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Matthew Keenan

Review: Chicago

Chiacgo

Haze subtlety drifts in through the rafters of the Keegan theatre and as it catches the light it gives the impressive two- story set a quality that helps transport us back to the 1920s and prohibition era Chicago. Matthew J. Keenan’s design features 4 wooden staircases with both levels featuring vertical blinds that transform effectively into jail cells and allow the orchestra to perform unobtrusively.

And All That Jazz opens the show and while the choreography is well thought for this iconic number the execution of the company feels a little tentative. After Roxie Hart kills her lover we get the first look at the bold character choice of Maria Rizzo in Funny Honey. The song starts as a sweet ode to her husband, Amos (Michael Innocenti) before turning on a dime as she berates his stupidity when he tells the truth to the police. Roxie is often played with a hint of crazy but Rizzo plays the role completely unhinged and it’s a terrific choice as we believe she is capable of absolutely anything. Innocenti is the perfect foil for Rizzo as he captures all the naivety of his character in every line and each facial expression.

The lighting design of Jason Arnold is a real strength of the show (the overhead spot in particular used to striking effect) but the one small complaint comes in Cell Block Tango where the cells are just too dark. It’s a strong vocal from Jessica Bennett as Velma Kelly but the pacing of the spoken interludes drag and this isn’t quite the first act highlight it should be. The scene between Matron Mama Morton (Rikki Howie Lacewell) and Velma suffers from the same pacing issues and lack of connectivity to the dialogue with Bennett’s gaze when looking out too often at the front row when it should have been the back of the house.

Billy Flynn (Kurt Boehm) enters from center aisle of the audience and it feels like a slightly questionable choice from our co Directors (Susan Marie Rhea and Mark A. Rhea) and the moment isn’t helped by Boehm’s mic not working and that plays a part in All I Care About is Love falling flat. That is soon forgotten as Chris Rudy shows off his vocal range as Mary Sunshine on A Little Bit of Good and the best moment of the show follows as Roxy becomes Billy Flynn’s puppet for the press in We Both Reached for the Gun. Rizzo is transformed with stealthily applied rosy cheeks to take on a rag doll like appearance and Rachel Leigh Dolan’s choreography is a joy to watch.

The Conductor (Michael Kozemchak) introduces I Can’t Do it Alone as Velma realizes she needs Roxie and attempts to persuade her to become part of her act. Kozemchak never commands the stage in the role – to the point where it may be a choice – leaving us wanting a little more ‘showbiz’. Bennett’s vocal consistency during a highly energetic routine is commendable and the relationship between Velma and Roxie is always interesting to watch culminating in My Own Best Friend ending the first act on a strong note.

The orchestra is one of the stars of this production under Music Director / Conductor, Jake Null, and they start act two sounding at their best. Things are really moving now and I Know a Girl and Me and My Baby fly by before Amos has his moment with the ballad for the ignored, Mr. Cellophane. Innocenti sings it sweetly and it’s a nice moment but for the first time the staging and the limitations of the set start to make the story telling feel a little unimaginative. Razzle Dazzle pushes back against this notion with the levels used to maximum effect as the company performs a variety of circus acts. While the stage is framed beautifully the execution of the interesting choreography never quite reaches the heights we are hoping for and despite Boehm’s dancing ability he doesn’t bring enough charisma to the role.

Class showcases the best vocal for both Lacewell and Bennett as their voices blend to produce a real moment and the show builds towards a very strong finish musically. Rizzo and Bennett leave everything on the stage with their performance of Hot Honey Rag and it’s a rousing finale. This is another strong production from Keegan and while it falls short in some areas, Maria Rizzo’s take on Roxie is a performance that pushes the value of the show past its’ tickets price.

#tothepoint Rating: 75/100

You can view a full breakdown of the allocated points here.

Ticket Price: $45

Value Review: +$5

With our scoring system and our unique value for money guide we rate this show at $50 making it value. Chicago continues at The Keegan Theatre until April 14th.

Review: Big Fish

Big Fish

It is the DC premiere of Big Fish and there is genuine anticipation to see how the small stage at the Keegan Theatre will accommodate a tale of such mythic proportions. Based on Daniel Wallace’s 1998 novel and heavily influenced by the imagination of Tim Burton’s 2003 film, the musical had a short run on Broadway in 2013 and will receive its’ West End premiere in London later this year. Matthew Keenan’s set design features three full length white drapes at either side of the stage that lead into the wings and provide great depth for transitioning the storytelling. At the rear of the set is a projection screen featuring a woodland scene and below it is a painted backdrop of bushes. The brilliance of the drape design, with their creeping ivy and back lights like fireflies, becomes apparent as the show progresses; they feel like curtains framing the projections, a tent for a wedding reception and the big top at the circus.

The show begins with Edward Bloom (Dan Van Why) skimming stones into a river and it’s just the first moment in a terrific sound design by Tony Angelini. It’s the wedding day of Edward’s son, Will (Ricky Drummond) and as the two of them talk it is hard to immediately buy into the relationship as they look no more than 5-10 years apart in age. We go back in time and meet the young Will (Erik Peyton) in his bed as he waits for a story from his Dad. The relationship between Van Why and Peyton is the emotional center of this production and it is truthful and heartwarming throughout. Be the Hero introduces us to the eclectic cast of characters and Edward teaches us the best way to catch a fish, with the help of Rachel Leigh Dolan’s fun and lighthearted choreography, in the infectious Alabama Stomp. We return to the day of the wedding and Edward, with his pant legs rolled up, wading in the shallow water at the edge of the river. The sound is so convincing that we can’t help feeling distracted by the conversation that immediately follows between Will and his Mother, Sandra (Eleanor J. Todd) which is clearly taking place in the water.

Another of Edward’s stories takes us back to the day he and his high school nemesis, Don Price (Eitan Mazia) met the Witch (Katie McManus). Mazia makes distinct choices with all of his characters but stands out in his urgent portrayal of Price and provides an excellent counterpoint to Van Why’s laid-back Edward.  The women surrounding the Witch look like dark angels in their flowing black capes that complement the set in style while contrasting strikingly in color. It’s the choreography highlight of the show as the space is used with great effect and purpose while McManus delivers a flawless vocal. Debra Kim Sivigny’s costumes are great throughout (apart from minor gripes about the wigging of the Witch and the unconvincing baby bump of Josephine) and the introduction of the giant, Karl (Grant Saunders) is another highlight. The routine during Out There on the Road might not be complicated but Saunders deserves great credit for the execution in the big platform boots – and the choreography fun continues with a cute tap routine in Little Lamb from Alabama.

Co-Directors, Mark A. Rhea and Colin Smith, move the story effortlessly between the two time periods and there is a wonderful moment in Time Stops where Will and Josephine (Allie O’Donnell) walk through the frozen action with the great depth of the set design showcased by the lighting change. The projection design of Patrick Lord is worth the ticket price alone as it continually enhances the story without ever making us feel the actors aren’t the focus of our attention. There are numerous standout moments but as Edward dodges knives in Closer to Her and they thud into the projection screen wall you can’t help but be impressed.  Yellow flowers engulf the screen as Daffodils provides the musical highlight of the first act we’ve been waiting for and while Van Why is a very good singer it’s the honest connection with whomever he shares the stage with that leave us wanting to know how his story ends.

Fight the Dragon starts act two as young Will is moved around the stage and Edward’s imagination on his bed. The playful interaction between the two puts a smile on everyone’s face although it would be nicer to hear more of Peyton’s vocal in the mix. With Edward becoming increasingly sick, and the adult Will frustrated at his failed attempts to find out more about the true life of his father, their fractured relationship is laid bare in the emotionally charged The River Between Us.  It’s simply but brilliantly staged as Drummond stands upstage of Van Why before joining him front and center for the confrontational climax. This is not the slot in the show the song was originally intended for but it’s hard to picture it having more impact anywhere else.

Will learns about how his father saved his home town and his relationship with Jenny Hill (Emily Madden). Music Director, Jake Null, has the ensemble in great voice and although the score never lends itself to them having a truly transcendent moment they deliver their best vocal in Start Over, which features another nice choreography moment as Madden breaks from the line to converse briefly with Will before the routine resumes.  As Edward becomes closer to death and reconnects with his son in What’s Next their journey is almost complete – but it’s the appearance of Sandra at the end of the song with Todd looking completely heartbroken that draws us in further. The Procession features the company placing a daffodil one by one over the back drop and as they appear on the projection screen and float away down the river it’s one of the most poignant theatre moments you can imagine.

Big Fish is a big achievement for Keegan.

#tothepoint Rating: 80.5/100

You can view a full breakdown of the allocated points here.

Ticket Price: $45

Value Review: +$17

With our scoring system and our unique value for money guide we rate this show at $62 making it exceptional value. Big Fish continues at The Keegan Theatre until September 9th.

Review: When We Were Young and Unafraid

When We Were Young and Unafraid

A play about women, domestic violence and abuse, set in one kitchen location in 70s America…but this isn’t the Deep South and these are different crimes of the heart. Playwright, Sarah Treem, transports us to Whidbey Island off the coast off Washington State; the year is 1972 with America in the midst of second wave feminism and the Supreme Court ruling on Roe vs. Wade still a year away.

The kitchen in question belongs to a bed and breakfast that also serves as a safe house. Matthew Keenan’s set is rich in detail and looks lived in and welcoming. The angle of the stage right wall allows light to pour in through the window and along with the staircase leading to an unseen second floor it allows our imagination to picture the world beyond our stage. There are four locations to draw the action downstage with an armchair, a table and chairs, an island with stools and the door with a telephone on the wall next to it. Most of the plot unfolds in these spots with the rear of the stage used more functionally (to make coffee mostly) and the design works very well. The irony of the location as a backdrop for this story of women’s lib is not lost as the protagonists are at their most comfortable while baking muffins and cookies.

In the opening scene, the mother/daughter dynamic between Agnes (Sheri S. Herren) and Penny (Kaylynn Creighton) is quickly established.  Agnes is the owner of the B&B and Herren plays her in an unselfish down to earth manner that allows others the opportunity to explore the full range of their characters emotions around her. Her delivery allows the dry sense of humor of Agnes to shine through and in a rare moment when her emotions are needed to get the better of her it’s one of the most truthful moments in the play. Creighton gives an excellent performance throughout, navigating smoothly between surly and sarcastic and innocent and vulnerable, as Penny deals with the confusion of a teenage girl who has grown up around so many abused women.

Mary Anne (Jenna Berk) is the latest woman to arrive seeking accommodation and the help of Penny. Berk plays the disconnected moments of the character convincingly and the scene where she passes on her ‘wisdom’ to Penny on how to get a boy to ask her out is truly unsettling. We’re never supposed to feel comfortable enough to like Mary Anne and Berk walks that line well, but it is her reactions to the triggers that force her to relive the horror of what she has endured that don’t feel genuine. Her vocal delivery and physical performance in these moments unfortunately just don’t work.

Hannah (Nora Achrati) arrives looking for work and declaring that the future of feminism can only be achieved by stopping having sex with their oppressors and becoming lesbians. Looking and sounding like Huckleberry Finn’s big sister, Achrati steals the show with her southern drawl and wonderful comic timing. There is heart and honesty in her work that make it a truly winning performance. Tom Hadjimichael plays Paul, the only man in the play, and he portrays just a hint of a potential darkness under the charm the playwright warns us about to leave us guessing throughout as to his true nature.

Director, Marie Sproul, needed to drive the dialogue more, especially in the opening scenes. The pacing feels like people taking turns to speak and because of that the conversations lack a certain authenticity. There is unnecessary movement in some key moments and the best example of this is where Mary Anne realizes just where her advice has taken Penny. This intense moment and connection between characters is broken by a cross and counter where simple eye contact and standing their ground would have been so much more powerful. The scene transitions are handled well and Jordana Abrencia’s sound design moves us throughout the days as popular 70s tunes give way to sounds of crickets or bird song.

Ultimately the twists in the plot are not strong enough to justify the amount of setup in the first act – but that is a flaw in the writing not the production. Taking on and shining a light on these issues makes this work worthwhile and important and the performance of Nora Achrati is worth the entrance fee…if you pay the right price for your ticket.

#tothepoint Rating 67/100

You can view a full breakdown of the allocated points here.

Ticket Price: $45

Value Rating: -$11

With our scoring system and our unique value for money guide we rate this production at $34. Tickets are available on Groupon and Gold Star for $28 making the show good value for money if you can grab this deal. When We Were Young and Unafraid continues at the Keegan Theatre until July 8th.

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