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Out actor Max von Essen relishes role as Marvin in ‘Falsettos’

Performer channeled Gershwin obsession into long-running show biz career

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Falsettos, gay news, Washington Blade
Max Von Essen (left) and Nick_Adams in ‘Falsettos.’ (Photo by Joan Marcus)

‘Falsettos’
June 11-23 
Kennedy Center
2700 F St., N.W.
$49-139
202-467-4600

A Broadway veteran who is frequently offered roles, Max von Essen pushed to play Marvin in the national tour of the Lincoln Center revival of “Falsettos,” opening Tuesday at the Kennedy Center. 

A sung-through musical by William Finn and Sondheim collaborator James Lapine, it’s the bittersweet story (circa New York City 1980) of a gay man, Marvin, who leaves his wife and young son to be with lover, Whizzer (here played by Nick Adams). When Whizzer is diagnosed with AIDS, Marvin’s nontraditional family puts aside issues and comes together. 

“I really wanted it and convinced the creative team that I was right for the part,” von Essen says. “There’s a lot: the score has some of musical theater’s most beautiful songs, truly, and the role is demanding and brings with it a certain sense of responsibility.”

When “Falsettos” first opened in 1992, the subject matter was too raw for some gay men. 

“I meet a lot of older men who thank me for bringing this back and for honoring a time they lived through,” von Essen says. “I sometimes hear quiet sobs and gasps from the audience. The show still packs a punch. I thought it might be a period piece, but that’s not the case. It remains fresh, relevant and emotionally powerful. And I’m shocked at how many LGBTQ kids are coming. They say they can’t imagine how bad it must have been for people, and are thankful for the representation.” 

Von Essen, 45, is perhaps best known for playing Henri Baurel in “An American in Paris,” an adaptation of the classic MGM musical. 

After years of both pounding the pavement and gainful gratifying employment including some Broadway shows, von Essen scored big with Henri. Following a brief run at Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, the show successfully premiered on Broadway in the spring of 2015. 

“Basically, were I born into a wealthy French family in the early 20th century, I’d be him,” he says. “He’s gay and wants to be an entertainer in New York but feels pressured to conform to his family’s expectations. I knew this character from the start.” 

Initially, director/choreographer Christopher Wheeldon wanted a first-class tapper for Henri, explains von Essen. Though he’d never touched a pair of tap shoes, he could deliver the big number “Stairway to Paradise.” 

“After a long auditioning process, they cast me. I was given simple steps and people danced around me.”

It seems Henri was a part Von Essen was preparing for his entire life. Growing up the youngest of four on Long Island, N.Y., he was obsessed with Gershwin. 

“I played piano, plowed my way through books and taught myself his songs. I watched old MGM musicals and dreamed of being in them. Our ‘An American in Paris’ was an MGM musical come to life on stage.”

By high school, von Essen was fully hooked on musical theater. Still, Broadway somehow seemed a distant and unattainable thing. At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he majored in voice and economics and despite doing a lot of theater on campus, he still fought the call of show biz. 

After graduating, he gave himself two years to pursue a career in theater. If nothing happened, he’d try another field. Within a few months he was cast as a chorus boy in Liza Minnelli’s act. 

“When you work for Liza you’re met by a driver, you fly off for weekend gigs in Vegas and Monte Carlo. But she’s incredibly down to earth — friendly, funny and little dirty. In our down time we’d see movies and go to dinner. Then I’d go back to my hotel room and scream into my pillow. I was just 22 and couldn’t believe this was my life.” 

He’s worked ever since. Sometimes not exactly where he wanted or the right part, but always working. 

Still, even today, von Essen is worried that he might have reached his peak or his current job might be his last.

“It’s an occupational hazard. Even if you’re booked a year or two out, you enjoy it, but you’re never entirely relaxed.”

Following the Kennedy Center, “Falsettos” plays a week in Charlotte, and then the tour ends. Though he’ll miss the part, he’s eager to return to his partner and their Sphinx cat Pocket in Hell’s Kitchen. Looking forward, he’d like to do some Sondheim, He’s thinking “Sunday in the Park with George,” or maybe “Company.”

In the meantime, he’ll be on the lookout for his next big gig. 

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Theater

‘Blackest Battle’ an innovative hip-hop musical

Replacing feuding Montagues and Capulets with rival rap groups

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Out actor Jade Jones in Theater Alliance’s ‘The Blackest Battle.’ (Photo courtesy Theater Alliance)

‘The Blackest Battle’
Streaming through Aug. 29
Theater Alliance
$30
Theateralliance.com

Young rapper Dream carries a dog-eared paperback copy of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” She’s an idealist and like the Bard’s star-crossed lovers, she’s willing to risk it all for true love. 

“The Blackest Battle,” the final offering of Theater Alliance’s digital season, is a love story set against a gritty urban landscape. Penned by talented D.C. artist Psalmayene24 with music by nick tha 1da, the innovative hip-hop musical explores romance and grudges in a new way. Rather than the feuding Montagues and the Capulets in Renaissance Italy, playwright Psalmayene24 serves up rival rap groups set in a future New York City.  

The layered production is helmed by Theater Alliance’s out artistic director Raymond O. Caldwell who with the assistance of digital producer Kelly Colburn, deftly brings together the work of designers, graphic illustrators, animators, and an appealing cast of actors. The results are raw, witty, and affecting.

The action is set in Chief County, an imagined all-Black enclave in New York City, where the N word has been replaced with Negus, the Ethiopian word for royalty. Unfortunately, a lot of what is bad today — gun violence and crime — remains the same. 

At the top of the show, we’re caught up on what’s in store for America. We can expect a lot of white nationalist terror and civil war followed by a neo-Reconstruction period with reparations for African Americans. 

Led by the Ringmaster (a vibrant Kelsey Delemar), we’re introduced to the future, Chief County, and some of its more musical residents. The storyline follows the fortunes of two warring rap factions, focusing on young lovers Bliss and Dream, played respectively by Gary Perkins and Imani Branch. 

The rap groups are Lock Crew whose hot new song “Raris and PCP” is garnering some attention, and the more message-driven Key Enterprises. 

Lock Crew’s members include gun-slinging Sergeant Pepper (Bayou Elom), front man Ty (Emmanuel Kyei-Baffour) who wears a frumpy dress, and Bliss, the most sensible and goodhearted member of the trio.                                   

Enterprises is headed by straight edge leader Do Or Die (Louis Davis). He’s supported on stage by his younger sister, the appropriately named Dream, and D.J., Bonita, a lesbian with a drug habit played by out actor Jade Jones. Bonita’s high of choice is called “hope,” a mind opening amalgam of technological advancement and botanical evolution that’s taken aurally. Its dangers and benefits are debatable. 

Major beef develops when due to spotty Wi-Fi both groups are mistakenly booked to open for headliner Jay Adonis at the same big show at Zoom Arena. Rather than correct the problem himself, Adonis suggests the dueling artists fight it out. 

Dream and Bliss first meet at a rent party on the Fourth of July, a noisy and often violent holiday in Chief County. Despite being from enemy camps, the pair are drawn together instantly. The chemistry is palpable. Soon after meeting, they slip out to watch the fireworks at the pier, a significant spot with a history that harks back to the slave trade.

The Ringmaster comments that humans are hardwired to fall in love at first sight. But it can’t be with just anyone. Referencing ‘70s sitcoms, she amusingly says George must find his Weezy, and Florida her James. 

Later that night Dream and Bliss seek refuge from the rain beneath a bridge poignantly graffitied with numerous names of victims of gun violence – it’s the same spot where their groups have chosen to rumble. This is also where the show’s sad but unsatisfying and abrupt ending plays out. 

Streaming through the end of August, “The Blackest Battle” screams plus ça change, the immutability of human nature, and does it in an entirely fresh and entertaining way.

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Theater

Meet Theater J’s new managing director

David Lloyd Olson strives to create equitable, inclusive space

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David Lloyd Olson is Theater J's new managing director. (Photo courtesy Theater J)

Beginning in mid-August, David Lloyd Olson will be Theater J’s new managing director. As such, he’s charged with getting butts in seats, but there’s more to it than that. He explains via phone from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, where he was vacationing last week, “My goal is to create a space that’s equitable, inclusive, and everyone is supported with the resources they need to create the best art possible in their current circumstances that means I’m doing my job well.”

Housed in the Edlavitch DC Jewish Community Center (EDCJCC) on 16th Street in Dupont Circle, Theater J, the nation’s largest and most prominent Jewish theater, is slated to reopen in late September. While new hire Olson will focus on financial matters and marketing, veteran artistic director Adam Immerwahr is responsible for what happens on stage. Neither of the co-executives reports to each other but rather to EDJCC’s CEO Dava Schub. “It’s a leadership model that works,” says Olson, “because you don’t have the business leading the arts.” 

Olson likes Schub’s vision for creating safe space at EDCJCC for LGBTQI+ and people of color, especially Jews of color, and her belief that more energy is made when a company is housed in a community center. “It meshes with my idea of what a theater should be more than a transactional relationship, but rather creating dialogue with community and using the platform – literally our stage – to participate in the conversation with the community.” 

Additionally, Olson’s getting on board with Theater J allows for a geographical reunion with his husband Jonah Richmond. Over the last two years, Olson has been managing director at Quintessence Theatre Group in Philadelphia while Richmond has remained at the couple’s place in D.C. and worked at EPA. Olson says “Philadelphia was a great experience but it was tough going back and forth. It’s good to be home.” 

Olson’s career has been mostly Washington area-based, and his vitae boasts stretches at GALA Hispanic Theatre, Arena Stage, the Shakespeare Theatre Company, and Pointless Theatre. 

While at University of Maryland, he spent a lot of time making theater with fellow theater majors. Olson was curious how to lift fellow artists and identify resources that would assist them in reaching their greatest potential.  

He was interested in directing, acting, and puppetry (UMD is Jim Henson’s alma mater). After scoring a terrific success performing in the Fringe Festival with “Sleeping Beauty: A Puppet Ballet,” a beautiful, well received piece, he became part of the Pointless Theatre where he took on the role of managing director, producer, and nonprofit administrator.

With puppetry, the work speaks for itself. If the puppeteer is doing their job expertly, they fall away and the puppet takes center stage. Similarly, very much of what Olson does as managing director is behind the scenes — essential to the production taking place, but audiences don’t see him. 

Growing up in the suburbs of Atlanta, young Olson was part of a Jewish community that frowned on his sexuality. He later found acceptance at Adas Israel Congregation, the Washington synagogue where he married his husband in 2014. 

As a kid, he was encouraged to be as assimilated as possible. Despite being partly of Mexican ancestry, there was no Spanish spoken at home “It’s reflective of the national conversation we’re having now,” he says. “Same goes with heteronormativity. The idea that the more you can pass as a straight white man, the more opportunities that come your way.” 

At Theater J, the job of storytellers is not to say one side or another is right but to tell the story of what it means to be Jewish, says Olson. Differences might include religious practices, ideology, and one’s stand on Palestinian self-determination. But ultimately, he thinks, though divided, a community can remain unbroken. 

Looking forward, Olson is eager to see Theater J’s in-person, fall season opener “Becoming Dr. Ruth” starring Naomi Jacobson, a local actor he greatly admires, and staged by talented out actor/director Holly Twyford. He’s also excited about Theater J’s Yiddish Theater Lab dedicated to commissioning English translations and adaptations of Yiddish plays to be presented as readings and possibly productions.

In closing, he adds, “I pinch myself every day about how lucky I am to work in theater, to be among great artists and part of a community.”

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Theater

In-person, virtual, and outdoor theater options abound

Your favorite D.C. stages are busy this season

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Theater Alliance's producing artistic director Raymond O.Caldwell directs ‘The Blackest Battle.’

In the before times, summer at the Kennedy Center meant a big Broadway musical national tour or two. Slipping into the unmistakable box’s cool, darkened red Opera House for a show during the dog days of summer is a treat I’ve enjoyed since I was kid. 

But because of the pandemic, this summer the landmark’s indoor spaces remain dark. But there’s still a lot happening. The Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage has moved outdoors to the Reach, a collection of pavilions and open areas adjacent to the original building. In this striking, open-air, riverside plaza, you’ll find loads of free entertainment ranging from live music and film screenings to dance lessons, yoga sessions, and arts markets. 

While it’s too late to enjoy early June’s “The Wig Party: A Capitol Drag Festival,” there’s still much to see in-person and via livestream. Here are a few selections from the Millennium Stage program.

The DMV’s authentic Afro-Latinx experience “Adobo Gigante” (July 22-24) returns with a midsummer weekend of programming. There’s “Raga at the REACH” (Aug. 5-7), a three-day festival focused on presenting the vibrant culture and heritage of India through live music, dance, film, and local arts vendors. And in late August, it’s “On Deck: Women Shedding Through Boundaries” (Aug. 26-28), an all-inclusive festival featuring women in action sports and music like skateboarding and jazz. Visit kennedy-center.org for more information.

Elsewhere around town, companies and artists are presenting heaps of new, original work, featuring both familiar and less familiar faces. 

Local out playwright George Purefoy Tilson’s new one act “Holler” premieres virtually on Sunday July 18 at 7 p.m.

Set in the hills of coal country, it’s the story of four siblings who cling to fading memories while wrestling with a haunting secret. The virtual production is directed by talented Evan Casey who is also included in the five-person cast along with Bernadette Arvidson, Emilie Zelle Holmstock, Larry Levinson, and Timothy Sayles. 

“Holler’s” opening is a fundraiser for CCI Health & Wellness Services, an organization that supports the most vulnerable in local communities. For more information visit bit.ly/hollerpremiere. Subsequent streaming opportunities will soon be made available via link on the “Holler” Facebook page.

For summer of 2021, Spooky Action Theatre presents “Happy, Beyond…Happy,” a short play virtual reading series inspired by a list of “happiness words” that do not directly translate into English. 

Through July 18, the two readings are playwrights Marie-Claude St-Laurent and Marie-Ève Milothelmed’s “Collect Call,” the story of sisters and their rocky relationship; and Emma Gibson’s “Adam + Rose,” a play about separation and love. Both readings are directed by esteemed gay director José Zayes. Spookyaction.org 

Through July 25, Studio Theatre is streaming award-winning playwright George Brant’s “Tender Age.” 

Directed by Henry Godinez, the one-person play stars New York actor Bobby Moreno as Martín, a young father who faces a moral reckoning after going to work as a security guard at a local Walmart-turned-detention center for children separated from their families at the nearby Texas border. Studio-theatre.org

Theater Alliance ends its digital season with playwright Psalmayene 24’s “The Blackest Battle” (July 31 – August 29), a revolutionary hip-hop musical that puts an original spin on urban violence. 

Set on the Fourth of July in the not-too-distant future, it portrays a world where reparations have been paid to African Americans yet Black on Black violence rages on. But despite the bellicose atmosphere, two members of warring rap factions manage to fall in love.  

“The Blackest Battle” is directed by Theater Alliance’s out artistic director Raymond O. Caldwell, and features a seven-person cast including talented out actor Jade Jones as Bonita. Theateralliance.com

Tyson’s 1st Stage is presenting its annual Logan Festival of Solo Performance, only this year it’s happening outdoors at busy Boro Park (8350 Broad Street, Tysons, Va.).

The festival opener is “Opera Soup” (Aug. 21 -29), a family-friendly amalgam of music and lively storytelling written and performed by accomplished opera singer Lori Brown Mirabel.

And for just two special performances (also at Boro Park), Mirabel performs an autobiographical solo piece “Charmed Life” (Aug. 27-28) in which she tells not only her own story, but also pays homage to famous opera artists who have gone before, and specifically to the Black women opera singers of the past. 1ststage.org

At Olney Theatre Center (OTC), the shady campus with its open-air amphitheater, the Root Family Stage, is ideal for safer, in-person offerings. 

Beginning in late July through the end of August, OTC presents the weekly Friday night Andrew A. Isen Cabaret Series pairing some of the D.C. area’s best musical talent. 

The duos include Awa Sal Secka and out actor Bobby Smith (July 23); Ines Nassara and Tracy Lynn Olivera (July 30); Donna Migliaccio, and Nova Payton (Aug. 6); Rayanne Gonzales and local gay performer Rayshun Lamarr who appeared as a contestant on TV’s “The Voice” (Aug. 13); Greg Maheu and Vishal Vaidya (Aug. 20); and finally, Malinda Kathleen Reese and Alan Wiggins (Aug. 27). 

On two consecutive free admission Wednesday nights in August, OTC presents “Olney in Drag,” a two-part extravaganza where audiences are asked “enjoy a drink as these fabulous drag queens shine brighter than the stars in the evening sky.” The first show (Aug. 18) features Brooklyn Heights, Betty O’Hellno, Ariel Von Quinn, Evon Michelle. 

The second show (Aug. 25) includes Kristina Kelly, Vagenesis, Tiara Missou (David Singleton who appeared in “Elf the Musical” at OTC), and Echinacea Monroe (terrific out actor Solomon Parker). Olneytheatre.org  

If keeping kids entertained figures into your summer in the city, why not add some in-person youth theater to the mix?  

Bethesda’s Imagination Stage is borrowing Olney Theatre’s outdoor space to reprise “Paper Dreams” (July 31 – Aug. 15), a dance-based performance about friends who live inside a wastepaper basket. A collaboration with Mons Dansa Dance Company (Barcelona, Spain), it’s directed by Claudia Moreso and remounted by Imagination Stage’s Kathryn Chase Bryer.  Admission is free. Imaginationstage.org  

Glen Echo Park’s Adventure Theatre is presenting “Fairytales in the Sun,” two original works performed in-person on the park’s outdoor campus. 

Running through Sept. 6, “Fairy Tales in the Sun” features two one-act plays: Lara Yang’s “The Flood in the Future,” the tale of a young girl who learns some vital life lessons about sacrifice and cooperation; and Michelle Lynch’s “From Cinders to Ella,” a play about forging your own happily ever after. Both are directed by Stan Kang. Adventuretheatre-mtc.org

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