Angelina Reaux settled into a chair in the lobby of her downtown hotel last week to chat before heading out to do her Christmas shopping. Her German cabaret, "Songs and Deadly Sins," at Studio through Jan. 2, is an evening of vividly theatrical songs by Kurt Weill and his lesser-known contemporaries.
"Every night I feel like I have a present to give to the audience," said Reaux, warming to her subject. "They have no idea of the variety of the music--the richness." Almost all of the composers and lyricists to whose work she lends her supple lyric soprano in German and English were Jews whose work was judged "decadent" by the Nazis.
Whether it's Weill and Brecht's tragic-romantic "Surabaya Johnny" (English lyrics by Marc Blitzstein) or the sneakily political "Ich bin ein Vamp! (I'm a Vamp!)" by Mischa Spoliansky and Marcellus Schiffer, or any of the 27 songs she sings in "Deadly Sins," Reaux said, the pleasure for her lies in constant rediscovery. "As a performer they attract me because of the unending musical and theatrical possibilities. Every night I perform them in a different way."
Reaux's family moved to Maryland from Texas when she was 15, and she graduated from Churchill High School in Potomac. Her mother sees to it, the singer said, that posters advertising her recordings (most recently Robert Rodriguez's chamber opera, "Frida," about artist Frida Kahlo) are visible in the classical sections of Borders and Tower Records in Rockville.
Reaux broke into musical theater in the early 1980s. Literally. One night at the Kennedy Center during the first national tour of "Sweeney Todd," she shattered both ankles sliding down the chute from the barber's chair after Sweeney "killed" her. A two-year convalescence gave her time to decide she wanted to study and perform opera. She worked with Leonard Bernstein on several recordings, from "La Boheme" to "West Side Story." Though still singing opera, concertizing and recording, when Reaux misses the intimacy of theater, she performs her cabarets of German, French, Spanish or American songs. On Feb. 14, Valentine's Day, she'll perform love songs by Weill at Lincoln Center in honor of the hundredth anniversary of his birth.
American Century Theater was all set to start rehearsals for "Clarence Darrow," the David Rintels play that was such a sturdy vehicle for Henry Fonda late in his career. Paul Morella was to play the lawyer, whom artistic director Jack Marshall last week described as "one of the absolutely unique intellects of the 20th century."
Then Marshall learned that Samuel French, the script licensing agency, was unable to grant the rights. It seems that actor Leslie Nielsen of "Naked Gun," "Police Squad" and "Airplane!" fame has been touring in "Clarence Darrow" in the West and South. He and his producer exercised their option of refusing the rights to professional theaters that planned to do the play concurrently, Marshall said. He tried talking to "Nielsen's people." No luck.
Still fascinated by the subject matter, Marshall and his people, director Terry Kester and actor Morella, decided to tackle Darrow on their own, creating a work-in-progress focused primarily on the lawyer's celebrated courtroom arguments. "The best parts of the Rintels play were Darrow's own summaries, like the summary in the Leopold-Loeb case, or the cross-examination of William Jennings Bryan from the Scopes Monkey Trial," Marshall said. "We're trying to decide what the best balance is between the summaries, the speeches, the cross-examinations. There clearly will be much more of them in this play than in the play we can't do. And that I think is to the good."
What's emerging in American Century's "I Cry Aloud: The Clarence Darrow Story," Marshall said, is a much darker character: "He's got a lot of wit; he's a much angrier character; he's a real lawyer, and it comes through." It opens Jan. 14 at the Gunston Arts Center in Arlington.
Words, Words, Words
Smaller roles can have their advantages. Actor Bill Largess had a lot of time offstage when he played Horatio in "Hamlet" recently at the Folger Elizabethan Theatre. He used it to memorize "St. Nicholas," Conor McPherson's tasty one-character play about a dyspeptic theater critic. A co-production of Washington Stage Guild and Source, "St. Nicholas" plays at Source's 14th Street NW space through Jan. 4.
This is the first one-person show for Largess. "I have always been able to learn pretty quickly," he said last week of the legendary (at least among his theater peers) Largess memory. He has forgetfulness down pat, too. "When the show closes, within a month, I can't remember any of the lines," he said. The only exception he noted is Shaw's epic-length "Man and Superman," which he can't seem to dump.
Largess's critic character in "St. Nicholas" recalls a huge lapse in his professional ethics, followed by a drunken binge and an extended encounter with vampires. The actor believes that creepy story may explain the play's puzzling title. "In England and Ireland [McPherson is an Irish playwright], there is this long tradition of people telling ghost stories and scary stories on Christmas night," he said. Perhaps this is the critic's holiday parable.
Everything about performing "St. Nicholas" has been a treat for the actor. Well, almost everything. "The only thing that's a little strange about it is the dressing room is very boring before the show," Largess said. "I'm used to having a lot of people to talk with."
* Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company will offer a pay-what-you-can preview of "Stop Kiss" Monday and Tuesday, Jan. 10 and 11. Holly Twyford and Rhea Seehorn will star in Diana Son's play about a straight woman who suddenly falls in love with another woman and how the two of them become the targets of a violent attack. Tickets will go on sale at the door at 6:30 p.m., with a limit of two per person. Call 202-393-3939.
* Arena Stage still has seats for a special New Year's Eve performance of "Guys and Dolls," starring Maurice Hines. The later (9 p.m.) curtain time will lead the audience right up to the midnight hour, which they'll toast with the cast. They'll also receive souvenirs with champagne and chocolate. Tickets are $100. Call 202-488-3300.
* Also on New Year's Eve at the Studio Theatre, Angelina Reaux will perform a different sort of music than her Kurt Weill-and-contemporaries cabaret. "Round Midnight: An American Songbook," at 7 and 10 p.m., features music of Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Johnny Mercer, Stephen Sondheim, Leonard Bernstein and contemporary composer (and Reaux's accompanist here) Ricky Ian Gordon. Tickets are $50 and include a champagne toast. Call 202-332-3300.
CAPTION: Angelina Reaux performs "Songs and Deadly Sins" at Studio Theatre.
CAPTION: Lawyer Clarence Darrow, left, with William Jennings Bryan, is examined in American Century Theater's "I Cry Aloud."