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Channeling Smokey

Out actor shines in ‘Motown’ touring company

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Motown: the Musical, gay news, Washington Blade
Motown: the Musical, gay news, Washington Blade

Jesse Nager, left, as Smokey Robinson and Julius Thomas III as Berry Gordy in ‘Motown: the Musical.’ It opened this week in Washington at the National Theatre. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

‘Motown: the Musical’

 

Through Jan. 3

 

The National Theatre

 

1321 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W.

 

$48-98

 

Playing an icon can be tricky. And if you get it wrong, people are going to tell you.

“You do a lot of work for any part, but when you’re cast as a famous person, particularly a living famous person, you can’t just make it all up,” says out actor Jesse Nager who plays musical legend Smokey Robinson in the national tour of “Motown: the Musical” now at the National Theatre. “You want to be like them without falling into the caricature trap. It’s important to come across as real as you can.”

Because there’s so much available video, Nager initially spent a lot of time watching and listening.

“Smokey’s voice and style is distinctive, and fortunately my voice sits high so I haven’t had to do a ton of manipulation,” says Nager, 34. “Also, I was able to talk with people who know him, friends and family. And I’ve seen him a lot. He calls me, ‘little Smokey.’”

“Motown” premiered on Broadway in the spring of 2013. Crammed with 50 hits mostly performed concert style, the show received mixed reviews but proved a box office smash. The action begins and ends in 1983 — Motown’s 25th anniversary — and travels back in time to the label’s humble Detroit beginnings and follows how founder Berry Gordy helped start the careers of Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye and more.

For the last year Nager has toured as Robinson (after playing one of the Temptations in the original Broadway cast), and while it’s been a long run, keeping it fresh hasn’t proved a challenge, he says.

“What’s interesting about this show is how the audience gets me there every night. I walk on stage, they say Smokey Robinson and the audience goes nuts. I don’t have to dig that deep. Audience energy does a lot of that work for me.”

In the show Robinson is introduced as a young singer/songwriter. With his group the Miracles, he achieves stardom singing hits like “Shop Around” and “The Tears of a Clown.” But Nager’s favorite Robinson song from the show is “You Really Got a Hold On Me,” mostly because it’s sung as part of a sequence in which Motown artists are touring the American south and performing for integrated audiences, a powerful indication of the label’s crossover appeal and changing times.

Born in Boston, Nager lived in suburban Somerville, Mass., until he was 10 when he moved with his family to New York City. He attended LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, the school made famous in the 1980s film “Fame.” After graduating from the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre and Dance in 2003, his first professional job in New York was in “Fame on 42nd Street,” a stage adaptation of the movie.

“I’d been training for so long, I was certain I’d work,” says Nager who is biracial (his father is African-American and his mother is white). “I did and it happened fast.”

Many jobs followed including Broadway musicals “Mamma Mia,” “Mary Poppins,” “Good Vibrations,” “Scandalous” and “Motown” as well as national tours of “Xanadu” and now “Motown.”  He played the fairy Cobweb in Tina Landau’s 2006 production of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton.  He’s also performed with Mariah Carey, Shania Twain, Jason Mraz, Debbie Gibson and Patti LaBelle. There are stories, but he’s saving those for the memoir, Nager says jokingly.

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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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Theater

‘Portraits’ offers thoughtful storytelling told through art, music, dance

Kennedy Center world premiere on June 16 features lesbian artist Joan Cox

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‘Night Hunger,’ a painting by Joan Cox

‘Portraits’
Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington
Sunday, June 16, 5 p.m.
The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
2700 F St., N.W. 
$25–$80
Gmcw.org

Right on time for Pride, the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, D.C. (GMCW), presents “Portraits,” a one night only, not to be missed, world premiere concert at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. 

Without the camp found in some of GMCW’s terrific holiday programming, “Portraits” is 90 minutes of thoughtful storytelling told through visual art, music, and dance. Several years in the making, the uniquely collaborative effort covers a lively spectrum of sexual, gender, racial, ethnic, and cultural identities in a nine-movement oratorio commission, combining the stunning work of nine visual artists, nine composers, and nine choreographers, sung by the Chorus and featuring 17th Street Dance.

“For Us,” one of the nine musical pieces, is anchored by “Night Hunger,” a striking oil painting by Baltimore-based lesbian artist Joan Cox. Selected through open competition, her compelling piece is a double portrait featuring the artist and her wife Mare at home reclining on a couch in their lived in home. With her canvas, Cox simultaneously achieves a sense of strength and profound yet casual intimacy. 

“It’s a big painting (50 x 60 inches). Really big, featuring partners on a sofa perfect to hang over a sofa,” she says with a chuckle. “For ‘Portraits,’ the idea is my painting and the other exciting works will be projected onstage at the Kennedy Center with music and dance sort of like mini-musicals.”

Completed in 2012, while Cox was part of a Massachusetts College of Art and Design residency program in Provincetown, “Night Hunger” proved a seminal moment for the artist both personally and professionally. “I’d been closeted for a long time, and this work helped me to deal with outness and where I wanted to go as an artist,” she says. 

With its figures’ recumbent poses and direct engagement with the viewer, the work harks back to the Odalisque, a genre traditionally painted by and for men. But not so here. Cox says, “You can come into this intimate space, but not too far.”

The musical element of the collaboration comes compliments of Richard Clawson, a longtime singing member and commissioned composer for Atlanta’s OurSong, an LGBTQ choral group with a rich history and a strong commitment to promoting acceptance, diversity, and social justice through music. 

After hearing Cox reflect on her painting, about it not being geared toward the male gaze, Clawson had an increasingly clearer vision as to what her vibrant painting was all about. Admittedly, he is guided more by words than images. He says, “words tell me where I’m going.”

Not comfortable as a lyricist, Clawson tapped friend Caroline Peacock, an amateur lesbian poet and fellow chorister at OurSong, to provide the words. She was happy to oblige.

When neither writing nor singing, Peacock is an Episcopal priest and chaplain educator who directs the Spiritual Health program at Emory Winship Cancer Institute. She says the lesbian connection with a work isn’t its only strength. It must be celebrated for its kindness and tenderness too. 

The final bit of magic sprinkled upon the collaboration is choreography. With “For Us,” it’s James Ellzy, a family physician at the Defense Health Agency by day, and choreographer/dancer/chorister the rest of the time, who brings it together. 

“By the time it gets to me, the painter, composer, and lyricist are done. But for the choreographer, it’s just starting,” Ellzy says. “My job is to explore the back story and bring it to life. For this piece, I’m using two blankets from the original painting and bringing them out to something new.”

A lyric from “For Us” reads “not for the gaze of men” The choreographed piece includes a female couple and dance corps who are purposely not looking at the two women at times, especially when the “gaze of men” is sung. 

Ellzy’s connection with GMCW began as a guest artist in 2010 and then joining in 2011. He’s a baritone in the Chorus as well as a board member, and describes the interdisciplinary “Portraits” as extremely unusual but possibly comparable to Stephen Sondheim’s “Sunday at the Park with George” in which the painting comes to life. 

All the “For Us’” artists are honored to have been selected to participate, and are looking forward to their respective efforts being shown/sung/heard at the Kennedy Center, especially during Pride month. It’s not an everyday occurrence, they agree.

Cox is thrilled how the collaborative team has been absorbed by the artistic and personal details involving her 23-year long love story. She’s delighted by the experience, saying the work validates her journey as an artist and an LGBTQ advocate.

And Peacock, speaking for the group, sums it up: “It’s incredibly gratifying to do things that bring us joy, and when those things have a place in our world, it’s a great gift.”

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Theater

‘Problems Between Sisters’ a solid introduction to an exciting project

ALTAS cycle covers works by Mamet, Albee, Miller, and more

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Stephanie Janssen, Maya Jackson, and Annie Fox in 'Problems Between Sisters.' (Photo by Margo Schulman)

‘Problems Between Sisters’
Though June 16
Studio Theatre
1501 14th St., N.W.
$40-$95
Studiotheatre.org 

It’s summer time in the Vermont woods, and two very pregnant sisters are holed up in their absent aunt’s remote cabin. One is a visual artist working to meet a show deadline, and the other is a con artist sensing an opportunity for easy money. 

“Problems Between Sisters” — currently making its world premiere at Studio Theatre — is part of playwright Julia May Jonas’s ambitious five-play ALTAS cycle (“All Long True American Stories”), a reimagining of classic 20th century works by and about men reworked as mostly female-centric stories. 

Jonas’s play is a response to Sam Shepherd’s acclaimed 1980 hit “True West,” arguably Shepherd’s best work. His play follows the scary and unceasing sibling rivalry of brothers who’ve reconnected in their mother’s California house. 

“Problems Between Sisters” explores similar psychodrama/comedy terrain. Both include extreme sibling difficulties set in a relation’s home. While Shepherd’s very different brothers’ battle involves screenwriting, Jonas’s disparate women look toward the New York art scene in their clash over creativity. 

When we meet the sisters, Jess (Stephanie Janssen) is alone and working. Her solitude is soon interrupted by estranged younger sister Rory (Annie Fox) who arrives on the scene both unexpected and uninvited.  

Loud, unwashed, she doesn’t appear to be the ideal person to share space with, but when she rudely brings her filthy foot to her mouth to bite off a toenail (drawing a collective groan from the full house in attendance at Studio’s Mead Theatre) it says everything — almost. 

Jess, 40-ish and no nonsense is well educated and an accomplished artist and uncomfortably prenatal. She and her husband live a middle class life whereas younger sister Rory barely gets by on deceit. Her current confidence game involves door-to-door fundraising for green and good causes. 

To Rory, art doesn’t look too tough and there’s potential for a big payoff. Why not give that a shot? She can’t do worse than her recent Oklahoma City circumstances — squatting with a guy named Tornado, possibly her baby’s father. 

Directed by Sivan Battat, the well-acted and smartly designed production creates a palatable place in which the playwright’s quirky narrative can unfold. Niceties come and go; violence erupts quickly and is just as quickly forgiven. Rory makes demands; Jess shares family stories plumbed from their less than functional upbringing (here, a tale about a party trick involving a doorknob with little payoff other than a lesson in not repeating the same mistakes).   

Curiously compelling scene transitions include a flash of fluorescent white light (compliments of Colin K. Bills) framing set designer Emmie Finckel’s homey, almost sepia toned cabin, creating loads of anticipation. 

Anita (Maya Jackson), Jess’s lesbian gallery owner from the city, pays a visit to the cabin. Sporting a graffiti print duster over a white summer romper (fashioned by Broadway’s Helen Q. Huang), she’s weekending nearby at a posh lake house belonging to her partner’s parents. In less than 48 hours, Anita is charmed by Rory’s rough charm and finds her raw barnyard art saleable. The contrast to Jess’s death inspired project is striking. Anita exits with a perceptibly self-promoting “Everyone loves sisters!” 

An increasingly messy situation is momentarily ended by the return of Aunt Barb played by Studio stalwart Nancy Robinette. She’s calm and collected, a soothing presence who unexpectedly takes centerstage as she delivers the myriad ingredients needed for a witchy cleaning potion. It’s a sublime moment in a play sprinkled with moments. 

In addition to Shepherd’s “True West,’ Jonas’s ALTAS cycle covers works by David Mamet, Edward Albee, Arthur Miller, and Eugene O’Neill. Heady stuff. 

Toying with the canon is tricky; still, Jonas’s vision is clear. “Problems Between Sisters” serves as a solid introduction to an exciting project. 

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