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New theater: ‘Pretty Woman’ and it’s Britney, bitch

Two musicals to check out on D.C. stages



Jerry Mitchell (Photo by Christopher DeVargas)

After publication of this story, the theater announced that all performances of “Pretty Woman” have been canceled due to COVID.

Tony Award-winning choreographer/director Jerry Mitchell has had a long and loving relationship with the film “Pretty Woman.” 

In a recent phone call, he recalls, “When I first saw the movie, I was dancing in ‘The Will Rogers Follies’ in the early 90s. It was the perfect Cinderella story, and I fell in love.” 

From the start, Mitchell harbored the idea that “Pretty Woman” would make a good musical. And 30 years later, after successfully directing and/or choreographing movies to Broadway musicals (“Hairspray,” “Kinky Boots,” “Legally Blonde,” and “La Cage,” to name a few), Mitchell met “Pretty Woman’s” director, Gary Marshall, who asked him to tackle an adaptation of the popular flick that made Julia Roberts a star. 

It wasn’t a hard choice for Mitchell, 61. “Pretty Woman” is essentially a two hander about unlikely couple Edward Lewis and Vivian Ward, a wealthy businessman and free-spirited prostitute, who find happiness together against the odds. Despite the trite aspects of the story, Mitchell sees more to it than that. “She’s in the ashes but gets herself out by finding some self-worth. It’s a good female empowerment story that I’d like to tell my own nieces. And we amplify that aspect in the musical.” 

Helmed by Mitchell, “Pretty Woman: The Musical” premiered in Chicago before opening on Broadway in 2018, and closing over a year later after a successful run. And in just a few days, the touring production is coming to Washington’s National Theatre. 

Mitchell sort of fell into directing movies to musicals. He has an explanation: “I don’t think most people read books like they used to. They watch movies and it’s a faster turnaround. A producer might think ‘this is great source material for a good musical.’ And that’s why I think so many movies are thrown at creative types rather than books.”

Born with a natural athleticism that compliments his dance ability, Mitchell began acting and dancing as a kid in community in theater in his hometown of Paw Paw, Mich. Once in college at Webster University in St. Louis, he immersed himself further in dance and acting, and, says Mitchell, “came out the minute [he] stepped on campus.” He left school early to pursue a professional dance career. 

Moving from dancer to choreographer to director isn’t an easy task, he attests. “By 23, I knew that I wanted to be on the other side but I also knew that through dance I’d get to work with some of the great choreographers. And that came true in spades for me: Dancing allowed me to work with people like Agnes de Mille, Michael Bennett, and Jerome Robbins.”

Mitchell, who lives in New York with his fiancé actor Ricky Schroeder (“Not to be confused with Schroder the movie actor – my Ricky is younger and better looking,” says Mitchell), is an integral part of the national tour. He fills the production with people he admires and whose company he enjoys. 

“We change up tours, and I like to get in there and do the changes. Also, I’ve had a ball with cast. Adam Pascal who plays Edward sings the shit out of the show. I wanted to give him the time he deserves. And the new Vivian, Olivia Valli (Frankie Valli’s granddaughter), is terrific. She’s brought a sense of humor to the show. The two are sensational together.” 

Briga Heelan, Emily Skinner, Tess Soltau, MiMi Scardulla in ‘Once Upon a One More Time.’ (Photo by Matthew Murphy)

There’s also some empowerment happening at Shakespeare Theatre Company where Broadway bound “Once Upon a One More Time” is making its world premiere. Penned by gay playwright Jon Hartmere, the musical employs familiar fairytale princesses and almost equally familiar Britney Spears’ tunes in telling a story about equality and elusive happiness. 

The plot’s premise is promising. A group of fairytale heroines kill time backstage until they’re called on to act out their part when a child somewhere in the world is reading their story. Not surprisingly, Cinderella is the busiest of the storybook stars. She’s also the most dissatisfied. Overworked, underpaid, and not secure in her relationship with Prince Charming, she yearns for more. 

Then enters Notorious OFG (Original Fairy Godmother) with a gift in tow – a copy of Betty Friedan’s 1963 bestseller “The Feminist Mystique.” Just what the princesses need to guide them from a life of obedience and dulcet tones to something better. Labor strikes, change, and bold moves ensue.

As Cinderella, standout Briga Heelan boldly leads the large cast as a burgeoning new woman. Justin Guarini makes for a nicely naughty Prince Charming. And amusingly turned out in a sequined mother-of-the-bride dress and sparkly running shoes, Brooke Dillman is more Hollywood’s aw-shucks Jane Withers than the famously abrasive Freidan.

When one of Spears’ more than 20 songs (“Lucky,” “Stronger,” “Toxic,” etc.) drop into the story, fans in the audience ‘ooh and ah’ in recognition and delight. Some fun instances include the Prince’s admission of infidelity with “Oops, I Did It Again,” and Cinderella’s stepmother and stepsisters’ “Work, Bitch.”

Sometimes glittery and loud and other times subdued, the production boasts colorful, witty costumes and artful, first rate projections. But despite good design, stellar voices, and a terrific band, something’s amiss.   

And ultimately, as we knew they would, each of the princesses finds their own voice – including the mute Little Mermaid. But despite the occasional cleverness, it’s a tale that never lands. Like the old stories the musical wishes to rewrite, it’s all too predictable.



Local holiday theater season sparkles with expectation

Classic tales, modern retellings, Cirque Du Soleil, and more



The Kings’ Singers (Photo by Frances Marshall)

Like Christmas itself, the local holiday theater season is filled with tradition, excitement, and sparkling expectation. And whatever way you might celebrate the holidays, the DMV theater scene has scores of options to treat you and yours to something special. Here’s a taste.

Beloved British ensemble The Kings’ Singers are booked at the Washington National Cathedral for one night only (Dec. 15). The proposed song list promises a mix of “Christmas favorites, popular familiar tunes, and some surprises.” 

Earlier this year, the popular a capella group made headlines when a bigoted Florida Christian college shamefully cancelled a performance by the musical sextet over ‘concerns’ about the sexual orientation of its members. But that’s in the past, and now the six good-looking blokes are celebrating the season in one of the nation’s foremost places of worship.

Baltimore’s gorgeous Hippodrome Performing Arts Center hosts the eye-popping Cirque Du Soleil production “Twas the Night Before,” Nov. 24-Dec. 3

Synetic Theater in Crystal City is bringing back “Snow Maiden” (Dec. 9 – Jan. 6), a dazzling movement piece based on a 19th century folk tale about a lonely boy who builds a girl from snow. Performed by Maryam Najafzada and Vato Tsikurishvili and created by Helen Hayes Award-winning choreographer and Synetic co-founder Irina Tsikurishvili. 

In Falls Church, Creative Cauldron presents “Madeline’s Christmas” (Dec. 1-17), a charming musical based on the classic book by author and illustrator Ludwig Bemelmans. “Madeline’s schoolmates and tutor are all sick in bed on Christmas Eve, unable to go home for Christmas to be with their families. So, it’s Madeline to the rescue! And with the help of a magical rug merchant, she takes her friends on a Christmas journey they will never forget.” Matt Conner directs.

Rehoboth Beach’s Clear Space Theatre Company presents “Estella Scrooge,” Nov. 24-Dec. 10. It features Ebenezer Scrooge’s great great granddaughter in a modern retelling of the classic Christmas tale.

Olney Theatre Center spices up the season with “Drag the Halls” (Dec. 8 and 9), a holiday spectacular with fabulous queens Echinacea Monroe (Solomon Parker III), Evon Michelle (Baltimore’s Drag Performer of the Year) and Tiara Missou.

Whether handed off discreetly in a sedate ivory envelope or placed under the tree in a silvery wrapped box, theater tickets make a great holiday gift. 

For a terrific kids’ prezzie, you might give the hour-long musical experience of “A Year in the Life of Frog and Toad” (through Jan. 7) at Imagination Stage in Bethesda. The endearing title characters are played by Deimoni Brewington and Casey Evans, respectively.

At Theater J there’s another show for kids, “Tiny Lights: Tales for Chanukah” (Dec. 3, 9, 10), created by Aaron Posner and Erin Weaver. “Taking inspiration from the great Chanukah tales of master storyteller Issac Bashevis Singer, our theatrical storytellers will weave tales out of words, a few simple props, and theatrical devices — and then teach you and your young kids how to do the same.” Sounds fun.

 The Washington Ballet presents “The Nutcracker” at the gilded Warner Theatre (through Dec. 30). With Tchaikovsky’s timeless music and splendid choreography by Septime Weber, this 1882 Georgetown-set production features historical figures including George Washington and King George III, along with the usual suspects like children, rats, fairies and a mysterious godfather.

Bethesda’s Music Center at Strathmore is bringing back “The Hip Hop Nutcracker” (Dec. 19-22), Tchaikovsky’s classic re-imagined with MC Kurtis Blow (“White Lines”).  

Undeniably the lynchpin of D.C. holiday theater is the historic Ford’s Theatre version of “A Christmas Carol” (through Dec. 31), a popular Washington tradition for more than 30 years. Conceived by Michael Baron, this beautifully staged take on the Dickens’ classic features Craig Wallace as Scrooge who after a night of ghostly visits, rediscovers Christmas joy. 

Joining the cast this holiday season is versatile D.C. actor Kimberly Gilbert as the Ghost of Christmas Present. The Helen Hayes Award-winning Gilbert says, “I have been wanting to join this show for years and am so over the moon that I get to be a part of the ‘beautiful machine.’ This kind of process is the most unique I have embarked on in my twenty years on DC stages. Its intricate structure is so well-tuned, which surprisingly means it was flexible enough to allow a maniac like me into the mix.

For Gilbert, taking on Christmas Present has proved a joy. She says, “I don’t show Scrooge my powers by anything other than small gestures: a larger goose, an oil can, a few more coins in someone’s pocket. And I think that is quite purposeful as I am teaching him that it doesn’t take much to create a ripple effect of good on this Earth. That’s a huge lesson for all of us right now.”

On a personal note, Gilbert adds, “my performance is in honor of my amazing mother, Catherine Gilbert, who we lost in January of this year. My family’s holidays were so magical because of my mother, and I will bring her spirit on stage with me every night.”

And not to be missed, the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington is back with “The Holiday Show” (Dec. 2, 9, and 10) at the historic Lincoln Theatre where they promise to break out the sparkle, reindeer antlers along with glorious music, new jokes, and loads fun.

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Memories of time spent in India revealed in ‘Public Obscenities’

An inspiring production from writer-director Shayok Misha Chowdhury



Shayok Misha Chowdhury

‘Public Obscenities’
Through Dec. 23
Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company
641 D St., N.W.

For writer-director Shayok Misha Chowdhury, the memories and imaginings of time spent in India are revealed in “Public Obscenities,” an inspiring new production currently playing at Woolly Mammoth Theatre. 

Born in India, raised in Boston and now living in New York, Chowdhury, 38, has visited his native country often over the years. Those visits serve as a connection to family and himself. “I was trying to a write a thing that reflected the intense specificities of my life as a uniquely situated gay man,” he explains. “It’s filled with intersecting longings among diasporic gay folks and those on the subcontinent.”

A Woolly co-production with Theatre For A New Audience (in which four of the seven characters are queer), “Public Obscenities” follows Indian born Choton (Abrar Haque) as he returns to Kolkata on a research trip with his Black American boyfriend Raheem (Jakeem Dante Powell). While visiting his family home, Choton acts as translator (Bangla and English) and interviews queer locals all while showing Raheem his world. 

In the past, Chowdhury, 38, has written musical experimental pieces but had never written a solo author naturalist play. “This is my debut as a playwright. What’s more, I’m directing something that I’ve written for the first time.” But being a director is squarely in his wheelhouse.

WASHINGTON BLADE: How much of “Public Obscenities” is about you, Misha?

SHAYOK MISHA CHOWDHURY: The plot isn’t autobiographical, but the circumstances are. My partner is an African-American video artist and I’m more words driven. We’ve travelled many times. Unlike Choton, I don’t have a Ph.D. 

Definitely Choton’s a character close to my skin. He lives in states robust fluency in mother tongue and feels a longing for what might had been had he remained. 

He feels very much at home being gay in Kolkata. He can desire and be desired by people who look like him and speak to them in his mother tongue. There’s a cross connection: He likes what they have and they like that he lives in America with accepting parents and can easily have a relationship with a Black man. 

BLADE: It is also a bilingual piece?

CHOWDHURY: Entirely bilingual in a very natural way. Characters speak either Bangla or English given circumstances. Choton’s partner doesn’t speak Bangla so the main character is translating in real time. When Bangla-speaking characters are in a scene, the audience is reading supertitles.

BLADE: Is it tough casting a bilingual piece?

CHOWDHURY: Yes, more than anything it was a casting challenge. Finding these actors is what made the piece possible. I’m very glad we had the muscle to find these folks and keep them in the production by flying them in and housing them.  

BLADE: And place is very important? 

CHOWDHURY: The house is a character in the play. Very much a scenic replica from real life; I’ve spent time in that house. For the Woolly production, the scenic designer has added a meta conceit: You enter through a movie theater and behind the screen of the cinema hall that house is revealed. But once there, it will feel the same.

“Public Obscenities” has been described as theater verité. The aesthetic leans into documentary precision and mimics the rhythms of real life. There’s been a rewrite for this latest iteration. We have the same cast that appeared at Soho Rep in New York. They were assembled from a wide-ranging casting search. Specificity is required in terms of performance, language, and gender. 

BLADE: But it’s not the usual queer story

CHOWDHURY: It’s not a coming out story; not a family conflict, it’s more about the main character working so hard to prove that he’s native to this place yet still himself.  

BLADE: Is it hard to be objective when directing your own work?

CHOWDHURY: That’s always a question you have to ask yourself. Here my proximity was a gift. The nature of this project involved precise vision.

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New play explores love through unique, years-long journey

Spooky Action’s ‘Agreste’ highlights powerful voice from queer Brazilian theater



Kate Kenworthy, Raghad Almakhlouf, Miss Kitty, and Irene Hamilton. (Photo by Ryan Maxwell Photography)

Agreste (Drylands)
Through Nov. 12
Spooky Action Theater
1810 16th St NW (the Universalist National Memorial Church)

From the sidelines, love can be misunderstood, attacked, celebrated, or simply accepted and left alone.  

In “Agreste (Drylands),” a queer story penned by gay playwright Newton Moreno, one of the most powerful voices in the queer Brazilian theater, love is explored through a unique, years-long journey currently being recounted at Spooky Action Theater in Dupont. 

It’s the tale of Maria and Etevaldo, star-crossed kindred spirits who fall in love from opposites sides of a fence. From a distance their feelings grow; when they can, they leave flowers and pieces of cloth on the fence, mementos of their love. Eventually they boldly come together living happily as a romantic pair for 22 years in the arid northeast part of Brazil. Their bliss is interrupted by unexpected tragedy and further destroyed when locals unleash a torrent of hate and bigotry on what remains. 

Spooky’s exquisite offering (the first professional U.S. premiere of Moreno’s play) is both directed and translated from Portuguese to English by Danilo Gambini. Like the playwright, Gambini is gay and Brazilian. He’s also the new associate artistic director at Studio Theatre. 

Agreste is performed in Spooky’s welcoming home in the Universalist National Memorial Church at 16th & S Streets, N.W. Its serviceable, intimate, subterranean space is configured as an alley with seating on both sides, making an ideal runway for scenic designer Giorgos Tsappas’ stunning amalgam of scorched earth and subtle yet ravishing monumentality. Colin K. Bills’ brilliant lighting design effortlessly summon expanses, domestic scenes, fires and escape hatches; and sound designer Aria Velz adds to the atmosphere with jarring bell tolls and the sound of falling water, a precious commodity in this parched part of the world.  

In less than an hour, Gambini’s precisely staged mythic account (reportedly based on true happenings) explores themes of intolerance and understanding, as well as violence toward the LGBTQ+ community and perhaps pathway to overcoming that viciousness. 

Dressed in loose tunics, headscarves, and rustic boots (compliments of costume designer Danielle Preston), the most appealing cast of four — Raghad Almakhlouf, Irene Hamilton, Kate Kenworthy who is nonbinary, and Miss Kitty, a nonbinary/genderqueer/transfemme performer — fearlessly rise to the challenge. As told by a choric quartet sharing parts, main and ancillary, the love story is crammed with passion, sadness, and wonderful whiffs of saucy vivacity. 

While there is striking cohesion among the players, each adds their strengths to the piece. And though “Agreste” isn’t a musical or even a play with music per se, at the top of the show Miss Kitty serves up a memorable rendition of “Nature Boy” made famous by Nat King Cole, and further along Almakhlouf delivers a haunting melody. 

Spooky Action’s artistic director Elizabeth Dinkova is kicking off her inaugural season with Agreste, and it’s a good move. She’s titled the season “Beyond Borders,” acknowledging her own status as the first immigrant to helm Spooky as well as her vision of a future world made limitless through art. In spring, Dinkova directs Phillip Howze’s Frontières Sans Frontières, a funny take on cultural imperialism. 

Something terrific for now, and something promising to look forward to.

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