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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.

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In ‘Trans Am,’ a trans person telling a trans story

Lisa Stephen Friday shines in Keegan one-woman show



Lisa Stephen Friday (Photo by Mike Kozemchak)

Jan. 29-Feb. 26
Keegan Theatre
1742 Church St. N.W.

In the fall of 2020, Lisa Stephen Friday’s one-woman show “Trans Am” premiered virtually at Keegan Theatre. “Honestly, streaming a dozen shows isn’t something I want to do again. I was thrilled to do it but performing a live musical with no audience was daunting. Like performing to a black hole. Exhausting.”

But now the trans woman performer is back at Keegan with a live world premiere of the same piece. “Trans Am” is 90 minutes of uninterrupted autobiographical stories and the music of Friday’s cult-favorite NYC glam rock band Lisa Jackson & Girl Friday. 

Her transition hasn’t been easy and that’s reflected in the work, but so is a happy default setting – Friday likes to laugh and make people laugh. The meat of the story is the intensity of time spent in the band, but also her youth in Georgia, other aspects of New York, and her move to D.C. “For me as a trans woman that story involves a very laborious journey to self-actualization. We live in a world that doesn’t allow space for trans people. So, it’s a lot,” she says.

Work as a project manager for Barbizon, a leading provider of entertainment lighting systems, brought Friday to the DMV, specifically Dupont (Trump’s election prompted a move from Alexandria to the gayborhood). She’s currently dating a chef: “He’s great at what he does and he’s thrilled to see the show,” she says. 

BLADE: Was it tough writing a deeply personal show like Trans Am? 

LISA STEPHEN FRIDAY: I wrote my story over five weekends. It was incredibly cathartic. There are fun memories with downtown queens, but also the time I went to the pharmacy and the pharmacist totally read me about getting hormones. That was jarring. It was definitely time for me to acknowledge the enormity of what it means to be trans in this country.

BLADE: Would you describe your professional experience as unique? 

FRIDAY: Before transitioning, I went through the world as your typical 25-year-old cishetero male. Oblivious. I was a theater actor in New York, chasing roles like Chris in “Miss Saigon” or Marius in “Les Miz.” These were my life goals. I look back and think how trite.

Coming out and transitioning meant I was no longer cast. The last time I went on an audition for musical theater was in 2003 for “Taboo” to play Boy George’s friend Marilyn. The part went to a soap star. Instead, I found the downtown queer rock and roll scene. That’s where I needed to be. 

It took me a while to find clarity about who I was. A lot of what I talk about in the show is about finding that East Village crowd who said “honey, you’re a woman.” Surrounding yourself with community is the way to reach that. 

BLADE: What’s your history with “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.” 

FRIDAY: In the late ‘90s I asked to audition to replace Hedwig. In New York, they knew me as Steve Friday, a good rock and roll singer. I remember thinking I can’t do this shit. No one knows that I sit around my house wearing women’s clothes. 

I cancelled those auditions because I was living in fear. For a while, I really regretted that. Then 20 some years later, I had an opportunity to do it at Keegan. But the pandemic stopped that. 

The truth is I no longer feel that I need or want to play Hedwig. There is trauma in that story attached to medical transition. I’m a trans woman who has gone through all confirmation surgeries. I feel really uncomfortable standing on stage singing about an angry inch. 

I know Hedwig’s creators wrote that show from a loving place but it was written in 1998 and it’s very dated. That said, it opened the door to a queer space in theater that didn’t exist before. 

Now with “Trans Am,” Keegan can do something different. A trans person telling a trans story, which is a step forward from “Hedwig.”

BLADE: With productions shutting down due to the Omicron surge, do you feel any trepidation about getting through the run?  

FRIDAY: That fear is always there. For me it would be really disappointing. My life has been in the theater – performing or production. I’m hyper aware of everything the Keegan and all theaters are risking financially. So, I’m excited and grateful, but kind of walking on eggshells.

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‘Flight,’ an astonishing tale told using diorama and figures

Afghan brothers embark on arduous journey to U.K.



‘Flight’ at Studio Theatre. (Photo by Mihaila Bodlovic)

Through March 6
Studio Theatre’s Stage 4
1501 14th St., N.W.

I wish I could fly. It’s a little boy’s dream, and certainly one that would be helpful to young Kabir who along with his older brother Aryan is traversing thousands of miles escaping their battered homeland Afghanistan in search of a future in the U.K.

Their arduous journey is titled “Flight,” an astonishingly moving tale told using diorama, tiny modeled figures, and voiceover. With neither live actors nor a traditional set, the Vox Matus (an innovative Glasgow-based theater company) production isn’t Studio Theatre’s typical offering, yet it serves as a compelling reopening lure after a long closure.

Despite seeming an ideal fit for the times, “Flight” wasn’t crafted with pandemic in mind (it premiered at the Edinburgh International Festival in 2017). The hybrid theater/installation is a reassuringly distanced theater experience.

After ascending to Studio’s third floor atrium, you’re handed a boarding pass and in small groups beckoned up to Stage 4 where you’re led to individual viewing booths. Then, seated comfortably and wearing head phones, you focus on over 200 small, brilliantly made dioramas, successively lit as they slowly pass by on a revolving carousel.

“Kabul, Tehran, Istanbul, Rome, Paris, London.” The green-eyed orphaned brothers repeat their direct route to a better life with unyielding determination. And the more it’s said, the more possible it seems. But minors traveling alone without passports is a perilous journey fraught with risk and miseries.

We meet Aryan and Kabir (voiced by Farshid Rokey and Nalini Chetty, receptively) just as they reach the Turkish coast and set sail to the E.U. in a rubber raft. Here, we’re also introduced to the first of many faceless profiteers – ruthless but necessary to the journey – who gain from human desperation.

Soon the boys land in Greece and are forced into farm labor at meager wages. When the harvest ends, the brothers hop a truck to Athens. As they move onward, their longing to attend school in the West, London to be specific, grows more intense.

Throughout what becomes a two-year odyssey, they wear out multiple pairs of trainers, encounter harsh weather, exploitation, sexual violence, hunger, and the occasional random act of kindness. As kids, they take time for a game of soccer and a plunge in the sea at Nice. But inevitably, such moments are cut short by officials depicted as menacing, uniformed seagulls.

“Flight’s” heavy themes and remarkable images blend well. The tiny tableaus chronicling the boys’ flight fittingly range from extraordinarily realistic to fantastical, alternately portraying the vastness and claustrophobic aspects of their ordeal. The intricately made models’ expressive faces, sometimes tear-streaked or bordering on joy, draw us to the likeable, intelligent brothers.

While Vox Motus’ co-artistic directors Jamie Harrison and Candice Edmunds conceive, direct and design the company’s innovative productions, collaboration with other artists is key to their success.

“Flight” is ably adapted by Oliver Emanuel from Caroline Brothers’ 2012 novel “Hinterland.” Enhancing the work’s intimate storytelling are Simon Wilkinson’s lighting design and composer and sound design by Mark Melville.

Each year more than 300,000 displaced children journey on their own. Behind that hideous number are individual stories; “Flight” effectively relays the personal story of two young Afghans, making them something other than a statistic.

After 45 minutes, the story ends. Slowly, you recede from the brothers’ reality in which you’ve been deeply immersed. A silent, black clad usher gently taps you on the shoulder and leads you out of Stage 4. For past productions, the vast versatile space has credibly passed as a nightclub and a church basement, among other things. This time it’s a window into an alternate world where a duly stamped official document means everything, sometimes including the difference between life and death.

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‘Nine Night’ explores Jamaican custom of mourning

‘Equally moving and hilarious in many parts’



Timothy Douglas (Photo courtesy of Round House Theatre)

‘Nine Night’
Through Jan. 30
(Begins streaming on demand Jan. 20)
Round House Theatre
4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda, Md.
$41-$56, and $32.50 (virtual)

When Round House Theatre began making plans for the U.S. premiere of Natasha Gordon’s “Nine Night,” they asked out director Timothy Douglas to interview with the playwright about helming the production. “It’s like we were separated at birth,” says Douglas. “It felt right from the first moment we met on Zoom, and I when I learned Natasha wanted to work with me, I made it work.”

A big success in London, “Nine Night” is a dramedy centered on the death of a family matriarch followed by the prescribed Jamaican tradition of exuberant mourning. 

The end-of-life custom entails nine consecutive nights of serious partying to celebrate the life of the departed, but there’s also a spiritual component. On the ninth night, it’s believed that the spirit returns to its earthly dwelling. By celebrating and rearranging furniture, the revelers discombobulate the deceased so they don’t want to stay, ensuring the spirit crosses over.

“In traditional Jamaican culture, nine night is a serious thing,” explains Douglas. “And while I didn’t set out to direct a dramedy. I found it equally moving and hilarious in many parts.”

Gordon, the London-born playwright of Jamaican descent, possessed only a casual knowledge of nine night growing up. But when her grandmother died, her mother became overwhelmed with a devotion to cultural specificity, and the ritual was thrust on the family. 

“From the playwright’s perspective what happened was chaos,” adds Douglas. “And going through that inspired her to write the play.”  

The work’s central character draws from the Gordons’ life experience straddling two different cultures. And while it was the play itself that really grabbed Douglas, he relates to that aspect too. 

“It connected a lot of dots for me,” says Douglas, 60. “Elders in my family are from the Caribbean and share similar ways of celebrating life and in particular the deceased. There was an immediate familiarity on a feeling level for me. And with every bit of specific research, it’s unlocked things within in me rather than being introduced to me cold.”

Douglas caught the theater bug in grade school, and it grew from there. When he attended Marymount Manhattan College it was transitioning from all women to coeducational, and though he was studying technical theater and not acting, he landed all the male leads in the college’s plays. 

It was a part during his last year at Marymount (“Beckett’s ‘Endgame’ of all things,” adds Douglas with a chuckle) that seemingly solidified his desire to be an actor. He went on to train at Yale followed by five or six years of acting professionally. 

But then something changed. The director ardently explains, “I’m grateful to acting. It gave me focus, a way to communicate and navigate complicated life experiences. It saved my life.” But after therapy and spiritual growth coupled with an epiphany experienced while acting in a play in West Hollywood, he knew it wasn’t for him. He needed to direct. 

While “Nine Night” has no LGBTQ characters as identified in the play, Douglas’ upcoming project is a different story. 

In spring, Douglas makes his first foray into staging opera with Terrance Blanchard’s “Champion” at Boston Lyric Opera. It’s based on the life of queer boxer Emile Griffith, the talented welterweight who regained the world championship in 1962 when gay sex was still classified as a crime in developed countries. 

And to Douglas’ astonishment, internationally famous mezzo soprano Stephanie Blythe is cast to play a supporting role in “Champion.” He’s both excited and terrified: “I’m incredibly lucky that she’s a part of the production. But any hope of flying under the radar with my first opera is over.” 

At 18, Douglas made a beeline from Long Island to Manhattan. For many years he called New York home. Now he’s in Boston where he is the distinguished artist in residence at Emerson College. But over the years, he’s maintained a special relationship with the DMV. In addition to being sort of a staple at Round House, he’s directed to much acclaim at Arena Stage, Studio Theatre, and Theater Alliance to name a few. 

In fact, his professional directorial career kickstarted at D.C.’s Folger with “Richard III” in 1995. 

“I was a complete unknown to them. I had no track record yet. But the Folger was at a point where they could take risks. They needed to replace a director, and on the recommendation of a costume designer who’d heard of me, Michael Tolaydo who played the production’s titular role, agreed to take me on. That really changed things for me.”

“Being pretty much a gun for hire, every time D.C. asks me back, I always say yes.”

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