Review: Side Show at Dundalk Community Theatre

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

Running Time: Approx. 2 hours a 15-minute intermission

Lindsey Litka, Ana Lane, and Peter N. Crews. Credit: Trent Haines-Hopper

What is a freak? Does it have to do with physicality? Does it have to do with a lifestyle? Who knows? We’re all different in our own ways and some people have something a little extra or special that makes them “freaks.” It’s almost hard to believe, but not too long ago, you could pay anywhere between 10 cents and 25 cents to just take a peek at these different folks to appease your darkest curiosities. Dundalk Community Theatre’s latest offering, Side Show, with Book and Lyrics by Bill Russell and Music by Henry Krieger, and Directed by Robert W. Oppel, with Music Direction by Rebecca Rossello and Choreography by Vincent Musgrave, gives us a glimpse into the lives of two of the most famous freaks, the Siamese twins known as The Hilton Sisters.

In a nutshell, Side Show concerns itself with the Hilton Sisters, a Siamese twin act that garnered some success in the 1930s. It goes through their trying life from birth through one of their last great performances and profiles the people and legal guardians used them and felt as they “owned” them because of their disability. It comments on the fact that the “freaks”, offstage, are just people trying to make it in a world that doesn’t understand them and the sisters realize though they are lonely, they are never alone.

Marc W. Smith does it, once again, with his phenomenal Set Design, Lighting Design, and Sound Design. I don’t think anyone knows this space better than Smith, and his work on this production confirms this assumption. Smith decides to go with a unit set with various levels that takes up the entire stage and serves for various locations for the story. It fits perfectly with the theme of the production, overall, and his attention to detail is second to none. His light and sound design are appropriate as they are subtle and blend in with the action to not take away attention which makes for an intelligent design.

Josh Schoff, Ryan Wagner, Ana Lane, and Lindsey Litka. Credit: Trent Haines-Hopper

This production can be challenging to a Costume Designer, but Deanna Brill has steps up to the plate and knocks it out of the park. With costuming being such an important aspect of this piece and with so many unique and varied characters including The Dog Boy (Dorian Smith), The Albino Woman (Tammy Oppel), Lizard Man (Seth Saunders), and Half Man/Half Woman (Vincent Musgrave), it had to be precise and Brill has managed to gather a wardrobe that rivals professional productions. Her attention to detail is apparent and she brings each character to life carefully and beautifully. Not only are the freaks costumes amazing, but she has brilliantly costumed the Hilton Sisters from dowdy and frumpy dresses, to flashy stage costumes, to elegant gowns to help progress their story. Brill’s hard work is evident and kudos to her for a job very well done.

Side Show doesn’t call for a ton of dancing, but there are certainly show-within-a-show numbers sprinkled throughout and Choreographer Vincent Musgrave has created energized and engaging routines that are a delight to watch, particularly the organized tangling of “Stuck With You” and the rousting “Ready to Play.”

Music Direction by Rebecca Rossello is on point and under her direction, this cast sounds absolutely beautiful. Rossello has a good grasp on this material and presents it commendably and her work with the featured vocalists is top notch. Unfortunately, the orchestra members are not listed in the program, but it’s worth mentioning these folks are spot on, as well. This unnamed orchestra performs this sweeping score effortlessly and all should be proud and applauded for their hard work and efforts.

Lindsey Litka and Ana Lane. Credit: Trent Haines-Hopper

Robert W. Oppel takes the reigns of Direction of this piece and his work is to be applauded and praised. Oppel has a great comprehension of this material and presents it superbly. He understands the message of acceptance and family and guides this company to tell a clear and polished story. His staging is precise with transitions that are seamless making for a smooth flow. His casting couldn’t be better and he has managed to create a world for the audience to step into and apart of making for a thoughtful and charming evening at the theatre. He gives a praiseworthy effort and is to be commended for his work.

Moving on to the performance aspect of this piece, it’s worth mentioning the entire ensemble gives 100% and does his or her part to create a successful production. Dorian Smith is charming as the soft and caring Houdini and Rowena Winkler is impressive as the energized and mystical  Fortune Teller, to name a couple. The chemistry is solid with this ensemble and together they create a loving family of “different” folks or “freaks” who care for and help each other.

As Sir, the sleazy, selfish legal guardian of the Hilton Sisters, Peter N. Crews gives an admirable performance. Vocally, he’s not a powerhouse, which makes the opening number “Come Look at the Freaks” a little lackluster but what he lacks in vocals he makes up for in character. His portrayal of this vile man is on point and he has you stirred up from the get. He works well with and off of his cast mantes and has a strong presence and is comfortable on stage making for a worthy performance, overall.

(l-r) Lindsey Litka, Ana Lane, Troy Haines-Hopper, and Josh Schoff. Credit: Trent Haines-Hopper

Ryan Wagner portrays Terry Conner and Josh Schoff takes on the role of Buddy Foster, the “love” interests for the Hilton Sisters. Schoff does well with his part but, overall, his performance falls a little flat for me. He seems to be just going through motions and is scripted and a little stiff through most of the performance. He has a lovely voice and does well, vocally, as well as with the choreography as in such numbers as “Stuck with You” and “One Plus One Equals Three.” Overall, he is comfortable on stage and gives a confident, decent performance. The stronger performer is Ryan Wagner who performs Terry Conner authentically with a steady, natural delivery of the lines and smooth, booming voice that resonates throughout the theatre. He embodies this character and portrays his conflict of wanting what’s best for himself and what’s best for the woman he might love. Wagner gives a strong showing in this role and is to be commended for his efforts.

A highlight of this production is Troy Haines-Hopper, who tackles the role of Jake, a fellow former side show exhibit with the Hilton Sisters, and their protector. Haines-Hopper completely embodies this character and pulls him off naturally and with purpose. He’s comfortable in the role and it shows with his ease with the delivery of the dialogue and his chemistry with his cast mates. Vocally, Haines-Hopper gives an excellent performance, especially in his featured numbers, the upbeat, gospel-inspired “The Devil You Know” and the poignant, heart-wrenching “You Should Be Loved.”

The definite standouts of this piece are Ana Lane as Violet and Lindsey Litka as Daisy, the Hilton Sisters themselves. If you’re familiar with the piece, you’ll know these are tricky roles and you have to work very closely with your co-star… physically and figuratively. This doesn’t seem to intimidate these two able and apt actresses, in the least. These two actresses give phenomenal performances of two very unique characters. Lane’s portrayal of the more conservative, subdued sister, Violet, is flawless and she seems to have a good understanding of this character and her motivations while Litka’s portrayal of the more outgoing, overbearing sister is on point and authentic in every way with a vocal belt that is extraordinary. Both Lane and Litka have voices I could listen to for days and they’re strong and confident as their smooth, velvet voices ring throughout the theatre in such numbers as the touching “Who Will Love Me as I Am?” and the heart-felt, driving “I Will Never Leave You,” touching the hearts of every audience member. Lane and Litka are ones to watch in this production and you don’t want to miss them performing these roles.

Final thought…Side Show is a poignant story about two people who were used and abused by just about everyone with whom they crossed paths, but still prevailed. It’s a story of survival and the love of two sisters who depended on and helped each other with the cards they were dealt in life. This is a rarely produced show and Dundalk Community Theatre gives us a polished, engaging, and well put-together production with a splendid talent that not only gives a glimpse into a real-life story, but entertains as well. There’s only one weekend left and this is not a show you want to miss this season. Get your tickets now!

This is what I thought of Dundalk Community Theatre’s production of Side Show… What did you think? Please feel free to leave a comment!

Side Show will run through March 18 at Dundalk Community Theatre, CCBC Dundalk Campus, College Community Center, John E. Ravekes Theatre. For tickets call the box office at 443-840-ARTS (2787) or purchase them online.

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Review: Detroit ’67 at The Strand Theatre

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

Running Time: Approx. 2 hours and 20 minutes with one intermission

Some of us are lucky to come from close knit families and they are important parts of our lives. Brothers and sisters the world over have a special bond, sometimes they like each other, sometimes they hate each other, sometimes they don’t understand each other, and sometimes they’re on the exact same page. If you are fortunate enough (or, at times, unfortunate enough) to have a sibling, you know they never cease to amaze whether it be for the good or for the bad. The Strand Theatre’s latest offering, Detroit ‘67 by Dominique Morisseau, Directed by Erin Riley gives us a glimpse into the lives of an African-American brother-sister relationship amidst the strife and change of late 60s Detroit. Part of a trilogy including Skelton Crew and Blue Paradise, Morisseau manages to capture the authenticity of these people and their times in both dialogue and storyline. With the addition of all the great music of the time from The Temptations to Mary Wells to Marvin Gay, this piece promotes a certain nostalgia that makes for a charming evening of theatre.

Shamire Casselle as Chelle and Mack Leamon as Sly. Credit: The Strand Theatre

Detroit ‘67, as the title states, concerns itself with happenings in Detroit, Michigan during the year 1967. Chelle and Lank, sister and brother, try to earn some extra money by opening up their basement as an after-hours joint and everything is running smoothly, if not under the legal radar. One evening, a hurt, broken woman with a mysterious past finds herself into Lank and Chelle’s home and lives and soon the brother and sister are arguing over more than after-hours “business.” Just as their bottled up feelings explode, so does Detroit and they find themselves stuck right in the middle of the Detroit riots of 1967.

Brian Douglas’ Set Design and David Cunningham’s Scenic Art is superb, to say the least. Walking into the theatre, one is transported to a basement of an average home in Detroit and the attention to detail is amazing. From the staircase leading to “upstairs” to the concrete façade on the back wall, including two highly placed windows, places the audience into the action and adds great value to the production. Douglas uses his intimate space wisely and Cunningham, with the help of the script, gives us little touches here and there such as an old painting of a 6 year old adds authenticity to the entire setting. Kudos to Douglas and Cunningham on jobs quite well done.

Lighting Design by Lana Riggins and Sound Design by Carlos Guillen are also stellar adding realism to the piece, as a whole. A good light and sound design are not very noticeable and do not take away from the action, but, instead, blend into the action and this is exactly what Riggins and Guillen have accomplished. The script calls for a hefty sound design as is, with music and songs from the era, but the added effects that are chosen fit in flawlessly and with the lights and sound working in tandem moving the story along, it makes for a well put-together design.

Rachel D. Reckling as Bunny. Credit: The Strand Theatre

When it comes to an overall look of a piece, this era, the 60s, is one of my favorites to experience. With so much fashion and cutting edge designs (for the time), costuming for this period can be daunting but Costume Design by Lori Travis hits the nail on the head. Each character seems to have stepped right out of a late 60s closet but all look totally natural in their threads. Finding period costuming for gentlemen isn’t necessarily easy, but it’s a little easier to find pants and shirts for guys than it is to find particular period styles for the ladies. However, Travis has done it in this piece, especially for the character of Bunny, who seems to be on top of the fashions of the day, and every outfit she appears in is on point. All of the costume choices made for this production are spot on and realistic adding a great deal of value to the entire production.

Erin Riley takes the helm of this production of Detroit ‘67 as Director and it’s clear she has a great comprehension of this piece and understands the material quite well. Her staging is terrific and her casting couldn’t have been better for this particular production. She has a good grasp on the message of family and compromise in this piece and presents it beautifully on this stage. Through her guidance and Morisseau’s script, it makes for a delightful, emotional evening of theatre with peaks and valleys that are required for a great show.

Betse Lyons as Caroline and Troy Jennings as Lank. Credit: The Strand Theatre

Moving on to the performance aspect of this piece, we being with Rachel D. Reckling as Bunny and Mack Leamon as Sly. Both of these actors know their characters and portray them genuinely with little flaw. Reckling is comfortable as Bunny, the fast-talking, quit witted go-to girl of the neighborhood. Though her lack of eye contact can be distracting at times, disconnecting her with her fellow cast mates, her performance, overall, is commendable. She gives just the right amount of attitude, sass, and compassion as required, making her a very likeable character. Leamon, too, is confidant and comfortable in his role as the laid back, helpful best friend and he completely embodies this character. He has a strong presence and gives a great showing making him a character to whom the audience wants to be pals and can relate.

Caroline, the mysterious outsider who has, by a strange fateful meeting, finds herself engrossed in the lives of Chelle and Lank, is played ably by Betse Lyons. Lyons does quite well in this role and seems to have a good grasp of what her character is going through. She portrays the beaten and broken Caroline beautifully, if not a little too timid. The character is afraid for herself and for her new friends but many times, it was hard to follow along with Lyons as she stuttered and mumbled her way through a lot of her lines. However, that’s not to say her performance was bad because it most certainly was not. She’s comfortable on stage and her presence is strong making for an admirable performance, overall.

A certain highlight of this production is Troy Jennings who tackles the role of Lank, a young man just trying to make his way in life who is tired of making ends meet through different odd jobs and wants something stable for himself and his family and friends. Jennings takes this part and makes it his own. He emotes the conflict in Lank and his ideas of what is right and wrong. His chemistry with his cast mates is natural and he moves and speaks with purpose delivering the dialogue as if he were simply holding a conversation, adding legitimacy to his performance, especially in his scenes with Shamire Casselle.

Speaking of Shamire Casselle, she is a standout in this piece as Chelle, the worrying, older sister who likes things the way they are and is resistant to change, but understands it’s inevitable. Casselle is superb in her portrayal of this character. Her ability to show the emotions of her character from happy to upset to angry is spot on. Right away, she is able to connect with her audience making her and endearing character. She gives a solid, robust, and charming performance that makes her one to watch. I’m looking forward to seeing more of Casselle’s work in the future.

Final thought… Detroit ‘67 is a nostalgic and poignant look at a bygone era when the music was great and people helped each other, when in need. Dominique Morisseau has crafted a beautiful piece incorporating humor, tenderness, high emotion, and humanity that crosses time and space. The story takes place in the late 60s and concerns itself with subjects of family, racial tensions, and blurred lines between the races, but it is still quite relevant today. The production is one of the best I’ve seen this season (so far) from the set, to the staging, to the performances, this is not a show you want to miss this season. Get your tickets now, while they last!

This is what I thought of The Strand Theatre’s production of Detroit ‘67… What did you think? Please feel free to leave a comment!

Detroit ‘67 will play through November 18 at The Strand Theatre, 5426 Harford Road, Baltimore, MD. For tickets, call the box office at 443-874-4917 or you can purchase them online.

Email us at backstagebaltimore@gmail.com

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Review: My Fair Lady at Third Wall Productions

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes with one intermission

Having been born and raised in Baltimore as well as having had the opportunity to do some traveling, I’ve heard “You can take the boy out of Baltimore, but you can’t take Baltimore out of the boy,” and I couldn’t agree more. Is it possible to transform someone by just changing the outside? My Fair Lady, with Book and Lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner and Music by Frederick Lowe, Directed by Thomas Rendulic and Music Direction by Daniel Plante, concerns itself with this very sentiment and through memorable, now standard tunes, tries to answer the question.

The cast of My Fair Lady at Third Wall Productions. Credit: Amy Rudai

Based on George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion, My Fair Lady tells the story of Miss Eliza Doolittle, a flower girl in the East End of London who grew up poor and stayed there. By a chance encounter, Henry Higgins, a professor of phonetics, is intrigued by her heavy cockney accent. He bets his new friend, Colonel Pickering, a linguist himself, that he could turn a lowly, cockney flower girl into a lady, or at least pass her off as one, through improving her speech and appearance. Through the process, Eliza comes into her own and realizes she has what she needs to rise above her station and, by a strange twist of fate, might be able to find love as well.

Pat Rudai’s and Jordan Hollett’s Set Design is fitting, if not a bit too much for this space. The attention to detail is on point and transport the audience into the scene nicely, but its flaw is that it does make for some clunky scene changes that could be fixed with a simpler design that would make a different, but equivalent impact. This design is perfect for a static set, but since there are a number of scene changes, it causes some problems. This isn’t to say it doesn’t look good, because it most decidedly does, but because of the amount of set, it hindered the pacing and flow of the piece.

Lighting Design by Jim Shomo and Sound Design by Charles Hirsch are simple but effective in setting the mood for each scene. Shomo doesn’t give us flashy light shows but wisely keeps it subtle with small shifts of lights and levels and seamless transitions.

The cast of My Fair Lady at Third Wall Productions. Credit: Amy Rudai

Amy Rudai’s Costume Design is impeccable. This is a classic piece, as mentioned, and these older shows require a lot of specific costuming and Rudai has shown she is up to the task. The contrast between the upper crust and the lower class is clear and Eliza Doolittle’s transition from low class to upper crust is beautifully presented. Each character’s costume is individualized and the ensemble is comfortable and seems at ease which makes for a very good design. Kudos to Amy Rudai for a job well done.

Daniel Plante is to be applauded for his Music Direction of this production. Though some of the featured numbers could have been presented better, Plante can’t be blamed for the performance of a song. The score, however, needs to be snipped up a bit. These older shows tend to run long, which is fine, but with today’s general audience, it be a bit daunting, do-able, but daunting. As Music Director, he has a say in what is to be cut, if anything, and what is to be kept in place. The scene change music went way too long (thought they needed it because of the tedious set changes, so, they get a pass for this… kind of) and the overture and entr’acte could have been trimmed down to save a few minutes, at least. Overall, the harmonies are very tight and the ensemble is very well-rehearsed and are absolute joy to hear.

I’d also like to take a moment to give a hearty shout out to an amazing orchestra consisting of: Andrew Zile – Condutor; Susan Marie Beck, Katie Davis, Patricia Dick, and Heather Keller – Violin; David Vinson – Viola; Alice Brown and Sharon Aldouby – Cello; Ruth Vadi – Bass; Merrell Weiss – Flute; Matt Elky and Dan Longo – Clarinett; Mary Haaser and David Silberber – Oboe/French Horn; Dick McClure and Gordon Uchenick – Bassoon; Joe Beddard, Pete Lawson, and Steve Mantegna – Trumpet; Beryl Flynn – Horn; Mike Allman and Tony Settineri – Trombone; Danny Eldred – Tuba; and Ed Berlett – Piano. Well done, ladies and gentlemen… well done, indeed!

Jessica Preactor as Eliza Doolittle. Credit: Emma Thompson

Thomas Rendulic takes the reigns of this production and though, overall, it is a polished, nicely-presented production, it does have its weaknesses. It seems Rendulic has a good comprehension of this piece and his staging is very good with very little fault (such as a lot of what I call “Stand and Bark” where an actor performs a song front and center with little to no movement or direction), but the character development doesn’t seem completely apparent. For instance, Alfred P. Doolittle is arguably the funniest character in this piece but, unfortunately, most of his character and comedic parts are lost. The comedy, overall, does seem to be lacking in this piece and this is because it’s either lost on Rendulic or the actors were not given enough explanation and/or direction. Some very humorous sections of this piece were skimmed over or not emphasized enough, for my liking, and it had to do with timing which is of the utmost importance when dealing with comedy. However, directing a well-known, older piece such as My Fair Lady is quite a responsibility and no small feat and Rendulic has definitely stood up to the task. Breathing new life into a familiar piece is quite difficult, I realize that, but it certainly can be done. This particular production is a bit stale being presented as-is and traditional, instead of a new and fresh presentation. Of course, the familiar and traditional sits well with lots of theatre goers so, if that’s what Rendulic is going for, kudos!

Moving on to the performance aspect of this piece I’d like to mention that the entire Ensemble gives 100% effort and is energized. As mentioned before, the harmonies are tight and all give confident, strong performances, especially the Male Quartet consisting of Michael Mullis, James Rittner, Frederick Frey, and B Ever Hanna.

To mention a few, I’ll begin with Forest Deal, who takes on the role of Alfred Doolittle. Deal looks great in the part but, though his performance is consistent, it doesn’t quite hit the mark. The aforementioned comedy just falls flat and this character is usually a riot. This is a fast-talking, high energy character, but Deal’s portrayal doesn’t quite match. Again, he’s consistent and gets his lines out but there doesn’t seem to be any “oomph” behind them. Vocally, he can carry the tune nicely, as in “A Little Bit of Luck,” but, again, that energy and urgency isn’t there. That’s not to say he does a horrible job, though. He seems to have a good grasp on the character and is comfortable on stage and he does make the character endearing and likeable.

A couple of other supporting but very important characters in this piece are Colonel Pickering, played by Patrick Martyn and Freddy Eynsford-Hill, portrayed by Kevin James Logan. Martyn, as Colonel Pickering is well cast and understands his character quite well and portrays him as the kind, gentle man he is while holding his own, vocally, as in featured number such as “You Did It” and “A Hymn to Him.” Logan, is perfectly cast in his role as Freddy. He works well with his cast mates and has a good comprehension of his character’s “uptown” life. Though when he’s singing, it seems he can’t make a complete connection with the audience as if he’s concentrating to hard, but his vocals are top-notch. In his featured number, the now-standard “On the Street Where You Live,” his smooth voice soars throughout the theatre making one stand up and take notice. Overall, both Martyn and Logan are strong and confident performers making for delightful performances.

Jason Eisner takes on the hefty role of the serious, straight-forward Henry Higgins, professor of phonetics and he gives a very decent portrayal. This character is ridged, but quirky and is a loveable character you love to hate, if that makes any sense. He gets on your nerves, but he is endearing and this is not an easy character to take on as an actor. Eisner does so for the most part, but the pretentiousness is lacking in this performance. His understanding of Henry Higgins is clear but at times he seems a bit scripted and forced. Vocally, he gives an admirable showing as in such featured numbers as “Why Can’t the English Speak English,” and “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face,” and his chemistry with his cast mates is quite good, especially with Jessica Preactor (Eliza Doolittle), and the scenes with her are superb. Overall, Eisner is to be commended for his portrayal of this well-known character.

This brings us to the stand out in this production who is, Jessica Preactor as Eliza Doolittle. Preactor seemed to have been born for this role. She definitely carries the entire show and her performance is near as flawless as one can get. She embodies this character of Eliza Doolittle and every movement and delivery of dialogue is done with authenticity and purpose. She’s a strong stage presence and vocally, she is a powerhouse. It seems effortless on her part as she sings through such well-known numbers as “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly,” “I Could Have Danced All Night,” and “Just You Wait.” She knows her character and portrays her with just the right amount of poignancy and spitfire as required. This actress is one to watch out for and I’m looking forward to seeing her work in the future.

Final thought…  If you ask anyone who knows me or my tastes in musical theatre, they’ll confirm that I most certainly love the classics. Give me a good, old-fashioned song-and-dance any day of the week and I’ll be pleased as punch. Of course, I enjoy the modern pieces, as well, but sometimes, I just want to be entertained. My Fair Lady at Third Wall Productions is not without its flaws but is a well put-together production. Most of the voices are spectacular (with a lot of them featured in the ensemble) and the traditional setting might be unexciting, but it is on point. It’s a lengthy show, but, dare I say it, with a few cuts to the score, it could take the run time down, but the orchestra is very good so that almost makes up for the immense amount of music that you find in this classic piece. There are some questionable casting choices and transition issues but, overall, the production comes together nicely, and Third Wall Productions gives a good showing in presenting this familiar, classic piece that’s worth checking out.

This is what I thought of Third Wall Productions’ production of My Fair Lady… What did you think? Please feel free to leave a comment!

My Fair Lady will play through November 18 at Third Wall ProductionsSt. Thomas Episcopal Church, 1108 Providence Road, Baltimore, MD 21286. For tickets, purchase them at the door or purchase them online.

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Review: Songs for a New World at Spotlighters Theatre

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

Running Time: Approx. 2 hours with one intermission

(l-r) Luis “Matty” Montes, Kristen Zwobot, Erica Irving, Andrew Worthington. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre / Shaelyn Jae Photography

Everyone walks a different path. Some are content and maybe even happy, but there are some who are discontent and searching. In a way, I suppose we’re all searching. One of my favorite quotes from Robert Browning – “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” We should always be reaching for new experiences, new horizons. Sometimes we get stuck but we should always be searching and wondering what’s around the bend. This is a theme that runs through Spolighters Theatre’s latest offering, Songs for a New World by Jason Robert Brown, Directed by Andrea Bush and Michael Tan, with Music Direction by Michael Tan. It’s a song cycle that presents us with people who searching and longing for something else and it’s not a show you want to miss this season.

(l-r) Erica Irving, Kristen Zwobot. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre / Shaelyn Jae Photography

Being a song cycle, which is, simply put, a grouping of songs with a similar theme, there are many ways Songs for a New World can be presented. The original production was more like a cabaret than a full production but it works for this piece. However, Andrea Bush and Michael Tan have threaded this grouping of songs together very nicely, presenting it in the lobby of a hotel where people are coming and going and a million stories are told, started, and sometimes ended. From an attention seeking wife threatening to jump off the ledge, to an up and coming basketball star, to a mother of a fallen soldier, these characters are folks you could easily run into while rushing through a lobby of any hotel anywhere in the world.

Alan  Zemla’s Set Design is superb and he can work wonders with this intimate space. It’s simple but elegant with bold colors and strategically placed lobby locations that allow for a smooth flow and does not hinder the action on stage. Kudos to Zemla for a job well done… again.

I’d be amiss if I didn’t mention Costume Design by Laura Nicholson. With so many different characters played by a small 4-person ensemble, Nicholson has managed to present each character as an individual with varied and appropriate looks from graceful to meager. Every costume for each song is absolutely fitting and well thought-out making for an aesthetically pleasing presentation.

Luis “Matty” Montes. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre / Shaelyn Jae Photography

Direction by Andrea Bush and Michael Tan is impeccable. They have a tight grasp on the material and the stories these songs tell and have presented them beautifully. Their choice of setting the piece in a hotel lobby works and the pacing is just right. Just as if people were coming and going and pausing for just a moment to tell us their story is refreshing and a sensible presentation. Adding to his Directing duties, Tan wears the hat of Music Director and it’s clear his has a great comprehension of this score. He has guided this cast to tight, stunning harmonies and gathers together a small but powerful pit orchestra consisting of himself on Keyboard, Greg Bell on Bass, and William Georg on Drums. Though not mentioned in the program, keep an eye on the precise and fitting light choreography that takes place throughout the show, courtesy of Michael Tan. It certainly adds value to the production and keeps the audience engaged. Overall, Bush and Tan are to be commended for their work on this through-provoking, poignant, and polished production.

Kristen Zwobot. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre / Shaelyn Jae Photography

Moving on to the performance aspect of this production, the small ensemble is on point with this material and presentation. Using the original casting of just four actors, 2 males and 2 females, it creates a great balance both aesthetically and vocally. All four of these actors and actresses are comfortable and have a strong presence on the stage and give great showings in their roles.

Starting with the ladies, Erica Irving and Kristen Zwobot are immaculate in the roles they portray. Irving has lovely, delicate vocals, though a bit too delicate at times, but she’s confident in her songs such as the touching, “I’m Not Afraid of Anything,” and the heartfelt “Christmas Lullaby,” and her interpretations are strong. Zwobot is brilliant and shows off her acting chops by being able to switch from humorous to poignant at the drop of a hat. Her performances of the funny “Just One Step” and “Surabaya Santa” are gems in this production and her more serious and touching interpretations of “Stars and the Moon” and “The Flagmaker, 1775” are top-top notch. Both of these actresses understand the characters they portray

and make them relatable making for spot on performances.

Andrew Worthington. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre / Shaelyn Jae Photography

Andrew Worthington and Luis “Matty” Montes round out this stellar ensemble and add to the balance and blend seamlessly. Worthington’s smooth, resonating baritone is a pleasing and is highlighted in his featured numbers such as “She Cries” and the whole-hearted “The World Was Dancing.” His empathy for the characters he plays is apparent and it’s easy to see he’s giving 100% effort, giving a strong, deeply-felt performance. In the same note, Montes fills in the higher registers of harmonies and his tenor cuts through nicely, especially in his featured numbers such as the inspiring “On the Deck of a Spanish Sailing Ship 1492” and the fast-paced “The Steam Train.” Montes is spot on with his acting out of each of these songs and brings you into his character’s stories making for a strong confident performance.

Erica Irving. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre / Shaelyn Jae Photography

Final thought… Songs for a New World at Spotlighters Theatre is a poignant, thoughtful piece that you do not want to miss this season. Directors Andrea Bush and Michael Tan have created a thread that brings the vignettes together nicely and into a story that easy to follow. The performances are top notch and the small cast has a tight chemistry that is second to none. It’s a small but very well put-together and polished production that has a huge heart. Don’t miss this one. Get your tickets now!

This is what I thought of Spotlighters Theatre’s production of Songs for a New World… What did you think? Please feel free to leave a comment!

Songs for a New World will play through November 28 at Spotlighters Theatre, 817 St. Paul Street, Baltimore, MD. For tickets, call the box office at 410-752-1225 or purchase them online.

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Review: King of the Yees at Baltimore Center Stage

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

Running Time: Approx. 2 hours with one intermission

The Generation Gap is really a thing. If you don’t think so, think about the disagreements you’ve had with your parents or grandparents. Things change – it’s inevitable. However, though we don’t have to agree with our elders, we have to understand their ways and how they did things to really know them. Baltimore Center Stage’s latest offering, King of the Yees, by Lauren Yee, Directed by Desdemona Chiang gives us a glimpse into the relationship of an Asian-American father-daughter duo and their attempt to understand each other and it’s a must see this season.

King of the Yees concerns itself with Lauren Yee, a young-ish playwright who is using her father’s hall to rehearse her newest piece that happens to be about her father, Larry Yee, who has been an important figure in the Yee Family Association, a strictly male-only organization. This association seems to be outdated and somewhat obsolete but has been around for over a hundred years, forming soon after the California Gold Rush. Larry Yee goes missing and Lauren must navigate through San Francisco’s Chinatown and immerse herself in a world with which she is familiar and unfamiliar all at the same time. Through both hilarious and heartbreaking scenes, Lauren learns about her heritage and the true meaning of being a Yee.

Carey Wong’s Scenic Design is intelligently minimal, and he uses the space of the thrust stage wisely. Wong uses a base of Chinese hanging lamps and the important double red doors suspended in the air with simple set pieces representing various locations. The seamless transitions help move the action along and help tell this story without hindering it with clunky scene changes.

Lighting Design by Jessica Trundy and Sound Design by Brendan Patrick Hogan and Alex Hawthorn work in tandem to add a certain energy to the production. Trundy’s superb design incorporates isolated lighting as well as moving light at appropriate times that set the mood for each scene and assist in presenting this story. Working with Trundy’s design, Hogan and Hawthorn’s Sound Design is wonderful, using both traditional Chinese compositions as well as modern dance music that keeps the audience on their toes. The designs work hand in hand to create a world that moves this production along beautifully and helps rather than hinders the presentation of this story.

Costume Design by Christine Tschirgi is well thought-out and authentic. With so many different characters played by a small ensemble, Tschirgi, chooses both simple and elaborate representations to get the point across. Modern day attire as well as traditional Chinese styles are used in a beautiful blend of past and present and each actor is transformed not only in character but in look and it helps the audience in following along with the story.

Desdemona Chiang takes the helm of this production and she has an absolute and clear understanding of this material. Her staging is flawless and the transitions are seamless making for a smooth, easy to follow production. She has a solid grasp on these varied characters and presents them in a humorous way with an underlying truth that could be seen as exaggerated and maybe even a tad offensive, but it’s totally not. Speaking from experience, I’ve encountered every one of these characters in my family and lifetime. These are real representations of different people in different Asian-American generations and Chiang hits the nail on the head with each and every one of them. Her deep comprehension of the story and the characters make for a funny but very true presentation and she should be applauded for her interpretation and work on this piece.

Moving on to the performance aspect of this production, Khanh Doan takes on the role of Lauren Yee, the woman caught in between generations, cultures, and traditions. Doan gives a strong, authentic performance as a woman on the brink of the past and the future. He comprehension of this character is quite apparent, and she plays her to the hilt. Pretty much the straight man amongst the comedy, Doan holds her own and is comfortable and confident in this role. With the help of the real Lauren Yee’s brilliant writing, Doan is delivers the dialogue effortlessly and brings you into the story of the Yees.

Every actor on the stage does their part with great effort to tell this story and most of this small, 5-actor cast take on multiple roles and each does so with impressive ability. Definite highlights of this piece are Joe Ngo as Actor 1, Celeste Den as Actor 2, and Tony Aidan Vo as Actor 3. They are all powerhouses when it comes to character work and all should be commended for their work in this piece. These three actors work very well with and off of each other with great chemistry. Their transitions between characters are solid and clear and one would have to look closely to figure out who is whom. From Chinatown elders, to liquor store owners, to crazy bearded chiropractors, to a Sichuan face changer, to an ancient ancestor named Yee Fung Toy, these three play their roles immaculately and give 100% effort in their work. Every character is believable, funny, and endearing in their own ways and Ngo, Den, and Vo are to the ones to thank for these splendid performances.

The standout in this production is, hands down, Stan Egi as Larry Yee. His energy, authenticity, and likeable portrayal are heartwarming and, in my case, very relatable. He understands this character who walks a fine line by knowing his culture and ancestry but also living in the modern world. This character is welcoming and humorous and Egi gives an exceptional showing of this jovial character. His comedic timing is spot on and mixes well and just at the right times with his more poignant scenes. He absolutely embodies this character and gives a strong, confident performance that you don’t want ot miss. He is certainly one to watch in this production.

Final thought…  King of the Yees at Baltimore Center Stage is an upbeat, humorous look at Asian-American life, the importance of family, and the differences between generations. Lauren Yee has crafted a beautiful piece that mixes comedy, poignancy, and fantasy that blends seamlessly. What, on the surface, could look like a parody of Asian-American culture, specifically Chinese culture, turns out to be a true and meaningful look at how each generation seems to slip further away from the previous generation and their beliefs. As an Asian-American myself (well, half anyway), and I can assure you, though sometimes exaggerated, the funny parts come from a place of absolute truth. Overall, the production is top-notch and polished. The performances are on point and humorous, but real. This is not a production you want to miss this season so get your tickets now.

This is what I thought of Baltimore Center Stage’s The King of Yees… What did you think? Please feel free to leave a comment!

The King of Yees will play through November 18 at Baltimore Center Stage, 700 North Calvert Street, Baltimore, MD. For tickets, call the box office at 410-332-0033 or you can purchase them online.

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Review: Sweat at Everyman Theatre

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

Running Time: Approx. 2 hours with one intermission

Though times may seem crazy right now, the early 2000s were a doozy, as well! The economy was down the tubes and many areas in America were feeling it. Jobs seemed to be disappearing and everyone was replaceable, whether it be by a machine or someone willing to do the job for less pay. Everyman Theatre’s latest offering, Sweat, by Lynn Nottage (their fourth Nottage produced work), Directed by Vincent Lancisi, gives us a peek into one community as their security and way of life seem to be slipping from their fingers and there are no easy answers.

(l-r) Dawn Ursula, Kurt Rhoads, Megan Anderson, Deborah Hazlett. Credit: Clinton Brandhagen

Sweat is a Pulitzer winning play by Lynn Nottage and centers around the working-class of Reading, Pennsylvania. It bounces back and forth between 2000 and 2008 and concerns itself with three longtime friends, Cynthia, Tracey, and Jessie, who have worked at the same factory for years. The economy being what it is, there are fears that the factory is laying people off and even a possibility of it closing its doors for good. Suddenly job security is taken away and the characters have no idea what to do with this new feeling except express disbelief. Two of the friends, Cynthia a black woman and Tracey a white woman, apply for the same management job and Cynthia lands it, perplexing Tracey, who has a few years of experience on Cynthia. Soon, the company moves jobs to Mexico, the trade union goes on strike and the workers are locked out of the factory, putting Cynthia in a hard position. The new hierarchy of management vs. workers begins to put a strain on the friends, while racial issues widen the already growing gap, as well.

(l-r) Megan Anderson, Deborah Hazlett, Matthew Ward, Vaughn Ryan Midder, Dawn Ursula. Credit: Clinton Brandhagen

I’ve got to admit. I’ve seen a few Lynn Nottage plays and… I can’t say that I’m a fan. It’s not because the stories aren’t moving or the performances were poor, but… the script. Sweat seems to be trying too hard for some reason. The dialogue makes the very able actors seem scripted and unnatural, for some. I just can’t seem to get invested in any of the characters of a Nottage piece, as much as I want to be. Ensemble pieces are hard to write, I’m sure, but Nottage seems to have a bunch of smaller sub-plots going on and she seems to leave characters hanging with no real resolutions. If she stuck to one or two plots, she might be more successful in fleshing out the characters, who have so much potential, a little more. I will say, the tension of this piece does come through, such as the racial issues and union vs. non-union folks, so, there are some highlights.  That’s not to say her writing is bad, but, she could put more time into some of her characters. However, check it out and judge for yourself!

Daniel Ettinger has, once again, outdone himself with this Set Design. It’s a masterpiece unto itself. With a fluid set revolving from a dank, blank area that is used as an office and low-income apartments to the lavish but cozy neighborhood bar, this Set Design is superb. The attention to detail is not to be missed and Ettinger is to be heartily applauded for his work on this production.

(l-r) Vaughn Ryan Midder and Dawn Ursula. Credit: Clinton Brandhagen

Working in tandem with Ettinger’s Set Design, Lighting Design by Harold F. Burgess II and and Sound Design by C. Andrew Mayer are impeccable. Setting just the right moods for each scene and adding emotion and just the right amount of intensity to the piece rather than drawing attention from the action, make Burgess’ and Mayer’s work flawless and adds value to this production, in general. Kudos to them for jobs very well done.

Costume Design by David Burdick is spot on and his presentation of the first decade of the 21st century is stellar. Not only a general style, but a specific, blue-collar style shines through in Burdick’s design putting the audience right smack dab in the middle of the time setting and adding a sense of authenticity to the entire piece.

(l-r) Alejandro Ruiz and Deborah Hazlett. Credit: Clinton Brandhagen

Vincent M. Lancisi, Founding Artistic Director of Everyman Theatre, takes the helm of this production and he certainly seems to have a solid grasp of the story and each character. His staging is impeccable and the pacing is near perfect. His vision is apparent and his casting is superb, working with resident company members and non-members, pulling together a cast that has a natural chemistry and understanding of their characters. The subject matter is delicate but Lancisi takes it and presents it in a way that’s easy to follow and entertaining, all the while making the audience think about the trials and tribulations of folks who may be living these same scenarios right at this moment. Kudos to Lancisi for an exquisite job.

Moving on to the performance aspect of this production, Jason B. McIntosh portrays Evan, the parole officer and though he is believable he comes off as scripted and stiff at times. He only has two scenes at the beginning and end of the play, and most of the problem may be the dialogue, but he manages the short stage time he has nicely.

(l-r) Vaughn Ryan Midder, Matthew Ward, Kurt Rhoads. Credit: Clinton Brandhagen

Vaughn Ryan Midder portrays Chris, the young man who has dreams of getting off the factory floor by going to school, and Matthew Alan Ward takes on the role of Jason, his close, longtime friend who seems content on the factory floor, but still has big dreams with the money he could possibly make. Both of these actors are quite able and work well with and off of each other, giving 100% effort to their roles. However, Ward does seem a bit forced in his role and uncomfortable with the dialogue… at first. As the production moves along, he gets more comfortable but there’s still a certain stiffness in his delivery, but, again, this could very well be Nottage’s dialogue itself. Stronger of the young duo is Midder, who plays his role with an authenticity that shows he certainly has a good grasp on his character and is comfortable in his actions and delivery.

(l-r) JaBen Early, Dawn Ursula, Megan Anderson, Kurt Rhoads. Credit: Clinton Brandhagen

JaBen Early plays, Brucie, the out-of-work partner of Cynthia, who has resorted to dope to get by, but is seemingly trying to get back on track. Early seems to have a good understanding of this character and plays him confidently, but I just don’t buy that this character is a dope feign. Once again, I don’t think I can blame the actor for this… it’s Nottage’s writing or director’s decision. It’s mentioned repeatedly that this character, Brucie, is on dope, but it’s not really presented in the dialogue or in the action and portrayal. I can tell Early is a damn fine actor, but in this role, unfortunately, it doesn’t come across so clearly. Alejandro Ruiz, however, as Oscar, they Latino barback who just wants to get ahead in life and work, is more of a character one can invest in. He means no harm, but is accused of things for which he is not responsible. Ruiz plays the role smoothly and unassuming which is absolutely required for this character. His delivery is natural and his presence is strong, making for a wonderful performance.

(l-r) Dawn Ursula and Kurt Rhoads. Credit: Clinton Brandhagen

In this production, we are treated to resident company actors and highlights, the incomparable Dawn Ursula, Deborah Hazlett, and Megan Anderson. These ladies never cease to amaze and impress. Ursula, as the level-headed Cynthia excels in this role as she gives us just the right amount of emotion to portray the conflict of management vs. friendship all while dealing with an out-of-work partner and maturing son. Though, it takes a minute to ease into Ursula’s performance (she starts off a bit rigid and deliberate as opposed to natural), 15 minutes in, you get her groove and it’s smooth sailing from then on. She has a tight grasp on this character and portrays her beautifully. Hazlett, as the hot-headed, content Tracey gives a stellar performance as a woman who is not so much narrow-minded as she is set in her ways, but can definitely come off as narrow-minded. Her delivery and stage presence is authentic and her understanding of this character and her trials and tribulations is very apparent. Anderson’s take on Jessie is superb and her usual authenticity shines through in this role. Anderson is quite comfortable in this role and she has a certain appreciation for her character, playing her with a perfect blend of dignity and spitfire. All of these actors have an impeccable chemistry and work well with and off of each other. All three should be applauded for their work in this poignant, important piece.

(l-r) Vaughn Ryan Midder, Dawn Ursula, Matthew Ward, Alejandro Ruiz, Megan Anderson, Kurt Rhoads. Credit: Clinton Brandhagen

A definite standout in this production is Kurt Rhoads, who takes on the role of Stan, the laid-back, impartial (most of the time) bartender of the small neighborhood bar. Rhoads’ performance is flawless with his booming, but soothing voice, and easy delivery of his dialogue. He has a deep understanding of this character and plays him with a rough-around-the-edges exterior but an empathetic and compassionate interior. Somehow I connect with this character (one of the only ones I truly connect with, really) and see him as the wise, worldly old uncle at a family gathering, which is what a bartender of a neighborhood bar should be, anyway. Rhoads gets this character and his performance is spot on. He is one to watch and should be commended and praised for this marvelous performance.

Final thought… Sweat is a serious, in-depth look at middle-class America and its inhabitants. Concentrating on the trials between family, friends, and work, and the fine line that separates these parts of life, Sweat gives us a peek into a blue-collar town in Northeast America and looks beyond skin color and other surface differences to express the kinship and ideals of the characters within. With very real and hard situations, Sweat manages, to tell a story that is relatable to many. Speaking of the story… it’s good. It’s very good but, unfortunately, Lynn Nottage’s script doesn’t do it justice. It seems to be trying too hard to present this middle-class group of people and the dialogue ends up sounding forced and phony, taking away from the other not-so-unfortunate parts. Overall, the production value is top notch and the performances are on point. It’s another bona fide success for Everyman Theatre and, forgiving the script and dialogue, it’s definitely worth checking out!

This is what I thought of Everyman Theatre’s production of Sweat… What did you think? Please feel free to leave a comment!

Sweat will play through November 25 at Everyman Theatre, 315 W. Fayette Street, Baltimore, MD. For tickets, call the box office at 410-752-2208 or purchase them online.

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Review: The Addams Family at Silhouette Stages

By Yosef Kuperman

Approx. Running Time: 2 hours with one intermission

The cast of The Addams Family. Credit: Jeremy Goldman

The Addams Family is a 2010 musical adaption by Marshall Brickman, Rick Elise, and Andrew Lippa of the venerable media property of the same name. As Silhouette Stages latest offering, Directed and Choreographed by Tommy Malek, with Music Direction by Rachel Sandler, it pays enough homage to the original to please the many fans snapping along with the theme song, but also remains open enough for the uninitiated to enjoy.

Expect the trappings of the modern musical genre: fast music, energetic choreography, one-liners interspersed into the dialogue, predictable crescendos in the songs, and some cracks in the fourth wall. But also expect an authentic entry in the Addams Family universe. I’m only loosely familiar with the characters, but I didn’t need a score card to recognize anyone.

(l-r) Heather Moe as Wednesday, Caitlin Grant as Grandma Addams, Vincent Musgrave as Gomez, Michael M. Crooke as Fester, and Santina Maiolatesi as Morticia. Credit: Jeremy Goldman

Silhouette Stage’s production values are up to snuff. Set Coordinator Becca Hanauer and Scenic Artist Jessie Krupkin have built a two-level stage that doubles (with different dressings) as the family crypt and the front room of the Adams house. These set changes don’t delay the show because they create scenes set outside those areas in front of the curtain, allowing seamless (at least from the audience perspective) transitions. (Central Park, for example, is outside the curtain.) The two levels allow the performers (including a ten-person ensemble dance team done up as Addams family ghosts) the space to create the show’s dance numbers.

Heather Moe as Wednesday Addams. Credit: Jeremy Goldman

All of the actors gave superb performances. Heather Moe’s Wednesday captures her character’s introversion and expressive-nonexpressiveness. Vincent Musgrave’s Gomez appears genuinely caught between his daughter and his wife. Sammy Greenslit, the kid who played Pugsley on opening night, not only captured his character’s fear of losing his sister but also carried his songs beautifully. I could go on, but with such a large ensemble and featured characters, I’d just like to make it clear that every actor on the stage gave 100% effort and added great value to the production, as a whole. Kudos to the entire cast!

Okay. Now the fun part… the script/story, itself.

I can imagine a lot of stories you could tell in The Addams Family. The writers chose to tell a romantic comedy. By scene 2, I expected a meet-the-parents romcom that turns on a scandalous/unacceptable/unexpected romantic partner. Fester (Michael Crook) literally enters in Scene 2, breaks the fourth wall, and explains the plot directly to the audience, thereby setting expectations.) But this isn’t a normal romcom. Instead of focusing on the people getting married, the play’s main character is Gomez. He’s a middle-aged father seeing his daughter Wednesday growing up and keeping his marriage with Morticia (Santina Maiolatesi) alive. The show then (in a super meta twist) closes with a conventional romcom ending. Everyone leaves happy in a world famous for embracing the macabre and depressing.

Michael M. Crooke as Fester and Ensemble. Credit: Jeremy Goldman

The Addams Family argues that the root of its character’s problem is their futile attempts to be normal, attempts that fail because nobody is really normal. The Addams refer to themselves as “crazy” and Wednesday’s fiancé Lucas’s (Drew Sharpe) family as “normal.” Lucas’s family is “normal” because they’re from the “real America.” (“Real America” is apparently not in New York City but rather in Ohio…) The two families spend the first act trying to convince the other family that they’re totally 100% normal Americans. But neither family is actually normal in any conventional sense of the word. Lucas in fact spends as much time trying to get his family to pretend to be “normal” as Wednesday spends lobbying hers.

In this universe of oddballs, normality becomes a shared illusion. Everyone knows the basic script and tries to perform it. Both Lucas and Wednesday make their families pretend to be normal. They think everything will go smoothly if they can just fool the other side for an evening. Neither side succeeds. But this mutual attempt at deception generates conflict only resolved by the characters embracing the unique “crazy” in each of them. The conformist desire for normality in fact caused the problems the characters thought their quest for normality would solve.

Drew Sharpe as Lucas, Ashley Gerhardt as Alice, and Richard Greenslit as Mal. Credit: Jeremy Goldman

Is this script perfect? I thought the plot suffers from a lack of focus. This show has four romantic plots running through it, plus other Addams family dynamics. This leaves some plot decisions rushed. There’s so much story that the show does not have time to develop everything as much as I would’ve liked but I’d like to make it clear this is not a production problem, just a script problem.

Like a few other modern Broadway shows, the Addams family has multiple versions. Silhouette Stages is producing the revised “Touring” version and, judging by my research, there are significant change from the original cast album. The original apparently included an assignation with a giant squid. (I am unclear on how that could even fit into the plot and a little scared to ask.) You can hear the original sound track on (at least) Google Play and decide based on that. Overall, however, this is a polished, well put-together production that you don’t want to miss!

This is what I thought of Silhouette Stage’s production of The Addams Family… What did you think? Please feel free to leave a comment!

The Addams Family will run through October 28 at Silhouette Stages, 10400 Cross Fox Lane, Columbia, MD. For tickets, call the box office at 410-637-5289 or purchase them online.

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Review: Jesus Christ Superstar at Just Off Broadway

By Kara Bauer

DISCLAIMERPlease note, one or more persons directly involved in this production are members of the staff of Backstage Baltimore. This individual or persons did not write or participate in writing this review. The only editing performed on this piece was for grammar, punctuation, and organization. No content editing (adding, changing, or omitting words) were completed without the expressed permission of the author.

(l-r) Jim Gerhardt as Judas and Luis “Matty” Montes as Jesus of Nazareth. Credit: Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

Jesus Christ Superstar, a story that is familiar to some, while at the same time refreshing and new for a younger generation continues to tell the story about Christ’s final days before his death and resurrection. It’s message about the plight of the poor and underprivileged resonates just as strongly as it did when it first premiered on Broadway in 1971. Just Off Broadway’s adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s rock musical, Directed by Jason Crawford Samios-Uy and Patrick Jay Golden, with Music Direction by Patty Delisle, and Choreography by Katie Gerstmyer, comes alive on the Baltimore stage. Despite the small space and minimalistic set design, this show packs a punch for audiences of all ages. What it lacks in appearance, it certainly more than makes up for it with its talented cast of performers. This show truly had all the components of a strong performance: Strong vocals, imaginative choreography, and powerful acting.

As soon as the lights come up, the audience is very aware of the urgency that Caiaphas mentions when speaking about the dangers that Jesus poses to their Roman traditions and ideals. Five men emerge in darkness with masks and riot gear. The familiar chord progression reverberates in the ears of the audience as a fight begins over Jesus’ presence in Rome. Audience members get to meet Judas, played by Jim Gerhardt, for the first time in this scene. As an audience member, hearing Judas sing the first vocals of the song really drew me in. Gerhardt is extremely talented; his voice and acting are mutually impeccable. On the other side of the stage, we see Jesus, played by Luis “Matty” Montes, emerge from the crowd of believers. An overwhelming sense of foreboding fills the air of the theatre– The harmonizing voices, the presence of Caiaphas and the other High Priests, along with truly haunting accompaniment by Patty DeLisle and the orchestra sets the tone for the entire show in the first few moments.

Jennifer Lutz as Mary Magdalene and Luis “Matty” Montes as Jesus of Nazareth. Credit: Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

Throughout the show, the audience has the chance to see many different kinds of choreography under the direction of Katie Gerstmyer. I applaud Gerstmyer in her foresight and structure of the choreography– it was structured enough to look uniform but freestyle enough that each ensemble member was able to create their own character choices throughout the production. For instance, in the beginning of the show, the audience can clearly see that the cast is filled with strong dancers. Even those who are not the most skilled still had space to create a character that perfectly accompanied their artistic dance choices.

Soon enough, the audience gets to meet the highlight of the show, Mary Magdalene, played by Jennifer Lutz. Lutz’s voice provides a strong and clear contrast to her male counterparts. She carries the role with poise, gusto, and so much dedication. She is constantly engaged in her craft– no matter what is happening on stage she remains engaged and dedicated to the scene. It was refreshing to see such vibrant chemistry on stage between Jesus and Mary– you can clearly tell that both actors have put in the time to create dynamic and powerful relationships with each other.

The tones of Mary’s voice fade away and are replaced by the deep, smoky tones of Christ Thomas’ interpretation of Caiaphas, the High Priest. Thomas is a truly terrifying entity on stage with his band of not-so-merry men. The entire group of High Priests (Dave Gerstmyer, Nick Ruth, Randall Noppinger, and Lee Knox) take their role seriously which only adds to the ominous mood set by music.

Josh Leach as Simon with Ensemble in the back. Credit. Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

During the song “Hosanna”, the ensemble proves its true ability as vocalists. The harmonies that they create together on stage are extremely clear and crisp in their execution. Unfortunately, I was so distracted by the strange lighting choice during the second half of that song that I was not able to focus on the music or story. I felt that this lighting choice was very out of place– the song “Hosanna” is all about Christ being willing to fight and die for his followers. Meanwhile an upbeat style lighting was occurring above the stage; the shifting blue-yellow floral lighting was too upbeat, and took me out of the scene.

A refreshing voice came from Simon, played by Josh Leach, during “Simon Zealots / Poor Jerusalem” I was forced to stop taking notes just so that I could soak up Leach’s soulful voice. His spellbinding serenade to the audience combined with the vivacious music provides a clear contrast to Jesus’ foretelling of events in the second half of the song. Being only a Senior in Mt. Hebron High School, he still has a lot of time to perfect his vocal craft. I have no doubt that this young man will develop into a performer that is even more confident, capable and talented than he is now.

Luis “Matty” Montes as Jesus of Nazareth. Credit: Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

Throughout each interaction and glance, the audience witnesses the expansion of the void which continues to widen between Jesus and Judas. Both actors add to this conflict in their own unique way, whether it be stolen glances, interactions with other characters or face to face moments– it is obvious that both Gerhardt and Montes are dedicated to the storytelling that they began.

As the show continues on, we meet Pontius Pilate, portrayed by Mike Zellhofer. He emerges from the back of the theatre and walks forward to Jesus as he contemplates his dream that foretells his interaction with a Galilean. Zellhofer has a very unique voice; both soft and contemplative, while at the same time possessing a fervor that touches the audience in an emotional way.

Jim Gerhardt as Judas. Credit: Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

The temple scene was as fitting as it was haunting, the lighting enhanced Jesus’s reaction to the tide of humanity that even he seemed powerless to redeem. While the efforts made by the cast were very convincing in this scene, I was distracted by some cast-members who interacted with stage props in a less convincing way, such as when several actors hid underneath the stairs leading up to the stage. Despite this, the audience can still feel how overwhelmed Christ is when the sick come to visit the temple, and his reaction is both moving and palpable.

There is a sense of urgency when Mary dives to catch Jesus–she sings her familiar voice as the sick clear the stage. Lutz reaches the climax of her song with gusto, confidence and poise. She reaches notes with strength–truly serenading the audience. Meanwhile, Judas’s inner conflict is displayed clearly when he goes to the high priests. Here the lighting is both effective and immersive, as is the feeling of when Judas betrays Christ–here again his emotions are palpable. His sadness is a weight that is felt clearly by the audience, and is also enhanced by the eerie yet harmonious undertones of the ensemble’s “good old Judas” as the lights dim for intermission.

Mike Zellhofer as Pilate. Credit: Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

Overall the cast is enthusiastic, and while the costuming is simple it fits the punk and rockstar vibe that characterizes the show and distinguishes it from other adaptations. The talented vocal cast lends its hand in helping to bring the audience back in following the admission by delivering a beautiful chorus that tells the story of a people who drown their sorrows and grief in gentle pools of wine.

Judas and Jesus in this scene go back and forth, vocally competing, the clash of their worldviews acting out in person Jesus begins to doubt himself in his conversation with his Father. He is clearly troubled, and brings Jesus self-doubt and hate to life. It is here that Montes really displays his vocal range to the audience, and during this troubling monologue.

Following the arrest of Jesus at the hands of the Romans, King Herod, played by Atticus Emerson, provides a welcome comic relief to the conflict at hand. His performance is spirited, humorous, and lively, fitting the style and poise of the original piece. Following Herod’s performance, “Could we start again, please?” is by far the most beautifully simplistic and minimalistic piece in the second act. The harmony of Mary and Peter (played by Jeff Baker) was thoughtfully coordinated and stunningly done.

Cast of Jesus Christ Superstar. Credit: Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

For those who know the story, we know and feel the weight of Judas’s death. I was brought to tears as Judas asks, “Does he love me too?” Judas knows what he must do, stating “My mind is in darkness now” as the music swells as the ensemble members in black lead him away, towards suicide.

The flogging of Jesus was so creative–this is a very controversial to address, let alone depict–yet Katie Gerstmyer–covered in blood, “lashes” Jesus’s back, while dancing to symbolize the whipping–truly the most intuitive way to show the 39 lashes.

Judas comes back adorned in white with angels in tow, asking “Jesus Christ, who are you what have you sacrificed?”. His reaction to his old friend’s death is simultaneously sobering yet striking, and also provides the chance for his character to stun the audience one final time with his voice.

Ensemble of Jesus Christ Superstar. Credit: Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

The final scene where Jesus is put to the cross is particularly striking, Montes’ interpretation of Jesus’s shock and desperation at his fate at the hands of the Romans is strikingly and starkly human. It is here that we see Jesus standing inside the cross, weeping in fear, set to the near-demonic tone of the audience. With the lights suddenly going out, we see Jesus taken away into oblivion, removing him from the stage, and by extension, from his connection to the living.

In summary, I’ve seen many different adaptations of Jesus Christ Superstar, but for me it is the cast that makes this show what it is; the actors are clearly passionate, the musical direction is superb, and the directors have proved their creative abilities. The show has three more performances. Be sure to catch this buzz before it’s gone.

This is what I thought of Just Off Broadway’s production of Jesus Christ Superstar… What did you think? Please feel free to leave a comment!

Jesus Christ Superstar will run through October 21 at Just Off Broadway @ Epiphany, Epiphany Lutheran Church, 4301 Raspe Avenue, Baltimore, MD 21206. For tickets email tickets@justoffbroadwaymd.com or purchase them online.

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Review: Miss Isabella Rainsong and Her traveling Companion: A One Man Guitar Show by Ross Martin

By Mike Zellhofer

Approx. Running Time: 90 minutes

My grandfather always told me that, “anything worth doing, is worth doing right.” While we are not connected familiarly, singer songwriter Ross Martin obviously agrees. Over twenty years went into the creation of Miss Isabella Rainsong and Her Traveling Companion, and it is well worth the wait.

For me, this was a unique experience because I had never seen much less covered a play about one man playing a guitar. From the very moment the light came up Martin shows his audience that this is not a concert. This is not a play. This may not even be entertainment, but what it is, is an immersion into a life experience that will run the gambit of emotions and hopefully leave you feeling human as you come out the other end. Martin is a living, breathing concept album that will leave you yearning for his next release.

Set inside a current day Amtrak passenger terminal in Anniston, Alabama we find a lowly traveler (Ross Martin) waiting for train service to resume. A brutal storm and tornado sightings have forced the suspension of service. The traveler views the audience as fellow travelers, and being the southern gentleman that he is, takes this time to introduce himself. He notes that it appears we are going to be sitting here for awhile and asks if he may share a story.

The story he shares is his. An average, every day person who is at a point in his life where he needs a helping hand. There is nothing special about this traveler. He could be any one of us in the audience or reading this and for me, that is what brought me into the story. Mr. Martin is not only a talented singer, but performer as well. His portrayal of the traveler is genuine. He does not try to make you feel sorry for him. He doesn’t even offer an explanation of circumstances as to how he got to this point. He doesn’t have to; he is us.

Unbeknownst to him, help is around the corner in the form of Miss Isabella Rainsong (Dolly Rainsong), in the form of a guitar. (To find out more about Dolly Rainsong, the companion CD, blog or more, please visit www.missrainsong.com) Our traveler finds an envelope, containing a note, clipped to Miss Rainsong by a capo. He reads the note and their journey together begins. Our traveler eloquently tells the story of how they spent a few years together riding the rails together. As not to give away the big reveal, I will leave the story here.

Throughout the storytelling Martin plays thirteen pieces of original music loosely linked to the story at hand. The genius behind Martin’s writing of Miss Isabella…Companion is that those songs can be replaced by songs from another storyteller without taking away from the overall production. Martin’s music combined with his story made this particular show special. However, it would be nice to hear someone like Anthony Kiedis perform this piece and use song that he wrote. The whole concept is brilliant and just works.

If there is one thing that I would change in the production, it would be the number of songs. The story its self is strong enough to stand on its own. For me, thirteen songs were a bit much and I would cut it down to ten; five in each act, but still add Isabella’s Rain Song at the end. Ten would keep the show moving and still provide a nice sample size of Mr. Martin’s work.

This show should not be missed. It is an evening of entertainment bliss. Unfortunately, at the time of this review there are no future events scheduled for Ross Martin or Dolly Rainsong. Please visit the website for future shows.

As Jason would say, “This is what I thought of Isabella Rainsong and Her Traveling Companion” … What did you think? Please feel free to leave a comment!

You can find more information on YouTube or by going to www.missrainsong.com.

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Review: ‘Night, Mother at The Strand Theatre

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

Running Time: Approx. 90 minutes with no intermission

The relationship between a mother and her child is a complex one, not to understate it. Mom is the only person in this world who has really known us our entire life, and then some! As we grow, we may stray away from each other, but the bond is always there, no matter what – whether we like it or not. Mom is that one person we can never explain to anyone else and we are the only one who sees her in a particular way. Vice versa, Mom can only see us in a certain way unlike anyone else. The Strand Theatre’s latest production, ‘Night, Mother by Marsha Norman, Directed by Anne Hammontree, peeks behind the curtain into one strained and intricate relationship between an “it-is-what-it-is” kind of mother and a daughter who has managed to find herself in a deep, dark place with only one seemingly way out. It’s a 90-minute snapshot in the lives of two women that is chillingly, but poignantly real.

Briefly, ‘Night, Mother concerns itself with Jessie, the daughter, and Thelma, the mother as they go about a regular Saturday night with one twist… Jessie has announced that she has decided to commit suicide within the next hour or so. Through the dialogue, we discover more about these characters and Jessie’s reasoning for making such a decision, as well as a little family history and feelings that had not been discussed before. As Thelma tries to convince Jessie that she can’t go through with her plan, it’s clear that Jessie has thought it through and might not be convinced.

I’d seen the 1986 film version of ‘Night, Mother, starring Sissy Spacek and Ann Bancroft (which I highly recommend) but this stage production of this piece is my first venture to Strand Theatre (and I don’t know why I waited so long!) and the space is unique but absolutely charming. Set Design by TJ Lukasina is, without a doubt, superb. The details from the working sink in the kitchen, to the lit lamps, to the grandfather clock that actually chimes on the hour are impeccable and give an authentic feel to the piece. This design puts the audience right into the action and makes one feel as though he or she is sitting at the kitchen table with these two ladies which keeps the entire production appealing throughout. The interestingly shaped space was not match for Lukasina as he transforms it into a living space that is cozy and real that adds great value to this production.

Kathryn Falcone as Thelma Cates and Andrea Bush as Jessie Cates. Credit: Shealyn Jae

Anne Hammontree takes the reigns of this production of ‘Night, Mother, and it’s clear she has a great comprehension of this piece, overall, and the thoughtful dialogue. Her staging is on point and though this piece could very well be two people sitting at a table talking all evening, she keeps the action going and engaging for the audience. It’s a challenging piece, but her casting is spot on and the presentation is clear and concise making this a delightful and thoughtful evening of theatre.

Moving on to the performance aspect of this piece, Kathryn Falconetakes on the role of Thelma (Mama) Cates and Andrea Bush tackles the role of Jessie Cates. Both of these actress give strong, confident performances and their chemistry is incredible. From time to time, I completely forget these are two actresses performing roles in a play rather than a mother and daughter on a regular Saturday night – that’s how good they work with and off of each other.

From the moment she steps onto the stage, Kathryn Falcone completely embodies this character. Her delivery of the text is natural and she’s quite comfortable in this role with a strong presence and purpose. Falcone’s understanding of this character is clear and the audience can feel her urgency throughout the production. Overall, a job well done and Falcone should be commended for her splendid performance.

As Jessie Cates, the totally capable and able Andrea Bush could not be better suited for this role. It’s clear that Bush pulls from a very deep place to pull out this interpretation of this character. She becomes this character from the moment we see her walking onto the stage carrying bath and beach towels. Her instincts are correct and her compassion for this character guides her hand. She has a good grasp of what her character is going through and presents it authentically and clearly with a confident presence with a delicate handling. Kudos to Bush for an outstanding performance.

Final thought… ‘Night Mother is a heart-wrenching look at strained mother-daughter relationship full of resentment and regrets, but with a deep love for each other. It’s also a redemption, of sorts, with new connections and positive self-realizations. It’s an emotional roller-coaster that brings out the best and worst in family relationships, especially between mothers and daughters, when they are seem to be so similar but are actually vastly different. This one hit home hard for me. TRIGGER WARNING: this piece deals with suicide. However, it presents this story exceedingly well with poignancy as well as with a pinch of humor, giving a well-blended mix of ups and downs that make for a good drama. The performances are authentic and natural, and the characters are extremely relatable. The staging and pacing is on point making for an impeccable evening of theatre. Do yourself a favor – grab your tissues and get out to experience this show! It’s not one you want to miss this season.

This is what I thought of The Strand Theatre’s production of ‘Night Mother… What did you think? Please feel free to leave a comment!

‘Night Mother will play through October 14 at The Strand Theatre, 5426 Harford Road, Baltimore, MD. For tickets, call the box office at 443-874-4917 or you can purchase them online.

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