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‘Spring Awakening’ choreographer Paul McGill had a promising start in the spotlight but moved behind the scenes

Rocky stint in accident-prone ‘Spider-Man’ show inspired him to rethink career

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Paul McGill, gay news, Washington Blade
Paul McGill eschews cliches above all in his work as a choreographer. (Photo courtesy Round House)

Spring Awakening’ 
Through Feb. 23 
Round House Theatre
4545 East-West Highway
Bethesda, MD
$56-88
240-644-1100

Broadway’s “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” was troubled from the start. Plagued with delays, stunts gone wrong and injuries, some considered the show cursed.  

During his two years playing various parts in the musical, Paul McGill saw a lot of the craziness up close. He remembers after one castmate suffered a particularly serious injury, walking the streets of Manhattan and contemplating his own future as a dancer. 

“I asked myself if my career ended today, would I have done what I wanted?,” McGill says. “The answer was no.  That day I decided to use my skill in a way that I could best serve and I knew it wasn’t onstage.” 

It was 2014, and McGill, not yet 30, stopped performing and focused exclusively on choreography, an art that interested him greatly.

In the ensuing years, a rush of choreography jobs followed including the revival of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” on Broadway, “The Legend of Georgia McBride” off-Broadway and in Los Angeles, and working with Laverne Cox for Fox’s “Rocky Horror Picture Show.”

His most recent gig is “Spring Awakening,” Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater’s Tony-winning adaptation of Frank Wedekind’s 19th-century drama about the agonies of adolescence, now playing at Round House Theatre in a production directed by busy, out director Alan Paul.  

Recently in the theater’s newly renovated lobby, McGill, 32, spoke about his approach to the show. 

While it’s true that audiences come expecting to see the show’s trademark angsty stomping dance moves, McGill has tried something different: “It definitely calls for some stomping, but in my work, I try to find the cliché version and avoid that.”  

Instead, he focuses on the meaning of the play. Here, it’s the relationship between parents and children and the love, or lack thereof, passed from generation to generation.  

“For me, the metaphor is a season of crops,” he says, “the pain just before blooming and what happens after that. I hope it comes across.”

The Pittsburgh native got into showbiz early. McGill started dance lessons at 3 and spent his youth acting in local professional theater and school musicals. Then, when he was a junior in high school, McGill was cast in the Broadway revival of “La Cage Aux Folles,” prompting his immediate transplant to New York City and a professional performing arts school. Next, he played Mark in “A Chorus Line,” another high-profile Broadway revival. 

“For me that was college, “he says. “The cast members were my best friends. It was an incredible learning time.”

In 2009, he played Kevin, the gay teen dancer, in the 2009 feature film remake of “Fame.” At the time, McGill, who came out at 16, was cagey with the gay press. 

“I wasn’t sure about my character and was evasive in interviews,” he says. 

In retrospect, he sees the character as categorically gayer than himself. 

“I guess I’d call myself ‘out and open,’” says McGill who’s been with his boyfriend for four-and-a-half years. “It really is about the person to me. Doesn’t matter if they’re a man or woman, cisgender, nonbinary or trans.” 

Career changes don’t come without sacrifices. 

“If I’d continued performing, I’d be better off financially. But I wholeheartedly believe my decision will pay off. A lot of people dabble in performance and choreography, but I want to send a clear message to myself and the universe about my true investment.”

Ideally, McGill aspires to have a career like Kenny Ortega, the famed director/choreographer behind hit films like “Hocus Pocus,” “High School Musical,” “Dirty Dancing” (choreography only), and numerous concert tours, including tours for Cher and Michael Jackson. 

McGill’s interest spans stage to TV to film — “whatever is the most accessible medium for that story.” Shows he’d like to choreograph include “Cabaret” and “42nd Street.” Not so much “The Wedding Singer.”

Looking back, McGill doesn’t see his stint with “Spider-Man” as time wasted. Now at work, he strives to ensure that the cast is safe but not overly cautious or too wary. And it inspired him to become his most authentic self. 

“Sometimes,” he says, “I wear my ‘Spider-Man’ shirt for good luck.” 

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Theater

Local theaters come to life to celebrate Pride

Kennedy Center, GALA, Olney and more offer live and virtual events

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Solomon Parker is Echinacea Monroe in ‘Olney in Drag,’ coming to Olney Theatre Center in August. (Photo courtesy Parker)

With reopening comes opportunities to celebrate Pride with live performances.

For the first time in more than a year, the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington’s Potomac Fever Ensemble will be performing together live. The small, close-knit harmony a cappella group is presenting a fun mix of contemporary pop, crowd favorites, and Broadway songs at National Christian City Church at 5 Thomas Circle, N.W., on Saturday, June 12 at 3 p.m. Admission is free. Gmcw.org

And if you move fast, there’s still time to catch an outdoor performance of Solas Nua’s production of “In the Middle of the Fields.” Penned by Deirdre Kinahan (“Wild Sky,” “The Frederick Douglass Project”), the new work “centers on Eithne, who is undergoing chemo-therapy for breast cancer. Stepping out of her house and into the nearby fields, she wonders what her life will be like on the other side of recovery from a deadly disease.”

Directed by Laley Lippard and featuring talented local actors Jessica Lefkow, Caroline Dubberly, and Ryan Sellers, the aptly titled play is staged outdoors at P Street Beach in Dupont Circle. Audiences are seated at a distance; blankets and chairs are available for seating options. Solasnua.org

GALA Hispanic Theatre continues its return to live performances with “Ella es tango” (“She is tango”) through the end of June. An original musical revue conceived by GALA artistic director Hugo Medrano with texts by Patricia Suárez and featuring artists from Argentina and the U.S., it highlights the contribution of women composers and singers to sexy but traditionally male dominated genre.

“Ella es tango” is performed indoors at GALA’s bijou space in Columbia Heights, and starting June 11, 2021, the theatre capacity increases and seats will be assigned three feet apart (every third seat) instead of six feet apart (every fifth seat). Galatheatre.org

The Olney Theatre Center (OTC) boasts an impressive lineup of summer offerings for its outdoor, open air amphitheater, the Root Family Stage.

Beginning late July through the end of August, OTC presents the weekly Friday night Andrew A. Isen Cabaret Series featuring some of the DMV’s top musical talents featured in some exciting combinations.

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

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

Queens taking the stage for the second show (August 25) include 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

Also this summer, the Kennedy Center has big outdoor plans for its wide-open, riverside REACH campus.

The Millennium Stage is scheduled to present free outdoor experiences ranging from live music and film screenings to dance lessons, yoga sessions, arts markets, and more.

Slated programming promises to celebrate varied cultures and styles, and work in partnership with the UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, National Theater for the Deaf, Smithsonian Asian American Center, Creative Nomads, SAMASAMA, D.C. Legendary Musicians, Step Afrika, and members of the Drag community, as well as internal collaborations with the Kennedy Center’s Culture Caucus. Kennedy-center.org

And while the Shakespeare Theatre Company (STC) isn’t venturing outdoors yet, they are continuing to present “Blindness,” a brilliant piece about pandemic and societal breakdown featuring the voice of Juliet Stevenson, at Sidney Harman Hall through July 3. The unforgettable experience remains an in-person theatrical installation with socially distanced seating; 40 audience members per event; and masks required indoors).

And “All the Devils Are Here: How Shakespeare Invented the Villain starring Patrick Page” continues to stream until July 28.

Looking forward to September, STC’s first full production will be a two-week limited engagement of gay writer James Baldwin’s “The Amen Corner” from Sept. 14-26 in Sidney Harman Hall, completing its glorious run that was cut short by COVID in March 2020. Shakespearetheatre.org

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Theater

‘Will Power’s Flow’ a hip-hop tour de force

Justin Weaks on playing multiple parts, theater scene after COVID

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Justin Weaks (foreground) and DJ Nick ‘Tha 1da’ Hernandez in ‘Flow.’ (Photo courtesy of Studio Theatre)

‘Will Power’s Flow’
Studio Theatre
Streaming through June 27
$37
Studiotheatre.org

Out actor Justin Weaks really digs hip-hop. So, when Studio Theatre asked him to take on the title role in a filmed remount of “Will Power’s Flow,” an early 2000s hip-hop theatrical piece about music and the storytelling of contemporary urban denizens in the West African griot tradition, it wasn’t an impossible stretch.

Growing up in Concord, N.C., a suburb outside of Charlotte, Weaks’ household was strictly into soul and R&B. But since living in D.C., he says, it feels like hip-hop music has deeply dug its claws into him.

In “Flow,” Weaks, 30, is backed by the hip-hop beats of DJ/composer/sound designer Nick “Tha 1da” Hernandez. “But you’ll hear me on some beats too. I have a good time with it.”

But the most challenging aspect of tackling “Flow” is playing multiple parts, he adds. In addition to his lead role as performer Will Power (the 7th storyteller), he plays six other storytellers, and about another dozen characters. But this sort of tour de force isn’t entirely new to the actor who triumphantly played multiple roles in “Long Way Down” at the Kennedy Center as well as in “Gloria” at Woolly Mammoth, the work that garnered him a Helen Hayes Award nomination.

The D.C.-based actor who describes himself as “happily single,” ranks as one of Washington’s most gifted talents.

WASHINGTON BLADE: Was it challenging to assay Will Power, a part so associated with a real-life artist?

JUSTIN WEAKS: Actually, this production was my introduction to Will Power. My friend and director Psalmayene 24 reached out to me – he said Studio wanted to remount “Flow” with a new actor, and asked if I was interested. I was blown away by the script. It’s a behemoth of a piece. Any yes, any time you’re dealing with a piece that was originally performed by its writer, there is an extra responsibility to the work and the words.

BLADE: And how was returning to the stage after a long absence?

WEAKS: The return to Studio felt right. I love the programming at Studio. Like how intimate their spaces are. As a performer you’re held by the audience.

BLADE: But because of COVID restrictions, this production was filmed over two days. How was that?

WEAKS: I’ve had very little film experience. This was my first major rodeo in front of the camera. Everything about it was new. I learned so much while doing it. It’s something that’s foreign. You have to think of it as a great opportunity to learn, to grow, and see what you need to work on.

I’ll admit that I feel incredibly vulnerable with this filmed play being out there. That’s new for me. I’ve experienced vulnerability in real time when I’m on stage but to have the work be done a month ago, edited, and out there, it makes me feel exposed in a way I’ve never felt.

BLADE: I’m sure you’ll get used to that.

WEAKS: After I’ve done a few feature films, I’ll probably feel differently.

BLADE: Was it difficult returning to work after such an odd year?

WEAKS: Returning to work as an artist isn’t easy. I consider our return process to be like boot camp. We’re different people now. My body sits differently. My voice and breath are different. After isolation and not working much, I had to relearn my instrument again.

BLADE: Is it different?

WEAKS: There is so much that is changing in terms of the industry — theater and film industry. How they hire and pay artists. So many of us made more on unemployment than when we were busy working full-time pre-COVID.

Theaters will be in for a surprise when they reopen doors and find that artists don’t want to go back to the way things were before the pandemic. We’re in a different time now and we’ll rise to the new time rather than shrinking back into what was. Clearly it wasn’t serving many of us.

BLADE: And is there anything about Flow that’s especially appealing to LGBTQ audiences?

WEAKS: Oh, yes. If you’re someone who has struggled at all this past year, then this piece will interest you. If you’re figuring out what the future looks like, how to move on, how to cope, how to have faith, or hang on to something real, then this play is for you.

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Theater

A mix of laughs and sadness in ‘2.5 Minute Ride’

Studio virtual production penned by Tony-winning Lisa Kron

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Dina Thomas in ‘2.5 Minute Ride.’ (Photo courtesy of Studio Theatre)

‘2.5 Minute Ride’
Streaming through June 6
Studio Theatre
$37
Studiotheatre.org

Tony Award-winning lesbian playwright Lisa Kron writes about families. Sometimes her own, and sometimes other people’s.

With her autobiographical solo show “2.5 Minute Ride,” now streaming at Studio Theatre, the focus is on her relationship with her father, a nearly blind Holocaust survivor with a mad passion for roller coasters.

The 75-minute piece opens with Lisa (engagingly played by Dina Thomas) alone in an empty theater. Casually dressed in jeans and a flannel shirt, she arranges a couple of chairs and a slide projector. She’s about to open the family album – usually a dreaded experience for strangers, but not so here.

Rather than an endless cavalcade of unknown faces and places, these projected slides are blank pictures, allowing the audience to imagine people and locations of their own conjuring.

From the start, it’s clear that this anecdote-jammed monologue will be a mix of laughs and sadness. As Lisa, Thomas pokes fun at her oddball relatives. There’s the brother who finds a bride on the Internet, a grandmother who left behind countless unopened packages of cosmetics bought because she felt bad for the Avon Lady, and Lisa’s closeted uncle whose hoard of gay porn was uncovered after his death.

Though not in the least bit sugarcoated, Kron’s descriptions are never cruel.

But the foremost eccentric here, is Lisa’s thrill-addicted father Walter. A German Jewish immigrant, he escaped Nazi Germany as a teenager by Kindertransport. His parents weren’t so fortunate — unable to get out, they met tragic fates in the camps.

Over the years Walter establishes an upper-middle class life in Lansing, Mich. Almost annually, the family makes trips to Cedar Point amusement park, the roller coaster capital of the world, in Sandusky, Ohio, where Walter, a bona fide coaster junkie, indulges in his favorite pastime, a habit that he’s loath to give up even as he ages. So, at 74, despite failing vision, diabetes, and a bad heart, Walter continues to ride the coasters (the play’s title is a salute to this passion)

Lisa marvels at her family’s bad health. Most of the extended family is dead or crippled, she says.

They’re so different from her girlfriend Peg’s physically vital, outdoorsy clan.

There’s another journey whose details Lisa generously shares. It’s the one-time trip she and her dad take to Auschwitz, the death camp where Walter believes his parents to have perished. As traveling companions, the pair do pretty well. She supplies sight while he brings the languages. During their time alone together, Lisa learns a lot about Walter, the ways in which he processes joy and grief, for instance, along with some larger lessons about how great tragedy exists alongside the mundanity of life.

Streamed solo shows have become staple theatrical fare throughout the pandemic. If they’re not your thing, then “2.5 Minute Ride” may not be for you. That said, Thomas gives a compelling, layered performance as Lisa. Ably directed by Joanie Shultz, Thomas convincingly talks about family with compassion but not sentiment. Through Kron’s prose, she vividly recreates relations and locales ranging from her maternal grandmother’s home, the brother’s rented wedding venue, a rental car, the Auschwitz parking lot.

Kron, who is married to fellow celebrated playwright Madeleine George, is probably best known for writing the book and lyrics for “Fun Home,” the award-winning Broadway musical, a queer coming-of-age story adapted from Alison Bechdel’s 2006 graphic memoir of the same name. Kron also wrote the biographical “Well,” a family memoir centered on the relationship of mothers and daughters, and wellness.

“2.5 Minute Ride” offers a funny, poignant entry into Kron’s family. It’s an invitation worth accepting.

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