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Review: DEBBIE ALLEN'S FREEZE FRAME…STOP THE MADNESS at Kennedy Center Takes on Gun Violence with Both Barrels

Debbie Allen, Clinton Derricks and the cast of Freeze Frame...Stop the Madness. Photo courtesy of the production.

An epidemic of senseless gun violence and police brutality is sweeping through the United States. Trayvon Martin and Freddie Grey are two of the more famous examples of this. Award winning actress, choreographer, and writer Debbie Allen takes a no holds barred look at this all too hot topic in her theatrical/dance/ multimedia extravaganza Freeze Frame...Stop the Madness. I always knew that Debbie Allen was a force of nature as an actress in any show she's in and this show is no exception. She plays a few roles, but is also the director, choreographer, and writer. This is one of the first times I have actually seen that working scenario prove successful as one person usually can't do it all.

Freeze Frame...Stop the Madness grabs the audience right out of the box. The first projection sequence shows a youth in a convenience store right after he gunned down the owner. When the owner - with his last breath - tries to trigger the silent alarm to alert the police, the youth shoots him again.

The interwoven storylines tell the tales of why today's youth, particularly in urban settings, are compelled to make some bad choices and ultimately end up doing the wrong thing. For starters we have the Washington family. There's Bishop Washington and his wife (Clinton Derricks and Debbie Allen) who have built a giant congregation. Their son, David Or "Moon," (Matthew Johnson) doesn't go for his parents' whole megachurch approach. He prefers to concentrate on the religion and not blur the lines between that and show business. David is a street rapper who got his nickname from "glowing" when he raps. There's also Eleo (Hunter Krikac) a deaf graffiti artist. He doesn't speak and paints the pain he still feels after losing his mother and sister in a drive-by shooting. His grandmother Rosanna (also played by Allen) is the oldest person ever to join a gang because she feels a need for protection. She even packs her own heat. You have Jimmy "The Collector" (William Wingfield) who is the classic angry youth from an abusive family. There's also Eartha Dolphin or "Dancin' Snack (Ms. Allen's daughter Vivian Nixon) whose mother is an addict. Eartha has a chance to go to Alvin Ailey to study dance in New York, but she doesn't know if she can leave her mother. Her teacher Ms. Belinda (Olivia Diane Joseph) says she has to go if she doesn't want to end up like her mom and waste her talent as a dancer. There are more stories just like these, but you get the idea.

The show is wall to wall music and Allen has assembled an all-star group of composers and musicians, including Wally Minko and Arturo Sandoval, to help set her lyrics. Rickey Minor serves as musical director and he also co- orchestrated the show (and composed a few songs) with Thump and Wally Minko. Vocal arrangements are by Angel Hart, Infrared Ink, James Ingram and yes, Debbie Allen. (Man, she did everything but build sets.)

The driving title song is scored by Thump (Ms Allen's son), and Ms. Allen has a co-music credit. Again, is there anything this woman can't do? Other musical highlights include Grammy Award winner James Ingram's high energy church song "Jesus is on the Line," performed by the fantaboulous Clinton Derricks. The only thing missing with this number is a definite finish. The song just fades into the next scene leaving Derricks without the ovation he should be getting.

Another musical highlight is Allen's solo "The Quiet Man" - another music collaboration with her son Thump. The song is a grandmother's poignant love letter to the grandson who can't hear her love for him. If you only know Debbie Allen as a TV actress, here's your chance to see her the way I first did back in 1980. I think your positive reaction will match what mine was too.

Vivian Nixon pulls you in with her looks and talent as Eartha. Her solo turns "Ain't Nuthin Easy About It" and "LOST" (music by Ingram) are definite highlights and her characterization makes your heart drop.

As David, Matthew Johnson gets the privilege of performing "Girl Goddess." The composer is someone you might have heard of...the one and only Stevie Wonder. Now that's a good performing gig for Johnson. His rap skills are killer as well.

Kudos go to Allen's ensemble for being able to act and dance so brilliantly and really make the group scenes and numbers land perfectly. One big example of this is the "Stop The Madness Conversation," which is sort of a town hall type of scene. It shows both sides of the gun violence argument and how some feel there isn't nearly enough being done to stop it.

Michael Scott-Mitchell's minimalistic set pieces enhance Allen's vision perfectly while John Rayment's lighting adds plenty of energy to the driving music throughout the production.

I have to bring up the fact there were several missed microphone pickups at my performance however. To be honest, this was a big surprise to me because it's one of the things I do for a living. If this were a community theatre in small town America, I'd be way more forgiving, but at the Kennedy Center and with this level of talent onstage, there is simply no excuse.

Freeze Frame...Stop the Madness helmed by Debbie Allen is one of those shows you NEED to take time out of your weekend to see. The message is so relevant and the way the story is told isn't preachy or one-sided. The ensemble kicks the material into high gear and holds us the whole show. The music and dance are stunning and Allen's work in all departments is a crowning achievement in her long distinguished career. Take a couple of hours with the family and go see one of the more important pieces of theatre to come through DC in a while. The music and dance will give you an energized boost. The story will leave you talking about what you can do. Either way you win.

Running Time: One Hour and 40 minutes with no intermission.

Freeze Frame...Stop the Madness runs through Oct 30th 2016 at The Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theatre which is located at 2700 F St NW, Washington, DC. For tickets, click here.

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