Review: In the Closet at Third Wall Productions

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

Running Time: Approx. 2 hours with one intermission

Everyone copes with things differently and there’s really no “right” way to cope with any situation that may come your way. There are fighters, there are flighters, there are talkers, and those who shut down into themselves, but, again, there’s no right way to deal with things. When bad things happen in someone’s life, he or she must find his or her own way of coping. In Third Wall Productions‘ latest offering, In the Closet by Siegmund Fuchs, Directed by Emily Daubenmire, gives us an interesting take on a coping mechanism that may or may not be relatable to many but makes one think about how we all are individuals in dealing with crisis in our own lives.

In the Closet concerns itself with John, a young man who has just had relations with another man for the first time, an old man dealing with the illness of his husband, a middle-aged man dealing with getting older and a community with which he doesn’t relate anymore, and a 20-something man who is a victim of rape and told he must act straight on the stand in court, all in a metaphorical closet to which they’ve escaped because of these varied reasons. Throughout, the older men are working to get John to walk back out of the closet by discussing experiences each have been through, good and bad, as well as trying to explain what the closet is. Will they be able to get John out of the closet or will they all be stuck there forever, not being able to face the real world or themselves? In the Closet forces us to ask ourselves what would we tell our younger selves about our lives and what would we ask our older selves, if we had the chance?

Author Siegmund Fuchs has given us a well put-together script and tells an interesting story making for a pleasant evening of theatre. His dialogue is natural, for the most part, though there are a few bits where the wording probably looks better on paper than it sounds coming out of an actor but, overall, it’s a solid, thoughtful script. His characters are fleshed out well and their individuality and similarity are subtle but clear in the dialogue. Each character is going through his own turmoil that makes for a diverse and engaging script. Though Fuchs’ concept is clever, the “twist” is somewhat predictable but thought-provoking, and well though-out nonetheless.

One drawback for this production, unfortunately, is Set Design by Patrick Rudai and Jordan Hollett. To make a long story short… it is too much for this space. Yes, the setting is a closet, and yes, most closets are small, however, with the amount of items on this set, including set pieces and decorations, it was very cramped and the small ensemble seemed to have trouble navigating and maneuvering around each other during the scenes, which did distract, at times. It looks great, don’t get me wrong, the authenticity and detail are apparent which is a plus for Rudai and Hollett, but it hinders the action rather than helps it and, sometimes, less is more. Overall, it’s a good design, but could be scaled back.

Taking the helm of this production is Director Emily Daubenmire and, though, overall, the piece runs smoothly, staging is a bit erratic. The set isn’t helping matters when it comes to the staging, but during certain points, the pacing of this piece comes to a near halt. Daubenmire seems to have a good grasp on this material and text but the execution is haphazard. For example, there are a few scenes in which one actor must complete a simple task but the dialogue doesn’t begin until the task is complete making for elongated moments of awkward silence that could be eliminated with simple transitioning techniques. This is not to say the entire production is messy, it’s a very well put-together production and it’s my assumption that the set has a big hand in the problems in staging, but, as the Director, Daubenmire should be watching more carefully to make sure these problems are smoothed out before opening.

Moving on to the performance aspect of this piece, H. Ray Lawson takes on the role of Man #1 (the old man) and Mike Zellhofer tackles the role of Man #2 (the middle-aged man). Lawson has a good comprehension of his character, who is the wisest of the quartet, but he does have problem with his lines, leaving long moments of silence where you can see the cogs turning to remember lines. His delivery is a bit stiff but his effort is top-notch. However, beyond these troubles, the character’s sincerity and caring shines through naturally and Lawson obviously feels deeply about this character and his portrayal us poignant and authenticity is apparent.

Zellhofer, as Man #2, has a strong grasp of his character and he has a strong presence making for an admirable performance. Though sounding a bit scripted in delivery, he still manages to bring an authenticity to the role that makes the character heartwarming and charming. His character has a sorted past, as they all do, but Zellhofer really understands the trials of his character and expresses it well. In one intense scene toward the end of Act I, Zellhofer shines in both character and delivery and makes for a shining moment in the production.

Rounding out this small ensemble are Stephen Foreman, who takes on the role of Man #3 (the young man) and Angel Duque portrays John (and even younger man). Foreman gives a commendable performance as the young man who has come to terms with his homosexuality but has endured a horrible incident that has forced him back into the closet, for the time being. Foreman has a clear grasp on his character and portrays him in a way that shows his understanding. His delivery is natural and he seems comfortable in the character making for a well-rounded and believable performance.

A highlight of the production is Angel Duque and his performance is solid with an obvious comprehension of his role. He seems to embody this character of John and portrays him with defined emotions and a sense of uncertainty that is required. His delivery is smooth, and his presence is robust, making for an enjoyable and engaging performance, overall.

Final thought…  In the Closet is an interesting take on a very personal experience that is individual to all. The production certainly has its flaws but is still a good story with a good script and, with each performance, I’m certain the wrinkles will be ironed out. Staging and some delivery of the text might need work, but the dialogue is thoughtful and weaves a multi-generational story that cleverly concerns only one person. It makes us think hard on whether or not we can forgive our past trespasses and look toward an uncertain future. In this day and age of learning to be yourself and having to have a thick skin, this is an important story that needs to be told and seen.

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

In the Closet will play through January 27 at Function Coworking Community, 4709 Harford Road, Baltimore, MD. For tickets, you can purchase them at the door or online.

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Review: Thank You, Dad at Rapid Lemon Productions

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

Running Time: Approx. 2 hours with one intermission

On November 18, 1978, tragedy struck in a little stretch of land in Guyana, in South America, where some 900 people lost their lives because of on crazed man. News hit hard in the United States because most of these folks were lost, disenchanted Americans, including a United States Senator. Some of you might know this story and the story of Jonestown, led by the Reverend Jim Jones and the final act of revolutionary suicide that occurred over four decades ago and Rapid Lemon Prouctions‘ latest offering, Thank You, Dad by Aladrian C. Wetzel and Directed by Donna Ibale, gives us insight into the man behind the tragedy, Jim Jones. Through Three acts, we learn of his beginnings, his ministry with The People’s Temple, and then ultimate insanity that took the lives of the people who followed him.

Lance Bankerd as Jim Jones. Credit: Rapid Lemon Productions

Hands down, author Aladrian C. Wetzel has crafted an intelligent, thoughtful piece of theatre. It’s apparent she has done her research and has gathered together three important phases of Jim Jones’ life to present in this work. As one who has always been macabrely fascinated by this tragedy, I’ve spent hours online watching videos and films about Jim Jones and Jonestown, and Wetzel has hit the nail on the head in her presentation. The script is well put-together and engaging and it offers facts with an artistic license that doesn’t hinder the information. Jim Jones is a complicated man, obviously, but Wetzel has managed to tell his story, through his point of view, while showing the madness that was just under the surface that some people saw directly, while others saw only a savior. The dialogue is easy to follow and helps us understand Jones as a regular man, a self-proclaimed prophet, and madman. Whether you’re familiar with this sad story or not, you will walk away learning a little more about this complex man and the massacre of Jonestown. Wetzel is to be commended and applauded for her work and efforts.

Lance Bankerd as Jim Jones. Credit: Rapid Lemon Productions

Set and Property Design by Max Garner and Projection Design by Chris Uehlinger blend perfectly into this production and add great value as a whole. Set pieces and digital images and video are chosen wisely and help move the story along as we take this journey with Jones. The full back wall projections and simple setting do not take away from the storytelling of this piece and give just enough to put the audience in the scene to better understand what they are watching. The Baltimore Theatre Project is such a great venue and the perfect space for this production that was used wisely by Garner and Uehlinger.

Lance Bankerd as Jim Jones. Credit: Rapid Lemon Productions

Director Donna Ibale (with Justin Johnson, Chara Bauer, and Lee Conderacci) do a splendid job realizing their visions on the stage. Ibale has wisely chosen to use a blank stage with simple set pieces that does not get in the way of the telling of the story, but adds to it. Ibale seems to have a good grasp on who this tragic person was and the history leading up to his ultimate dastardly deed. The only drawback is the recorded voices filling in as followers and such as they sound too rigid and scripted to be folks talking from the heart or giving spontaneous responses. However, the text that is spoken does move the story along and gives Jones something with which the actor portraying Jones can work. Each act is presented as a sermon, of sorts, and we are forced to pay attention, making the experience all the more immersive. Simple sets, simple staging, but fantastic storytelling. Kudos to Ibale and company for their efforts.

Lance Bankerd as Jim Jones. Credit: Rapid Lemon Productions

Taking on a character in a one-man show is daunting and taking on the persona of a real person can be downright trying but Lance Bankerd, a veteran of Baltimore theatre, as the The Reverend Him Jones shows no signs of difficulty whatsoever. Bankerd effortlessly embodies the role of Jim Jones and, just like the man himself, keeps the audience enthralled. He completely transforms himself to create this character, inside and out. From the younger monkey selling Jones until the whacked-out Jones giving the death speech, he doesn’t falter once and keeps his performance consistent. It’s easy to see he has a magnificent comprehension of the character, the story, and the text and his delivery is natural and engaging. Hands down, it’s a tour-de-force for Bankerd and this is not a performance to be missed.

Final thought…  Thank You, Dad from Rapid Lemon Production is a fresh look at a story that has fascinated us for over four decades. It’s such a poignant story about lost, disenfranchised souls and the man who led them to death. How could this not be great fodder for a stage play? Wetzel takes all the facts and weaves a brilliant script, wisely keeping it simple as a one-man show. Ibale and company’s Direction and Bankerd’s performance are top-notch and the production, as a whole, is to be commended. You seriously do not want to miss this kick off production of the new Rapid Lemon Productions season. Get your tickets now!

This is what I thought of Rapid Lemon Productions‘ production of Thank You, Dad… What did you think? Please feel free to leave a comment!

Thank You, Dad will play through January 20 at Baltimore Theatre Project, 45 W. Preston Street, Baltimore, MD. For tickets, you can purchase them at the door or online.

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Review: The Importance of Being Earnest at Everyman Theatre

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

Running Time: Approx. 2 hours and 40 minutes with two intermissions

Oscar Wilde is probably one of the most prolific and controversial authors of his day and, in some instances, today, but there’s no denying his talent as his works are still being produced today, worldwide. He certainly had a knack for comedy as well as a sharp wit that subtly poked fun at the class system of his time but in such a way that it was nothing but charming. Everyman Theatre treats us to one of his more popular works, The Importance of Being Earnest, Directed by Joseph W. Ritsch, and they’ve masterfully presented this piece in a way that, I assume, Wilde would have been proud and tickled pink.

L-R: Paige Hernandez, Danny Gavigan, Bruce Randolph Nelson, Carl Schurr, Katie Kleiger, Jaysen Wright, Helen Hedman, Wil Love. Photo Credit: Clinton Brandhagen

Ina nutshell, The Importance of Being Earnest deals with a young man, Jack, who has invented a man named Earnest,to live a secret, care-free life in town while handling serious responsibilities at home, in the country. Because of a forgotten cigarette case, he is forced to confess this farce to his dear friend, Algernon, another aloof young man who makes it a point to avoid any type of social situation. Two women, Gwendolen and Cecily, are in love with Earnest while the two young men are in love with them. Throw in a cranky, snobbish old Aunt Augusta (Lady Bracknell) into the mix and you’ve got great fodder for a comedy.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. When it comes to Set Design, Everyman Theatre never disappoints and Daniel Ettinger has not broken this streak. With Three Acts, Ettinger’s innovative design has taken us from a bachelor’s living room, to an English country garden, to the study of a grand English manor and he hits the nail on the head with every location. The genius is the simple presentation of specific locations that is consistent throughout in color and style. Kudos to Ettinger for a job well done.

L-R: Katie Kleiger, Paige Hernandez. Photo Credit: Clinton Brandhagen

Adding to the appropriate late Victorian age setting, Costume Design by David Burdick is inspiring and eye-catching in this production. He has an impeccable eye for detail and every actor was individual in their wardrobe because of that detail. For example, there is a distinct differentiation in fashion between the elder generation from which Aunt Augusta hails and the younger generation of Gwendolyn and Cecily and though the difference is subtle, it’s enough to be just noticeable enough which is brilliant. Another splendid job from David Burdick.

L-R: Katie Kleiger, Jaysen Wright. Photo Credit: Clinton Brandhagen

Joseph W. Ritsch takes the helm of this production and it’s crystal clear he has a deep comprehension of this material and text and his vision presents it easily to a 21st century audience. His staging is energized and the pacing is on point for a three act piece. More importantly, Ritsch’s grasp on the sharp wit and comedy of Oscar Wilde shines through in every moment of this production. Casting is splendid and he masterfully guides this ensemble to present a humorous, tongue-in-cheek, but true look at the upper class of Victorian England. Ritsch is to be commended and applauded for his telling of this wonderful production.

As for the performance aspect of this production, this entire, small ensemble give full effort and work well together, respectfully bringing to life Wilde’s text seemingly effortlessly. In supporting by important roles are Wil Love as Rev. Canon Chasuble and Helen Hedman as Miss Prism. Love is lovable as the jovial Chasuble and portrays him appropriately as a well-meaning gentleman who wants to help though he seems oblivious to the farce around him. He’s confident in the role and gives a very good showing. Almost as a counterpart to Love’s Chasuble, Helen Hedman pulls of the role of Miss Prism, the stuffy, older governess, beautifully. For playing such a straight-forward, stringent character, her comedic timing is spot on and she has a good grasp on her character and the conflict between her current piety and checkered pass. Both of these actors fit nicely in their characters and give strong performances.

L-R: Bruce Randolph Nelson, Helen Hedman. Photo Credit: Clinton Brandhagen

A highlight in this production is Carl Schurr in the dual roles of Lane and Merriman,the hapless servants of the other well-to-do characters of this piece. Schurr gives an exquisite performance in this supporting role and makes a mark on this production. His comedic timing is near-perfect, especially as the older, feeble Merriman with slight but hilarious physical comedy that will have you laughing in the aisles. He’s certainly one to watch and he gives a believable, funny, and strong performance.

Taking on the roles of the lovey young ladies of interest in this piece are Paige Hernandez as Cecily Cardew and Katie Kleiger as Hon. Gwendolen Fairfax. Both actresses perform these roles eloquently and confidently and are a pleasure to watch. Hernandez emotes the youth and vivaciousness of a caged young woman coming of age and delivers the dialogue with ease and authenticity while Kleiger is comfortable in role as the upper-class, free-spirited young woman with a domineering mother and performs her character with grace and confidence as is required. The chemistry between Hernandez and Kleiger is splendid as they transition their roles within minutes from strangers to rivals to friends and because of their understanding of their characters, it makes for brilliant performances from both.

Danny Gavigan. Photo Credit: Clinton Brandhagen

As for the scheming, dandy young gentlemen, Danny Gavigan takes on the role of Algernon Moncrieff, a self-proclaimed bachelor who shies away from social gatherings, and Jaysen Wright tackles the role of John Worthing, a gentle man with a double identity, one of who is the infamous Earnest. Gavigan gives a stellar performance as Algernon Moncrieff and seems to embody Oscar Wilde himself (or how I think Oscar Wilde would have behaved, anyway) and his delivery of the dialogue is impeccable. Smooth and almost swarmy, he portrays the role with just the correct recipe of charm with a dash of obnoxiousness that is absolutely appropriate for this character. Wright also plays his character,John Worthing, to the hilt and emotes charm and likability. Both Gavigan and Wright tackle these roles seemingly effortlessly with personality and charisma making for strong, confident performances from both.

Bruce Randolph Nelson. Photo Credit: Clinton Brandhagen

The hands-down standout of this production is Bruce Randolph Nelson as Lady Bracknell. I’ve mentioned in a recent review that, for some reason, when it comes to theatre (especially older pieces) audiences seem to eat up anything with a man in drag and this production seems to be no different. The trick is, and what makes Nelson’s performance so commendable is the fact that, though he is playing for laughs – it’s a comedy, after all – he’s still taking the part seriously.He’s not playing a man pretending to be a woman, but he’s playing a woman and it’s the gravity he puts into the role that makes it hilarious. Not to mention, Nelson is a genius when it comes to comedic timing, expressions, and reactions and you will regret missing him in this role. He’s comfortable in the role and pulls it off with grace, dignity, and confidence. He’s a riot and had me laughing well after the house lights came on.

Final thought…  The Importance of Being Earnest at Everyman Theatre is a fast-paced, well put-together production that is side-splittingly funny and you don’t want to miss it. Oscar Wilde really knew how to turn a phrase and this ensemble knows how to deliver them. From the glorious Set Design to the impeccable Costume Design, to the masterful wit of Wilde, one can’t help but be amazed and amused by this production. Don’t let the fact that this piece is over 100 years old (premiering in 1895), because the story and the comedy are timeless and it still tickles audiences today. If you see anything this season,make sure you make it out to this one!

Thisis what I thought of Everyman Theatre’s The Importance of Being Earnest… What did you think? Please feel free to leave a comment!

The Importance of Being Earnest will play through December 30 at Everyman Theatre, 315 W Fayette Street,Baltimore, MD. For tickets, call the box office at 410-752-2208 or you can purchase them online.

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Review: A Wonder in My Soul at Baltimore Center Stage

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

Title

Running Time: Approx. 2 hours and 40 minutes with one intermission

Baltimore and its people, through the years, have had their ups and downs but we always seem to bounce back no matter what. Neighborhoods come and go, some prosper,some try to hang on to a bygone era, and in every case, it’s the people who make the neighborhood what it is. Sometimes, It only takes a few pillars to keep a neighborhood going, even when it’s falling down around them, but it’s a tough fight, especially in Baltimore City. In Baltimore Center Stage’s latest production, A Wonder in My Soul by Marcus Gardley, Directed by Daniel Bryant, is one of those stories that take us back and forth between the past and present and tell a story of old friendships, family, and a resilient spirit that keeps us going, even in the darkest of times.

Briefly, A Wonder in My Soul concerns itself with two old friends, Swann Park Sinclair and Gwynn Oak Falls, who have a beauty salon they have operated since the early 60s in Baltimore City. As oflate, the neighborhood has gone downhill and has become a “bad” neighborhood and developers are buying up properties left and right to gentrify the area with coffee shop chains and supermarkets. One of the only shops left in the neighborhood is this beauty salon because of the respect these two ladies have earned over the years and the history it holds. Gwynn Oak Falls’ son, Andrew,has borrowed money from the two ladies to start a non-profit organization for inner-city children but is now under suspicion of embezzlement and the money is gone, leaving the two ladies in dire straits and months behind in rent on the space. A loving, but estranged relationship between Gwynn Oak Falls and her daughter,Cherry Hill, a Baltimore City police officer, don’t make matters much better. Through all this strife, the shop endures and welcomes regular customers like First Lady Cedonia Mosher of the local Baptist church and her new assistant, theyoung, hard-working, and pregnant Pen Lucy proving that with enough love, spirit,and strong faith we can endure. Marcus Gardley has crafted a well-written,deep-feeling story to which we can all relate in our own, individual way.

Scenic Design by Wilson Chin is impeccable as we are transported into an old salon that has been around for decades. The presentation of strong African-American female figures through the ages stirs up a certain pride and nostalgia that sets the mood for the piece. I found myself starting a little game with myself to see how many faces I could name… and I didn’t do too shabby! The authenticity of Chin’s design with salon stations and a sofa/coffee table pair for a waiting area, makes it all the more real, familiar, and immersive.

Working in tandem with Wilson Chin’s Scenic Design is Lighting Design by Kathy A.Perkins, Sound Design by Mikhail Fiksel, and Projection Design by Alex Basco Koch. Subtly is the key to Light and Sound Design and Perkins and Fiksel have accomplished it commendably. Small changes in light here and there to represent times of day as well as to divert the audience’s attention to important dialogue are spot on and appropriate. The sounds of the city are placed perfectly as well, including weather, which can be tricky to represent on stage without it looking and sounding generic, but this design is superb.

The Projection Design by Alex Basco Koch is absolutely superb and adds great value to the production. The high definition projections aren’t just decoration,either. They help move the story along and relate to the situation or dialogue making for a brilliant technical aspect to an already beautifully designed production.

David Burdick gives us a stellar Costume Design that flip-flops between the decades, matching every decade with great detail and flair. The present day attire is on point and the fashions of the past are spot on making for a brilliant design. A magnificent Hair and Wig Design by Cherelle D. Guyton also add to this production, with each character having his or her own style and individuality adding to the realism and character each actor is portraying. Kudos to both Burdick and Guyton for jobs well done.

Taking the Music Direction reigns of this production is Jaret Landon and under Landon’s direction (along with some impressive original music and arrangements) the musical aspect of this piece shines through and makes its mark on the audience. Using old spirituals, both upbeat and slow tunes, Landon has weaved together a wonderful program that helps move the story along without hindering the action. The arrangements are spot on for these talented actors and actresses and will have you toe-tapping and getting all the feels when the cast really gets going, musically.

Daniel Bryant takes the helm of this production and his Direction shows he has a tight grasp on this material and text. His staging is stellar and keeps the audience engaged while telling this poignant story. Though Gardley’s witty but thoughtful script gives the actors everything they need, Bryant still knows how to balance the humor and the poignancy exquisitely. Bryant should be applauded and commended for his work on this production.

Moving on to the performance aspect of this production, Stanley Andrew Jackson III takes on the supporting role of Andrew Hill, aspiring non-profit head and son of Gwynn Oak Falls. Jackson knows this character and, though he has less stage time than the other characters, he plays him to the hilt. He seems to understand the anguish and conflict in this character and plays him with even balance and not over the top. Jackson makes the most of his stage time and his steady portrayal is admirable.

Two of the actors in his piece take on double duty and Kalilah Black as PenLucy/Young Gwynn and Anastacia McCleskey as Cherry Hill/Young Swann pull of the roles superbly. Both Black and McCleskey have a great comprehension of the characters they are portraying and as the younger Gwynn and Swann, their chemistry is undeniable and work well with and off of each other adding to the depth of these characters. As Pen Lucy, Black is absolutely believable as a modern, single mother trying to make ends meet with a good head on her shoulders and McCleskey gives a heartfelt portrayal of Cherry Hill, Gwynn’s older, police officer daughter showing the hurt and loyalty this character has for her mother. It’s worth mentioning that, vocally, McCleskey is a powerhouse and blows it out of the water with her rendition of a heartbreaking ballad in Act II. The ability to play two characters back to back (with some breakneck costume changes, it seems) is impressive and both actresses give strong,confident performances that are joy to watch.

Leading the troupe are Wandachristine as Gwynn Oak Falls and Harriett D. Foy as Swann Park Sinclair and both of these ladies are highlights of this production. Both of these actresses give intense, humorous, and earnest performances that make these characters the heart of the story. Wandachristine is convincing as an aging, but sassy and self-reliant Gwynn Oak Falls and gives an impressive showing, especially her spoken-word monologue at the top of Act II that she delivers flawlessly. Working alongside of Wandachristine, Harriett D. Foy is a driving force as Swann Park Sinclair with an impeccable delivery of the text and a tight grasp of what her character is all about. From her quick and witty one-liners to her portrayal of the regret this character harbors, Foy gives an excellent and strong showing that is a pleasure to experience. The connection these actresses make with the audience is amazing and makes every spectator feel at home, as if they were sitting in that little salon with these ladies and that,my friends, makes for great theatre. These are two performances you don’t want to miss.

Last but certainly not lease, we have another actress in a supporting role but AlexisJ. Roston as First Lady Cedonia Mosher is the standout in this production of A Wonder in My Soul. Roston hits the ground running as First Lady Cedonia. The first time we see this character, she enters the salon singing and turns it into a mini revival with “Jesus Is My Friend”, equipped with her own tambourine and all. Roston has a lot of quick one-liners in her dialogue, but her character is my favorite because of the transition we see in her throughout the piece – a transition that Roston handles delicately and ably. First Lady Sinclair is a class above the rest,financially anyway, but she keeps coming back to the salon in the “bad” part oftown because she has a connection with these ladies and vice versa. From domineering to endearing, Roston pulls off her role immaculately and effortlessly. Vocally, Alexis J. Roston is another powerhouse and diverse vocalist who wails out the old-timey spirituals, as well as 60s hits, and modern grooves all in one night. I’m looking forward to seeing future performances from this actress.

Final thought…  A Wonder in My Soul at Baltimore Center Stage is a heartfelt,hometown story that incorporates good old fashioned gospel music, a well-written script, and thoughtful performances that resonate with you long after you leave the theatre. A lot of theatre can speak to you, but there’s something about this piece that touches your soul, as the title suggests.There’s nothing supernatural, per say, and no big bells and whistles, but the story itself, about family, long friendships, and living life the best way you know how is one that will stick with you and make you think. All aspects of this production including Set Design, Costumes, Lighting and Sound Design, and staging make for a splendid experience you do not want to miss this season and you’ll want to get your tickets as soon as you can.

This is what I thought of Baltimore Center Stage’s A Wonder in My Soul… What did you think? Please feel free to leave a comment!

A Wonder in My Soul will play through December 23 at Baltimore Center Stage, 700North 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: The Santaland Diaries at Milburn Stone Theatre

By Jennifer L. Gusso

Running Time: 1 hr 50 minutes with one intermission

When you think of Christmas shows, you think of family-friendly fare and a rose-colored view of the world in which everything and everyone represents the best possible side of humanity. The beautiful set upon the Milburn Stone Theatre stage may have led the audience to expect more of the same: lit Christmas trees, red velvet chairs, and the dressings of Christmas cheer.

However, from the very first warning from Artistic Director that The Santaland Diaries by David Sedaris contains “4-, 8-, and even 12-letter words” that may offend the sensibilities of some audience members, there is no doubt that this will be a different kind of December evening at a theater. Luckily, it also proved to be a thoroughly entertaining evening of comedy and Christmas from a different lens.

The evening actually began with a reading of “the greatest Christmas story ever told” A Die Hard Christmas by Brandon Gorin. Gorin was charming and hysterical with his well-placed facial expressions and reactions during the reading of this unconventional Christmas classic. Gorin was followed by a display of improvisational comedy by the troupe “Improv on Rye.”

The main event of the event, however, was The Santaland Diaries. This is a stage adaptation of David Sedaris’ essays about his time working as an elf in Macy’s department store. The Santaland Diaries is a one-man show in which “Crumpet” recounts many observations about people and life behind the scenes of quite possibly the most famous Santa location.

What do you do with a one-man show when that one man is sick and cannot perform? This is quite literally the dilemma that Milburn Stone Theatre was faced with on opening night this past weekend. For them, the answer was to ply the audience with free wine and have the Artistic Director perform a reading of the show. Even without the wine, this proved to be a good decision, as Artistic Director (and now Crumpet) Andrew John Mitchell was easily able to keep the audience entertained.

Understandable nerves and newness aside that lead to some moments of rushing, it was often easy to forget that Mitchell was reading from the script on music stands in front of him. Mitchell was believable. It was easy to imagine that he had experienced these moments himself. Especially when he felt comfortable enough with the lines and the scene to look up more and slow down in his delivery, there were many genuine laugh-out-loud moments created by his down-to-earth delivery of Sedaris’ acerbic observations of the other elves and the Santas and the parents. Without the aid of other actors, Mitchell was able to make a host of characters come to life and keep the audience entertained (and occasionally shocked) throughout. He also brought this warm humanity and a sense of connection to this self-proclaimed “not nice guy” who maybe did discover just a little bit of Christmas spirit and cheer from his time with Santa.

Milburn Stone definitely delighted the audience with this production and were able to do so even despite a setback that others may have seen an insurmountable. Despite a different take on holiday productions, there may have been a miracle at work at Milburn Stone after all.

This is what I thought of Stantaland Diaries at Milburn Stone Theatre… What did you think? Please feel free to leave a comment!

Santaland Diaries played Deccember 7, 8, and 9 at Milburn Stone Theatre, Cecil College, One Seahawk Drive, North East, MD.

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Review: Charley’s Aunt at Fells Point Corner Theatre

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

Running Time: 2 hours with one 15-minute intermission

No matter which era, what the situation is, or who it is, it seems that in entertainment, a stereotypical cis male in drag brings down the house in laughter. Why? I couldn’t tell you. Real drag or female impersonation is an art and I know folks who earn a good living doing it and take pride in what they do, and I love it (I may have *ahem* even dabbled in the art form myself sometime ago), but when you throw the cheap, just-for-laughs drag into a script, it adds tons to the comedic value. Fells Point Corner Theatre’s latest offering, Charley’s Aunt by Brandon Thomas, Directed by Kristen Cooley, takes us back to a time when a man could get away with posing as a woman by simply putting on a dowdy dress… and that’s all it took. However, when you need the services of an absent aunt… you take what you can get.

Kellie Podsednick as Kitty Verdun and Jon Meeker as Jack Chesney. Credit: Trent Haines-Hopper/THsquared Photography

Briefly, Charley’s Aunt was written in 1892 and was a smash hit in London, running for 4 years with 1,466 performances which was almost unheard of for productions of the day. The farce concentrates on Lord Fancort Babberley (or Babs, as he’s affectionately known), and his two friends Jack and Charley, who convince him to help them woo two young ladies by posing as Charley’s rich aunt, who was intended to be a chaperone but has changed her arrival date. Other problems and situations include, but are not limited to, the real aunt’s arrival and the attempted seduction of an elderly gold-digger toward the fake aunt, and a plea to give consent for two pairs of young lovers to marry. Got all that? If not, it’s a simple search on Google!

Set Design by Moe Conn is splendid and inovative as he turns the intimate FPCT stage into three locations, including interiors and exteriors. Moving walls and simple set pieces transform easily and smoothly and easily distinguishes each location perfectly. Not only mechanics, but choices of the aforementioned set pieces and colors are authentic and present the time very nicely. Kudos to Conn for a job well done.

Kristen Cooley and Barbara Madison Hauck put together a Costume Design that is on point for this production. Period pieces are always challenging, but Cooley and Madison have taken the challenge head on and have presented an authentic and fitting design that adds great value to the production. From the men in their materials of heavy materials (or at least look like it) to the elaborate gowns of the ladies, every costume is appropriate and makes each character look as though they stepped right out of the late 1800s, England.

Kristen Cooley also takes on the Direction of this piece and it’s easy to see she has a tight grasp on the text and really knows the material. Presenting such a dated piece to a modern audience is tricky, no doubt, but Cooley manages it beautifully. Her understanding of comedy and farce are apparent and her staging in this intimate space works well. She should be commended for her work on this piece.

Alice Gibson as Amy Spettigue and Kellie Podsednick as Kitty Verdun. Credit: Trent Haines-Hopper/THsquared Photography

Moving on to the performance aspect of this piece, two players in supporting roles are Peter Wilkes, who takes on the role of Brassett, the poor butler of Jack Chesney and Jennifer Skarzinski who tackles the role of Ela Delahay, a young fatherless girl who has been taken under the wing of Donna Lucia. Though supporting characters, both Brassett and Ela Delahay have important purposes and keep the story moving along. Wilkes does well portraying Brassett as a loyal employee to a young, brash Jack Chesney who can only roll his eyes, have a drink, and go about his day as his employer gets himself deeper into trouble at every turn. Skarzinski has a good grasp of her character, a naïve, young girl who has a big heart and she portrays her nicely but she looks out of place in the role. She gives a great showing and has great chemistry with her cast mates, but this flaw seems to take away from the authenticity of the character. Overall, however, she has a strong presence and natural delivery making for a delightful, if not completely believable, performance.

Michael Panzarrotto portrays Colonel Sir Francis Chesney, the elder Chesney and though he makes the character likable, he plays this role a bit over the top, but in a way that it seems he’s trying to hard which takes away from the comedy. He’s confident and works well with his fellow cast mates, so, in general, he gives a decent performance and gets the character’s point across nicely. As a sort of cohort to his character, Maribeth Vogel takes on the role of Donna Lucia, Charley’s real aunt who has arrived in a kind of disguise. Vogel is splendid in this role. Her delivery of the material is natural and she seems to have a good comprehension of her character she is portraying. Her presence and confidence allow her to give a strong showing in this piece that is a joy to watch.

Jon Meeker plays Jack Chesney, a scheming, but charming young gentleman and Brandon Richards takes on the role of Charles Wykeham, a lovesick young man who hesitantly goes along with Jack’s plans, after only a little persuading. Richards knows his character and is comfortable with him but his performance falls a little flat. The urgency that is required for this role seems a bit forced and takes away from the quickness needed for this piece. His character is nervous most of the time but he portrays more of a frightened, whiny young man rather than a nervous one. He does, however, work quite well with and off of Meeker, who is the stronger performer of the two, and Richards gets the comedy of the piece, giving an overall respectable performance. Jon Meeker, a fine performance and emotes just the right amount of urgency and worry as required for this character. His movements jand delivery are genuine and he has a strong, confident presence on stage that makes for a commendable performance.

Alice Gibson as Amy Spettigue and Kellie Podsednik as Kitty Verdun are very well cast and play their parts to the hilt. Gibson is cute and flighty as the young Amy and comfortably plays her as if she stepped right out of the time in which this piece takes place. Podsednik as the more mature Kitty is elegant and poised as the character should be. She has tight chemistry with all of her cast mates and gives a strong, assured performance that is one to watch in this production.

David Shoemaker as Lord Fancourt Babberley.

The definite standouts in this production are David Shoemaker as Lord Fancourt Babberley and Tom Wyatt as Stephen Spettigue. Shoemaker, who I’ve seen perform in more dramatic pieces, has near perfect comedic timing and understands the comedic nuances of this piece and presents them beautifully. As the aforementioned man-in-drag character, he doesn’t play this character over the top but takes it serious enough to get the humor across and he will have you laughing as he keeps a straight face throughout. In delivery and authenticity, Shoemaker is top notch and gives an impeccably funny and memorable performance. In the same vein, Tom Wyatt as Stephen Spettigue, the hard-nosed and serious uncle/guardian of the young girls will have you rolling in the isles. Wyatt takes this role and knocks it out of the park. Being almost a supporting character, Wyatt steals the show in many of his scenes with a flamboyancy that is ridiculously funny but he plays this flamboyance in a way that it is not forced making it all the more humorous. From his immaculate delivery to his gestures and facial expressions, he gives a flawless performance that is not to be missed. It’s worth noting that both Shoemaker and Wyatt work extremely well together on this piece and their chemistry and their comprehension of the comedy shine through. Kudos to both David Shoemaker and Tom Wyatt for jobs very well done.

Final thought… Comedy, when done right, is timeless and Charley’s Aunt is a fast-paced, humorous romp and farce of mistaken identity in a bygone era that’s still side-splitting funny in today’s age. Some individual performances are better than others, but this ensemble, as a whole, is a hard-working, well-oiled machine with great chemistry and a prodigious comprehension of the material. The production is polished with a creative Set Design and challenging Costume Design that is on point. Don’t let the fact that it’s a period piece deter you because this is not a production to be missed.

This is what I thought of this production of Charley’s Aunt.… what do you think?

 Charley’s Aunt will play through December 23 at Fells Point Corner Theatre, 251 S Ann Street, Baltimore, MD 21231. For tickets, call 410-276-7837 or purchase them online.

Review: Thoroughly Modern Millie Jr. at Children’s Playhouse of Maryland

By Jennifer Gusso

Running Time: 1 hour 50 minutes with one intermission

From the moment Millie Dillmount (Rachel Miller) appears on stage, bright-eyed and full of hope, in front of a New York City skyline and starts to sing, there is no doubt that the audience is in for a treat. From beginning to end, the cast of Thoroughly Modern Millie Jr. at Children’s Playhouse of Maryland, Directed by Liz Boyer Hunnicutt, with Music Direction by Charlotte Evans, and Choreography by Amanda Poxon, never fails to delight and to demonstrate that young people are incredibly capable of stunning vocals, intricate dance routines, and nuanced, mature acting performances. The entire ensemble of young people does an amazing job of bringing this fun and funny musical to life.

The ensemble of Thoroughly Modern Millie Jr. Credit: CPM, Inc. Facebook Page

Setting the stage (literally) for their success are Diane Smith’s set design and Laura Miller’s scenic art. A combination of projection and cleverly-designed set pieces lead to seamless transition between a variety of locations. Coupled with a beautiful light design at the hands of Ed Lake, the audience is transported to the various locations, including a window ledge over the city. The total transformation of the actors to another place and time is completed with careful costume design by Sharon Byrd.

Of course, all of the set and costumes truly sizzle to life due to the brilliant direction of the creative team. Hunnicutt, Evans, and Poxon don’t back away from challenging the young performers to push themselves and have clearly prepared them well to be ready for the leap. The scenes shows careful comedic timing and character work; the music comes to life with solid and consistent harmonies; and the dance is just “WOW.” Poxon clearly has a gift. From flappers to tappers, every big dance number is unique and creative and the entire cast falls into lockstep with each other. These three ladies truly provided the foundation that allows these young performers to shine.

Rachel Miller as Millie Dillmount and Matthew Trulli as Trevor Graydon. Credit: CPM, Inc. Facebook Page

From small roles to large, shine is exactly what they do. From the very first dance number, the ensemble makes their mark. Front and center in that first number and standing out with her boundless energy and infectious smile is Evelyn Acerno. The ensemble continues to impress in a variety of roles as stenographers, boarding house residents, and other New Yorkers. Two other young ladies that really stand out in every ensemble scene and number are Ava Corelli and Angela Boeren. At every moment, they are selling the choreography and reacting appropriately in character.

Speaking of characters, this show is full of them! Sophia Possidente (Miss Flannery) is an absolute hoot. She creates a zany character who still comes across as real. Her comic reactions to the lines of others are also well-timed and sophisticated. Also showing just the right mix of crazy and restrained are the hilarious performances of Matthew Byrd and Allison Naglieri as Ching Ho and Bun Foo. Byrd was especially endearing in his quest for love. The pair also had excellent comic banter with Mrs. Meers (Emily Ricci). Ricci has a commanding presence on stage and delivered a stellar performance.

In the role of Miss Dorothy, Heidi Thiessen was the perfect ingénue. She exudes natural innocence. Will Foohey (Jimmy Smith) and Matthew Trulli (Trevor Graydon) both brought a warmth and natural likeability to the two male leads. Trulli was especially entertaining in the scene after being stood up at a restaurant, and Foohey did a solid job of showing Jimmy’s growth throughout the show. That trio especially excelled when they were singing. Each of them had a beautiful tone quality and evident vocal training. Those three voices, combined with that of Millie herself, in “I Turned a Corner” created an especially touching musical moment.

Rachel Miller as Millie Dillmount. Credit: CPM, Inc. Facebook Page

As wonderful as every aspect of this production was, it would be nothing without the perfect Millie – and that’s exactly what they had in Rachel Miller. Miller was the perfect balance of sweet and stubborn. She created a character who came alive in the cracks between her contradictions. A clearly capable dancer, she led and commanded the big dance scenes. Miller also has a beautiful belt but also this throaty quality to her voice that makes it both reminiscent of other famous stage belts and yet also uniquely her own. She wore the vocal score and the role like a glove, as if it had been written especially for her.

This production proves yet again that there is nothing “just” about children’s theatre. Everything about this production was delightful, and it could easily compete with any adult production in the area. Go see Thoroughly Modern Millie Jr. at Children’s Playhouse of Maryland, and you will not be disappointed!

This is what I thought of Children’s Playhouse of Maryland’s production of Thoroughly Modern Millie Jr… what did you think? Please feel free to leave a comment!

Thoroughly Modern Millie Jr. will play through December 16 at Children’s Playhouse of Maryland, at The Community College of Baltimore County, Administration Building, 7201 Rossville Boulevard, Baltimore, MD. For tickets, call 410-443-ARTS (2787) or purchase them online.

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Review: Newsies at Street Lamp Productions

By Jennifer Gusso

DISCLAIMERPlease note, one or more persons directly involved in this production are immediate family or relatives of the Backstage Baltimore reviewer. The reviewer has vowed and striven to write an honest, fair, and  thoughtful review, regardless of his or her connection with any member(s) of the cast of this production.

Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes with one intermission

With the recent release of production rights, we are definitely in the midst of a great Newsies explosion. With one generation of those who grew up in love with the original Disney movie and a new younger generation that has fallen in love with the Broadway production (available in full on Netflix), many have waited breathlessly for the opportunity to perform in or see this show on the local stage. The story of a crew of lovable and determined young people standing up from the powerlessness of poverty to take a stand for what is right and fair against a conniving businessman is a tale that is both timeless and timely. For these same reasons, any local production has big shoes in comparison to the film, the Broadway production readily available for screening, and the growing number of current productions. Street Lamp Productions presentation of Newsies (Book by Harvey Fierstein, Music by Alan Menken, and Lyrics by Jack Feldman), Directed and Choreographed by Bambi Johnson, with Music Direction by Nikki Tart, doesn’t necessarily get everything right and definitely battles some challenges in their current production, but they do most certainly get the things that matter most just right and land with a production that will certainly entertain audiences of all ages and all levels of familiarity with the script.

The ensemble of Newsies at Street Lamp Productions. Credit: Street Lamp Productions Facebook Page

The story surrounds the actual historic Newsboys’ strike under the leadership of the fictionalized Jack Kelly (Art Bookout). Bookout easily channels the youthful energy and excitement of Jack. His vocals are inconsistent at times, but his tone is absolutely lovely when he lands squarely on the mark. Bookout also has a tendency to go small and intense with his darker emotions. While this is likely to work exceptionally well in a smaller space, those moments were sometimes swallowed up in the large stage that was being utilized at Rising Sun High School. One simple fix, which may have helped some of these moments—including “Santa Fe” and “Something to Believe In”—would have been to move the scaffolding and the action downstage.

Erin McArthur, as Katherine, would also have benefited from having her big number “Watch What Happens” moved to the forefront. McArthur’s strength lies in her acting and the little moments of natural reactions that she has throughout the song. Bringing her closer to the audience would have really helped to capitalize on the little nuances in her performance. There were some definite issues with the sound system that also could have been helped by bringing the solos and small scenes closer to the audience. Between the size of the stage and the sound issues, you couldn’t even really hear Jack during “I Never Planned on You,” as all focus was pulled by the Bowery Beauties who were further downstage.

Luckily, most the scenes in Newsies are not small scenes, and, as soon as the rest of the cast joined Bookout and McArthur on stage everything came to life. Bookout quickly became a confident and competent leader when surrounded by the rest of the newsboys. The most important part of any production of Newsies has to be those big production numbers. Not surprisingly, the direction and choreography employed by Bambi Johnson in those moments is top-notch. The energetic and synchronized skill of the entire cast is true magic. The newspaper dance sequence in “Seize the Day” was truly legendary, as, even while working with a difficult prop, no one seemed to miss a beat. Likewise, “King of New York” was a stunning display of tap technique. The dance didn’t stop with the large dance numbers, as Johnson cleverly used dance as a mode to change sets and fill the brief moments in between scenes as well. The action kept going and keeping everything alive.

The ensemble of Newsies at Street Lamp Productions. Credit: Street Lamp Productions Facebook Page

Helping make that possible was a truly strong ensemble that operated together like a well-oiled machine. That ensemble also had no shortage of standout performances from some of the featured Newsies. Matthew Peterson was a warm and likable Race. Sammi Flickinger (Specs) showed off impressive ballet and tap technique at the forefront of every number. Ryan Conner (Henry) was always alive with his reactions and bright smile. Stephanie Peterson (JoJo) brought this loveable, innocent energy to her character and dazzled with her athleticism as a dancer. Connor Reagan (Buttons) and Delany Flickinger (Mush) entertained with well-delivered one-liners. Any time that you glanced at Meg Smith (Newsie), she was in the moment and living the character. There was never a time that any one of the ensemble members seemed distracted or unprepared. Each one was focused in the moment, and you could feel the energy and chemistry that all of them brought as a team.  The whole concept in Newsies is the whole is more important that the individual and we are at our best when we work together, and this production nailed that.

Another example of taking a small featured part and really making it shine was Patricia Egner as Hannah. She really created an authentic character and brought great humor and energy to her scenes.

Still, two performances managed to really stand out among the others bringing something more to the entire production. The first was Austin Barnes as Davey. In addition to his beautiful tenor vocals, Barnes provided the audience with a master class in acting performance. A difficult skill is to show how a character goes through a radical transform. In some hands, the transformation is too subtle. In others, it is too sudden or too vast. The core of Barnes’ Davey never changes. He is clearly playing the same character from the beginning to the end, and yet Davey at the end is a grown, changed man from Davey at the beginning. From subtle things that he does with his body language and his vocal patterns to larger choices that he makes in line delivery and overt reactions, Barnes shows Davey’s slow and gradual progression into someone more confident and more compassionate. His performance was truly technique at its finest.

The ensemble of Newsies at Street Lamp Productions. Credit: Street Lamp Productions Facebook Page

The heart and soul of this production, fittingly as he is the real heart and soul behind Jack, was Josh Willig’s flawless portrayal of Crutchie. To start with, Willig showed unbelievable body control in the way that he carried his leg so still and at such an odd angle that is truly looked crippled. It was impossible to catch him letting down his guard about the leg. While you would think that would require all of his focus, he was in no way distracted from a performance that seemed completely genuine. He embodied the utter sweetness of Crutchie and truly gripped hearts with his vocally gorgeous rendition of “Letter from the Refuge.” Willig was honestly just delightful to watch.

Several of the weaknesses in this production were beyond control (being in a rented space), like the before mentioned sound system and the lack of real theatrical lights. However, the one misstep may have been in the character choices for the “adult” characters in the production, specifically Joseph Pulitzer (Ted Cregger) and Medda Larkin (Jennifer McDonald). Both Cregger and McDonald have big personalities and big voices, but the choice was made to play these characters in the vein of over-the-top humor that didn’t quite resonate with the more subtle and realistic character choices made by the rest of the cast. It may have been intentional to further set the adults apart from our heroes, but it didn’t quite land.

Minor flaws aside, this production is worth seeing and will definitely stand out even in a sea of Newsies productions. The choreography alone is enough to enthrall, and, once you add the chemistry and comradery of the cast that brings it to life, audience members won’t be able to help but to smile and to cheer. Layer on top of the that the heart and the spirit of the story of the underdog being heard shared with sincerity and passion, and you are likely to leave ready to come back and see it again.

This is what I thought of Street Lamp Productions production of Newsies… what did you think? Please feel free to leave a comment!

Newsies will play through December 9 at Street Lamp Productions at the Rising Sun High School theatre, 100 Tiger Dr, North East, MD 21901. For tickets, call 410-658-5088, email streetlamparts@gmail.com, or purchase the online.

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Review: A Christmas Story at Tidewater Players

By Jennifer L. Gusso

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

“You’ll shoot your eye.” A tongue stuck to a freezing pole. Ominous images of Santa while a young boy careens down a slide. For anyone who has seen and loved the iconic film A Christmas Story, all of those memorable moments find themselves brought to life on stage at the Havre de Grace Opera House in Tidewater Players‘ production of the musical of the same title, Directed by Laurie Starkey, with Music Direction by Stephanie Cvach, and Choreography by Amanda Poxon. In addition to the expected elements of the film, there is a score by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (of Dear Evan Hansen fame) and Book by Joseph Robinette that brings new nuances to the original story. With a multi-generational cast, a fun Christmas message, a lot of big dance numbers, and a few tender moments, this production is certain to warm the hearts of audiences both old and young.

The stage is set from the moment that audiences enter with a Christmas tree and lights hung all around the stage. While the set design is simple, there is a careful eye to detail in the set dressing that really makes the Parker home come to life. Set Designers Dickie Mahoney and Laurie Starkey have focused on the details with the pictures on the mantle and coats on the coat rack. It instantly feels like a home. Several simple and quick movements transform the entire space into a variety of other locations. Adding to the overall tone and mood set with each location is a Lighting Design by Thomas Gardner. He is especially able to demonstrate his creativity in moments like the slow-motion exchange with Santa. There are several instances in which the lights are the perfect accompaniment to Ralphie’s current emotional state. Carefully selected or designed props (like the leg lamp) and costumes (like the Elf costumes and the pink bunny suit) are more strong homages to the movie that are equally entertaining to new audiences.

However, the stage really comes to life when it is inhabited by the residents of Hohman, Indiana. The ensemble, both young and old, is full of life and energy. The script also allows for many of them to take scenes and make them their own. Stacey Bonds and Samantha Jednorski have an entertaining turn as Santa’s Chief Elves. Reagan McComas delights as he tries to sing with his tongue stuck to a pole. Sophia MacKinnon is adorable as she lists her wants to Santa and impresses in an early scene by freezing perfectly to give the illusion that her hand is pressed against a glass window. Carly Greaver is consistently alive with energy and really bring her choreography to life. Michael Maroney has the audience in stitches with his turn on Santa’s lap. He and Braeden Waugh shine in their slick dance routine in their suits. Chip Meister brings a chuckle with his portrayal of a tired department store Santa. As Miss Shields, Amanda Poxon provides a larger-than-life character and a stunning turn on the dance floor. All of these little bits and moments bring the world around the Parkers to life.

Right at the center, literally bringing the Parkers to life, is the narrator, Jean Shepherd. Tom Hartzell bring a genuine folksy warmth to the role. Especially strong are his physical reactions and facial expressions in the way that he sometimes squirms with the excitement of his child self and other times gazes at these younger versions of his parents with a longing that makes us wonder if they are still around. He looks upon the events in such way that the audience members feel like they really are seeing the events through his memory.

As his younger counterpart, Jamie LaManna gives a solid performance as Ralphie. It is a huge role and a huge score for a young actor, and he conveys himself with poise and has a lovely tone quality to his voice. LaManna really comes into his own as actor, just as his character matures, in the touching “Before the Old Man Comes Home.” His interactions with his brother Randy (played by the adorable Evan Christy) are warm and genuine.

What really makes this production though are Ralphie’s parents: The Old Man (Gary Dieter) and Mother (Eva Grove). Dieter brings just the right blend of loveable and curmudgeonly to his portrayal of Ralphie’s father. So much of the character’s material is subtext. There are clearly concerns about money and the pride that goes with that for a father, which Dieter brings to the front with just the right amount of subtlety.  It doesn’t hurt either that Dieter gets to show off his skill as a showman in two big dance numbers, walking over a chair and breaking out his tap shows. It is almost as if this role was written just for him.

Right over his shoulder though is the emotional heart of the entire production. Grove’s performance as Mother is practically flawless. She never appears to be performing. Every word and gesture is natural. She feels like your own mother or grandmother in the safety and warmth and joy that she brings to the Parker family and to the entire show. Nowhere is this more evident than in the beautiful moments of “Just Like That.” I can’t imagine that I was the only audience member with tears in my eyes. Grove commands the stage without ever trying to do so and, therein, creates the emotional center of everything.

Overall, there is a lot of energy and heart on display in this production. Even though there are a few spots in Act One where the script seems to drag a little, Director Laurie Starkey does an excellent job of planning transitions and moments that keep things moving along quickly to the next joke or large musical number. Choreographer Amanda Poxon keeps the cast moving throughout a significant amount of dance. When the cast comes together and all hit their marks, the choreography is fun. In a cast with a ton of big numbers and some members of the cast who may not be natural dancers, she really finds way to help them sell the choreography. Similarly, despite a few clear winter colds and a relative weakness in harmony, Musical Director Stephanie Carlock Cvach pulls out strong soloists and focuses the cast on signing mainly in a robust unison.

The strong work by the cast and production team was evident in the constant laughter, hooting, and applause by the audience. There were chuckles of appreciation from fans of the movie and gasps of delight from the children. My 8-year old daughter walked around all night singing “When You’re a Wimp,” clearly a fan of the score. Certainly, with the theme of the show resonating in my head, I appreciated it all the more, because “just like that the moment’s gone.” Young or old, fans or not fans of the movie, there is something for everyone to enjoy in this production. There is no doubt that you will leave ready to embrace some Christmas stories of your own.

This is what I thought of Tidewater Players’ production of A Christmas Story… What did you think? Please feel free to leave a comment!

A Christmas Story will play through December 2 at Tidewater Players at The Cultural Center at the Opera House, 121 N. Union Street, Havre de Grace, MD. Purchase tickets at the door one hour before show time or purchase them online.

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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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