman, and he came into the room and he was just the most powerful man I had ever been in the presence of. That was a big moment for me. Because of him I realized, ‘Oh, you can be gay and still powerful.’ I didn’t know that before.”

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Music & Concerts

Forget streaming, the holiday classics return to area stages

Bring your proof of vaccination and check out a local production this season

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A scene from a previous Gay Men's Chorus of Washington Holiday Show. (Blade photo by Michael Key)

A year ago, the holiday season was streamed. But now, thanks to various protocols including masks and proof of vaccination, DMV theatergoers can come together and experience – live and in-person — both beloved classics and some promising new works. Here’s a smattering of what’s out there.

At Olney Theatre, Paul Morello is thrilled to bring back “A Christmas Carol 2021” (through Dec. 26), his solo adaptation of Dickens’ ghost story. Concerning returning to a live audience, Morello says, “While this is technically a one-person show, it’s really about the connection and collaboration with an audience, being in the same room, breathing in unison. I can’t do this without an audience and for a story that thrives on redemption, mortality, isolation, the need for community and connection, and the things that matter most, the timing couldn’t be better.”

Olney also presents “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast” through Jan. 2. This musical “tale as old as time” stars out actor Jade Jones as Belle and Evan Ruggiero plays the Beast. olneytheatre.org

For the holidays, Synetic Theater at Crystal City is reworking “Cinderella” (Nov. 27-Dec. 26). Led by an all-female team of creators, this festive take on the classic fairytale is inspired by Afro-Latino music and dance. Directed and adapted by Maria Simpkins who also plays the title role. synetictheater.org

Last year, because of COVID-19, Ford’s Theatre presented “A Christmas Carol” as a radio broadcast, but now the fully produced play returns to the venue’s historic stage through Dec. 27. A popular Washington tradition for more than 30 years, the thoroughly enjoyable and topnotch take on the Dickens’ classic features Craig Wallace reprising the part of Scrooge, the miser who after a night of ghostly visits, rediscovers Christmas joy. fords.org

Another D.C. tradition guaranteed to put audiences in a holiday mood is the Washington Ballet’s “Nutcracker,” playing at the Warner Theatre through Dec. 26. Set to Tchaikovsky’s enchanted score, this charming and superbly executed offering takes place in Georgetown circa 1882 and features a retinue of historic figures along with children, rats, fairies and a mysterious godfather. Choreography is by Septime Webre. washingtonballet.org

The Folger Consort, the superb early music ensemble in residence at the Folger, will be performing seven concerts of “A Medieval Christmas” (Dec. 10-18) at St. Mark’s Church on Capitol Hill. A streaming version of the concert will also be available to view on-demand. folger.edu

At Lincoln Theatre, the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, D.C. presents “The Holiday Show” (Dec. 4, 11, and 12) replete with tap-dancing elves, a dancing Christmas tree, snow, and a lot more. The fun and festive program’s song list includes “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!”, “The 12 Rockin’ Days of Christmas,” and “Boogie Woogie Frosty.” Featured performances range from the full Chorus, soloists, all GMCW ensembles, and the GenOUT Youth Chorus. gmcw.org

Arena Stage is marking the season with August Wilson’s “Seven Guitars” (through Dec. 26), a drama about a small group of friends who gather following the untimely death of their friend, a blues guitarist on the edge of stardom. Directed by Tazewell Thompson, the production features an exciting cast that includes local actors Dane Figueroa Edidi and Roz White. arenastage.org

Creative Cauldron is serving up some holiday magic with “The Christmas Angel” (Dec. 9-19). Based on a little-known 1910 novel by Abbey Farwell Brown, it’s the story of a lonely and bitter spinster who returns to happiness through a box of old toys. The commissioned new holiday musical is a collaboration of longtime musical collaborators and married couple Matt Conner and Stephen Gregory Smith (lyrics and book). creativecauldron.org

In keeping with the Yuletide spirit, the National Theatre presents two feel-good national tour musicals. First, it’s “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” (through Dec. 5), a musical take on Dr. Seuss’ classic holiday tale featuring the hit songs “You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch” and “Welcome Christmas.”

Next up is “Tootsie” (Dec. 7-12), the hit musical based on the 1982 gender-bending film starring Dustin Hoffman as an out-of-work actor who disguises himself as a woman to land a role on a popular soap opera. The show boasts a Tony-winning book by Robert Horn and a score by Tony winner David Yazbek (The Band’s Visit). thenationaldc.com

Keegan Theatre presents its annual holiday offering, “An Irish Carol” (Dec. 10-31). Set in a modern Dublin pub, the funny yet poignant original work (a nod to Dickens) tracks the changes in the life of a rich but miserable publican over the course of one Christmas Eve. keegantheatre.org

At Theater J, it’s the Kinsey Sicks’ “Oy Vey in a Manger” (Dec. 17-25). Blending drag, four-part harmony, and political humor, the “dragapella beautyshop quartet” brings its own hilariously irreverent view on the holidays. theaterj.org

And through Jan. 2, Signature Theatre continues to brighten the season with its production of Jonathan Larson’s “Rent” directed by the company’s out artistic director Matthew Gardiner and featuring out actor David Merino as Angel, a preternaturally energetic drag queen and percussionist. sigtheare.org

The Music Center at Strathmore, also in Bethesda, is presenting a wide range of musical holiday offerings including “Manheim Steamroller Christmas” (Dec. 3 and 4), a multimedia holiday tradition; Sarah Brightman in “A Christmas Symphony” (Dec. 6 and 7); “A Celtic Christmas with Séan Heely Celtic Band” (Dec. 11); Washington Bach Consort’s “Bach’s Epic Christmas Oratorio” (Dec. 11); the beloved “The Washington Chorus: A Candlelight Christmas” (Dec. 16 and 17); and last but not least “The Hip Hop Nutcracker” (Dec. 20), Tchaikovsky’s classic reimagined with MC Kurtis Blow (“White Lines”). strathmore.org

And finally, something strictly for the kids: Imagination Stage presents “Corduroy” (Dec. 11-Jan. 24). Based on the beloved children’s books by Don Freeman, it’s the heartwarming story of a girl and her perfectly imperfect Teddy Bear. Best for ages 3-9. imaginationstage.org

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Theater

‘The Great Leap’ explores change in 1989 China

‘As an Asian American, you rarely play the lead in a play’

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Grant Chang (Photo courtesy of Round House Theatre)

‘The Great Leap’
Through Dec. 5
In-person with Streaming on demand beginning Nov. 26
Round House Theatre
4545 East-West Highway
Bethesda, Md., 20814
$34-$71
roundhousetheatre.org

Sometimes, working on a single play can change an actor’s feelings about his craft and career. For Grant Chang, it was Lauren Yee’s “The Great Leap,” an international sports story set in 1989 at the time of the Tiananmen Square uprising.

Chang, who is gay, garnered terrific reviews for playing Wen Chang, a reserved Beijing university basketball coach of the 1970s and ’80s, in the Los Angeles production of Yee’s comic drama, and is now reprising the role in an original production at Round House Theatre.

He says, “As an Asian American, you rarely play the lead in a play, so having that opportunity and to be in something good and meaningful is so rewarding. It makes you work harder to be the best you can be on stage.”

Like the actor’s parents, his character Wen Chang grew up in China and lived through the Cultural Revolution. “In order to survive, he has to essentially take orders from the government, no questions,” explains Chang. “That’s where we meet him when the play begins. In the second act, 18 years have passed and he has experienced a transformation. Without spoiling things, let’s just say as heartbreaking as the change is, it’s also inspiring.”

Chang’s casting story is cute. While playing Whiterose’s handsome assistant on television’s “Mr. Robot,” he became close friends with castmate B.D. Wong, who first shot to fame playing the title role in David Henry Hwang’s “M. Butterfly.” When Wong was tapped to direct the East West Players and Pasadena Playhouse co-production of Yee’s play in 2019, he asked Chang to audition for Wen Chang, a part Wong had previously played in New York.

“B.D. thought I’d be right for the role, but I wasn’t so sure. To step into his shoes was really a lot,” says Chang, 42. “They were looking for local L.A. hires, and I’m a New York- based actor. He asked if they couldn’t find someone would I send in a self-tape. I hesitantly agreed.”

“That same night B.D. texted me and said ‘put yourself on tape by tomorrow.’ I thought dammit, I have to do this, so I did,” he recalls.

After viewing Chang’s audition tape, the production team made a unanimous decision to cast him: “B.D. believed in me more than I believed in myself. It’s changed my way of acting, and I’m still very grateful for that.”

And that was the beginning of “a great and beautiful journey” that continued at Round House under the sensitive direction of Jennifer Chang who was open to letting the actors explore, he says.

Chang adds, “I’m Chinese American, my parents are from China, and I majored in East Asian Studies. There’s something instilled in me that I bring to this character. I humanize him in many ways that others might not and I think the audience picks up on that.”

Despite an abundance of basketball focused marketing, the play is less about the sport and more about the game of life, says Chang. Incidentally, as a kid in New York City, he struggled with learning to dribble and even longer with how to dribble and run. But he wasn’t unfamiliar with the rules and jargon. His dad and brothers watched a lot of basketball, and periodically he’d join them.

In addition to acting, Chang teaches dance and also directs. For his short film, “Finding You” (2015), he was awarded Best Actor and Best Director at the 38th Annual Asian American International Film Festival and the 11th Annual 72 Hour Shootout 2015, presented by the Asian American Film Lab.

He intends to do more directing when he can: “I have the patience to bring out things in other actors and inspire them to do really good work. Not everyone can do that.”

Following his stint at Round House, besides teaching dance, there’s nothing on the horizon, says Chang: “I’m constantly auditioning. Like everybody, we’re all trying to get back to some normalcy by working, but we’re also trying to live day to day, be happy, and accept what life brings us.”

(Photo by Kent Kondo; courtesy Round House Theatre)
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Theater

Exploring a complicated father-daughter relationship

Mosaic’s ‘Birds of North America’ unfolds over 10 years

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David Bryan Jackson and Regina Aquino in 'Birds of North America.’ (Photo by Chris Banks)

‘Birds of North America’
Through Nov. 21
Mosaic Theater Company
Atlas Performing Arts Center
$20-$68
Mosaictheater.org

In the leafy backyard of a suburban Maryland home, a father and daughter watch birds and talk about life. Sounds amiable, but in Anna Ouyang Moench’s “Birds of North America” it isn’t, well not entirely. 

The affective and humorous two-hander, now at Mosaic Theater Company, covers nearly 10 tense years of annual October visits home during which John and adult daughter Caitlyn, both avid birders, indulge in their gentle hobby when they’re not fighting. 

“A tufted titmouse,” says John (David Bryan Jackson) motioning toward a heard but unseen songbird. Caitlyn (Regina Aquino) who’s down from New York to see her parents, quickly picks up the binoculars and the feathery friend takes center stage. It’s the same when they spy a nuthatch, cardinal, or morning dove, but after the birds fly off with an audible swoosh, the conversation inevitably turns from the latest hawk or barn owl sighting back to Caitlyn’s lack of ambition or John’s intractability and seeming inability to empathize.

He hates her job choices (working at a conservative news website and later doing marketing for the oil industry), and wishes she’d complete her novel or help to save the planet. She mocks him for putting solar panels on a large house, much too big for two people. 

Time passes. Father and daughter continue to masterfully press each other’s buttons. Initially, he seems cringingly unaware of the impact of his wounding words, particularly when it comes to Caitlyn’s pain surrounding infertility issues. But sometimes he goes for the jugular. She fights back similarly. Despite the ongoing brutal contretemps, there’s still love, and some laughs, between them. 

Without a lot of reference to specific time and place, the playwright cleverly moves the years forward, revealing the details of new relationships, job changes, illness using sometimes quotidian dialogue that rings particularly true. Yet, the work is simultaneously lyrical. 

Mosaic’s out managing director and producer, Serge Seiden, smartly directs the piece with a light, elegant touch, resulting in a thought-provoking and pleasurable 90 minutes. He ably helms a topnotch design team: Alexa Ross creates a simple backyard (worn picket fence, picnic table, and unassuming lawn chairs) backed by a feathery wing of blazing autumnal colors. Brittany Shemuga bathes the intimate stage with the dappled sunlight of a fall day, and David Lamont Wilson’s appealing sound design includes coos, caws, chirps, and pecking sounds. In between scenes, an increasing number of crunchy leaves are scattered over the stage/yard. 

Aquino and Jackson share a combative chemistry, and throughout the years covered, both effectively age, mostly through voice and demeanor. Though stubborn until the end, John seems increasingly resigned and vulnerable; Caitlyn becomes less youthfully exuberant, and more practical and self-contained.  

While Caitlin’s eco-friendly father can be preachy, the play isn’t. The urgency of climate change is couched in unstilted conversations that all of us have overheard or been a part of more than once.  

And by spacing the piece over a decade, Moench demonstrates the vicissitudes of life and relationships, and what a warming climate entails (i.e., decreased bird migration, a longer tick season that results in more dreaded Lyme disease, etc.) Unfortunately, John continues to criticize Caitlyn’s professional choices. She fires back that unlike her father, she needs to earn a paycheck. It seems the mother, a practicing doctor and family bread winner, has long made it possible for John to pursue an unpaid career in vaccination research, an endeavor that he is certain, unfoundedly so, will one day result in a big money payoff. 

As the audience becomes invested in the actors’ finely assayed characters, there also comes a sense of frustration, regret about what might have been. And some hope.  

“Birds of North America” marks Mosaic’s first in-person production after 18-months of closure. COVID-19 infection prevention measures include proof of vaccination, masks, and socially distanced seating. A streaming version will also be available.

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