“The Phantom of the Opera at the Royal Albert Hall” (2011)

In 1986, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera arrived on the West End stage. After 25 years, the musical achieved global success, millions of viewers, a film adaptation in 2004 (which I don’t recommend) and a sequel. Filmed at the Royal Albert Hall, this performance (which you can rent on YouTube) brings the show to a bigger stage and celebrates its role as one of the biggest shows in theater history, w/ speeches, performances, and appearances by the original cast (and some notable Phantoms). Starring Ramin Karimloo and Sierra Boggess, POTO tells the story of a deformed musical genius who lives underneath the Paris Opera House. Shunned by society, the Phantom seeks revenge (w/ cruel and violent acts). He’s in love w/ a chorus girl, Christine Daaé, who he has been secretly training to replace the leading lady.

Karimloo (who is Canadian) is engaging and very effective w/ his gorgeous voice and imposing physical presence. One side of his face looks genuinely scary; this was done by the original makeup artist. Boggess (who is American) is charming and her stage presence is as strong as Karimloo’s. Her soprano voice is bright and clear. She esp. does a terrific job w/ Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again. Past of the Point No Return was very compelling; two leads show that they have great chemistry together (even though The Phantom has on a hooded cloak). I learned that Boggess was the original Ariel in Broadway’s The Little Mermaid.

The encore featured 4 different Phantoms from around the world and was the debut for one of them: Peter Jöback from Sweden. He was scheduled to play the Phantom after the concert in London. The other 3 Phantoms who sing are: Colm Wilkinson (who is Irish; the original Canadian Phantom and Jean Valjean in Les Mis in London and NYC), John Owen-Jones (London’s longest running Phantom). and Anthony Warlow (Australia’s most famous Phantom). The original Phantom, Michael Crawford, was also there, as was the incomparable Sarah Brightman (the original Christine; former wife of Webber). I remember buying her CDs in HS.

The camera work allows you to admire the production design and does so unobtrusively, often it has a very cinematic look…

Hadley Fraser has a different take on the childhood sweetheart of Christine. Fraser brings an energy and eagerness to the character. I loved Fraser because he brings a new energy and charisma to the character.

[Karimloo] is both very threatening and very vulnerable. He is both aggressor and victim. He captures the fragility of the Phantom’s mind and the strength of the Phantom’s will.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

“Les Miserables in Concert: The 25th Anniversary” (2010)

The story is one we know and very simple: a former convict, Jean Valjean (Alfie Boe), tries to rebuild his life w/ adopted daughter Cosette after the death of her mother, Fantine (Lea Salonga). Valjean is pursued for years by a police inspector, Javert (Norm Lewis). Against the backdrop of student rebellions in Paris, a student named Marius (Nick Jonas) and the grown-up Cosette (Katie Hall) fall in love. The songs are also very memorable, incl. Who Am I? and Bring Him Home (sung by Valjean), I Dreamed a Dream (sung by Fantine), and On My Own (sung by Eponine). In a time when there are protests in cities (around the world) calling for racial equality and justice reform, this story still resonates.

Fans of the musical will notice that Salonga previously played Eponine in Great Performances: Les Misérables in Concert (1995)- the musical’s 10th anniversary. The petite (yet powerful) singer is the first full-blooded Filipina to have won the Olivier (1990), the Tony, Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle, and Theatre World Awards (1991) for Best Actress in a Musical for Miss Saigon. In recent years, she was a guest star on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, a comedy w/ musical numbers. Most famously, Salonga was the singing voice of Princess Jasmine in the Disney animated movie Aladdin (1992). Not only is she an amazing singer, she also acts out every moment of her role here!

Samantha Barks (Eponine) played the same role in the 2012 film version. Jenny Galloway previously played Madame Thenardier (a crowd favorite) in 1995 and repeated her role in this production. Ramin Karimloo (Enjolras) went on to play the title role in The Phantom of the Opera 25th Anniversary Concert a year later opposite Hadley Fraser (Grantaire) as Raoul. Karimloo (who fled Iran w/ his parents when the shah was overthrown in the early ’80s) made his Broadway debut as Valjean in the 2014 revival and earned a Tony nomination for Best Actor in a Musical. Lewis is perhaps best known as Edison, a senator and one of the ex-boyfriend’s of Olivia Pope on the ABC TV series- Scandal. He became the first Black actor to play the phantom in The Phantom of the Opera on Broadway. Unlike most of the other phantoms, he has a baritone voice (which is rich and very impressive).

At the end of the concert, we see the original 1985 cast, the international tour cast, and the current cast. We hear Colm Wilkinson (considered the best singer to portray Valjean), John Owen-Jones, Simon Bowman, and Boe sing Bring Him Home. There is an appearance by Michael Ball (the original Marius in the London production; a big star in the UK), composers, lyricist, and producer (Cameron Mackintosh). You can rent this show on YouTube; it’s a must-see for fans of the theater (esp. since we’re stuck at home)!

The casting of Nick Jonas, of Jonas Brothers fame, is little more than a casting publicity stunt, and one which almost backfires catastrophically. Quite simply, Jonas is leagues out of his depth, and his voice has not the power nor range to do justice to the role…

So many excellent singers have brought such depth and strength to the character of Jean Valjean and Alfie Boe does an admirable job. His beautiful rendition of “Bring Him Home” really proves he has the chops to handle this role.

Norm Lewis, whose subtle facial expressions and genuine passion commanded the stage/screen, sang Javert with such power and depth that I actually, for the first time, empathized with his character.

No other musical has the power to raise hairs and bring goosebumps throughout, and at the same time bring entire audiences to tears…

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

“The Wanderers” by Ann Ziegler (Theater J)

The play opens w/ an almost 40, married couple who live in Williamsburg, Brooklyn w/ their two young kids- Abe (a secular Jewish man) and Sophie (from Jewish and African-American heritage). Abe and Sophie talk re: growing up together. We learn that though they are both authors, Abe is more well-known/critically-praised (having won several awards before turning 30). Sophie decides to start writing again, so Abe will have to help out w/ the kids more. Both of them are somewhat dissatisfied w/ their marriage; Abe starts emailing Julia, a famous actress (who recently came to one of his readings). Sophie hears Abe (a man of many words) go on praising Julia, but she doesn’t seem jealous or even concerned. Abe comes off as insecure/neurotic (as one might expect of a writer), Sophie is more grounded and sensible.

Next, we meet a seemingly different pair- Schmuli and Esther- who are a wide-eyed couple in their 20s. They also live in Williamsburg, but as part of an insular/tight-knit community of Satmar Hasidic Jews. They met only once before their wedding; Schmuli was so shy that he just looked at Esther’s shoes. In time, they have two daughters, and the constrained life of a housewife starts getting to Esther. She wonders if she could also have a job, and Schmuli is shocked. Esther recalls the very different life her best friend, Rifka, chose. Esther, pregnant w/ her third child, goes to visit her old friend up in Albany. Rifka has a newborn who will be her last child. Esther is very surprised when Rifka explains to her re: birth control pills. She had always thought that God was the only one who decided re: such matters!

You don’t need to know anything re: Judaism to watch (and enjoy) this play; its themes and situations are universal. It’s not only about marriage, it also has much to say re: being a creative person (writer), connection (or disconnection) from one’s roots/religion, the effects of one’s relationship w/ parents (incl. absent ones), and the allure of celebrity. I think most viewers will find something to relate to in this story. Esther and Abe face the same question- will they stay in their current life or choose another? And will that choice make them happier?

School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls’ Play (Round House Theatre-Bethesda): SEPT 18-OCT 20

Pretty, popular H.S. senior, Paulina (Kashayna Johnson), longs to become Miss Ghana 1988; she’ll do whatever it takes to win the crown. Suddenly, there is a new student at the Aburi Girls Boarding School, Ericka (Claire Saunders), who arrives from America w/ dresses from Macy’s and the latest beauty products. With humorous lines, deep insight, and timeless themes, Jocelyn Bioh’s award-winning comedy (sold out last year off-Broadway) reveals much about all of us, not just teenage girls.

The teen girls are the focus of the story. Paulina is the “queen bee” who takes charge of her peers, yet carries deep insecurities. Ama (Awa Sal Secka) is a very smart senior looking forward to college w/ a serious boyfriend. All the girls are part of a choir; some ’80s music is featured in the play. Cousins Mercy (Debra Crabbe) and Gifty (Moriamo Temidayo Akibu) provide moments of humor. Mercy’s father is a doctor, but very careful w/ money; the girls want new clothes and shoes. Nana (Jade Jones) is the girl w/ a heart of gold who (eventually) finds a way to stand up for herself. Her stepmother put her on a strict diet, disapproving of her weight.

The adults in the story are former classmates- Headmistress Francis (Theresa Cunningham)- a motherly, no-nonsense woman and self-serving, elegant Miss Ghana 1968- Eloise Amponsah (Shirine Babb, a theater veteran). The headmistress wears traditional clothes, incl. headwraps; Miss Amponsah wears high heels and Western skirt suits. Though all her girls are excited re: the beauty pageant, Headmistress Francis insists that education comes first. Only one girl will be chosen to represent this school- everyone is sure it will be Paulina.

Acceptance, standards of beauty, colorism (experienced outside Africa as well), and pains of growing up are the main themes of this play. It starts out like a broad comedy, then you get to know the girls, and realize just how layered their lives are (as we find in real life). This play is being put on by a team of all women- how rare! Also, Round House Bethesda was renovated recently (w/ a upper level of seats); check it out for yourself if in the DMV area. I went to see this play on one of the PWYC nights and really enjoyed it!

Fairview (Woolly Mammoth Theatre): SEPT 9-OCT 6

Beverly insists the celebration for Grandma’s birthday be perfect. But her husband is useless, her sister is into the wine, and her daughter’s secrets are threatening to derail the day. Meanwhile, a group of spectators has put them all under surveillance. Soon the voyeurs launch an invasion on the festivities, forcing the family to battle for their very identities-Synopsis from Woolly web site

I didn’t know much re: this play (written by Pulitzer winner Jackie Sibblies Drury) when I went to see it (w/ my gal pal) on a recent Pay What You Can Night (PWYC) night. Two DC-based actors I’d seen several times before (Shannon Dorsey and Cody Nickell) were in the cast. Dorsey has been in recent Woolly productions; she’s a talented young lady under 30. Nickell is an experienced actor in his 40s; I’ve seen him perform before at The Folger (focused on Shakespeare).

Fairview is divided into 3 sections and runs w/o an intermission. In the first section, we see a domestic drama (w/ moments of humor) set in the home of an educated, upper-class black American family. The mom, Beverly (Nikki Crawford), is cooking dinner and worrying about making her mother’s 70th birthday special. The dad, Dayton (Samuel Ray Gates), is trying to help, yet also has time for joking around and being playful w/ his wife. He is relaxed and easygoing; they are still very much in love. The auntie, Beverly’s younger sister- Jasmine (Dorsey)- comes over w/ a bottle of wine and starts telling her sis to calm down. She starts to drink, complain, and stuff her mouth w/ cheese (which she was avoiding on a recent diet). The 17 y.o. daughter, Keisha (Chinna Palmer- a recent graduate of Howard), comes home after school and starts chatting w/ her aunt. Keisha is looking forward to college (she’s a good student, plays sports, and has several other extracurricular activities); she confides in Jasmine that she wants to take a year off. A call comes in from the uncle, a lawyer, whose flight will be late. This causes more anxiety for Beverly- a perfectionist- who still has veggies to cook and a cake to bake. They talk, laugh, and even dance around the house some. Suddenly, Beverly falls to the floor!

In the second part of the play, everything we just saw is acted over again, but w/o any dialogue (from the black family). Instead, we heard the (disembodied) voices of others observing this family. At first, I thought these were the voices of those who created this family drama story- producers, director, writers, etc. The most dominant voice is that of an arrogant white man, Jimbo (Nickell), who asks the others: “If you could be any race, which race would you choose? Why?” The first female voice is of Suze (Kimberly Gilbert), a white woman who is (from her commentary and tone) someone who considers herself to be “liberal” and “woke.” Another voice joins in, Mack (Christopher Dinolfo), declaring loudly and proudly that he wants to be Latino (or “Latinx”); he is a young gay man. The last voice is of Bets (Laura C. Harris) who is an immigrant from Russia w/ a strong accent; she has her own views (and points out that “everything in America is about race”). She would like to be a Slav (which is a different ethnicity, not race); this answer confuses the others. Jimbo wants to be black, as does Suze; she tells a story of how she was raised by a black nanny (who she loved). Yes, this play takes on The Help (written by Katherine Stockett), along w/ many other tales from pop culture (incl. The Cosby Show, Tyler Perry movies, various stereotypes- positive and negative- of black Americans).

In the third segment, the play really amps us, as the (white) voices we just heard insert themselves into the story of the black family! Jimbo takes on the role of the uncle, dressed like he belongs in a hip hop music video, and speaking as if straight from “the streets” (African American vernacular). This made the audience laugh and also cringe, recognizing the (blatant/persistent) ways black men are portrayed in media even today. Keisha goes upstairs to get her granny for dinner- Suze emerges wearing a classy white gown and turban-style headdress decorated with gold. She walks slowly down and joins the family at the table. Suze is appalled by the way Jimbo is talking, of course. Suddenly, there is a knock at the door; Mack (dressed in neon colors, wearing blonde fake braids) dances into the story. He is meant to be Keisha’s classmate- a girl– who is on the track team and her best friend. It was hinted before that Keisha may have feelings for this girl. Mack is so flamboyant that the audience cringed (yet had to laugh). This is an unique story! The black family and the observers sit down to eat, but tensions arise, and tempers get hot. Mack declares that Keisha is pregnant, pulling out a home pregnancy test. Keisha is shocked, as her friend was bringing over some homework. Beverly is stunned and disappointed. Suze tries to stay calm, saying she will accept what happens, and be supportive of her family.

Keisha knows something is wrong, but what exactly!? Bets pops out from behind a large family portrait, declaring herself to be the grandmother! She is dressed in a tight gold gown w/ matching turban; underneath, she is wearing an (obvious) fake butt. By this point, a few of the audience is still confused; others are howling w/ laughter (recognizing the ridiculous ways these white characters are trying to be part of the story which doesn’t belong to them). Suze and Bets get in a fight, as Suze objects to this version of the grandmother. Jimbo and Mack get into it also; they run about yelling and breaking apart the set (the family home). There is noise and mayhem for some moments. Keisha, as well as the audience, is trying to figure out what happened and how the story will end! Finally, Keisha confronts Suze- the white feminist/woke ally- and declares that she’s tired of being living under scrutiny (“the white gaze”).

Why are these white voices/characters turning this nice family story into a stereotype? This was one of my thoughts at the start of the third section. Then I realized that maybe the family was already a (positive) stereotype at the start of the play? Near the end, Keisha realizes that these white people have taken over her family, her story, and her future (as she imagined it)! Why can’t she (and other people of color) just tell their own stories, and white people (majority culture, esp. here in the US) give them some space? Why do we POC have to live our lives as if being watched (and judged) by whites? When is it our time to control the narrative? The play ends in an (unexpected) way; I haven’t seen anything like that before!