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High notes for ‘Show Boat’

Opera singer Cambridge returns for fourth appearance with WNO

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Alyson Cambridge, Show Boat, music, gay news, Washington Bladen

‘Show Boat’
Opens Saturday, runs through May 26
Washington National Opera
Kennedy Center Opera House
(2700 F Street, NW)
$25-$270
kennedy-center.org

Alyson Cambridge, Show Boat, music, gay news, Washington Blade

Soprano Alyson Cambridge says she’s thrilled to bring ‘Show Boat’ to her native Washington. (Photo by Enrique Vega; courtesy Bucklesweet Media)

D.C.-area native Alyson Cambridge starts a triumphant homecoming this weekend.

The former Arlington, Va., resident — she grew up here — has made a splash in the opera world with debuts at the Metropolitan Opera and other top-level houses in major productions. She opens Saturday in the classic musical “Show Boat,” the Kern/Hammerstein masterpiece that will feature more than 100 singers, actors and dancers on the Kennedy Center Opera House Stage to tell the story of a troupe of riverboat performers as they make their way through the decades. It features classic songs such as “Ol’ Man River” and “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man.”

Cambridge stars as Julie. It will be a busy month for the performer. She’ll also sing the National Anthem at the Washington Nationals game on May 11. And on May 18, the production will be broadcast live to Nationals Park for WNO’s annual “Opera in the Outfield” event. Cambridge opened the show in Chicago last year and says during a lengthy phone chat from her home in Manhattan, she’s excited about bringing it to D.C. (Cambridge’s comments have been edited for length.)

 

BLADE: You still have family here?

CAMBRIDGE: Yes, my parents still live in the same house I grew up in and my brother and sister-in-law live in Falls Church with my niece who’s 1 so yeah, it’s been great spending time with my niece.

 

BLADE: How is the art/theater/music vibe different in New York versus Washington?

CAMBRIDGE: New York is a completely different world. I’ve been there almost 11 years so it feels like home now and I’m used to a fast-paced life where I’m constantly being surrounded by artists, singers, actors and dancers all the time. The person behind the counter at Starbucks is an aspiring acturess. It’s just in the culture that there’s this assumption that you have some ties to the arts. You just feel that vibe all the time here.

 

BLADE: How was the Chicago run?

CAMBRIDGE: Really wonderful. It was the first time for many of us coming to this show .. and my first time doing a musical like this on such a grand scale. About half the cast is new for D.C. and it’s been wonderful welcoming so many newcomers to this production. I can truly say, there’s not a weak link in the cast, everybody is just so strong. … I hope D.C. embraces the show as much as Chicago did. We were completely sold out there and it was the toughest ticket in town to get.

 

BLADE: Most of your professional work has been in opera. Are the lines blurring between the opera world and musical theater and if so, is that a good thing?

CAMBRIDGE: I’ve seen a lot of change just within the last four years or so. I did “Porgy & Bess” in Washington in 2005 and came back in 2010 and the reception was very different. It’s considered a show in the more operatic vein and was really written for classically trained voices. Even just a few years ago, people warned me, ‘Oh, be careful — if you start with that, people won’t see you as a truly legit opera singer,’ but I think what we’re doing is really opening up these musical worlds to different audiences and I think it’s the perfect blend.

 

BLADE: Whatever raw talent you were blest with, as you discovered it and what your strengths were, did that line up pretty naturally with your musical interests as a teen or did you have to learn to appreciate opera, which can be an acquired taste?

CAMBRIDGE: Oh, back in the ‘90s I listened to pop singers and wanted to be a pop singer. I’d be blasting Christina Aguilera out of my car on campus but I discovered I could imitate any voice I heard and had a really finely tuned ear. My mom would have classical music on and I could imitate the opera singers and we had a neighbor say once, ‘You know, that’s not half bad.’ … This led to voice lessons … where I was eventually told I had natural ability in this genre. But yes, it took awhile for me to really embrace what my voice was meant to do. But yeah, Madonna, Whitney Houston, Tiffany, I loved all that too and even went through a rap phase.

 

BLADE: Does it feel really competitive and cut throat as your career unfolds or is there a level you get to where you don’t feel like the next soprano is just waiting in the wings snapping at your heels?

CAMBRIDGE: I think everybody has their own unique path. Mine was pretty fast. I literally went from Curtis to the Metropolitan Opera’s young artist program by the time I was 23 and had my Met debut at 24, but I have certainly leanred you’re always a work in progress and I think it’s a misconception that you don’t have to keep learning. … It’s very much about always coming out and bringing your A game.

 

BLADE: What is your tessitura?

CAMBRIDGE: I’m a full lyric soprano.

 

BLADE: Is that the highest one? I can never remember.

CAMBRIDGE: No, a coloratura is the highest and the lightest … It’s a fuller sound with more meat to it. … The role of Julie, is really a mezzo role. It’s quite low but it suits me quite well.

 

BLADE: Do you have a gay best friend in New York? Your world must be teeming with gay energy.

CAMBRIDGE: It’s all over the map. I’m surrounded by gay people, trans people, bi — everything. It’s really all across the map. But yeah, I’m going to the wedding of one of my college best friends this summer in New York. She was straight all through college but she’s marrying a woman and she’s never been happier.

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Theater

Queers win big at 77th annual Tony Awards

‘Merrily We Roll Along’ among winners

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(Photo courtesy of the Tony Awards' Facebook page)

It was a banner night for queer theater artists at the 77th annual Tony Awards, honoring the best in Broadway theater at the Lincoln Center in New York on Sunday. Some of the biggest honors of the night went to the revival of the Stephen Sondheim musical “Merrily We Roll Along” and the dance-musical based on Sufjan Stephens’ album “Illinoise.

“Merrily We Roll Along,” which follows three friends as their lives change over the course of 20 years, told in reverse chronological order, picked up the awards for Best Revival of a Musical and Best Orchestrations. 

Out actor Jonathan Groff picked up his first Tony Award for his leading role as Franklin Shepard in the show, while his costar Daniel Radcliffe earned his first Tony Award for featured performance as Charley Kringas. 

Groff gave a heartfelt and teary acceptance speech about how he used to watch the Tony Awards as a child in Lancaster County, Pa.

“Thank you for letting me dress up like Mary Poppins when I was three,” he said to his parents in the audience. “Even if they didn’t understand me, my family knew the life-saving power of fanning the flame of a young person’s passions without judgment.”

Groff also thanked the everyone in the production of “Spring Awakening,” where he made his Broadway debut in 2006, for inspiring him to come out at the age of 23.

“To actually be able to be a part of making theatre in this city, and just as much to be able to watch the work of this incredible community has been the greatest pleasure of my life,” he said. 

This was Groff’s third Tony nomination, having been previously nominated for his leading role in “Spring Awakening” and for his featured performance as King George III in “Hamilton.” 

Radcliffe, who is best known for starring in the “Harry Potter” series of movies, has long been an ally of the LGBTQ community, and has recently been known to spar with “Harry Potter” creator JK Rowling over her extreme opposition to trans rights on social media and in interviews. It was Radcliffe’s first Tony nomination and win.

Lesbian icon Sarah Paulson won her first Tony Award for her starring role in the play “Appropriate,” about a family coming to terms with the legacy of their slave-owning ancestors as they attempt to sell their late father’s estate. It was her first nomination and win.

In her acceptance speech, she thanked her partner Holland Taylor “for loving me.” Along with Paulson’s Emmy win for “American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson,” she is halfway to EGOT status.

The Sufjan Stephens dance-musical “Illinoise,” based on his album of the same name, took home the award for Best Choreography for choreographer Justin Peck. It was his second win.

During the ceremony, the cast of “Illinoise” performed “The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades is Out to Get Us!”, a moving dance number about a queer romance.

A big winner of the night was the adaptation of the S.E. Hinton novel “The Outsiders,” which dominated the musical categories, earning Best Director, Sound Design, Lighting Design, and Best Musical, which earned LGBTQ ally Angelina Jolie her first Tony Award.

Also a big winner was “Stereophonic,” which dominated the play categories, winning the awards for Best Play, Featured Actor, Director, Sound Design, and Scenic Design.

“Suffs,” a musical about the fight for women’s suffrage in the U.S., which acknowledges the lesbian relationship that suffragist Carrie Chapman Catt had in song called “If We Were Married,” took home awards for Best Book of a Musical and Best Score, both for creator Shaina Taub. 

Had “Suffs” also won for Best Musical, producers Hilary Clinton and Malala Yousafzai would have won their first Tony Awards. 

Other winners include Maleah Joi Moon for her lead role and Kecia Lewis for her featured role in the Alicia Keys musical “Hell’s Kitchen,” Jeremy Strong for his lead role in An Enemy of the People, and Kara Young for her featured role in “Purlie Victorious: A Non-Confederate Romp Through the Cotton Patch.”

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Theater

‘Rose: You Are Who You Eat’ an irreverent romp at Woolly Mammoth

Solo performance by John Jarboe offers much to consume

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John Jarboe in ‘Rose: You Are Who You Eat’ at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. (Photo by Teresa Castracane)

‘Rose: You Are Who You Eat’
Though June 23
Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company
641 D St., N.W.
$60-$82
Woollymammoth.net

With “Rose: You Are Who You Eat,” a solo performance by John Jarboe (she/her), now at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, there’s a lot to uncover and consume.  

For much of the show, you might think the appealing Jarboe is playing dress up in a pair of tighty-whities and sparkly go-go boots, but it’s something else and she’s ready to go there. 

Jarboe is a cannibal. Not in the usual sense. She learned from a well-meaning aunt that while still in the womb, she ate her twin, and that’s what made Jarboe the way she is (a reference to gender queerness).

Despite the aunt’s awkward delivery of family dish, the prenatal news struck a chord with Jarboe: the vanishing twin who would have been named Rose, became increasingly connected to her own identity. Along with the inevitable jokes about eating her sister’s spaghetti thin hair and tasty eyeballs, there’s meaty matter unfolding onstage. 

Not entirely unexpected, Jarboe also harbors mommy issues. Mom, here referred to as “Mother” for the sake of anonymity, is a buttoned-down tax accountant who the more perturbed she becomes the wider her forced smile grows. And while Jarboe needs to have that long overdue talk with Mother, something always seems to get in the way; invariably it’s tax season.

Assisted by some primary source props (a baby book, notes, a string of pearls filched from Mother’s jewelry box), Jarboe further digs into gender expression and identity. Her performance career began in her child bedroom closet with a flashlight and makeshift costume, an obsession to which her parents initially subscribed, later not as much. 

Among the 75-minute-long show’s highlights are five or so songs, rock numbers and redolent ballads composed by Jarboe, Emily Bate, Daniel de Jesús, Pax Ressler and Be Steadwell. 

It’s definitely a solo show conceived and delightfully performed by Jarboe; however, she’s supported by a terrific four-person band (costumed in what appeared from Row D to be rosebush inspired jumpsuits) including Mel Regn, Yifan Huang, Daniel de Jesús, and music director Emily Bate. Bate is a singer, composer and performer who runs a queer and trans community chorus in Philadelphia called Trust Your Moves, an experiment in collective singing designed around liberation and co-creation.

As Jarboe moves into her 30s, she celebrates and incorporates her lost twin as part of herself with a new intensity. She writes letters, yearning for even the most tepid reply. Her obsession with Mother remains a thing too.

Dressed in a sylphlike rosy red gown (by costume designer Rebecca Kanach) Jarboe uses call-and-response (with the audience standing in for Mother) in search of some resolution. It’s beautifully done. 

With various kinds of backing coming from CulturalDC, the Washington Blade, Capital Pride, the Bearded Ladies Cabaret and other New York-based groups, there’s nothing itinerant cabaret looking about “Rose.” Directed by MK Tuomanen, it’s an elevated, visually engaging production. 

For instance, set and video designer Christopher Ash’s projections shown on both a serviceable scrim and later a wondrously huge toile curtain, beautifully feature photos from an ostensibly idyllic Midwestern childhood. We see a young Jarboe not only enjoying hockey, fishing, and hunting, but also pulling off a strikingly girly, cheesecake pose.  

At the top of the show, there’s live video of Jarboe’s outsized mouth devouring wings fished from a bucket of fried chicken. Hints of cannibalism? 

“Rose: You Are Who You Eat” is an irreverent romp, deeply personal yet relatable. It’s an evening of poignantly performed moments, off the cuff laughs, and some awkward/sexy audience interaction. 

As a performer, Jarboe lays herself bare, exposing strengths (rich melodious voice, presence, ingenuity) and weaknesses (garrulity and more than a few un-landed jokes) in equal turns. 

Hers is a world that invites audiences to just let go and go with it. Jarboe’s intrepid journey melds the familiar and the startling. In short, it’s a trip worth taking. 

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Photos

PHOTOS: Capital Pride Festival and Concert

Keke Palmer, Billy Porter among entertainers

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Billy Porter performs at the 2024 Capital Pride Festival on Sunday. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The 2024 Capital Pride Festival and Concert was held along Pennsylvania Avenue in Northwest D.C. on Sunday, June 9. Performers included Sapphira Cristál, Keke Palmer, Ava Max, Billy Porter and Exposé.

(Washington Blade photos by Michael Key and Emily Hanna)

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