DCMTA 2021 Staff Favorites: Outstanding Professional Theater Productions

DCMTA 2021 Staff Favorites: Outstanding Professional Theater Productions

Any way you look at it, 2021 was a terrible, awful, no good, really bad

Any way you look at it, 2021 was a terrible, awful, no good, really bad year for theater. COVID. Delta. Omicron. Can we just get a break already? The performing arts sector was completely blindsided by a pandemic that kept venues shuttered and people out of work for 18 straight months. And the year is closing with yet another set of disruptions as shows are forced to cancel performances due to breakthrough cases of omicron. But in a testament to the resilience of the industry, theaters and theater-makers wasted no time in getting back to work as soon as it was safe to do so. Throughout the fall of 2021, the DC region has produced an impressive amount of live work. Actors joyfully returned to auditions, designers brushed off their thinking pads, investors provided necessary resources, and audiences gratefully donned masks and teared up when the curtains finally rose once again. The future is still uncertain for the theater industry, but one thing is clear from the impressive quality and quantity of work that has been staged in just the last few months: theater will survive COVID.

Here are the shows that wowed our writers as theaters opened up again this fall. Thank you for your work, DC theater-makers. Life just wasn’t the same without you.

Jaysen Wright, Lauren Davis, Kanysha Williams, Randy Preston, and Vaughn Midder in ‘Acoustic Rooster’s Barnyard Boogie: Starring Indigo Blume.’ Photo by Jati Lindsay.

Acoustic Rooster’s Barnyard Boogie: Starring Indigo Blume, The Kennedy Center
The production is truly an amazing experience, filled with energy, courage, and hope. The songs in the show are a fantastic mix of jazz, soul, hip hop, blues, and everything in between, featuring each of the cast members in varying genres. I would almost say that the adults enjoyed the show even more than the kids did, with the references to lyrics and characters’ human counterparts most likely lost on the youth but hilariously clever for the benefit of the grown-ups.
Read Kendall Mostafavi’s full review

Poster art by Kel Millionie

A Fairy Queen, The IN Series
A Fairy Queen — centered on music by Henry Purcell and Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream — has been reworked to evoke the experience of attending a live recording session of an old-time radio program, complete with live sound effects. Placing this story in a radio studio goes right along with 17th-century versions of the practices of sampling, remixing, and mashup. And in Timothy Nelson’s knowledgeable hands it comes off not like a gimmick but as a doorway into the discovery of connections between human emotion and experience in the two different eras. Who knew that lust and naughtiness in 17th-century Europe were not merely academic? Hearing Alleluias sung by Lucy Page with unmistakable orgasmic intent made me wonder “How long has this been going on?” and how much have I been missing when I encounter these older works?
Read Gregory Ford’s full review

The Dew Drop Inn performers get the crowd riled up with ‘You Got the Right Key, But the Wrong Keyhole’ in ‘A Snowy Nite at the Dew Drop Inn.’ Photo by Bill Lee.

A Snowy Nite at the Dew Drop Inn, Anacostia Playhouse
A Snowy Nite at the Dew Drop Inn sparks joy. This new show at The Anacostia Playhouse is all about having a good time in a world full of dark, cold nights. And unless you are the embodiment of Ebenezer Scrooge, a good time is exactly what you will have. There is singing, dancing, and broad, silly, and obvious jokes on the naughty side of things. And these people dance and sing (and clown around) as if their very lives depend upon it.
Read Gregory Ford’s full review

A Strange Loop, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company
Stopping off at Woolly Mammoth on its way to Broadway — following an off-Broadway run that won it the Pulitzer Prize for Drama — Michael R. Jackson’s extravagantly original musical, A Strange Loop, is in a class of smash hits by itself. I’ve been trying to think of anything else that comes close to resembling it, and I can’t. In thematic dimensionality and depth, raw candor, and knockout meta-theatricality, A Strange Loop is beyond compare. And the lead, played by the phenomenally talented and charismatic Jaquel Spivey, becomes easily one of the most adorably complex characters who might ever win you over onstage.
Read John Stoltenberg’s full review

Beauty and the Beast, Olney Theatre Center
Innovative casting, direction, and design combine to make Olney’s Beauty and the Beast a story about two outsiders finding love and creating a home with each other, no matter how much the odds are stacked against them. As Belle and the Beast, Jade Jones and Evan Ruggiero aren’t just groundbreaking in their roles but are top-notch actors whose stellar performances universalize the experiences of the bodies they inhabit.
Read Darby Dejarnette’s full review
Read Nicole Hertviks’ Q&A with Director Marcia Milgrom Dodge

Boheme in the Heights, The IN Series
The characters in Boheme in the Heights are Afro-Latinx. The story has been relocated to the Columbia Heights neighborhood of DC and presented as a silent film that includes live-action images of the actor-singers embedded in animation that fluidly portrays the feelings and thoughts that permeate and affect the everyday reality around the characters. The singing that is meant to come from the characters on the screen is performed live with keyboard accompaniment. This live performance brought the breath and urgency that the on-screen characters were experiencing out into the same room that we occupied as audience members. We experienced these human sounds — of suffering, ecstasy, joy, and hope — without the intermediaries of vinyl and needle or cellulose acetate and light. At the same time, the images moved in confluence with the changes in the music. (The digital production of Boheme in the Heights streams for free here,)
Read Gregory Ford’s full review

Hadestown, The Kennedy Center
Hadestown at the Kennedy Center brought us the best of Broadway. It won a total of eight Tonys in 2019, including Best New Musical. The soaring music, explosively lovely design, and first-rate performances welcomed us back to the world of live theater.
This story of all-too-human gods and star-crossed lovers was lusciously musical.
Read Jordan Wright’s full review
Read Sophia Howes’ column

Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Olney Theatre Center
Hedwig is full of stunning vocals and powerhouse performances. The amount of energy needed for one evening as Hedwig seems monumental, and Mason Alexander Park gives it their all. The resultant performance is masterful and guaranteed to stay with you for a long time after.
Read Julia Amis’ full review

Felicia Curry as Marian Anderson and Christopher Bloch as Albert Einstein in ‘My Lord, What a Night.’ Photo by Scott Suchman.

My Lord, What a Night, Ford’s Theatre
My Lord, What a Night saves the best for the very last. Sitting in the Ford’s Theatre, an auditorium perfectly suited in time and place, gazing up at the box where Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, as a curtained graphic projection with the looming image of the Lincoln Memorial descends, is almost emotionally overwhelming. Felicia Curry as Marian Anderson steps forward in that famous full-length mink coat and with the fervor and the dignity of a living legend sings the first stanza of “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.” This is the very moment when My Lord, What a Night becomes a truly thrilling production.
Read Ramona Harper’s full review
Read Ravelle Brickman’s interview with Felicia Curry

DCMTA 2021 Staff Favorites: Outstanding Professional Theater Productions
Lauren Zakrin as Little Mermaid, Selene Haro as Gretel, Ashley Chiu as Sleeping Beauty, Adrianna Weir as Little Girl, Wonu Ogunfowora as Rapunzel, Aisha Jackson as Snow White, Jennifer Florentino as Little Red Riding Hood, and Amy Hillner Larsen as Goldilocks in ‘Once Upon a One More Time.’ Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Once Upon a One More Time, Shakespeare Theatre Company
Once Upon a One More Time — with its improbable storyline featuring Britney Spears, Betty Friedan, and fairy tale princesses — is as thought-provoking as it is toe-tapping, as clever as it is hilarious, as bold as it is shiny. It sounds like the world’s wackiest idea for a musical until you’ve seen it, but by golly, it works. Once Upon a One More Time is a full-fledged, grade A, gold star success and exactly the party we need after 21 months of COVID.
Read Nicole Hertvik’s full review

The plot is nearly as outlandish as the fairy tales it critiques, and it’s delivered with sensational musical theater performances and stunning stagecraft to the tune of music made mega-famous by Britney Spears. The show’s pop feminist messaging is a far cry from the passivity and victimization promoted to girls for eons in classical fairy tales (“Well-behaved princesses rarely make history,” as Cinderella reminds Snow White). But not coincidentally this specific message of female self-reliance and empowerment is also the most foundational raison d’être for mounting this production at the estimable Shakespeare Theatre Company. Princesshood is powerful. Who knew that could come true?
Read John Stoltenberg’s column

Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski, Shakespeare Theatre Company
I have long contended that all theater in Washington is political. (It’s in the oxygen we breathe.) Few works, however, pack the wallop of Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski. The play reminds us of inconvenient truths, challenges us, and offers us the opportunity to transform ourselves through the experience of theater. This is due in great part to the stellar, incredibly moving performance of David Strathairn.
Read Susan Galbraith’s full review

Historian Timothy Snyder states: “We would all like to imagine that we would have tried to stop the Holocaust. We would have crept into the ghettos to learn the truth, found our way into the Allied capitals, and made the case for action.” But, as Snyder rightly observes, only one of the approximately two billion adults on the planet did: the Polish courier, Jan Karski.
Many now believe that there is once again a threat of fascism, not only across the world but right here in the United States. Today, the lesson of Jan Karski has become more crucial than ever.
Read Sophia Howes’ column

Rent, Signature Theatre
Signature Theatre has reopened its doors post-pandemic shutdown with the rock musical Rent, Jonathan Larson’s creation loosely based on La Bohème’s characters and story. It’s a ripping good choice. The sound and sheer energy of the work and these singer-dancers raise our pulse and welcome us back to the American musical. Artistic Director Matthew Gardiner has directed Rent as if we’re in the midst of and sharing in the characters’ challenges with the story happening all around us. The take on the production, more than 25 years after it first opened, proves once again that groups of young people may suffer greatly and will face enormous odds at being included in society’s plan; they will be blamed and shunned for society’s ills but will find community with one another and ultimately choose love. In these still difficult times, Rent is a much-needed tonic for the soul.
Read Susan Galbraith’s full review

Alina Collins Maldonado (Delia) and Luis Alberto González (Abel) in ‘Secret Things.’ Photo by Teresa Castracane.

Secret Things, 1st Stage
Secret Things by Elaine Romero at 1st Stage presents two themes—the search for spiritual identity and the quest for a life partner—with creativity and grace. It is well-acted, beautifully produced, and features a love story that will send you out of the theater with a renewed sense of life’s possibilities.
Read Sophia Howes’ full review

The cast of ‘The Amen Corner’ at Shakespeare Theatre Company. Photo by Scott Suchman.

The Amen Corner, Shakespeare Theatre Company
With the brilliant directorial conception of Whitney White, The Amen Corner pays homage to the Black Church in the rhythm, music, and movement of this emotionally moving play-with-music. And oh, how glorious is the music. Under Music Director Victor Simonson, the affirmation of song completes each dramatic crescendo. Just like a Greek chorus that exchanges tragedy for jubilation, the choir’s powerfully pleasing voices could resurrect Dionysius. The soul-stirring singing adds clout to a joyous shout, while the piano man takes the jazz out of the club and blasts it at the altar. Get-happy praise dance adds frenetic energy to gospel music that’s divinely right on time, and there are enough hallelujahs to lift the soul as well as the rafters of the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Sidney Harman Hall.
Read Ramona Harper’s review of the 2020 production that closed due to COVID
Read John Stoltenberg’s interview with Director Whitney White

Though the first scene jumps out at you in a big ensemble number with foot-stomping, hands-clapping, and Black Church testifying, make no mistake: playwright James Baldwin had a much deeper and darker intent in writing The Amen Corner. Just as the writer eloquently and with righteous anger confronted racism and white bigotry in so much of his life’s work, so in this early drama (1953) he turned his seething gaze inward on what he witnessed in his own community and leveled an indictment on the church, with all its backbiting, backstabbing politics and especially hypocrisy. Director Whitney White seizes upon Baldwin’s intent and keeps the thrust of the story moving. The Amen Corner production has been seasoned well by this ensemble as it opened originally back in 2020 but then shut down soon after due to COVID. New to the show this round is Roz White in the role of Odessa, who gives one of the most nuanced and truthful performances of the evening.
Read Susan Galbraith’s full review of the production that reopened in 2021

Anna DiGiovanni (Viola) and Terrence Fleming (Orsino) in ‘Twelfth Night.’ Photo by Kathleen Akerley.

Twelfth Night by Her Majesty & Sons at the DC War Memorial
A merry band of DC theater artists has brought us a glorious present. Their new company, Her Majesty & Sons, is performing a 90-minute adaptation of Twelfth Night, or What You Will, one of Shakespeare’s most popular comedies, with live music, under the dome of the DC War Memorial on the National Mall. It is a true love fest, full of hijinks, mistaken identities, and, best of all, midsummer madness.
Read Sophia Howes’ full review

The stage and audience on Black Lives Matter Plaza for ‘Working, a Musical.’ Photo courtesy of Working in DC.

Working, A Musical, Working in DC at Black Lives Matter Plaza
Based on actual oral histories, Working, A Musical is a swiftly paced flow of catchy and touching songs interspersed with scenes that function as sharply drawn character sketches. The ensemble’s opening number, “All the Livelong Day,” sets the Whitmanesque tone: “I hear America singing.” And hear America we do, as the versatile cast of nine actor-singers portrays some two dozen jobholders — from trucker to tech support, from grocery checker to ironworker, from community organizer to stonemason. As one character says during the show: “History is a hell of a lot of little people getting together and deciding they want a better life.” The entire entertaining evening was a vivid dramatization of that point.
See John Stoltenberg’s full review

SEE ALSO:
DCMTA 2021 Staff Favorites: Outstanding Digital Theater