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Sunday, November 23, 2014

Epiphany stamp unveiled at St. John's, Lafayette Square

 
The Reverend Dr. Luis Leon, rector at St. John's Episcopal Church, Lafayette Square, Washington, D.C., says a closing prayer at the First-Day-of-Issue Dedication Ceremony for the Christmas Magi Limited Edition Forever Stamp, Nov. 19, 2014/photo by Patricia Leslie

The Three Kings (Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar), whose silhouettes are represented in the new Christmas Magi stamp, bring gold, frankincense, and myrrh for the Christ Child at the First-Day-of-Issue Dedication Ceremony for the Christmas Magi Limited Edition Forever Stamp at St. John's Church, Lafayette Square, Washington, D.C., Nov. 19, 2014.  During their procession, everyone sang We Three Kings of Orient Are/photo by Patricia Leslie

Members of the choir of St. John's Episcopal Church, Lafayette Square, Washington, D.C., acted as the Three Kings at the First-Day-of-Issue Dedication Ceremony for the Christmas Magi Limited Edition Forever Stamp, Nov. 19, 2014/photo by Patricia Leslie

The Reverend Stan W. Fornea, U.S. Navy Captain and Senior Chaplain at the White House Military Office, delivers the opening prayer at the First-Day-of-Issue Dedication Ceremony for the Christmas Magi Limited Edition Forever Stamp at St. John's Episcopal Church, Lafayette Square, Washington, D.C., Nov. 19, 2014/photo by Patricia Leslie

Nancy Mathis, mistress of ceremonies, welcomes guests to the First-Day-of-Issue Dedication for the Christmas Magi Limited Edition Forever Stamp at St. John's Episcopal Church, Lafayette Square, Washington, D.C., Nov. 19, 2014/photo by Patricia Leslie
Louis J. Giuliano, member of the Board of Governors, U.S. Postal Service, tells the Epiphany story at the First-Day-of-Issue Dedication Ceremony for the Christmas Magi Limited Edition Forever Stamp at St. John's Episcopal Church, Lafayette Square, Washington, D.C., Nov. 19, 2014/photo by Patricia Leslie
After they unveiled the new Epiphany stamp at St. John's, the Reverend Dr. Luis Leon, St. John's rector (right) and  Louis J. Giuliano, member of the Board of Governors, U.S. Postal Service, commend the St. John's Choir at the First-Day-of-Issue Dedication Ceremony for the Christmas Magi Limited Edition Forever Stamp, Nov. 19, 2014.  Greg Breeding designed the stamp, and Nancy Stahl was the artist/photo by Patricia Leslie
Dr. Benjamin Hutto leads the choir at St. John's Episcopal Church, Lafayette Square, in Epiphany Alleluias at the First-Day-of-Issue Dedication Ceremony for the Christmas Magi Limited Edition Forever Stamp, Nov. 19, 2014. The organist was Michael Lodico/photo by Patricia Leslie
Outside St. John's Church under a heated tent, U.S. Postal Service employees sold the new Christmas Magi Limited Edition Forever Stamp on Nov. 19, 2014/photo by Patricia Leslie
This U.S. Postal Service employee carefully stamped First Day cancellations on envelopes outside St. John's Episcopal Church, Lafayette Square, Washington, D.C., site of the First-Day-of-Issue Dedication Ceremony for the Christmas Magi Limited Edition Forever Stamp, Nov. 19, 2014/photo by Patricia Leslie
St. John's Episcopal Church, Lafayette Square, Washington, D.C./photo by Patricia Leslie

patricialesli@gmail.com

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

'Little Mermaid' makes a big splash in Olney


Donna Migliaccio is "Ursula" in Olney Theatre Center's Disney's The Little Mermaid/Photo by Stan Barouh

It's a whale of a good time at Disney's The Little Mermaid, now playing at the Olney Theatre Center, a production sure to delight most family members (or the ones old enough to be undaunted by the yikes of the ugly sea
serpentress, Ursula).

And what good timing.  Just in time for the holidays.

Poor Ariel (Lara Zinn). The Little Mermaid is so dainty, feminine and innocent, compared to her mean and conniving Aunt Ursula (Donna Migliaccio), who steals the stage every time the Black Witch and her eeeeeels (Robert Mintz and Nurney) come onboard. That dastardly trio lives inside a giant red-eyed shark's cave way down under, the better to see you, my little pretty.

What is a musical without a dance and a girl in a long, twirling dress?  Joe Chisholm is "Prince Eric," and Lara Zinn is "Ariel" in Olney Theatre Center's Disney's The Little Mermaid/Photo by Stan Barouh

The Little Mermaid is Hans Christian Andersen 's tail of 1867 which was mostly forgotten until the Disney team brought it back from the depths and made it into a musical.

Ariel is the youngest of seven daughters of King Triton (Nicholas Ward) whose booming, operatic voice commands the stage whenever he's on board, unless preempted by his sister, Ursula.

Meanwhile, from under the sea Ariel spies a "human" tumbling into the water, a man who happens to be, just happens to be, a prince (!),  Prince Eric (Joe Chisholm), to be exact, and Ariel falls tail over fins in love and lust at first sight.  And is his lifesaver, to boot.

But to "get" to him, she must adopt human ways, anathema to her father, but welcomed by Ugly Ursula who grants Ariel her wish in exchange for Ariel's voice, that's all. 

Once you see Ursula in action, with her cackle and sweeping mannerisms, effectively complemented by statuesque hair of starched, long white worms, and her full, floor-length black gown piped in sparkling amethyst jewels and snakelike long stole which she waves hither and yon like an octopus ensnaring those who may resist, that Ms. Migliaccio has won two Helen Hayes Awards and has been nominated for ten more is no surprise.  (That sentence is almost as long as her stole.)  Her two eels are perfectly slithering green lizards on skating shoes (the likes of which are nicely utilized  by other cast members, too).

The second act bursts from the ocean's floor with an excellent number by the mad feathered bird, "Scuttle" (Clark Young), another show stopper, who flies and caws constantly in motion, and taps and sings with fellow birds in She's Got Legs.  It's one of the best numbers of the whole performance, not to be outdone by fine harmonies by the quartet (Ariel, Prince Eric, Titan, and Sebastian) in If Only, and a magic chef (Ethan Watermeier), responsible for lots of laughs and silliness.

The action in the second act more than makes up for a somewhat lethargic script in the first act, including, yes, the scene everyone longs for: the heroine in a twirling, flowing gown, dancing with a prince in a palace, the magical musical potion. (This is Cinderella Underwater with a voice to sink any glass slipper.)

Flounder (Sean McComas), Ariel's would-be lover, wins the award for most constantly moving character, since they all must conquer the waves, while waddling Sebastian (Troy Hopper) dips craftily into almost every scene, to dispense advice, that's all.

Staff stationed on either side of the stage shake long sheets of blue and green "ocean waves," tossing actors up and down "in the water."  In one of the most exceptional designs, Ariel "floats" to the surface near the end of the show, the audience watching from an "underwater window."

The sets (by James Fouchard) are not overbearing, and the boat assembly made quickly in the first act, and the palace with candles and windows are striking. Unconvincing and confusing are what may be painted cardboard cut-outs of "schools of fish" carried around in up and down motion by humans in blue.

The costumes (by Pei Lee) are shimmering and dashing, from the pretty rainbow dresses with matching headpieces worn by Ariel's six sisters when they dance and play, to their maid uniforms in the palace, to their beauty as they vie to become the prince's "bride." The sailors are even decked out in fetching black striped shirts with red scarves.

With the large cast and many different changes (Olney Artistic Director Jason Loewith said the cast and crew numbered 64, and it seems like more), the costume shop had to work feverishly, one suspects, to accomplish its masterstrokes.  

Adding depth and enjoyment is the Olney's omnipresent nine-member orchestra, "under the sea," led by Darius Smith, and an electric keyboard, played by Jacob Kidder, which reigned throughout much of the show, but never drowned out the actors.  Other members of the orchestra are Patrick Plunk, Tony Neenan, Andrew Houde, Patricia Wnek, Lauren Weaver, Frank Higgins, and Alex Aucoin.

Other cast members: Kenneth Derby, Matt Greenfield, Jay Garrick, Ethan Kasnett, Lance E. Hayes, Jennifer Cordiner, Jane Bunting, Suzanne Stanley, Taylor Elise Rector, Ashleigh King, and Gracie Jones.

And crew: Mark Waldrop, director; Tara Jeanne Vallee, choreographer; Tony Angelini, sound; Julie H. Duro, lighting' JJ Kaczynski, projection; and Andrea "Dre" Moore, puppets.

Go ahead and take the plunge and have yourself a very merry Christmas "under the sea."

What: Disney's The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen. Book by Doug Wright, music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Howard Ashman and Glenn Slater.

When: Now through December 28, 2014

Where: Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney, MD 20832

How much: Tickets start at $31.00, with discounts for military, groups, and students.  

Refreshments: Available for purchase and may be taken to seats.

Parking: Abundant, free, and on-site

For more information: 301-924-3400

For more reviews of Disney's The Little Mermaid at the Olney and other plays, click DC Metro Theater Arts.

patricialesli@gmail.com

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Must-see film: the Rosenbergs' story, 'Heir to an Execution'

At a National Archives presentation last week, the son of Julius and Ethel Rosenbergs, Michael Meeropol, recommended this book, Final Verdict: What Really Happened in the Rosenberg Case by Walter Schneir

The documentary, Heir to an Execution, depicts the love story of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, and their sons Michael and Robert, ages 10 and 7, as the parents were convicted by the U.S. government of passing secrets to the Soviets and were put to death in the electric chair at Sing Sing Prison in New York on June 19, 1953.

In splendid detail the film, produced and directed by the Rosenbergs' granddaughter, filmmaker Ivy Meeropol, charts the ends of her grandparents' lives, the trial, and the aftermath in a balanced portrait with film history, newspaper clippings, interviews with major characters, visits to the courtroom, and the apartment where the Rosenbergs lived on the Lower East Side when Mr. Rosenberg was arrested.  Also, the cemetery where they are buried which Michael Meeropol had never visited until the movie's filming.
On stage November 12, 2014 at National Archives were Ivy Meeropol and her father, the Rosenbergs' son, Michael Meeropol/Photo by Patricia Leslie
,
Both Meeropols are so likable, so homespun, far more charming than anyone could have expected. If Michael Meeropol had a chip on his shoulder, who could blame him? But there was none to be found.

Ivy and Michael Meeropol at National Archives, November 12, 2014/Photo by Patricia Leslie

When no family member came forward to adopt the boys after their parents' deaths, activists Abel and Anne Meeropol did. "They literally saved our lives," Michael said onstage.   "We have love and tremendous respect for Anne and Abel."  He said his stepparents had lost two children at birth and later, from photographs, Michael Meeropol learned Abel was a pallbearer at his parents' burials. 

Michael (left) and Robert Rosenberg with their parents' attorney, Emanuel Hirsch Bloch, at Sing Sing Prison/From the film, Heir To An Execution, 2004

In the film, a cousin, one of the few relatives who agrees to communicate with Ivy Meeropol about her grandparents, breaks down and cries over his parents' refusal to help the Rosenberg children after the executions. He apologizes to Ivy. 

Spliced throughout the film are visuals of the two boys, dressed up in coats and ties, coming and going to visit their parents in prison.

They saw their mother and father separately in prison because authorities wanted to keep the couple apart, to prevent their physical closeness. The Rosenbergs were able to meet and touch fingertips when Mr. Rosenberg, in a cage, was transported to visit Mrs. Rosenberg in her cell, Mr. Meeropol said.

Michael Meeropol at National Archives, November 12, 2014/Photo by Patricia Leslie

They were executed on the same day.  Mr. Rosenberg went first.  Because of Mrs. Rosenberg's diminutive size, the electrical charges did not initially work, and a second round of electricity was applied.  Eyewitnesses reported smoke rose from the top of her head.

Until the government released the Venona papers in 1995 which provided proof their father passed secrets, the boys grew up firmly believing in their parents' innocence.  The guilt of their mother has never been proved.  She was not linked with any direct proof to the case, and never had a code name, like her sister-in-law, Ruth Greenglass, saved by Ethel's brother, David Greenglass who later admitted he lied about his sister's role in the spy ring to protect his wife.  Ultimately, he sentenced Ethel Rosenberg to death.  Greenglass died July 1, 2014, but his death was not uncovered and reported until October 14, 2014, by the New York Times.

Mr. Meeropol said Heir To An Execution was his daughter's idea, and although he and his wife were skeptical initially, "we felt she was ready and capable, and we had total trust in her....and felt like she could make a real contribution."  Another of Ms. Meeropol's documentaries is All About Abe (2007), all about D.C.'s Abe Pollin, the developer of Verizon Center.

With eerie and haunting qualities, Heir's music by Human matches the film contents.

One questioner in the audience asked the speakers about comparisons between Daniel Ellsberg, Edward Snowden, and the Rosenbergs. Michael Meeropol replied that if Mr. Snowden returned to the U.S. from Russia, he would be tried under the same Espionage Act the U.S. government used to find Mr. Meeropol's parents guilty. 

Along with Freedom Riders, Ms. Meeropol's Heir to an Execution: A Granddaughter's Story, first released in 2004 and shortlisted for an Academy Award, should be part of every American history class. Both films paint modern-day true portraits of America which are so unthinkable, they could pass for fiction.

The people of the United States are grateful to National Archives for screening the film and inviting the Rosenbergs' heirs to appear. The event was part of Archives' exhibit, Making Their Mark: Stories Through Signatures, on display through January 4 or 5 (two dates given), 2015. 

The National Archives has the original letter Michael wrote to President Eisenhower on February 16, 1953, pleading with the president to save his parents from execution.

patricialesli@gmail.com

 

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

At the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Veterans Day 2014

 
A commemoration  at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Nov. 11, 2014 to honor Sgt. James L. Wieler/Photo by Patricia Leslie
The people gather before the formal program begins at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Nov. 11, 2014.  Some of  the scheduled speakers included Jake Tapper from CNN; Jerry Gast, Vietnam veteran; Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel; Robert Vogel, superintendent of the National Mall and memorial parks; Diane Carlson Evans, Vietnam Women's Memorial Foundation; and Chris Jackson, bagpiper/Photo by Patricia Leslie
At the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Nov. 11, 2014, volunteers in yellow hats and shirts answered questions and guided visitors/Photo by Patricia Leslie
At the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Nov. 11, 2014/Photo by Patricia Leslie
At the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Nov. 11, 2014/Photo by Patricia Leslie
 At the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Nov. 11, 2014, a commemoration to honor Norman "Doc" Keller, killed in action June 4, 1968/Photo by Patricia Leslie
At the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Nov. 11, 2014/Photo by Patricia Leslie
 At the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Nov. 11, 2014/Photo by Patricia Leslie
Handmade cards by children to honor the troops at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Nov. 11, 2014/Photo by Patricia Leslie
Some of the floral tributes at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Nov. 11, 2014/Photo by Patricia Leslie
At the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Nov. 11, 2014 this display says in part: "We are here to pay tribute to our failed brothers from our Company, A/2/12, 3rd Brigade, 4th and 25th Infantry Division, 1965-67.  During our tour time in Vietnam, while serving out of Dau Tieng, we had 45 young men killed in combat.  Our Battalion lost a total of 324 men in the jungles of War, Zone C.  Alpha Association/Photo by Patricia Leslie
From the Boy Scouts of America, at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Nov. 11, 2014/Photo by Patricia Leslie
It was the 30th anniversary of the Three Servicemen Statue at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Nov. 11, 2014/Photo by Patricia Leslie
 Vietnam vets at the Three Servicemen Statue at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Nov. 11, 2014/Photo by Patricia Leslie
A close-up of the wooden sculpture from the photo above, at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Nov. 11, 2014/Photo by Patricia Leslie
Old friends at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Nov. 11, 2014/Photo by Patricia Leslie
Story telling all day at the Vietnam Women's Memorial, Nov. 11, 2014/Photo by Patricia Leslie
 Before they arrived at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Nov. 11, 2014, the chants from these Army troops could be heard from far away/Photo by Patricia Leslie
The marching, chanting Army at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Nov. 11, 2014/Photo by Patricia Leslie
 "Service Dogs for America's Heroes" were numerous at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Nov. 11, 2014/Photo by Patricia Leslie
The Henick family is bound for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on Nov. 11, 2014 to honor veterans, Mr. Henick said/Photo by Patricia Leslie
Three friends at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Nov. 11, 2014/Photo by Patricia Leslie
In the park near the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Nov. 11, 2014/Photo by Patricia Leslie

patricialesli@gmail.com

Monday, November 10, 2014

A postcard from 'A London Portrait' at St. John's, Lafayette Square

 
An 1827 woodcut of Temple Church, London/Wikipedia

With little formal musical training and scant knowledge of those skills required, I shall, nevertheless, apply my interpretation of the divine music which echoed from the chambers of St. John's Episcopal Church, Lafayette Square, upon occasion of last Wednesday's noon concert

The artist was the international organist, Greg Morris, newly arrived from London less than 24 hours prior, who came not only to play at St. John's, but to join his choir from London's historic Temple Church and participate in celebrations in Washington, D.C. of the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta. Temple Church played a key role in the document's founding (1215), and the Library of Congress has just opened an exhibition about the Magna Carta.

Maestro Morris's program, entitled A London Portrait, began with the popular and much welcome Overture and La Rejouissance (Royal Fireworks) by George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) which brought to mind the Thames and the glory of England's celebration in 2012 of their Queen's 60th anniversary of her ascent to the throne.

Mr. Morris said he chose Handel since the composer spent most of his life in London and on this day back home, November 5, it was Bonfire Night (also known as St. John's Eve), the cause for much festivity and fireworks.

Next on the program came Voluntary in D minor for Double Organ, and although the only visible organ was St. John's Lively Fuller Pipe Organ, indeed it did seem at times that the organist played with three hands. 

Between selections Mr. Morris presented historical anecdotes about Temple Church and the Magna Carta: "No man shall be imprisoned without due process of law, essentially" was the way Mr. Morris described the document, used by many nations to guarantee freedom for citizens from rulers' tyranny.  (Some could stand reminders.) Approximately one-third of the U.S.'s Bill of Rights rest upon the Magna Carta.

Mr. Morris then played Voluntary in D major, composed by a blind man, John Stanley (1712-1786), whose remarkable memory, according to Wikipedia, enabled him to compose, play, and teach. 
John Stanley (1712-1786)/Wikipedia

The first notes were rather nondescript with short pipes which soon gave way to flourishing "horns" and "bubbles" (?) in a stream, coinciding with quick movements of  the artist's hands and fingers up and down the keyboard.  (I suppose a psychologist could tell me why I often associate classical music with water.) 

After the lively music, it was time to slow down, which the organist certainly achieved with Elegy by Sir Charles Hubert Hastings Parry (1848-1918). 

The music of another blind composer, Jean Langlais (1907-1991), an anomaly among these Englishmen, brought the short concert to a close. Langlais' Triptyque (not the 2013 movie of the same name) made me recall the prolonged Halloween (indeed it was for many, suffering the pangs of the election results from the night before) with low pipes and creepy ghosts I saw floating above a cemetery, smiling broadly and dancing happily to scary music.  (Shades of Republicans Present.) And what a fit ending. The enthusiastic audience awarded Mr. Morris two encores. 

Readers are invited to St. John's First Wednesday Concerts which are free and offer, in a beautiful setting, a half-hour's tranquility amidst the rough seas of Washington's daily rush.

Next up are St. Albans & National Cathedral schools' Madrigal Singers, under the direction of organist Benjamin Hutto, who will sing seasonal music on December 3, 2014.
St. John's Episcopal Church, Lafayette Square, Washington, D.C./Photo by Patricia Leslie
All concerts start at 12:10 p.m. (with an exception in April), and last about 35 minutes. Food trucks are located at Farragut Square, two blocks away.

Other dates and artists in the series are:

January 7, 2015: Iris Lan plays the Complete Sonatas of Paul Hindemith on the organ

February 4: Lena Seikaly, jazz vocalist, with the Dan Dufford Trio performing works by Duke Ellington and friends


March 4: Jared Denhard, bagpiper, assisted by Michael Lodico, St. John's organist and choirmaster, performing Pipes and More Pipes

April 19 (Sunday), 4 p.m.: Spring Concert by St. John's Choir

May 6: The U.S. Air Force Strings accompanied by Benjamin Hutto performing a Handel organ concerto and other pieces

June 3: Benjamin Straley, organist at the Washington National Cathedral


 What: The First Wednesday Concerts

When: 12:10 p.m.


Where: St. John’s, Lafayette Square, 1525 H Street, NW, at the corner of 16th, Washington, D.C. 20005

How much: No charge

Duration: About 35 minutes

Wheelchair accessible

Metro stations: McPherson Square (White House exit), Farragut North, or Farragut West


For more information: Contact Michael Lodico, St. John's associate organist and choir director, at 202-270-6265


patricialesli@gmail.com

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Free organ concert Nov. 5 at St. John's, Lafayette Square

 
 Organist Greg Morris

From London's Temple Church comes organist Greg Morris who will play A London Portrait at St. John's, Lafayette Square beginning at 12:10 p.m. Nov. 5, and the public is invited to attend at no charge.

Musical and historical notes are set for the 35-minute program, one of St. John's First Wednesday Concerts, which will feature English favorites by Handel, Purcell, Stanley, Parry, and others, along with a bit of history about Temple Church, consecrated in 1185 and built by monks to protect pilgrims going to and from Jerusalem.

The church played a leading role in the signing of the Magna Carta, the subject of a new exhibition, Magna Carta: Muse and Mentor, opening Nov. 6 at the Library of Congress to honor the document's 800th anniversary. 

"Magna Carta, the great charter of rights and liberties, stands at the heart of English and American law and has influenced the legal systems of many other democratic nations," says the Library of Congress.
St. John's Episcopal Church, Lafayette Square, Washington, D.C./Photo by Patricia Leslie

St. John's is known to many Washington residents as the yellow church at Lafayette Square and often called the “Church of the Presidents.” Beginning with President James Madison, who served from 1809 to 1817, every president has either been a member or has attended services at St. John's. A plaque at the rear of the church designates the pew where President Abraham Lincoln often sat when he stopped by St. John's during the Civil War.

All concerts will start at 12:10 p.m. (with an exception in April), and last about 35 minutes. Food trucks are located at Farragut Square, two blocks away, for those on lunch break.

Who:  Greg Morris, organist

What: The First Wednesday Concerts

When: 12:10 p.m., November 5, 2014


Where: St. John’s, Lafayette Square, 1525 H Street, NW, at the corner of 16th, Washington, D.C. 20005

How much: No charge

Duration: About 35 minutes

Wheelchair accessible

Metro stations: McPherson Square (White House exit), Farragut North, or Farragut West


For more information: Contact Michael Lodico, St. John's associate organist and choir director, at 202-270-6265

Future dates and artists of the First Wednesday Concerts are:

December 3: Madrigal Singers from St. Albans & National Cathedral schools directed by organist Benjamin Hutto, sing seasonal music

January 7, 2015: Iris Lan plays the Complete Sonatas of Paul Hindemith on the organ


February 4: Lena Seikaly, jazz vocalist, with the Dan Dufford Trio performing works by Duke Ellington and friends


March 4: Jared Denhard, bagpiper, assisted by Michael Lodico, St. John's organist and choirmaster, performing Pipes and More Pipes

April 19 (Sunday), 4 p.m.: Spring Concert by St. John's Choir

May 6: The U.S. Air Force Strings accompanied by Benjamin Hutto performing a Handel organ concerto and other pieces

June 3: Benjamin Straley, organist at the Washington National Cathedral


patricialesli@gmail.com

Monday, October 27, 2014

George Mason U. presents a zany 'Edwin Drood'

Dylan Toms is the wicked John Jasper in George Mason University's The Mystery of Edwin Drood/Photo by Autum Casey

The acting in George Mason University's musical, The Mystery of Edwin Drood,  is so spectacular, you'll come away mystified that the actors are only college kids. 

Such a talented bunch, and boy, do they have a good time.  Let's party, hearty.   And they did and we watched, and were caught up in the soiree, the gaiety, and the fun.

The voices far exceed what playgoers might expect, and you may search the program to find out that Dylan Toms (John Jasper in Drood) has not come from the New York stage but is a mere freshman from Bedford, Virginia. Under the direction of Ken Elston, Toms is absolutely stellar with exaggerated mannerisms, style, and delivery.
Rachel Harrington is Princess Puffer in George Mason University's The Mystery of Edwin Drood/Photo by Autum Casey

If you are a little mystified  at the end, you won't be the only one. From the arrival in the lobby where actors in their fancies enthusiastically greet theatregoers, to the show's end, you'll be whetted by action, smiles, social media and more, brought to you by Mason's School of Theater and School of Music.

The Mystery of Edwin Drood was Charles Dickens's last novel, one he left unfinished when he died in 1870, but Rupert Holmes's adaptation into a musical comedy (which won five Tonys in 1986) leaves it to the audience to complete. 

The program promises every performance has a different ending because no two audiences are alike, but our ending seemed confusing, and we were left wondering:  What happened? And when did it happen?  Is he dead or alive?  It may be 1892 in Cloisterham  where the Music Hall Royale presents the play within a play, but it's also 2014 at George Mason University with 33,000 mostly millennial students who use social media

The large cast leaves an audience member with many choices to make (via smartphone or by hand vote) for perpetrator (and you can vote more than once since the tally is unofficial.  Vote early and vote often).  The dancers  (Ruthie Rado, Stephanie Risch, Savanna Stanton-Ameisen, Puyang Tian) even flash the audience handy cue cards from the stage, in case anyone is confused.

Rosa Bud (Emma Gwin), is the fiancee of Edwin Drood (Alexandra Bunger-Pool), who is the nephew of Rosa's music teacher, the evil John Jasper.

Emma Gwin is Rosa Bud in George Mason University's The Mystery of Edwin Drood/Photo by Autum Casey

The passionless couple agrees to call the whole thing off, however, Teacher Jasper is madly in love with Rosa, also sought by Neville Landless (Lawrence Hailes), who arrives with his sister, Helena (Arami McCloskey) from Ceylon(?).

Jasper visits an opium den (with excellent red, mood lighting by Autum Casey) "managed" by the delightful Rachel Harrington, as Princess Puffer whose voice may carry listeners to the Metropolitan Opera.  (The audience later chooses her and the Reverend Crisparkle (Daniel DeVera) as the the couple Most Likely to Succeed in Love.)

The princess is rather opera-like in carriage and in a dance number with several couples participating, picked up the effervescent and impish mayor, the moderator (acted by Kyle Imperatore) and swung him around the stage  while the male dancers did the same with the female actors. 

From his perch on a landing, the mayor has more slapstick lines than anyone and carries the whole night with his explanations, directions, and pithy remarks:   "Her parents are in the iron and steel business. Her mother irons, and her father steals."  He's a leprechaun in red plaid.

Drood disappears, and we are left guessing. The motives of many are prime. Amidst this complexity are dancing and hullabaloo to send your mind soaring.

To adequately describe in words the beauty and strength of the voices of Gwin and Harrington would do an injustice to the singers. You must hear them to believe them.

Costumes (by Laurel Dunayer) are handsome, colorful, and intricate, especially appealing to the Victorian lovers in the crowd.

The set (by Clayton Austin) suffices with a large screen of location stills (a train station, a parlor, a dinner party, etc.) sandwiched between two identical "brick walls" with steps, a door, and landing

Adding significantly to enjoyment is a 35-piece professional student orchestra in the pit, under the direction of Dennis Layendecker. Occasionally, the sounds of music dwarf the script, but not enough to cause unpleasantness.

Based on the title and the author, you might think The Mystery of Edwin Drood is a drama, but not this one.  It's a comedy tonight.

Other key cast members are Justin Sumblin, Chris Hrozencik; Emily Gruver, and Gabriel Komisar.

Kevin Dunayer is sound director, Ethan Osborne, technical director; Nicole Pradas, choreographer; Colby T. Snyder, properties; Jessica Holloway, dramaturg; David Elias, production stage manager; Libby Stevens and Bruce Scott, graphic design.

The production is part of Daniel Pearl World Music Days, established after the 2002 kidnapping and murder of American journalist Daniel Pearl in Pakistan.   His family and friends formed the Daniel Pearl Foundation to "promote cross-cultural understanding through journalism, music, and innovative communications."

What:  The Mystery of Edwin Drood

When:  8 p.m., October 31, 2014, and 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., November 1, 2014

Where:  Hylton Performing Arts Center, George Mason University, Prince William Campus, 10960 George Mason Circle, Manassas, VA 20110

Parking:  Free in the lot adjacent to the Hylton Center

Tickets: Adults, $25; Students, faculty, staff, seniors, and groups, $15

Duration:  About 2.5 hours with one 15-minute intermission

For more information:  703-993-7550

For more theatre in Washington, check out the DC Metro Theater Art's website here.


patricialesli@gmail.com