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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