Woman Around Town’s Editor Charlene Giannetti and writers for the website talk with the women and men making news in New York, Washington, D.C., and other cities around the world. Thanks to Ian Herman for his wonderful piano introduction.
Grab your daughter and run to see Freaky Friday, now playing at Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia. Don’t live nearby? Don’t worry. Freaky Friday was developed by Disney Theatrical to be licensed through its partner, Musical Theatre International, first to professional and then to amateur theaters. So the production may be coming to a venue near you. When it does, don’t miss it.
Heidi Blickenstaff and Emma Hunton (Photo by Jim Saah)
Disney, constantly mining its film vault for material that can be recast for the stage, made a wise call with this one. Freaky Friday is the kind of feel good show with a message that never grows old. As a writer for NBC’s Parenthood, Bridget Carpenter knows something about family relationships. For the musical’s book, she took the basic story – a mom and daughter inadvertently switching bodies for a day – while updating the themes to resonate with a young, tech savvy audience. Besides an enjoyable two hours in the theater, the musical should spark followup conversations with young people about social pressure, cliques, body image, and privacy.
Disney decided to premiere the production at Signature and brought together a talented creative team to make it happen. They included, from Broadway: director, Christopher Ashley (Memphis); musical score, Tom Kitt, and lyrics, Brian Yorke (the duo behind the Tony Award-winning Next to Normal); choreography, Sergio Trujillo (Jersey Boys, On Your Feet); set design, Beowulf Boritt (Tony Award, Act One); Emily Rebholz, costume design (Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike); and lighting design, Howell Brinkley (Hamilton, Tony Award).
Heidi Blickenstaff with the Cast (Photo by Jim Saah)
Heidi Blickenstaff, who delighted Broadway audiences with her performance in Something Rotten, plays the mom, Katherine, a widow and type-A personality who is driven to control everything and everyone around her. Besides running a successful catering business, she’s taken on the job of planning her wedding to Mike (Alan H. Green). But she still has time to micromanage her children, ten year-old Fletcher (Jake Heston Miller), and teenage Ellie (Emma Hunton).
Katherine fails to see that her upcoming marriage is having an impact on her children, who still miss their father. While the younger Fletcher retreats into a fantasy world with his puppets – a hippo and a starfish – Ellie lashes out at her mother. A tussle over a vintage hourglass with magical powers zaps Katherine into her daughter’s body, while Ellie morphs into her mother’s. Ellie is quickly overwhelmed, struggling to cope with being a mother and soon to be wife, while her employees look to her for guidance. Katherine, meanwhile, finds herself in high school, struggling in gym class, dissecting a frog in biology, and dealing with mean girls.
Blickenstaff perfectly captures the mannerisms, facial expressions, and speech patterns of a teenager. She twists strands of hair, wrings her hands, and bats her eyes. Faced with Adam (Jason Gotay), the boy Ellie has a crush on, she positively melts. The poor young man, has no idea why his classmate’s mother is acting so strangely.
Sherri L. Edelen, Emma Hutton, Jason SweetTooth Williams, Heidi Blickenstaff (Photo by Margot Schulman)
Conversely, Hunton becomes more restrained, an adult in a teenage body. When mother and daughter wind up in the high school counselor’s office, what unfolds is clever and hilarious. Two officials (played by Jason SweetTooth Williams and Sherri L. Edelen) critique Ellie’s school performance. Katherine (really Ellie), dismisses their concerns, her casual body language speaking volumes. Meanwhile, Ellie (really Katherine), takes their concerns seriously, perched on the edge of the sofa, ready to take action. Both actresses play the scene for all it’s worth.
Jason Gotay with the Teen Ensemble (Photo by Jim Saah)
The teen ensemble is terrific. Kudos to Trujillo’s choreography, particularly the gym scene where the students use inflated bouncy balls to great effect. Storm Lever, as Ellie’s nemesis, Savannah, perfectly captures the manipulative attitude that defines so many mean girls.
Heidi Blickenstaff and Jake Heston Miller (Photo by Margot Schulman)
Jake Heston Miller, who has to be one of the busiest child actors around, having last appeared as Oliver at Arena Stage, is just plain adorable as Fletcher. And the scenes between him and Katherine (who is really Ellie) are sweet moments, sibling bonding under unusual circumstances. Katherine first bursts his bubble in Act One with the hurtful, “Parents Lie,” then redeems herself in Act Two with the sweet “After All of This and Everything.”
There’s a brilliant and brave moment in the musical which will speak to so many young girls who obsess over their bodies. Ellie and her two besties – Katie Ladner as Gretchen and Shayna Blass as Hannah – strip down to own their appearance. Bravo!
With the day coming to a close, Katherine and Ellie manage to switch back, just in time for Katherine to be wed to the long-suffering, yet very perceptive, Mike. He knows better than Katherine that winning over his stepchildren will take some time. But thanks to the day’s events, mother and daughter have reached a greater understanding. There’s no better way to empathize with someone else than by taking time to actually walk in their shoes. That’s a message for the ages and for all ages.
For information on licensing Freaky Friday, contact MTI by phone, 212-541-4684, or email, firstname.lastname@example.org
Top photo credit: Margot Schulman
Freaky Friday Signature Theatre Through November 20, 2016 4200 Campbell Avenue Arlington, VA 703-820-9771
Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia, closes out its season on a sky-high note, with an exuberant La Cage aux Folles, directed and choreographed by the uber-talented Matthew Gardiner. An exceptional cast and a skilled production team more than do justice to Harvey Fierstein’s book and Jerry Herman’s music and lyrics. Chances are you will exit the theater humming the musical’s anthem, “The Best of Times.” (Truly, this is the best time you will have in musical theater this summer, so get your tickets now for this limited run through July 10.)
Lee Savage’s scenic design transforms Signature’s stage into a St. Tropez nightclub. (Jason Lyons’ lighting design alternates between bright lights and muted tones, signaling when we are actually watching the show or witnessing action backstage.) To the right and left of the stage are the wings where the drag queens who make up the nightclub’s chorus line busy themselves applying makeup, donning wigs, pulling on skin-tight garments, and sliding into stilettos. The club’s owner and MC, Georges (an excellent Brent Barrett), wearing the first of many dazzling blazers, welcomes the audience and introduces Les Cagelles singing “We Are What We Are,” setting the tone for what follows. As with all the numbers, the dancing is energetic and athletic, while the colorful, flamboyant costumes are a feast for the eyes. Also note that this production called for 45 wigs to complement those costumes. (Costume design, Frank Labovitz, wig design Anne Nesmith.) The team of male dancers has mastered the art of kicking and leaping on high heels with nary a wobble or misstep. Impressive.
Bobby Smith as Albin
The star of the show is Albin, aka “Zaza,” the most famous drag queen on the riviera. Bobby Smith (is there anything this actor can’t do?) is phenomenal in the role. His Zaza persona is the perfect diva, showing a fondness for elegant gowns and expensive jewels, relying on a devoted and zany servant, Jacob (an amazing DJ Petrosino), and relishing all the attention from fans. Yet as Albin, he’s vulnerable and insecure, often needing to be coaxed onto the stage. Smith handles both sides of his character oftentimes with a grand stroke, and other times with such subtlety – the shift of an eyebrow, the flip of a hand – that he’s mesmerizing.
Brent Barrett and Bobby Smith
Georges and Albin have been a couple for 20 years and together raised a son, Jean-Michel (Paul Scanlon), the result of a one-night encounter between Georges and the long-gone Sybil. Jean-Michel arrives to tell Georges that he is engaged to Anne Lindon (Jessica Lauren Ball) whose father is head of the Tradition, Family, and Morality Party, a group that has been working to close down the drag clubs. Anne’s parents are arriving to meet their daughter’s future in-laws. Fearful that Edouard Dindon (Mitchell Hebert) and his wife, Marie (Sherri L. Edelen), won’t approve the marriage, Jean-Michel lies about his family situation, describing Georges as a retired diplomat. Jean-Michel pleads with Georges to invite Sybil in place of Albin. Georges finally works up the courage to share with Albin Jean-Michel’s news and wishes. Rather than the angry outburst Georges expects from his longtime partner, Albin instead remains silent, a far more devastating reaction. Going on stage, Albin asks Les Cagelles to leave and alone sings the heartfelt, “I Am What I Am.” Smith makes Albin’s grief so palatable, we feel his pain. It’s an emotional end to the first act.
Albin, however, is willing to put aside his hurt feelings to help Jean-Michel. He agrees to dress like a man and attend the dinner as Uncle Al. Smith displays his enormous talents for physical comedy with his tentative attempts to walk like a man. Truly hilarious is the moment when he uncomfortably assumes the “man spread,” his legs placed wide apart. Jean-Michel, however, is unimpressed with Georges’ plan and unleashes a barrage, criticizing Albin’s lifestyle. Georges reacts angrily, reminding Jean-Michel with “Look Over There,” that Albin has been a good “mother.”
Albin (Bobby Smith, center) at Chez Jacqueline
When Sybil sends a telegram saying she can’t attend the dinner, Albin once again hopes to help, putting on a conservative dress, shoes, and jewelry, and appearing as Jean-Michel’s mother. Not only does Albin charm the Dindons, he manages to get a table for dinner at the popular Chez Jacqueline run by his friend (Nora Y. Payton). When Jacqueline asks Albin to perform he sings “The Best of Times,” impressing Anne’s parents until he finishes the song by tearing off his wig. Anne refuses to break off the engagement, while Jean-Michel apologizes, not to the Dindons, but to Albin. Georges and Albin agree to help the Dindons escape the paparazzi by dressing them in drag and taking them through the club.
While Smith is the standout, the rest of the cast is terrific. Barrett, whose Broadway credits include playing Billy Flynn in Chicago and Frank Butler opposite Reba McEntire in Anne Get Your Gun, also is familiar to D.C. audiences. His stage presence is perfect for the self-assured Georges and his tenor delights, particularly in “Song on the Sand,” and “Look Over There.”
DJ Petrofina and Paul Scanlon
Petrosino displays his versatility and comic timing as Albin’s servant, Jacob. Is it possible he last dazzled us in a much different role? As the macho Chino in Signature’s West Side Story? We are in awe.
Nora Y. Payton
It’s a tribute to the considerable talents of Payton, Edelen, and Hebert that even with less time on stage they have a major impact. As the club’s stage manager, Francis, Michael Bunce provides several comic moments. Kudos to Les Cagelles: Sam Brackley, Darius R. Delk, Ethan Kasnett, Jay Westin, Isiah W. Young, and Phil Young.
Conductor Darius Smith, who also plays keyboard, directs an orchestra that sounds larger than it is and adds considerably to the enjoyment of this musical. Members are: Kelsey Mire and Ed Waters (reeds), Chris Walker (trumpet), Scott Ninmer (trombone), Bill Hones (bass) and Paul Keeling (drums).
La Cage aux Folles was on Broadway in 1983, decades ago when gay marriage was a future hope and gay couples were fighting to become parents, stressing that family could take many forms, as long as children had adults who loved and nurtured them. La Cage brings home that message once again.
Anne Nesmith often has to split hairs. The skilled wig designer has fashioned hair pieces for opera and theater productions in Washington, D.C. and around the world. Wigs have become an integral part of costume design, topping off, so to speak, what an actor wears to visually create a character. Anne’s wigs have been seen in numerous productions at Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia, including Sweeney Todd and The Threepenny Opera.
She is currently designing 45 wigs for Signature’s La Cage aux Folles which will run from May 31 through July 10. “This is a pretty big show, even for a musical,” Anne said about La Cage. “It’s not out of the ordinary to have this many wigs or more in an opera, say, but it is unusual to have so many in a straight play or musical.”
Image of the front lace of a wig showing how the hairs are tied in.
Designing a wig is painstaking work. “On average it takes me about 30 hours to build a wig start to finish. And I am pretty fast,” Anne explained. “You build a cap that fits an actor or singer’s head and then you tie knots of hair into it with a ventilating hook. The back of a wig can have three and four hairs but the front is tied with single hairs.” Tying a wig with hair that is very long or very kinky or curly, or with hair that is bad quality, can slow down the process, she said.
Anne’s wigs worn by Sherri L. Edelen and Ed Gero in Signature’s production of Sweeney Todd. Photo by Chris Mueller
What Annee really loves is to have the time to completely build a wig from front to back. “An entirely hand ventilated wig is beautiful,” she said. “There is not always time for that and, truly, it isn’t always the best solution. I also buy wigs from the wig store and cut them up so I have the stretch back and then I ventilate the top and front of the wig so it doesn’t have quite as much hair and has less bulk and is more natural looking.”
Anne said she mostly uses human hair wigs. “But for a show where the wigs really need to hold up (for a heavy dance show, for instance) I will use synthetic hair,” she said.
Bobby Smith is flanked by Donna Migliaccio (left) and Erin Driscoll wearing Anne’s wigs in Signature’s The Threepenny Opera. Photo by Photo by Margo Schulman
Anne has now been working in opera and theatre for more than 15 years. Besides her work for Signature, she has designed for John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Arena Stage, Ford’s Theatre, Shakespeare Theatre Company, the Lyric Opera of Baltimore and the Washington Ballet, among others. She has also designed shows for the Saito Kinen Festival in Matsumoto, Japan, Hyogo Performing Arts Center in Nishinomiya, Japan, Opera Boston, Wolf Trap Opera, Castleton Music Festival and Opera Delaware. Anne was the Resident Wig and Makeup Designer for the Baltimore Opera Company and has constructed wigs for the Scooby Doo Live! tour and the Asian tour of 42nd Street. Her work has also been seen in numerous Smithsonian National Portraits Gallery’s Cultures in Motion programs, Great Planeson the Military Channel, Ice Cold Killers for Investigation Discovery and the U.S. Army’s tour Spirit of America.
We asked Anne to answer our My Career Choice questions, to tell more about how she got started.
Can you point to one event that triggered your interest in your career?
Honestly, I fell into my career. Out of college I started working at a small theatre in Norfolk, Virginia, and met the man who was the wig designer at the opera down the street. I started working with him and for the next number of years worked at opera companies around the country. I learned a lot on my feet and along the way discovered I had an aptitude for wig-making.
What about this career choice did you find most appealing?
I have always appreciated the fluidity of this job. Each production exists for a very limited period of time so I begin my job fresh dozens of times a year. There is always turnover and always a new series of challenges.
What steps did you take to begin your education or training?
My degree was in design/technical theatre but I never worked with wigs when I was in school. When I got out of college I apprenticed and worked for a couple of very well-known wig designers. Under their mentorship I worked at a number of companies around the country until I began working as a designer myself.
Along the way, were people encouraging or discouraging?
I was very lucky; I was always encouraged.
Did you ever doubt your decision and attempt a career change?
I feel like I doubt my decision and consider a career change with every new project I undertake! While it is terrific to be continually working on something fresh and new you also restart everything with each new show. There is definitely a lot of pressure involved with continually reinventing and re-proving yourself creatively.
When did your career reach a tipping point?
When I went from being an assistant to designing for myself.
Can you describe a challenge you had to overcome?
I think it is tough for young women coming up in any profession. Through my 20’s and even into my 30’s I’m sure I was not always taken seriously.
What single skill has proven to be most useful?
I am, for the most part, a very good collaborator. In a profession that often has a lot of strong personalities I am able to put my ego aside. Almost everything about theatre is collaborative and as everyone involved works toward a common goal we all have to be willing to listen to one another.
What accomplishment are you most proud of?
I am very pleased that as a free-lance artist I have been able to make this my full-time profession for my entire career.
Any advice for others entering your profession?
It served me very well to work with and for a lot of other designers. Everyone has a different aesthetic and set of strengths and you can learn something from everyone. It is best not to be too bound by what you think is the “right” way. I also think apprenticeships are lost in many professions and in this one in particular it is a great way to learn, work with a lot of other professionals and see your work immediately on stage.
Anne Nesmith’s top photo courtesy of Signature Theatre
Getting into the elevator following Signature Theatre’s production of Road Show, one woman was overheard saying to her friend: “I liked West Side Story better.” The musicals have Stephen Sondheim in common. (He wrote the lyrics for West Side Story, the music and lyrics for Road Show.) But while revivals of West Side Story often receive rave reviews, including the recent one at Signature, Road Show has always been a harder sell. In fact, the musical’s journey, which included a lawsuit, title changes, and a total overhaul, resembles in many ways the story it tells of two brothers who criss cross the country in search of success but instead meet with disappointment.
Yet for true Sondheim fans, Road Show should not be missed. And Signature’s production, which benefits from substantive changes made during the musical’s run at the Chicago Shakespeare Festival, features an enthusiastic and talented cast, smart direction, creative staging, appealing period perfect costumes, and musical accompaniment evocative of the early 1900s. Songs are quintessential Sondheim, with clever, fast-paced lyrics that compliment the action and move the story along.
Noah Racey and Cast
Road Show is the fictional story of Addison Mizner and his brother, Wilson. Following the death of their father, their mother encourages them to go out and seek their fortune. They begin that quest in Alaska, hoping to strike it rich during the gold rush. They do find gold but Wilson, a compulsive gambler who has a talent for manipulating people, loses their claim in a poker game. Addison leaves in disgust and ends up in New York. He shows promise as an architect, and lands his first client, a rich widow, who wants him to design a pool house. Before he can do that, however, Wilson shows up, seduces the widow, marries her, and fritters away her fortune on boxing matches and horse races.
Matthew Schleich, Josh Lamon and Noah Racey
After their mother dies, Addison travels to Florida lured by the state’s land boom. Soon, he’s building mansions for the wealthy in Palm Beach. He also takes a lover, Hollis Bessemer, the son of a wealthy industrialist who has been cut off by his father. Hollis’ dream is to create an artists’ colony, but that plan is put on hold while the two enjoy each other and their new found wealth. When Wilson shows up, once again down on his luck, he comes up with a scheme to build a new city, Boca Raton. Once Hollis is convinced, Addison agrees, but Wilson’s plan is soon revealed as a scam. Addison loses everything – his wealth, his lover, and his reputation. The two brothers end up where they began, penniless and alone.
Josh Lamon and Noah Racey
Without two strong leads, the story would fall flat. Fortunately, casting here is inspired. As Addison, Josh Lamon is the larger stage presence but he’s putty in his brother’s hands. Lamon’s body language and facial expressions speak volumes, showing the conflict that he suffers whenever he must weigh the love he feels for his brother against doing what’s right. Noah Racey’s Wilson is the charming rogue, able to win over most everyone he meets. Yet when Racey flashes that Cheshire cat grin, we know there’s malice behind those good looks.
Each member of the supporting cast assumes more than one role. Transformations are skillfully managed and each character appears distinct. A large map of the U.S. serves as a backdrop while small lights pinpoint the brothers’ travels. Scenery while minimal, works well, creating the right atmosphere without distracting from the action.
Road Show isn’t Sondheim’s best. But it is Sondheim and true fans will find much to discuss after this road show.
Photos by Margot Schulman Opening: Noah Racey, Josh Lamon, and Sherri L. Edelen
Road Show Signature Theatre 4200 Campbell Avenue Arlington, Virginia Directed by Gary Griffin Music Direction by Jon Kalbfleisch With Erin Driscoll, Sherri L. Edelen, Stefan Alexander Kempski, Jason J. Labrador, Josh Lamon, Jake Mahler, Dan Manning, Angela Miller, Noah Race, Matthew Schleich, and Bobby Smith