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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