BWW Review: THE WHITE SNAKE at Center Stage's Renovated Head Theatre is a Delight

As patrons entered the gorgeous new Head Theatre, rising up from a trap door standing erect, a la Len Cariou did as SWEENEY TODD in the original Broadway production, came Managing Director Michael Ross who welcomed the audience.

Ross then explained why he was doing the introduction. Due to an ear infection, Baltimore Center Stage's Artistic Director Kwame Kwei-Armah was unable to see his choice for the reopening of the "new" 400 seat Head Theatre with Mary Zimmerman's WHTE SNAKE. Kwei-Armah is in Birmingham, England to direct his musical play MARLEY making its UK premiere which opens March 10. It has been renamed ONE LOVE: THE Bob Marley MUSICAL. A nice video was used so Kwei-Armah could welcome theater-goers which was followed by members of the cast of ONE LOVE waving hello via video from England.

One has to give Kwei-Armah the "Chutzpah of the Year Award" to open the Head with such an eclectic piece of theater written by the Tony-winning author of METAMORPHOSES (which I had the good fortune to see on Broadway, swimming pool and all). According to Kwei-Armah, "We chose Mary Zimmerman's adaptation of THE WHITE SNAKE ...because it is a visually stunning piece. I know our audiences will be swept away with delight." I could not agree more!! Zimmerman actually traveled to Baltimore to see the show from her home base in Chicago.

How is one to describe this ancient Chinese fable? Well, thanks to my wife Lisa who suggested that it is similar to the story that Walt Disney used in his film "The Little Mermaid" (and later turned into a Broadway show) since it concerns a non-human (in this case a snake) who attempts to see what life is like to try life as a woman.

I must admit that I'm like the Harrison Ford character in the "Indiana Jones" film whose famous line is "I hate snakes!" But, you have never met more lovable snakes than "White Snake" (Aime Donna Kelly) and her comedic side-kick "Green Snake" (Eileen Rivera).

The play opens, the snakes decide to leaving their mountain top to see what life is like below. By using clever puppets with sticks (designed by Andre "Dre" Moore), the snakes transform themselves into lovely maidens (wonderful costumes by Nicole Wee). "White snake" becomes Lady Bai and falls in love with a penniless pharmacist's assistant, Xu Xian (Joe Ngo). Lady Bai is successful at charming Xian, manages to get money to help Xian open his own pharmacy, becomes pregnant, and life seems fine until the requisite villain "Fai Hai" (Peter Van Wagner) informs Xian that lady Bai is in truth a demon.

What really propels the totally enjoyment of the experience is the incredible music played by the four piece orchestra lead by Music Director Song (composer, actor-musician), and included Jason Kao Hwang, Actor-Musician, Composer (violin/viola), Yukio Tsuji, Actor-Musician/Composer (shakuhachi, percussion), and Joshua Ziemann, Actor-Musician/Composer (marimba/percussion). The music was so beautiful and different. If you listen closely, you will hear the theme of Henry Mancini's "Peter Gunn" and violin sounding similar to French jazz violinist Jean Luc-Ponty.

The success of the production, beautifully directed by Nafsu Onoda Power, is the seven talented ensemble of actors, many of them playing narrators: Caitlin Cisco, Samy el-Noury, Lucy Lavely, Brett Messiara, Pooya Mohseni, Linden Tailor, and Damian Thompson. Thompson I recall in MARLEY and he shines opening Act II playing a Stag with horns leading a rock song as "Stag Spirit". The audience loved it.

Power has assembled an incredible design team and they truly excel: Hana S. Kim (Scenic and Projection Design), Rui Rita (Lighting Design) Alex Hawthorn (Sound Design), Tommy Kurzman (Hair, Wig, and Make-up Design).

But it is the four leads who truly make WHITE SNAKE so spectacular.

Eileen Rivera has incredible comedic timing at "Green Snake".

Noe Ngo is superb as the naive Xu Xian.

Peter Van Wagner excels as the villain Fa Hai.

And finally, the talented and charming Aime Donna Kelly as "White Snake" has the smile that could launch a thousand ships. She will remind you of the Tony-winner Audra MacDonald. She has a great future in store for her.

Again, I must compliment Kwei-Armah for bringing Zimmerman's classic play to the Baltimore/Washington market.

It's also great to see so many Asian actors back at Center Stage for the first time since David Guterson's SNOW FALLING ON CEDARDS in spring of 2011.

For a nice article about the renovation at Center Stage, see Baltimore Sun columnist Tim Smith's article in the Feb. 24 edition of their WKND section, p. 13.

Get to the theater early to read the program filled with interesting background about the show by Dramaturg Deanie Vallone.

Next at Center Stage is TWISTED MELODIES written and performed by Kelvin Roston directed by Derrick Sanders running March 17 to April 16. The show is based on the life of '70s soul singer and composer Donny Hathaway.

The season ends with JAZZ by Nambi E. Kelley Directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah and based on the book by Toni Morrison. It runs May 19 to June 25.

WHITE SNAKE closes March 26, 2017. For tickets, call 410-332-0033 or visit Bring the family!

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From This Author Charles Shubow

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