Monday, September 28, 2015


Don’t be surprised to discover that there are less than a half-dozen scripted words of dialogue spoken in the entire production of “In Your Arms,” the World Premiere dance-theatre-musical production that debuted at The Old Globe Theatre on September 24th.This magical production, however, doesn’t need help of any kind in order to dazzle its audience.
Samantha Sturm (center) with the cast in
Carrie Fisher’s vignette “Lowdown Messy Shame"
All photos by Carol Rosegg
It’s an exhilarating and enthralling production as rich in visual imagery and emotion as any 1000 page Victor Hugo novel, and it’s all accomplished without a single word of dialogue.

“In Your Arms” is the brain-child of brilliant choreographer/director Christopher Gattelli and Broadway producer Jennifer Manocherian. Serendipity often plays a key part on how theatrical ideas become creative realities. In 2007 a chance phone call from producer Manocherian to dancer/director Gattelli led to a collaboration for a then unnamed dance show to be developed.

Jonathan Sharp (foreground) with the cast
in Douglas Carter Beane’s vignette 
“Artists and Models,1929"
Gestation periods for new show ideas can take up to years before giving birth. Money, performer availability and schedules, and other variables always impact the project. In the case of “In Your Arms” the co-conceivers bit the bullet and forged ahead anyway, contacting playwrights and writers asking them to create stories that would then become a series of free flowing vignettes; running less than ten minutes each and performed by a company of top-tier dancers. Ten of Broadways finest and renowned writers made the cut with stories they wanted to share using just music and dance.

The evening opens with a classically performed ‘Prologue’ danced by Spencer Clark and Lyrica Woodruff, as the star-crossed young lovers in ‘Romeo and Juliet.’

“Love” is a leitmotif thread that is creatively woven and embedded into the tapestry of love won, and love lost, as danced by the company in all vignettes.

Broadway veteran and dance legend Donna McKechnie leads off the evening’s signature number “In Your Arms” with music by Stephen Flaherty and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, and performed with the company.

Let me list, in no particular order, the ten authors and the titles of their pieces brought to life by the gifted artists that comprise the company.

George Chakiris and Donna McKechnie (center) 
with the cast in Terrence McNally’s 
vignette “Sand Dancing"
“The Lover’s Jacket” by Nilo Cruz features high-energy Flamenco dancers and lovers Glenda Sol Koeraus and Oscar Valero who become separated by political events set in Franco’s Spain. If there is one dance that stirs the blood and the emotions to a boiling point, flamenco has to be it. The vignette just sizzled.

“Lowdown Messy Shame” by Carrie Fisher is a screw-ball comedy (naturally) tale danced by Jess LeProtto and Samantha Sturm with Jenn Harris and the company.

“Love with the Top Down” by Alfred Uhry vibrantly celebrates young love and jalopies in Midwest America by perky Haley Podschun and energetic Brandon Stimson.

“A Wedding Dance” by Lynn Nottage takes place in Africa where two lovers Marija Juilette Abney and Adesola Osakalumni exchange their wedding vows partly performed with an intricate shadow sequence, then seen in full creative choreography along with the company.

“Artists and Models, 1929” written by Douglas Carter Beane is a throwback number to the famous ‘drag show performers’ of the roaring 20s who let their hair down and camped it up at their annual glitzy A & M Ball. Jonathan Sharp and Ryan Steele, along with the company, take charge with some fancy footwork.

“Life Long Love” by Marsha Norman is a bittersweet tale of three lovers who part only to meet again. The poignant vignette features dancers Henry Byalikov and lithe Karine Plantadit with Stephen Bienskie who not only recall their memories through dance, but now realize each must make a difficult choice for their futures.

“White Snake” by David Henry Hwang is an ‘East meets West’ vignette that is gracefully, lyrically, and traditionally danced by Alex Michael Stoll and Erica Wong.

“Intergalactic Planetary” written by Rajiv Joseph is a futuristic tale about an astronaut who meets an Alien female on a mission to a distant planet, who then desires to get closer to find out more about this statuesque creature. The space odyssey dance number is amusingly performed by Claire Camp and Jeremy Davis.

One will have difficulty in finding a more exciting and energy-filled 11 o’clock spot than “The Dance Contest” written by Christopher Durang, with lyrics by Durang. The number is a beautiful, creative, exercise in precision movement with style and flair as the dancers perform the various prescribed genres required in all dance competitions. The pairs are Stephen Bienskie and Jenn Harris, with Henry Byalikov and Haley Podshun, and the company.

The penultimate episode, “Sand Dancing” by Terrence McNally, is a sweet tribute to growing older but still remaining true to one’s passion and one’s life long lover. George Chakiris and Donna McKechnie perform this tender vignette with the company.

The signature number “In Your Arms” is reprised by McKecknie with the entire company, bringing to a close a memorable and mesmerizing evening of music and dance that produced a standing ovation and several curtain calls.

Theatre in all its forms is a collaborative team effort. A scintillating production like “In Your Arms” would be impossible to stage without the music which provides the dancers the precise timing they need to execute their steps and routines. The pit orchestra under the baton of Music Director Steven Malone and Orchestrator Michael Starobin play major roles in making the onstage magic happen.

The creative team led by the brilliant and innovative choreography/director Gattelli has Scenic Designer Derek McLane, render a large dance area that Lighting Designer Donald Holder, generously illuminates in order to see the costumes of Jess Goldstein. One gets and appreciates the wide technical ‘tapestry effect’ that fills the stage with movement, color, and enchantment.

This astonishing and dazzling production performs on The Old Globe’s Shiley stage and runs through October 25, 2015. And by the way, one doesn’t have to a dancer to enjoy the production. Don’t miss it.

Thursday, September 24, 2015


Before the Civil Rights movements of the 1960s there were organizations and individual leaders in the 1950s who were pushing the civil rights envelope, energizing those who would ultimately follow and become its leaders.

One such early civil rights activist was the brilliant, openly gay, avowed atheist and strategist Bayard Rustin. Rustin preferred to achieve his goals by championing non-violence as the best method of changing the social landscape in America during the 50s and 60s. He admired the tactics of Mahatma Gandhi in achieving his goals for the Indian people. Unfortunately Jim Crow laws, still in place in the American South of the 1960s, made many demonstrations for equality extremely dangerous and difficult.

Playwright Michael Benjamin Washington as “Bayard Rustin”
and Ro Boddie as “Martin Luther King. Jr.” Photos by Jim Carmody
Playwright/actor Michael Benjamin Washington had zeroed in on Bayard Rustin, back in 2013 as an interesting person and subject for a future play. He brought his idea for a workshop reading to La Jolla Playhouse Artistic Director Chris Ashley to see if Ashley and the playhouse had any interest. Two years later “BluePrints to Freedom: An Ode to Bayard Rustin” debuted as a World Premiere production with the playwright/actor in the lead role as Rustin on September 20th at the Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre.

The provocative and insightfully written drama by talented playwright/actor Michael Benjamin Washington is crisply directed by Lucie Tiberghien, opens a window into the life story of an individual not many are familiar with: Bayard Rustin, the chief organizer of the 1963 ‘March on Washington For Jobs and Freedom’.

Playwright Michael Benjamin Washington as “Bayard Rustin” 
and Mandi Masden as “Miriam Caldwell”
The sponsoring organization for the event headed by A. Philip Randolph (Antonio T.J. Johnson), the leading African-American labor union president, socialist and champion of Rustin, is in need of the highly principled, intelligent, organized strategist to be his organization’s number one man. However, Randolph is concerned that Rustin’s sexual orientation (still a taboo stigma) and his avowed atheism will dampen the support of the straight community and money donors in the long run.

He asks that Rustin keep a low profile, in fact, Randolph prefers that Rustin doesn’t make any public appearances or statements concerning the march and subsequent meetings and press conferences, going so far as to tell Bayard to run everything from his office indicating that he, Randolph, will be the public face of the march. Bayard chides him saying “I thought all you Baptists feel uneasy when speaking in public?” These are close friends. Rustin, however, sublimates the hurt of being demeaned and shut out from any recognition for his work on the march. He bites the bullet and soldiers on.

Rustin’s tiny office where he plans and directs the logistics of the march is in desperate need of a secretary and general factotum. When recent college graduate Miriam Caldwell (Mandi Masden) knocks on the office door looking for an internship, she’s hired on the spot. Rustin now has the beginning of a core group.

When old friend Martin Luther King, Jr. (Ro Boddie) walks into the office to meet and chat with Rustin, Miriam gets all flustered and is now really impressed with her new boss. Washington’s play, to his credit humanizes both Rustin and King, Jr. Neither men are saints, nor do they claim to be. One day Davis Platt, Jr. (Mat Hosteteler) and former lover of Rustin walks into the office asking to see Bayard.

Davis still longs and aches for Rustin to begin again, but both men really know that whatever sent them in different directions before will probably happen again. It’s a very poignant scene between two former lovers that resonates with the audience, whatever one’s sexual orientation might be.

Washington the actor renders a powerful, nuanced and riveting performance as Bayard Rustin, which no doubt definitely pleases Washington the playwright, thanks to the ever watchful eye of director Tiberghien. Lots of nice directorial touches enrich this overall production.

Offering solid support in this stellar production is Ro Boddie as Martin Luther King, Jr. Boddie shapes and shades his character, letting us see the famous preacher and the private man away from his pulpit as very few ever saw him. It’s a finely judged performance.

Mandi Masden as Miriam, Antonio T.J. Johnson as Randolph, and the aforementioned Mat Hostetler, help illuminate Bayard Rustin, the man that some have called the ‘lost prophet’ of the civil rights era.

As a side bar: it is promising to see more talented and gifted playwrights of color like Washington and Alvin Terrell McCraney, Katori Hall, and Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage being produced. The theatre is in the arts vanguard of the era of ‘diversity’. It’s been a long time getting here, but the wait has been worth it.

In the technical department the creative team led by director Tiberghien is solid thanks to Scenic Designer Neil Patel, who recreates the Washington, D.C. and New York City office settings, and the Lighting Design by Lap Chi Chu, along with costumes by Beth Goldenberg, and Sound Design by Joe Huppert, and the Projection Designs of John Narun.

‘Blue Prints to Freedom: An Ode to Bayard Rustin’ is a 90 minute, no intermission, splendid evening of theatre for discerning audiences. The powerful and engaging drama performs on the Shelia and Hughes Potiker stage at The La Jolla Playhouse through October 4, 2015.