Magic Time!

The random adventures of a theater buff in DC

Month: August, 2015

Dogfight

Last season The Keegan Theatre mounted a Vietnam War–era musical called Hair. In a column I described that production as “radiant and thrilling,” “an exuberant love fest as timeless as human hope.” This season Keegan has mounted another Vietnam War–era musical, this one called Dogfight (music and lyrics by Benj Pasek & Justin Paul, book by Peter Duchan). The worlds of the two shows are worlds apart. Hair is peopled with street kids who protest the Vietnam War; Dogfight portrays teen Marines  about to be shipped off to fight it. I love that Keegan has staged them both. And I readily praise this year’s Dogfight as I did last year’s Hair—it is radiant and thrilling; its depiction of love is exuberantly hopeful. Plus the music is wonderfully sung, and the direction and staging are superb. Keegan’s Dogfight is a smashing good show.

But what really drew me in to Keegan’s Dogfight—and absorbed me not only as an “entertain me” audience member but more fundamentally as a human being—was the central story and the male lead’s character arc. At its core, the story in Dogfight is exactly as ethically resonant as the story of Pasek & Paul’s Dear Evan Hansen (which premiered recently at Arena Stage).

Whereas Dear Evan Hansen is based on an original story (with book by Steven Levenson) and Dogfight follows closely the Nancy Sivoca’s film Dogfight (from an original screenplay by Bob Comfort), the two shows looked at side-by-side reveal an extraordinary and distinctive use of the  musical form to say something profoundly real about what it means to live a moral life: who we are when we fuck up and who we are when we make things right.

The parallels are striking.

In Dear Evan Hansen, we see a high school senior, Evan (played incredibly by Ben Platt), who, trying to fit in socially, makes a deeply dishonest choice: in hopes of belonging to a family he doesn’t have, he builds a huge fib about having been friends with a classmate who committed suicide. In Dogfight we see a young Marine, Birdlace (played incredibly by Tiziano D’Affusa), who, trying to fit in socially, makes a cruelly callous choice: in order to bond with his bros, he invites Rose (Isabelle Smelkinson, making a sensational professional debut) to a party where he knows the guy who brings the ugliest girl will win a jackpot that he and two other Jarheads paid into.

In Dear Evan Hansen, Evan reaches a dramatic point of moral recognition, which I wrote about in a love letter to the musical:

You presented a central character, Evan, whose dramatic character arc is actually a profound trajectory of conscience—who despite his good intentions in deceiving others comes to realize that he has totally, totally screwed up. The deception he committed was so wrong he cannot stand himself. And by that point in the second act when Evan falls apart emotionally in a morass of crushing guilt and remorse (in his song called “Words Fail”), you embody on the stage such a searing image of a self feeling utterly irredeemable that I was stunned into awed silence….

Thereafter the musical narrative shows us Evan trying to apologize and make amends. Similarly Birdlace in Dogfight reaches a point of recognizing how wrong he was and is to have done what he did (expressed not in music but in dialog). And thereafter the narrative shows us Birdlace trying to apologize to Rose, whom he realizes he has hurt, and make amends. (The night I saw the show, the audience was audibly on Rose’s side. When Rose, upon learning she has been cruelly duped, slaps Birdlace flat across the face, there were cheers.)

These narrative arcs do not center on a person with a bad character; both Birdlace and Evan are established as upstanding and conscientious. But both musicals present a good person who makes bad choices under social pressure—what happens when conscience capitulates to crowd-sourced self-esteem. Both musicals then show us that main character realizing that he doesn’t want to have done that bad thing not only because it hurt others but because it’s not who he wants to be; it’s not who he is. Then gradually both musicals show us those main characters figure out what to do about it to make things right—in the process of which their true self-esteem is reclaimed and owned.

Connecting the dots of Dogfight and Dear Evan Hansen—a rare experience made possible just this month in DC—one may reasonably conjecture that Pasek & Paul are transforming the course of American musical theater history. They are telling singularly contemporary stories of a soul’s progress. And they are making those stories sing aloud and in our hearts.

Pasek & Paul’s hit Dear Evan Hansen has left town and is on its way to New York’s Second Stage, so if you missed it, you missed it. But you’ve still got a chance to be wowed by its powerful precursor, Dogfight. Grab it.

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A Conversation With the Man Who Killed My Son

Twice a week in this land of the free, a white police officer kills a black person—this according to under-reported stats from the FBI. From the official law-enforcement point of view, these are considered justifiable homicides. From another point of view, a political one, these are considered extrajudicial killings—lethal shots triggered by racial profiling, not proper police procedure. From yet another point of view, a very personal one, the grief and rage over these deaths, singly and cumulatively, knows no bounds.

With an extraordinary one-act script called A Conversation With the Man Who Killed My Son, Playwright Jacqui Brown has delved deep into those conflicting points of view. She has humanized them, given them the faces of characters who sound and feel real, sculpted succinct scenes propelling a story arc that catches us, compels us, surprises us, and ultimately alters how we see the world. In short, Brown achieves in a mere 45 minutes what every great drama does.

Not incidentally, this singular woman’s voice gives voice not only to mothers who have lost their sons in racist gunfire but to an entire community that is reeling from one son after another thus shot dead.

I witnessed the author and nine other actors perform this powerful play yesterday afternoon before an audience that included community activists and three mothers whose black sons had been killed by white cops.

It begins with a jolt: two raucous street demonstrations shouting at each other. Protesters’ signs on one side say “Black lives matter!” “No justice, no peace!”; on the other, “All lives matter!” “Put your faith in the police!” From there the play leads up to the pivotal scene in which Mildred Barnes (played by Brown) has a private meeting in a police station with Officer George Wilder, Sr. (Terry Gish), who shot and killed her son, Devon, whom George mistakenly suspected of robbery.

Mildred’s attorney, wonderfully named John Lewis Bayard (Master Ashep Herser Neter El), and her cousin Margaret (Gwen Lewis), whose nephew Devon was, try to dissuade her from meeting with the police officer unaccompanied, but she is determined.

The scene Brown has scripted between Mildred and George is electrifying. “Until you’ve lost a child you can’t begin to understand my pain,” Mildred tells him.

George extends his sympathy but maintains he was doing his duty: “He should have obeyed my command. He needed not to resist arrest.” The deadly incident—in which Devon while fleeing reaches for something in his back pocket that George thinks “looked like a gun” but never was—is played out in chilling mime.

As the backstory is revealed, we learn that Devon was a promising young man, not a troublemaker, and that George too has a son, who has been known to mess up. The contrast the script draws between the presumption of guilt that attached to Devon and the pass that George’s son always gets is just one instance of Brown’s great gifts of  empathy and insight. Like the best of writers for theater, Brown stays committed to the authenticity and point of view of each one of her characters.

The play’s truly surprising turn takes place some time after the titular conversation, in an exchange between George and his son George Wilder Jr. (Michael Golder), who is also on the police force. I won’t reveal the twist but it took my breath away, and that of many members of the audience, I have no doubt.

The cast included a Witness to the shooting (Heather N. Brown) whose testimony was never heeded, George’s boss Captain Thomas Gaines (Kevin Youel Page), an FBI Agent (Kenneth Peeples); another white Officer (Carla Castro-Davis), and the actor who appeared as Devon (Kenneth Washington, Jr.)—several of whom with Golder doubled as Protesters. The simply staged production was originally directed by Kofi Owusu for the recent DC Black Theater Festival.

I became aware soon after the performance began that this work by this playwright was moving beyond words. Its craft, its emotional truth-telling, make it worthy of any theater festival you could name. What I did not foresee was how A Conversation With the Man Who Killed My Son reached and touched and galvanized its audience—the intense and very vocal post-show conversation ran longer than the play.

Isn’t that something live theater is supposed to do—engage, generate real conversation?

I asked Brown afterward whether this play had ever been performed before police officers. Not yet, she told me, though they’ve been invited.

They need to see this. As does everybody.

Running Time: 45 minutes with no intermission.

A Conversation With the Man Who Killed My Son played August 22 and 23, 2015 at Dynamic Wellness – 402 H Street Northeast, in Washington, DC 20002.

The Importance of Being Earnest

Scena Theatre has brought back its hit 2011 production of The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde’s classic comedy of errors, and DC’s summer just got wittier and sweeter. In Scena’s delectable staging, the show plays like a clockwork confection, and serves up Wilde’s biting bon mots like a shop full of bon bons.

With a twist.

Director Robert McNamara (Scena’s Founder and Artistic Director) has cast the show with actors who in life do not present as the gender of the character they play. (Once upon a time one would say they play characters of “the opposite sex”—but nowadays the words opposite and sex in this context have become, as Wilde might say, curiously unfashionable.) The entertaining result is a blurring of gender expression that, as Wilde might say, has become curiously fashionable. Not to mention great fun.

Wilde held a mirror up to the society he lived in, in zinger after zinger. And in The Importance of Being Earnest, not a few of his snarky apothegms send up conventions of male and female social behavior. The captivating result in Scena’s cross-gender-cast production is that such quips in the script take on fresh resonance.

For instance when Danielle Davy, who plays a dandy, arrogant Algernon, says with a frat-boy leer and winks…

The only way to behave to a woman is to make love to her, if she is pretty, and to someone else, if she is plain.

the line becomes all the more incisive. And when she (as he) says…

All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That’s his.

…the line becomes all the more trenchant.

David Bryan Jackson, who plays the prim and prissy Miss Prism to a tea-cake, at one point says to the Rev. Chasuble, whom Ms. Prism has romantic designs on…

You are too much alone, dear Dr. Chasuble. You should get married. A misanthrope I can understand—a womanthrope, never!

…and instantly, because the right rector is played with winning shyness by Amie Cazel, Wilde’s neologism for misogyny lands as more than a jest—it gets meta.

Though the text treats in this production are plentiful, what puts it over the top are the performances. Notable among them is Nanna Ingvarsson, who plays the deceitful lady-killer Jack aka John aka Earnest. Written as a bit of a fop, Jack in Ingvarsson’s portrayal becomes more of a swaggering dude, as when she (as he) sits and totally nails manspreading. The play’s lens on gender sharpens as the imperious Lady Bracknell is played by Ingvarsson’s real-life husband, Brian Hemmingsen. Though called in the script “a Gorgon” and “monster,” Lady Bracknell in Hemmingsen’s prepossessing portrayal has a dramatic authority that self-evidently towers over and intimidates everyone else on stage without drag-bitch cliches.

Said cliches do show up hilariously, however, in the performances of Graham Pilato as Gwendolyn (who is smitten with Jack, thinking his name is Earnest) and Robert Scheire as Cecily (who falls for Algernon, thinking his name is Earnest).  Their coy seductions of their beaus are ridiculously apt—with Pilato scurrying everywhere on tiny tiptoe and Scheire slinking about languidly. And the vicious catfight they have when they discover they are both betrothed to the same Earnest is hysterical. Curiously, as Wilde might say again, in these two actors’  portrayals, the script’s sendup of fatuous femininity becomes sillier yet more gently knowing.

Ellie Nicoll as Lane and Mary Suib as Merriman each bring an intriguing archness to the roles of the two manservants and add to the topsy-turvy ensemble. Scenic Designer Michael C. Stepowany has set the action amid wedding-cake-like white filigree and trellises, which Lighting Designer Marianne Meadows brings brightly aglow. The cast is truly dressed to the nines, and special commendation goes to Costume Designer Alisa Mandel, whose eye-popping creations appear in the accompanying photos.

A screen upstage programmed by Projection Content Designer Tony Starnes shows black-and-white photographs of period cityscapes and country estates, which nicely locates the script’s sense of place. Now and then the screen also projects texts that comment on the action, such as “Enter the Dragon!” when Lady Bracknell appears and “Tea for Two,” when that is in fact what’s happening. (Whether these glosses add to one’s experience will be a matter of taste. For me Wilde’s play in this production was already plenty meta, so I paid the interpolations little attention—but nor did they detract.)

On top of being tres trendy, Scena—in having female characters as conceived by a man given voice by male actors, and in simultaneously having female actors give voice to male characters conceived by the same dead white male playwright—has achieved cheeky counter-programming to DC’s current Women’s Voices Theater Festival. I doubt that was the company’s intention (Earnest was swapped in at the eleventh hour when, sadly, a previously announced production of Three Sisters had to be cancelled). But as a tantalizing theatrical interrogation into the contemporary meaning of gender in society, it worked brilliantly.

All told, Scena’s The Importance of Being Earnest is an enlightening light entertainment as delicious and satisfying as can be.

Running Time: Two hours 15 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission.

The Importance of Being Earnest plays through Septmber 13, 2015, at Scena Theatre, performing at The Paul Sprenger Theatre at Atlas Performing Arts Center – 1333 H Street NE, in Washington, D.C. For tickets, reserve by phone, 202.399.7993 ext. 2, or purchase them online.

How We Died of Disease-Related Illness / Bones in Whispers (WVTF)

The eagerly anticipated Women’s Voices Theatre Festival kicked off with the opening of Longacre Lea’s production of two world-premiere one-acts, which the company collectively dubs #DeathParty. The plays are stylistically distinct but share a cast and have an intriguing thematic kinship: Both tap into the anxious zeitgeist about global contagion and human extinction. Prescience? Paranoia? Therein lies the nub of these two idiosyncratic takes on our fate.

The first, How We Died of Disease-Related Illness by Yale MFA Candidate Miranda Rose Hall, treats us to a zany absurdist comedy set in a hospital where manic efforts to halt a virulent disease fail hilariously. The running joke is that the disease turns human organs into avocados and anyone afflicted with the disease spews guacamole from some orifice. Fluffly neon-green tulle and lacy ribbons represent the guac, which accumulates in piles as one character after another comically excretes.

The actors’ gimlet-eyed sight gags and the author’s off-kilter text  trigger intermittent giggles. (Random sample: “It’s okay to wash only one hand if you only use one hand.”) The play’s pace takes a while to hit its comic stride, but it grows on you (no medical pun intended). As its momentum mounts,  How We Died of Disease-Related Illness becomes a wacky, madcap farce that sends up our collective hypochondria. The effect is like a prophylactic for our fears we live in plague years.

The eleven energetic actors cast in both plays include two especially funny standouts in this one: Ashley DeMain as Trisha starts the show as a janitor, assiduously sweeping the floor and scrubbing everything down. Episodically she reappears in a series of higher-ranking jobs (her turn as a sanctimonious clergyperson particularly tickled me). And Tia Shearer as Lisa drops in (literally, through the ceiling) wielding a machete. Her fierce, athletic, wide-eyed turn as a Rambo-lette hellbent on martyrdom totally embodied absurdism and stole scene after scene. (The audience roared when she told of the organization she founded to save CLITS—Cats Living in Tragic Situations.)

The second play, Bones in Whispers by Longacre Lea Founder Kathleen Akerley, takes a tack on the topic that is darker, more surreal. Humanity is in the throes of a mass die-off and rival marauding bands have descended on an abandoned hospital in hopes of survival. The play begins in darkness as militiapeople armed with guns and flashlights storm the stage, shouting back and forth, and it feels like an apocalyptic sci-fi action flick (albeit crammed into a cramped space). The walls exude a foul-smelling miasma; a disembodied voice sings forth from the mouth of a corpse. The invaders repetitively do a dance that they believe protects them from dying.

The title, lifted from a line in T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, hints at the heady badinage we’re to hear. (Random sample: “We are operating in a reality where everything has changed. Nothing means the same.”) A signature of Ackerley’s scripts is a combo of the clever and recondite with playful pop-culture genre-bending (aptly her company’s tagline is “physical productions of cerebral works”).

Originally Akerley solicited a play for the Women’s Voices Theatre Festival from Hall, who submitted two, and Akerley chose How We Died of Disease-Related Illness. In part in response, and in part to fill an evening, Akerley then wrote Bones in Whispers, which like Hall’s work takes a while to grow on you. The plot, which somewhat eluded me, propels some eye-popping scenic effects and language that flies by at a head-spinning pace.  By the end is revealed—in a spectacular show of stagecraft—a metaphor for our species’s destiny that is mindblowing.

Matthew Alan Ward’s agile and expressive performance as Joel, a medical orderly and PT patient, was especially arresting. And the ensemble as a whole—which also included Christine Alexander, Tom Carman, Tamieka Chavis, Vince Eisenson, Séamus Miller, Alejandro Ruiz, Amal Saade, and Jorge A. Silva—was much to be enjoyed.

Akerley directed both shows briskly and designed a multifunction set that served both scripts equally. She also choreographed the fun-to-watch ritual dance routine. Gail Stewart Beach’s costumes were imaginative, and John Burkland’s lighting electrified many a moment.

A question that lingered for me afterward, on the occasion of WVTF’s debut production, was this: Exactly what about these two plays distinguishes them as being women’s voices other than the fact that both authors are women? As I mulled the question, nothing leapt to mind as the definitive answer. Which may be the point. To say more plays by women ought to be staged in town—as WVTF correctly makes no bones about—is not to say what those plays should or should not say or be about. And so if Longacre Lea chooses to celebrate equal opportunity for ungendered absurdism and surrealism unburdened by sexual political agendas, then why not play along—and come to its lively #DeathParty?

Running Times: About 80 minutes for each play with a 10-minute intermission.

How We Died of Disease-Related Illness and Bones in Whispers play through September 6, 2015, at Catholic University’s Callan Theatre – 3801 Harewood Road, NE, in Washington, DC. Purchase tickets online, or call 202-460-2188.

One in the Chamber

(This review was written for DC Metro Theater Arts and is reprinted here.)

The authenticity and specificity of Katie Sullivan’s scenic and properties design for One in the Chamber could qualify it as a character in this engrossing new play by Marja-Lewis Ryan. Even before we meet the people whose lived-in dining room this is, we can see from the memorabilia and clutter—family photos in mismatched frames on the wall, tattered board games in a pile, a jar of peanut butter and loaf of bread amid laundry strewn upon the table—that this is a household where  togetherness has transpired.

What we do not know yet is how that togetherness has been ruptured, and how each family member has been injured, by the death of a 9-year-old son six years ago when his then-10-year-old brother accidentally shot him with a gun.

Playwright Ryan has crafted the compelling narrative of this wounded, unraveling family in the form of a series of one-on-one interviews by a social worker who arrives to determine whether the surviving brother, now 16, can be let off parole. And Director Michael R. Piazza has deftly paced and shaped the family’s gradual undoing as sad and troubling disclosures steadily pile on.

A vividly imagined portrait of a family coping with the  loss of a child in a gun accident, One in the Chamber is every bit the equal of David Lindsay-Abaire’s Rabbit Hole (which turned on the loss of a child in an auto accident) in making palpable through powerful theater the ineluctable presence of absence. And just as Rabbit Hole was not some tract about driver-safety education, One in the Chamber stands on its own as a play whose credibility and emotional impact derive from what happens before our eyes and hearts on stage—not policy disputes off.

This backgrounder appears on the production website:

this play was inspired by the September 28th, 2013 article in The New York Times: Children and Guns, the Hidden Toll, which explored the rates of gun related homicides versus accidental shootings in America. According to a study cited in the The New York Times article, when 64 boys were let into a room with an inoperative .38 caliber hand gun concealed in a drawer, 2/3 handled it, 1/3 pulled the trigger and only 1 actually told an adult and he was later teased by his peers. Moreover, every day, 32 Americans are murdered with guns and 51 people kill themselves with a firearm (Brady Campaign Website).

all of these numbers represent millions of families who have been impacted by gun deaths.

Then right away comes this curious disclaimer:

this play is not political in nature, but rather, is a fictionalized account of how one of these families managed after their loss.

Presumably this is meant to avert audience expectations of arguments pro or con gun control. (There are none as such, though a robust series of post-show events promises much expertise and lively discussion on the issue.) Yet like all good and engaging drama—or at least the kind I go to the theater for—One in the Chamber is very much and implicitly political.

In Adrienne Nelson’s nuanced performance of Helen, we see the chilling character arc of a really good mom, a super-accomplished homemaker, utterly losing it over this loss. In Dwight Tolar’s stolid performance of Charles, we see a really good dad, a hardworking breadwinner and Army Reservist, unable to hold together the family he loves. In Grace Doughty’s adorable performance of seven-year-old Ruthie, we see a child escaping family tension into a fantasy world. In Danielle Bourgeois’s captivating performance of 17-year-old Kaylee, we see a big sister fleeing the pain of her broken family in alcohol and promiscuity. And in Noah Chiet’s extraordinarily moving performance of 16-year-old Adam, the boy who killed his brother, we see a tortured soul suffering unbearable guilt. Completing the well-chosen cast, Liz Osborn as Jennifer the social worker shows us someone whose professional objectivity falters then cracks.

The narrative device of the social worker interviews, once the playwright has set it up, can make the play seem somewhat labored. We learn early on that Jennifer will have a scene with each of the family members and that Adam will come last, making the action feel formulaic. This locked-in structure means that a scene I would really like to have seen, one between Adam and Kaylee, did not and perhaps cannot happen. Also, the play’s multiple conflicts—within the family and between the family and the judicial system—sometimes feel melodramatic and don’t quite cohere. (This is probably a play that would work better adapted for film.) Yet as the haunting back story of a tragic gun accident is revealed one stunning detail after another, and as we come to understand more and more how one single accidental bullet also ricocheted and caromed around a family, we cannot help but feel devastated.

One in the Chamber is a true modern tragedy, epic in its implications.

Running Time: One hour 15 minutes with no intermission.

One in the Chamber plays through September 6, 2015 at The Mead Theatre Lab at Flashpoint – 916 G Street NW, in Washington DC. For tickets, purchase them online.

Dear Evan Hansen

Dear Dear Evan Hansen,

I know it might sound odd, but this is a love letter to a musical.

I saw you for the first time in my life last night, and I knew right away I had to write you to tell you it was love at first sight. You moved me, you thrilled me, you out and out wowed me. (Gosh, I hope you will not think me weird for gushing.)

You’re a musical about a lonely and depressed high school senior named Evan Hansen who writes letters to himself to cheer himself up—which is why you’re called Dear Evan Hansen (duh). What happened last night, though, was that you cheered me up. I remember when we finally had to part, I left you where you’re staying at Arena Stage (I assume that’s temporary and you’ll be relocating to Broadway, where I hope we can meet up again, because I really want to stay in touch). As I walked out into the summer night, I found I could not shake the feeling of elation you had given me. So I figured you might understand why I felt compelled to publicly declare my passion for you this way.

I haven’t yet read what any of your other admirers may be saying about you. I can only imagine they were similarly smitten. (How could they not be?) But I hope you will take to heart this letter to you, because there’s something really important and personal I want to share with you.

And it’s this, dear Dear Evan Hansen.

Until I met you I had never in my life seen a musical I would call redemptive. I don’t mean redemptive in any divine sense, because you never mentioned faith. I mean in the very human sense of revealing to us a very identifiable inner self that feels so isolated and unworthy it will pretend to be someone else for acceptance. (You nailed it: Everyone’s got Imposter Syndrome. We’ve all been there done that.) And then you showed that self be caught in a Really Big Lie and stricken with  recrimination.

You presented a central character, Evan, whose dramatic character arc is actually a profound trajectory of conscience—who despite his good intentions in deceiving others comes to realize that he has totally, totally screwed up. The deception he committed was so wrong he cannot stand himself. And by that point in the second act when Evan falls apart emotionally in a morass of crushing guilt and remorse (in his song called “Words Fail”), you embody on the stage such a searing image of a self feeling utterly irredeemable that I was stunned into awed silence. You dug a hole for your main character so deep it seemed impossible to climb out of, and you dramatized exactly what being at a moral nadir feels like.

What happens next, though—and what prompted me to write you this letter—is that you found a way for that main character to atone and go on. It was as if a redemptive miracle occurred on stage, except of course there was no divine intervention. There was only the careful, conscientious craft of a brilliant book writer (Steven Levenson) and two equally brilliant composer/lyricists (Benj Pasek and Justin Paul). Together they had told a story on stage so original, emotionally identifiable, and redemptive that what’s possible to achieve in a musical got a Big Bang that will ripple through theater history from now on. Plus everyone who attends can come out a healed and happier person.

Thank you, dear Dear Evan Hansen.

Sincerely,

Me

code name: Cynthia

(This review was written for DC Metro Theater Arts and is reprinted here.)

Stephen Sondheim would do well to watch his back. Pallas Theatre Collective has just mounted a new musical, code name: Cynthia, that is just as smart and pointed in its book and lyrics and just as telling and theatrical in its musical score as anything the modern master of sophisticated musicals has delivered lately—maybe more so. It’s based on a humdinger of a true spy story. It has a lulu of a female main character (played dazzlingly by Gracie Jones). Plus it harbors a take on Washington, war, and espionage so barbed and bracing it turns tropes of musical theater into mini-epiphanies.

Steve Multer (who wrote the book and lyrics) and Karen Multer (who wrote the music) stumbled upon the dramatic  true tale of an American Mata Hari on a visit to DC’s Spy Museum. The woman’s real name was Amy Elizabeth (“Betty”) Thorpe. During World War II, she worked for the OSS (the Office of Strategic Services), a precursor to the CIA, under the code name Cynthia. Born to high society and a beautiful debutante , Betty/Cynthia played a key role in obtaining vital secrets by seducing men. She literally used men in sex in service to the war effort for what she could get them to reveal. Most notably she parlayed her wiles into a  heist of critical French naval codes from a safe inside a guarded room in the Vichy French embassy on Wyoming Avenue.  In this their first musical, Multer and Multer (who are husband and wife) have cunningly turned Betty/Cynthia’s risky romantic and clandestine adventures into a briskly paced suspense story riddled with wit and suffused with sagacity.

code name: Cynthia has been in development with Pallas Theatre for several years and now arrives in a stunningly precise production directed by Founding Associate Artistic Director Tracey Elaine Chassum. The musical is sweeping in scope, taking place in multiple locations mostly in and around DC. (These are aptly evoked in wonderful multimedia projections designed by Chassum and Managing Director Caroline Brent.) I could easily imagine this musical commanding a larger stage where major new musicals are typically debuted, but it worked just fine in the compact black box at Anacostia Arts Center. (Music Director Amy Conley on piano and Rob Gersten and Keven Uleck on percussion are tucked offstage behind a projection screen, but the zingy music they make, with orchestrations by Scott AuCoin, is a perfect fit in the terrifically intimate space.)

There’s a bounty of beautiful voices in the cast. Gracie Jones as Betty/Cynthia is transfixing as she discloses the facets of this complex character with amazing range. William Stephenson, the sly agent who lures Betty back into the spy game (after she has vowed to quit in order to settle down and be a wife), is played masterfully by Jason Hentrich.

“Do I have a choice?” Betty asks Stephenson.

“Of course;” he answers, “live a lie, or on your own terms.” In a fascinating flip, living a lie is presented here as the preferable option. “We have to make choices; live the life / we want or the one others want for us,” Stephenson explains—just one instance of how this original musical reinvents the narrative of a smart woman inventing herself in compromising circumstances.

Betty is betrothed to Arthur Pack, an ambitious career diplomat played to perfunction by a suave and prickly Josh Simon. Cora Wells, a widowed high society matron and Betty’s mother, is played with acerbic smarm by Karen Lange, and Stephenson soon has romantic designs on her. Meanwhile Cora wants very much for Arthur and Betty to wed. But it turns out Arthur is a duped tool of Stephenson’s designs on Betty/Cynthia, and Stephenson sends Pack packing on a mission to Russia to get him out of town

With Betty’s fiancé out of the way, Stephenson hatches a plot whereby Betty/Cynthia is to seduce a press attaché in the Vichy French Embassy named Charles Brouse, played with earnest charm by Chris Oechsel. Once their  tryst in the Wardman Park Hotel starts to simmer, Cynthia needs no further persuading, and a spy’s sort of workplace romance ensues. In short order Charles and Cynthia are joined in a conspiracy to pull off the aforementioned illegal break-in at the Vichy French Embassy in cahoots with an ex-con safe-cracking expert dubbed The Georgia Cracker, played amusingly off-kilter by Russell Silber.

These six historically based characters are complemented by an Ensemble—Beth Amann, Zach Brewster-Geisz, Axle Burtness, Will Hawkins, Christie Jackson, and Kathleen Mason—who play various supporting parts and whose choral work is gorgeous. Lighting Designer Jason Afudem-Brinke rises to the challenge of isolating disparate locations simultaneously on a teensy stage. And Costume Designer Brian J. Shaw lends the show a lovely sense of period  prosperity in an insular world of Washington society comfortably removed from the headlines of warfare that flash onscreen.

A particularly satisfying strength of this musical is the sharp-eyed point of view it takes on the interrelationship between the geopolitical drama raging beyond the stage—the theaters of war—and the romantic/familial/co-conspiritor dramas being played out scene by scene before our eyes. For instance, early on during a cocktail party in Cora’s living room there’s this brittle exchange about whether the United States should enter the war.

ARTHUR [to STEPHENSON]
Bill, what’s your angle on the war; get in or stay out?
CORA
(interrupting) Forgive my children; they’re eager to see more Americans die in a fight that’s none of our business.
BETTY
My mother and Congress, the country’s leading isolationists.

CORA
Respectable people avoid war.
BETTY
Wars aren’t won by respectable methods.

There’s a heck of a lot of narrative that goes by in this show, in scenes stretching over two years between 1940 and 1942, and the urgent imminent sense of history happening is palpable throughout. On-screen slides tell us the exact date and place of each of each of the scenes. (It might help to see not only the dates on screen but the elapsed time, e.g. “November 14, 1941—17 months later.”) Yet the human drama is always front and center, especially the Multers’ extraordinary lyrical and musical revelations about the  inner life of a true unsung U.S. war hero, Amy Elizabeth Thorpe. In her big solo reprise “I Want This Life,” Betty sings:

DONE WITH STAYING SILENT
HIDING MY NAME
NO REGRETS
FOR HOW I’M PLAYING THE GAME
WE ALL HAVE SPECIAL WEAPONS
A KISS / A BED / A KNIFE
WE USE THE GIFTS WE’RE GIVEN
I CHOOSE THIS LIFE
TAKE A BREATH
AND TAKE A STAND
I WANT THIS LIFE
TAKE CONTROL
AND TAKE COMMAND
I WANT THIS LIFE

It takes both good words and good music to make a good musical. But to make a musical great it takes real heart and brains. code name: Cynthia cracks the code on all counts.

Running Time: Two hours 30 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission.

code name: CYNTHIA plays through August 16, 2014 at Anacostia Arts Center – 1231 Good Hope Road, SE, in Washington, DC. Tickets are available at the door and online.  code name: CYNTHIA will also be presented at the Kennedy Center Page to Stage festival (schedule to be announced shortly).