Wind Me Up, Maria!: A Go-Go Musical

by John Stoltenberg

There’s a delectable new musical in town celebrating a distinctive genre of music called Go-Go, and it’s gotta be one of the most go-to fun times to be had in DC right now.

The show is in the splendid Gonda Theater on the campus of Georgetown University. It’s got a massive cast (20!) full of bouncy and rambunctious students. It’s got a huge class-act band of musicians (20!). And it tells a sweet, uplifting story with a socially conscious glint in its eye—all set to a heart-bopping beat with eye-popping design and hip-hopping choreography.

The creative prime movers of this exuberant project are Director Natsu Onoda Power and Charles “Shorty Corleone” Garris, the acclaimed R&B, Soul, and Go-Go singer-musician.

Go-Go is a make-you-get-up-and-dance style of popular music, characterized by can’t-help-but-hollaback call and response. It originated in Washington, DC, in the 1960s and 1970s. I went in knowing nothing about it. The Gonda has a fascinating lobby display that tells the history and highlights the performers who made the phenomenon happen. But it was seeing the show itself—earth’s first  Go-Go musical!—that got me in the groove and made me totally get why Go-Go got its fans.

Turns out Power and Go-Go go back. She knew local legend Chuck Brown, the godfather of Go-Go. Power, one of DC’s most inventive deviser-directors (her War With the Newts and The T Party also left me euphoric), has wanted to create a Go-Go musical for years. Then when Power met Garris, what became Wind Me Up, Maria! began winding up. In the annals of musical theater history, their collaboration has gotta be among the most fortuitous.

The musical’s plot gives a winking nod to The Sound of Music—with a contemporary Georgetown setting instead of Austrian Alps, a multi-ethnic cast instead of Aryan wannabes, and a joint that just can’t stop jumping. Wind Me Up, Maria! has more momentum than a runaway soul train.

Scenic Designer Paige Hathaway paints a DC storefront street scene featuring Ben’s Chili Bowl all in happy hues of red, white, and blue, lit stunningly by Lighting Designer Tobin D. Clark. Costume Designer Frank Labovitz and Sound Designer Sean Craig round out the outstanding creative team.

The band (most of whom are pros) plays from a stage within the stage in the center. There’s a rousing opening number by Shorty Corleone (played by himself) in which the whole cast sings and dances an infectious “Turn off your cellphone” number. Then the storytelling is off and sprinting.

A 22-year-old Georgetown grad named Maria Anacostia (Myiah Sahulga Smith) tells her blogger BF Morgan Adams (Vanessa Chapoy ) that she’s in dire need of employment. Through a former teacher, Professor Sherry Kalorama (Kate Ginna), Maria lands a job as live-in tutor for the six adopted children of Ms. Kay Street (Mar J. Cox). Single-by-choice Ms. Street is a high-powered high-rise construction supervisor whose work takes her to Malawi and elsewhere a lot, so she has a staff of household help. Her well-brought-up kids are a smart, close-knit mix of ethnicities and range in age from 7 to 17—Joseph (Ray Gao), the oldest; Mayfair (Treasure TamikaJoy Rorls); Naylor (Jane Yang); Handle (Hisham Aasim Yusuf); Noma (Claire Derrienic), and Lincoln, the youngest (a scene-stealing Fayeden Stover).

The way Ms. Street wears her politically conscious correctitude on her dress-for-success sleeve never ceases to delight. Her kids, for instance, have been raised to eschew junk food and adore kale chips. Having been cafefully taught in tolerance and self-possession, each introduces themself by their name and pronouns—and one of them is indeed to be called they.

Meanwhile Maria is hit on by a smooth operator named Barnaby “Barn” Woods (David Toledo), who is a promoter at a local Go-Go club. Maria tries to rebuff his unctuous advances, but he gives her his card anyway. The connection comes in handy when Maria starts teaching her charges Go-Go (which excites them no end) and she wants to take them on a field trip to hear Go-Go live. Thereafter Maria and Barnaby begin to get on.

Meanwhile there’s a marvelous parallel subplot involving 17-year-old Joseph, who meets up with a 22-year-old UPS delivery dude, Terrance Shipley (Jonathan Austin Kyle Compo), whom he found on Grindr. Their scenes together capture shy young infatuation as if it’s never been done on stage before. Their tentative choreography on their first tryst cracked me up.

There’s a scene during which Maria preps the kids for their SATs with a musical vocabulary drill on words beginning with A (advocate, abjure, acrimonious…) When later the brainy kids drop those words into conversation with their supermom, the effect is hilarious.

Embedded in the endless unfolding of witty writing and visual, musical, and choreographic invention are some worthy little life lessons, like “Learn your culture, make a connection.” And during a scene in Act Two that recaps the way drug violence and gentrification endangered the Go-Go music scene back in the day, the kids exult in unison, “Go-Go isn’t dangerous, people are dangerous!”

The cumulative effect of the talented headcount in his show has to be seen and heard to be believed. Suffice it to say, the Ensemble sing and dance their hearts out (Yemi Benyame, Gabriel Berkowitz, Anne Marie Huntington, KC Pietro, Izaiah Cole, Chyna Wooten, Devin Hawkins). And under the musical direction of Charles Garris, the band keeps on going like this dance party’s never gonna stop (Stanley Cooper, guitar; Darien Towns, bass; Tamika Harris-Russell, vocals; Mark Lawson, Jamal Orr, Derek Page, and Darrin X, keyboards; LeAngeto Jacobs and Don Juan Staggs, drums; Larnell Carr and Milton Freeman, congas; Quentin Ivy, timbales; Elena Plaenefisch and Paul Rochford, saxophone;  Kym Clark, Ernesto Camacho, and Taylor Green, trumpet; Michael Taylor, trombone; James Khoury, sousaphone).

Wind Me Up, Maria! is not only a sensational homage to a music genre that deserves a resurgence. It’s also an exquisite instance of American musical theater inspired by a unique, authentic, and locally grown musical idiom.

Wind Me Up, Maria! is a family-friendly show for kids of all ages that does Disney one better.

Running Time: Approximately two hours, including a 15-minute intermission.

Wake Me Up, Maria! A Go-Go Musical plays through November 12, 2016, at at the Davis Performing Center’s Gonda Theatre at Georgetown University – 37th & O Streets NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, purchase them online.

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