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No walk in the ‘Park’ for Claybourne Elder

George’ actor Elder on the rigors of artistic life

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Brynn O'Malley, Claybourne Elder, Sunday in the Park with George, gay news, Washington Blade
Brynn O'Malley, Claybourne Elder, Sunday in the Park with George, gay news, Washington Blade

Brynn O’Malley as Dot and Claybourne Elder as George in ‘Sunday in the Park with George.’ (Photo by Margot Schulman; courtesy Signature Theatre)

‘Sunday in the Park with George’

 

Through Sept. 21

 

Signature Theatre

 

4200 Campbell Ave. Arlington

 

703-820-9771

 

At 32, Claybourne Elder is living the theater dream with a charmed career. The handsome out actor’s first big break came playing Hollis Bessemer, the young gay heir in the original off-Broadway production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Road Show” in 2008.

“I’d just moved to New York and went on an open chorus call never dreaming I’d be cast,” he says. “They asked me back and I got the part. Suddenly I was playing across from two actors I revere, Michael Cerveris and Alexander Gemignani, and Sondheim was sitting around drinking coffee and giving notes. It was unreal.”

Elder has worked nonstop ever since on Broadway and beyond, interpreting extant parts and creating roles like Clyde Barrow’s likable brother Buck in the Broadway musical “Bonnie & Clyde,” and aviator Charles Lindbergh in “Take Flight.” He played Ollie, a New Orleans prostitute in “One Arm,” Moisés Kaufman’s dramatic adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ same-titled short story and unfinished screenplay.

And now he’s tackling the part of George in Signature Theatre’s production of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s wondrous musical “Sunday in the Park with George,” a role Elder has had his eye, and ear, on for a long time. The story focuses on the struggles of French painter Georges Seurat (called George in the musical). He’s surrounded by his lover Dot, and his masterpiece “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of Le Grande Jatte” and those characters depicted in the painting. In the second act, George’s sculptor descendant (also named George and also played by Elder) strives to make sense of life, love and art in 1980s New York City.

For many musical theater lovers, “Sunday in the Park with George” holds a special place in the canon.

“It’s my favorite among all the children,” says Elder laughing. “It’s true. The show has so many universal themes. People connect to it in deep ways. It’s an emotionally charged theatrical event.”

“And my part is magically written,” he adds. “I couldn’t ask for a part written more perfectly in my range. I’m a tenor with a dash of baritone. My songs have lovely rich lower things and then go up high. It’s technically challenging but in a very pleasurable way, never needlessly challenging. Sondheim never writes music to impress. He doesn’t have to.”

Matthew Gardiner, the Signature production’s director, concurs on “Sunday’s” specialness. “Ever since first watching the original Broadway production on VHS tape in middle school, I’ve always wanted to do this musical. The score sung by Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters is forever seared on my brain. It’s perfection and for my money, it has some of the best music ever written. It speaks to what it is to be an artist. And what it means to connect with people and achieve harmony in our lives.”

Finding the right actor to play George was imperative to Signature’s production, Gardiner says. “There were casting sessions in New York and Washington. We were looking for a strong, quiet presence. There’s something serious going on behind Elder’s eyes. In tandem with him being a fantastic singer and a great actor, he’s a likable and engaging person — someone to root for. That’s not something you can direct.”

Elder, who graduated from the University of Utah with a degree in dramaturgy, confesses to being sort of a geek. His major allowed him to study works within historical and philosophical contexts. As an actor, he uses extensive research to get a handle on his characters. And it works. Fans sometimes don’t recognize him from one show to the next. “Well, that’s what actors do,” Elder says. “We disappear into the role.”

It’s not as easy to disappear on TV. Last year Elder took a break from theater to appear on CW’s “The Carrie Diaries,” the now-canceled prequel to “Sex and the City.”

“From that show I got recognized by 15-year-old girls and gay men a lot,” he says, recalling one bar visit with family. “A patron wouldn’t stop screaming ‘Pete!’ It took me a while to realize he was calling me. Pete was my character’s name on the show. That was a first.”

Georges Seurat died at just 31 without ever having sold a painting. Still, Elder feels connected to him. “He’s consumed by art. I can relate to that. Theater requires me to be in a room every day performing. When you’re in a show in New York you don’t leave town. You miss weddings and life events all the time. That’s just how it is.”

Fortunately, Elder’s husband, director Eric Rosen, is in the business and understands how it works. The couple is based in New York City and Kansas City, Mo., where Rosen heads up the Kansas City Repertory Theatre. They work hard to spend quality time together and stay close with their families. Elder describes his Mormon parents as “the most liberal conservatives you’ll ever meet.”

Next up, Elder is slated to play the young doctor in John Doyle’s off-Broadway revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Allegro.” Rehearsals start the day after Signature’s “Sunday” closes. And the dream continues.

 

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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, the appealing Jarboe comes across as a cute cis gay guy 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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Out & About

Get ready for Baltimore Pride

Events scheduled throughout weekend

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Baltimore Pride Parade (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Baltimore Pride begins this weekend on Friday, June 14 in the heart of the city.

There will be a variety of events, the main ones being Mt. Vernon Pride on June 14 at 2 p.m. on the 200 Block of W. Read St., the Parade and Block Party on Saturday, June 15 at 3 p.m. on N. Charles St., and Pride in the Park on Sunday, June 15 at 3 p.m. at Druid Hill Park.

For more event details, visit Baltimore Pride’s website

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