Review: Always, Patsy Cline at Free Range Humans

By Andrea Bush

Running Time: Approx. 2 hours and 15 minutes with a 10 minute intermission

Patsy Cline, a shooting star on the country music scene in the late 1950s and early 1960s, was the first woman to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Even if you aren’t a country music fan, you likely have at least a passing familiarity with some of her hits, such as “Crazy,” “I Fall to Pieces,” and “Walkin’ After Midnight” (notably, one of the first songs to crossover within the Country and Pop music charts). Free Range Humans‘ latest offering, Always…Patsy Cline, created by Ted Swindley and Directed by Elizabeth Lucas, with Music Direction by Marci Shegogue, is based on the true, but debated, story of Cline’s unlikely friendship with Louise Seger, a fan from Houston. The pair met in 1961 at a Texas honky-tonk where Cline was performing, became fast friends literally overnight, and maintained a correspondence until Patsy Cline’s death in 1963. A jukebox musical, Always…Patsy Cline includes 27 songs, combining Patsy’s unmistakable contralto with Louise’s somewhat wacky storytelling to send a love letter through time, both to and from Patsy Cline.

Christine Mosere as Louise Seger and Shelly Lynn Walsh as Patsy Cline. Credit: Buddy Griffin

I may not recall the first time I heard Patsy Cline’s voice as vividly as Louise did, but her music is at the heart of some of my favorite memories of my dad. So I packed my nostalgia and love for all things Patsy, along with my absolute awe at Free Range Human’s inaugural production (a near-flawless Murder Ballad), in the car and made the trek from Baltimore to Frederick. My expectations were high and I was excited to check out the show at Sky Stage, an interesting outdoor theatre space.

Unfortunately, my expectations took a hit immediately upon my arrival as I got out of the car and peered into the empty Sky Stage. Alas, Mother Nature had other plans and heavy rain throughout the afternoon had rendered the venue unfit for the performance. A sign board out front confirmed that the performance had been moved to McClintock Distilling, so I headed down the road and pointed the way for a couple of wandering patrons (note to whomever made the signage: a right arrow would be a helpful addition to clarify “just over the bridge”).

I arrived at McClintock Distilling with just under 20 minutes to show time and things were a bit turbulent, to say the least. It was very clear that this production does not have a Producer on the team whose focus is the big-picture anticipation of Plans B-Z (Director Elizabeth Lucas pulls double-duty as Producer – this happens a lot in small theatre and this is the perfect example of why it shouldn’t). I have to applaud the perseverance of the production team with the last-minute move, getting the show underway with only about a 15-minute delay.

From a production-value perspective, I have to say the show was somewhat less than I expected from the same team that put together the stellar production of Murder Ballad in June. While some of the issues certainly stem from the venue change, some seem inherent to the production.

The staging of the show at the distillery faced challenges, as the actors and audience were on the same level, which I know is not the case at Sky Stage. They did their best to mitigate the problem with a simple set including a small platform, high pub tables, and bar stools.

Shelly Lynn Walsh as Patsy Cline. Credit: Buddy Griffin

I enjoyed the use of period-appropriate pieces that served as both props and set dressing. Louise’s “kitchen table” was set with a radio, kettle, and coffee mugs that may well have come straight out of my grandmother’s house and Patsy’s dressing area was set simply with an appropriate stand mirror. My only qualm with the props was the metal water bottles used by both actors throughout the production where a simple carafe and water glass would have been more appropriate (if breakage was a concern, clear plastic would still have the right look). It may seem trivial, but it took me right out of the story every time.

Costume design by Heather C. Jackson was effective overall and she did a great job of capturing Patsy Cline’s look, especially the Western outfits that Cline’s mother made for her early appearances. I’d have liked to have seen a better-fitted costume on Louise, particularly given the several mentions in the script of her clothes fitting like a glove, but her denim-on-denim look was appropriate.

I commend Lighting Designer/Technical Director TJ Lukacsina for rigging up a couple of lighting instruments in the distillery to augment the existing lighting when others might have made do with just the ambient light in the time they had to set up. I know Lukacsina and his work well and I would have liked to have seen his actual design for the show at Sky Stage. While I can’t say that his work at the distillery was a lighting design, per se, I appreciate his effort to elevate the production as best he could given the constraints of time and space.

Sound design by Logan Waters was plagued with issues of balance between the actors and musicians. According to Waters’ bio, his background is in design for a concert setting. I am hopeful that Waters will continue to learn and grow as a theatre technician, but, for this production, I missed almost every bit of underscored dialogue, as well as much of the vocals sung in a lower register (hugely problematic in a show about a famous contralto).

Music Director Marci Shegogue has assembled an excellent music team for the production and Walter “Bobby” McCoy did a great job subbing in as conductor and keys the night I attended. McCoy and the rest of the band – Jimi Cupino (Guitar), Buddy Griffin (Pedal Steel), Justin Thomas (Drums), Andrew Nixon (Fiddle), and Ben Rikhoff (Bass) – were largely enjoyable throughout.

Christine Mosere as Louise Seger and Shelly Lynn Walsh as Patsy Cline. Credit: Buddy Griffin

Always…Patsy Cline is a 2-woman show and is distinctly challenging in that both of the “characters” were real people – one of whom had one of the most recognizable voices in music history. It takes time for an actor to find a character and even more time to embody a real, recognizable person. It takes time to build relationships between actors and enable them to portray an immediate connection and enduring friendship on stage. It takes time to know a story well enough to break the fourth wall and tell it directly to an audience as if it’s your own. The Free Range Human’s model of an almost impossibly short rehearsal period may have worked against them this time around.

As Louise Seger, Christine Mosere becomes the narrator of the story when she should be the storyteller – a subtle distinction, but an important one. Nearly the entire plot, as it were, of the play consists of Mosere telling the audience perhaps the biggest story of Louise’s life: the night she met and befriended Patsy Cline. This is a story that Louise probably told to anyone who would listen until the words came as easily as breathing. While Mosere is funny and larger than life as Louise, much of her storytelling feels awkward and forced and she doesn’t seem quite settled into the material. Honestly, it’s a bit difficult to critique because, if she had been doing a one-woman show or a standup routine, I probably would have loved her. But in the context of this show, her performance made it difficult for me to believe the story and, therefore, believe the connection between the two women.

Shelly Lynn Walsh as Patsy Cline. Credit: Buddy Griffin

Shelly Lynn Walsh was vocally on point as Patsy Cline. Despite false starts on a couple of numbers, Walsh captured Cline’s unique voice and style to a tee and powered through a remarkable 27 songs. I appreciate that she embodied Cline’s vocal stylings without coming off as an impersonator – although I equally appreciate the attention to detail on the more well-known songs, especially Crazy. For all the crowd-pleasing numbers in the show, I have to say that my absolute favorite was If I Could See the World (Through the Eyes of a Child), offered as a prayer from a homesick Cline. I don’t tend to like when jukebox musicals shoehorn songs into the plot, but I actually preferred Walsh’s performance during those moments over the numbers where Patsy was performing on stage, television, or radio, as Walsh seemed more invested in those scenes. For as fantastic as Walsh’s musical performance was, the storytelling was lacking for her, as well, particularly in relation to Mosere’s Louise. I simply did not believe the connection and friendship between the two, which is the heart of the entire show.

Taken individually, the performances in Free Range Human’s production of Always…Patsy Cline are each enjoyable in their own right. Christine Mosere is sassy and funny as Louise Seger. Shelly Lynn Walsh is a musical knockout as Patsy Cline. This is, overall, a decent production – it’s just not a complete one and it’s not the level I expected from this team. I am hopeful that the actors will settle in and find a connection as the run continues, and that the production team will work out the few snags they had. Free Range Humans is definitely a company to keep your eye on and I truly can’t wait to see what they do next.

Always… Patsy Cline (a Free Range Humans production) will play through September 2 at Sky Stage, 59 S. Carrol Street, Frederick, MD. Tickets may be purchased at the door or online.
Additional performances will be held September 13-16 at the BlackRock Center for the Arts, 12901 Town Commons Drive, Germantown, MD. tickets may be purchased at the door or online.

Review: 9 to 5 the Musical at Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

Running Time: 2 hours with one 15-minute intermission.

Ensemble Members of 9 to 5. Credit: Alison Harbaugh

Every morning I get up for work, I can’t help but think of the ever-popular tune that states, “I tumble of out of bed and stumble to the kitchen, pour myself a cup of ambition and yawn and stretch and try to come to life.” Ain’t it the truth?! This reviewing thing is just a part time gig, a passion, but a part time gig, and just like many others out there, I’m still working 9 to 5! Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre’s latest offering, 9 to 5 the Musical, with Music and Lyrics by Dolly Parton and Book by Patricia Resnick, based on the 1980 film, gives us a glimpse into the life of an female office workers who faced some of the same struggles women in the workforce face today. Though the message is dead serious, this production is a fun and delightful take on what it’s like to be a strong, independent woman in a male dominated world. This production is Directed and Choreographed by Tommy Malek, with Music Direction by Rachel Sandler and Assistant Music Director Chris Pinder.

In a nutshell, 9 to 5 the Musical is based on the 1980 film of the same name, and features music and lyrics by Dolly Parton and  Book by Patricia Resnick. The musical centers on the the working lives of three women, Violet, the Senior Supervisor, Judy, the new girl, and Doralee. the sexy and sassy, but kind secretary to the big boss. They all work at Consolidated Industries, which is presided over by the sexist, lecherous, and pompous, Franklin Hart. By cause of a misunderstanding and innocent mistake, these three women hilariously take matters into their own hands and chart a course to better themselves and better the conditions for their co-workers.

Set Design by Tommy Malek and George Lawson is simple and practical but the bright colors and levels keep the action flowing and interesting. It’s a great space for this piece and Malek and Lawson use their space wisely, with moving set pieces and levels to present different locales. Kudos on well though-out design.

Costume Design by Tommy Malek (who seems to be wearing most of the hats on the creative side of this production), is on-point. Set in the first year of the 80s decade, there are heavy remnants of the 70s style still alive and well. Not only is the ensemble dressed with accurate attire for the time, they are dressed in business attire of the time, which adds value to this production. The wigs are spot on and everyone looks like they stepped out of a late 70s-early 80s JC Penny ad… which is absolutely appropriate for this piece.

As I said before, with Music & Lyrics by Dolly Parton, you can’t go wrong, but… I’m a huge fan, so I might be a little biased on that point. However, Music Direction by Rachel Sandler with Assistant Music Director Chris Pinder is as close to perfection as one can get for a production. All of the songs came across clear and well-rehearsed and the ensemble had their cues and harmonies down pat. It’s also worth mentioning the pit orchestra was aaahhh-mazing! At points, I thought I was listening to a polished recording and this orchestra didn’t falter once. The orchestra included: Ken Kimble (Piano/Conductor), Trent Goldsmith (Keyboard), James Rodak, Joe Calianno, Justin Kaley (Reeds), Randy Neilson and Tony Settineri (Trombone), Allyson Wesley (Trumpet and Flugelhorn), Diego Retana (Guitar), Reid Bowman (Bass), and Larry Berry and Andrew Bilbrey (Drums). Kudos to Sandler, Pinder, and the Pit Orchestra for a job very well done.

(l-r) Ande Kolp as Violet, Sydney Phipps as Doralee, and Lindsay Litka as Judy. Credit: Alison Harbaugh

Tommy Malek, among many other duties, takes the helm of this piece and I’ve got to start off with saying his casting can’t be better. He has assembled a strong, versatile cast that work well together and off of each other. The pacing of this piece is fantastic and the energy keeps up throughout the entire production. Malek seems to have a good comprehension of these characters and this story and presents it in a polished piece with a clear vision.

Moving on to the performance aspect of this piece, I’d be amiss if I didn’t mention that the entire ensemble puts 100% effort into this production, if not more. The dances are tight and the harmonies are clear making this a standout ensemble and each and every person involved should be proud of his or her work.

Steve Castrodad as Mr. Hart. Credit: Alison Harbaugh

In a strong female heavy cast, Steve Castrodad takes on the villainous role of Mr. Hart, the cold, hard boss and big man in the office. Rawls seems to have a good grasp of the character who is, and I quote, “an sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot,” but his execution of the character wasn’t as strong as his fellow cast mates. It’s clear that Castrodad gets what this character was about, but he seems to be trying too hard to get there. Vocally, he pulls the numbers off well enough and acts his way through them beautifully and humorously such as  in his featured number, “Here For You.” Though there are a few minor bumps in his performance, Castrodad still has a strong showing giving full effort and really gets you to hate his character and his sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical, bigot ways. Getting an audience to hate or love your character is a feat in itself and he pulls it off nicely.

Ande Kolp as Violet and Zac Brightbill as Joe. Credit: Alison Harbaugh

Zac Brightbill takes on the role of Joe, a junior accountant and office mate that apparently has feelings for Violet and wants to see where the relationship goes. Brightbill embodies this character and his natural delivery and chemistry with his cast mates makes for a strong performance. His vocal work in his featured number, the poignant “Let Love Grow” is solid and his ensemble work is energized and on point making for a praiseworthy performance all around.

Roz Keith, Mr. Hart’s right-hand-man and nuisance to everyone else in the office, is played with gusto by Traci Denhardt. Denhardt has a good grasp on this character and takes this role and makes it her own with flawless comedic timing and an energized, wailing (in a great way) rendition of her featured number, “Heart to Hart.”

(l-r) Lindsay Litka as Judy, Ande Kolp as Violet, and Sydney Phipps as Doralee. Credit: Alison Harbaugh

The absolute standouts in this production are, hands down, Ande Kolp as Violet Newstead, Syndey Phipps as Doralee Rhodes, and Lindsey Litka as Judy Bernly. These three actresses are to be commended and applauded for their work in this production. Vocally, all three are powerhouses and, if Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre had a roof, they would blow it off! Their chemistry is second to none and vocally, they complement each other perfectly adding great value to their group numbers such as the upbeat, inspirational “Shine Like the Sun.” I’m familiar with the film and went in with some reservations, being a huge fan, but these three actresses, alone, made this production worth it and put my reservations to rest.

Kolp plays Violet Newstead with a good balance of wit and tenderness, as the character requires. She wants to kick open the door to the boys club and show them she’s just as good, if not better and Kolp manages to bring this across in her performance in such numbers as the high energy “One of the Boys,” Though her delivery may seem a little too scripted at times, she has a strong presence on stage and gives a powerful vocal performance.

(l-r) Ande Kolp as Violet, Sydney Phipps as Doralee, and Lindsay Likta as Judy. Credit: Alison Harbaugh

Doralee Rhodes, the country gal with good old fashioned values, but knows how to take care of herself, is played superbly by Phipps. Though her southern accent comes and goes, the character is spot on and, vocally, this woman knocks it out of the park. Disclaimer… I’m a HUGE Dolly Parton fan. I was definitely watching Phipps through squinted, suspicious eyes when she first entered but… she won me over in the first couple of lines because I knew she understood this character entirely. Vocally, Phipps knocks it out of the ballpark, especially with her renditions of “Backwoods Barbie” and her parts in group numbers. She’s a standout that you want to keep any eye on.

Lindsay Litka as Judy Bernly. Credit: Alison Harbaugh

This brings us to Lindsay Litka taking on the role of the timid, mousey Judy Bernly, who is the new girl in the office after a heartbreaking divorce. Litka pulls off this character superbly with just the right blend of timidness and strength that the character requires. She has a natural delivery and strong presence that makes for a robust performance. Litka, too, is a vocal dynamo with a strong voice that rings throughout the theatre and brings down the house in her featured number, “Get Out and Stay Out.” Litka makes one stand up and take notice and should not be missed in this role.

Final thought… 9 to 5 the Musical is a fun, energized adaptation of a classic film about the worth of women in the workplace and it’s a strong message to young women everywhere. They couldn’t go wrong with Music and Lyrics by Dolly Parton, though Patricia Resnick’s book does seemed rushed and scattered at times. The entire ensemble is on point and gives 100% to the performance and the live pit orchestra is nothing short of spectacular. Big, bright, and full of catchy tunes, this is what I call a modern-old-fashioned musical comedy with the perfect blend of song, dance, and book with an important message. This is not a production you want to miss this summer. Get your tickets now!

This is what I thought of this production of 9 to 5 the Musical.… what do you think?

9 to 5 the Musical will play through September 22 at Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre, 143 Compromise Street, Annapolis, MD 21401. For tickets, call the box office at 410-268-9212 or purchase them online.

CORRECTION: The actor playing the role of Mr. Hart was mistakenly listed as Leigh K. Rawls, who plays Mrs. Hart. Steve Castrodad is the actor playing Mr. Hart and the article has been corrected.

Review: Disney’s The Little Mermaid at Cockpit in Court Summer Theatre

By TJ Lukacsina

Run Time: Approx. 2 hours and 15 minutes with one intermission

Under the Sea with Sebastian (Derek Cooper). Credit: Trent Haines-Hooper

Sebastian is certainly onto something when he tells Airel that “the human world is a mess. Life under the sea is better than anything they got up there.” Especially if he’s referring to Cockpit in Court’s latest production of Disney’s The Little Mermaid, with music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Howard Ashman and Glen Slater. This production is Directed by Jillian Bauersfeld, with Music Direction by Andrew Worthington, and Choreography by Karli Burnham. Originally produced by Disney Theatrical Productions, this adaptation from Disney’s 1989 film has a book by Doug Wright which has had some unfortunate rewrites since the show closed on Broadway in 2009. I’ll be upfront in saying that the majority of my qualms for this production stem from these poor rewrites and cuts that Disney made before allowing it to be licensed to local theatre groups. In general the writing is watered down and presentational on a basic, at times insulting, level and makes you feel as if you’re watching the Wikipedia Summary instead of the show. Thankfully, Jillian Bauersfeld’s handling of the show not only makes it palatable but also an enjoyable experience for all ages.

Briefly, The Little Mermaid is about Ariel, King Triton’s youngest daughter, who wishes to pursue the human Prince Eric in the world above. She bargains with the evil sea witch, Ursula, to trade her tail for legs by giving up her voice. But the bargain is not what it seems, and Ariel needs the help of her colorful friends, Flounder the fish, Scuttle the seagull and Sebastian the crab to restore order under the sea. (www.mtishows.com)

Under the Direction of Jillian Bauersfeld, Music Direction of Andrew Worthington and Stage Management of Robert W. Oppel, this production is highly entertaining and manages to allow the audience to drift from scene to scene without any pull from the undertow. The audience feeds off the energy flowing from the stage and one can’t help but enjoy being slightly distracted from little kids singing along to some of their favorite songs. That’s when you know you have tapped into the Disney magic and are encouraging future theatre lovers.

Allison Comotto as Ariel. Credit: Trent Haines-Hooper

Walking into the theatre you are treated with a projection of a beach and the sounds of waves and seagulls to help take you away from the pouring rain outside. Creating their magical world, Set Designer Michael Rasinski should be proud of the scene shop’s execution. These beautiful set pieces are large enough to maintain their presence while the cast dances on and around them. Corals in Ariel’s grotto and individual wood planks on Eric’s ship are the kinds of details that help transport you and are much appreciated. But even with the details, a little more attention to the destruction of the grotto would have helped the audience grieve with Ariel instead of wonder why she was so upset that her thingamabobs were moved a few feet away from her whatchamacallits. However, all of these set pieces would go unnoticed if it weren’t for Thomas Gardner’s Lighting Design. Overall, the lighting is aesthetically pleasing and appropriate. The heavy use of haze allowed the lighting to be seen to help fill the full stage space but allowed the lights to become distracting during the scenes on the apron where they obscured the projection heavily. Use of moving lights helped to create the underwater effect and while effective, would occasionally get lost due to similarities in the color pallette . Mr. Gardner certainly has an eye for key moments in songs and certainly knows when and how to highlight them for maximum effect.

Deanna Brill’s Costume Design walked the line between expectation and invention. I applaud the bold choice to tastefully show so much beautiful skin and the design of the mer-tales that were as practical as they were visually delightful. The ensemble were dressed vividly while the classic looks from the movie were still alluded to, from Prince Eric’s classic outfit to even the puffy sleeves on the wedding dress. From the fish, eels and even the birds, the costumes allowed the actor’s characters to come to life.  Although the designer is not listed in the program, make-up design was detailed and really helped to establish these characters as otherworldly. My main makeup concern was actually a lack of a certain makeup: the decision to not conceal actor’s tattoos. While appropriate in some shows, I found them to be a minor distraction for this production.

Gary Dieter as Scuttle. Credit: Trent Haines-Hooper

For a show that has a focus on story and is aided occasionally with dance, Karli Burnham’s Choreography helped to showcase the wonderful talent in the cast. With a working knowledge of the costumes, the choreography wasn’t limited to just foot movement but body and arm movements which allowed for a fluid movement from the actors. Some of the large ensemble numbers while portraying water felt repetitive and tedious in their attempt to fill the musical space. However, her work really shines with the small tap ensemble as well as the evolution of dance Eric teaches Ariel in “One Step Closer” was storytelling through dance.

The heavy lifting of Alan Menken’s score is in the capable hands of Andrew Worthington. The cast was well prepared and knowledgeable enough of their parts to make them their own and not rely on mimicking the original cast recordings. All voice parts were balanced and easily heard along with the pit thanks to the constant vigilance by sound designer Brent Tomchik. Following Mr. Worthington’s conducting was a competent orchestra consisting of established musicians in the area: Stephen Deninger, William Zellhofer, Christopher Rose, Stacey Antoine, Joseph Pipkin, William Georg, and Gregory Troy Bell. While proficient and accurate, the orchestra only suffered from a lack of actual brass and additional woodwinds. Even though those parts were covered in the keyboards, I found the patches were inconsistent among themselves and rarely compensates for the timbre from the actual instrument.

All these designers were able to achieve on a level which produced a thorough and consistent vision from Director Jillian Bauersfeld. With the aid of Assistant Director Jake Stuart, the cast is able to portray these fantasy characters with heart, believability and a recognizable humanity. While working under the shadow of a Disney title, it’s difficult to produce a show that allows artistic freedom with a vision while still giving the audience a dose of their expectations from the movie which kicked off the Disney animated renaissance. Ms. Bauersfeld was able to give us a cast worth watching and set up a show that ran smoothly. Small decisions to have the sea characters constantly moving arms or allowing several acting choices that were inconsistent to their characters are minor annoyances and never hurt the overall enjoyment. The true art of directing is assembling the right team to find the right cast and crew and allow everyone to do what they do while pushing them for more. Congrats to Ms. Bauersfeld on your ability to inspire everyone to give their best!

(l-r) Josh Schoff as Flostom, Holly Gibbs as Ursula, and Jonah Wolf as Jetsam. Credit: Trent Haines-Hooper

I have always felt that some of the hardest working actors seem to get lost in the ensemble. When asked to play several different characters, help shift set pieces, and often run off stage only to completely change costumes and makeup and run back on stage for two minutes of a three minute song, it’s hard to remember what is next let alone your name. Major kudos to Nicole Arrison, Olivia Aubele, Amy Bell, Lanoree Blake, Katelyn Blomquist, Karli Burnham, Kelsey Feeny, Shani Goloskov, Aaron Hancock, Mark Johnson Jr, Dorian Smith, Ian Smith and Jose Teneza for your energy, talent and being consistently in character. These actors jumped from the sailors steering the ship and winding the rope, to King Triton’s court, to the seagull ensemble, chefs and Ariel’s attendants in the castle and were always able to help establish the mood of the scene.

Featuring Ellen Manuel (Aquata), Elisabeth Johnson (Andrina), Malarie Zeeks (Arista), Kaitlyn Jones (Atina), Emily Caplan (Adella) and Hannah Bartlett (Allana), Ariel’s mer-sisters were a wonderful balance to Ariel’s positive and dreamy attitude. Using different hair styles and different shells while porting vastly different personalities and physical traits, each sister managed to be her own while presenting a unified front in their featured numbers “Daughters of Triton” and “She’s in Love.” Pulling double duty, they are a delight to see on land competing for Eric’s love in the vocal contest that plays up the fantastically poor vocals of these characters.

Brian Jacobs as Chef Louis. Credit: Trent Haines-Hooper

In supporting yet memorable roles, Brian Jacobs revels in playing Chef Louis during “Les Poissons” while Nicholas Pepersack’s dignified and proper Grimsby was always moving with purpose on stage. Mr. Jacobs clearly enjoys his song and slashes into his character to the breaking point of the cleaver. A fun cameo for sure that was able to get the giggles and laughs from the audience. Grimsby’s conversation with King Triton really gives Mr. Pepersack a moment to have a heartfelt moment and show how proud he is of Prince Eric.

My scene-stealing award goes to Gary Dieter who simply was Scuttle from the moment he flew in to his flawless tap dance in “Positoovity.” Scuttle was over the top and as endearingly annoying as I remember from the movie. It was hard not to smile when he was visible. Sharing the stage with him most of the time and impressively holding his own ground was Adrien Amrhein as Flounder. With sweet dance moves and a solid voice, this kid will secure more roles on stage and we will benefit from seeing him. Dutifully performing a poorly written character, his choices to not emphasize being friend-zoned and play up the best friend were appreciated.

Slithering onto the stage on their matching scooters were Josh Schoff as Flotsam and Jonah Wolf as Jetsam. The choice of scooters to maneuver them around stage was inventive and paid off in execution. Both actors were able to skillfully incorporate them in their character and not rely on them as a crutch. They were perfect henchmen to Holly Gibbs’ Ursula. Having arguably both the best and worst songs in the show, Ms. Gibb was able to make the most of her voice and complemented with acting ability that emanated from all eight limbs.

As ruler of the sea, Mark Lloyd’s King Triton managed to capture the softer side and showcased his mourning for his deceased wife and inability to properly communicate with Ariel. “If Only” is a great song to show that Triton is more than just a fierce ruler who banished his sister to a small part of the ocean but is also a parent who is sometimes unsure how to parent. He relies on Sebastian, played by Derek Cooper, to spy on Ariel and win her trust. With a clever costume and sublime vocals, Mr. Cooper is able to bring Sebastian into our lives with his own lovely interpretation. “Under the Sea” is his time to shine and when out in front singing he earns your attention with powerful falsettos and fantastic facial expressions.

The Daughters of Triton. Credit: Trent Haines-Hooper

Our leading man, Jim Baxter hits the stage as Prince Eric while taking charge of his ship. Mr. Baxter certainly looks every bit of what you’d expect from the cartoon and captures his love for adventure when on the ship and when courting Ariel in the second act. When beginning “Her Voice” he was oddly out of breath but managed to salvage some and really drive the second half of his number home with gusto and emotion. Not to be out-done by her new fiance, Allison Comotto’s Ariel is exactly what you could want from a Disney princess. Ms. Comotto is able to capture Ariel’s longing and desire to escape all while dealing with difficult family members. Allison really comes to life in Act two when her curiosity and excitement can only be communicated through her facial expressions. The joy Ariel finds in the new world is brilliantly shown during “Beyond My Wildest Dreams” where she sings her inner monologue to us. But however fantastic she is, she is at her prime when singing “Part of Your World.” Congratulations on your fairytale engagement and for inspiring a cast to follow your lead.

Disney’s Little Mermaid is a local theatre production that is able to rely on the community of actors, crew, musicians and artistic staff to bring its own magic to the stage. They should be proud of the work that they have poured into this show. The perfect escape from the summer heat, bring the family to see Cockpit in Court’s production where “it’s better down where it’s wetter.”

Disney’s The Little Mermaid will run through Auguest 5 at Cockpit in Court Summer Theatre, CCBC Essex, Robert and Eleanor Romadka College Center, F. Scott Black Theatre. For tickets call the box office at 443-840-ARTS (2787) or purchase them online.

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Review: A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Chesapeake Shakespeare Company

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

Running Time: Approx. 2 hours and 30 minutes with one 15-minute intermissions

William Shakespeare is not everyone’s cup of tea, but his work has well outlasted him and is being produced regularly throughout the world so, he must have done something right. His stories are timeless and can relate to anyone in any era which is what, I think, helps the longevity of his work. The comedies are my personal favorite, but, that’s just me, and Chesapeake Shakespeare Company’s latest offering, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is on top of my list so, I went in with lofty expectations. However, this production, Directed by Gerrad Alex Taylor did not disappoint in any way.

Elana Michelle as Hippolyta and Michael Toperzer as Theseus. Credit: Shealyn Jae Photography

Briefly, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a fanciful triste through the city and wood of ancient Athens. A young woman, Hermia, is betrothed to one noble man, Demetrius, while in love with another, Lysander, who just so happens to be in love with her. Bring in Helena, who is in love with Demetrius, but the feelings are not mutual. Enter the Fairy King, Oberon, and Fairy Queen, Titania who are having their own lover’s quarrel, and a sort of practical joke including dew from a certain plant that makes a person fall in love with the first person they see after waking up. Throw a little troublemaking imp named Puck in the mix and you have a farcical comedy that has lasted hundreds of years… for good reason.

Designing a set for an outdoor setting can be challenging but Daniel O’Brien’s Set Design is impeccable as it is simple. Not calling for much in the way of scenery, O’Brien has managed to turn this small corner of space in the midst of “ruins” of a building at a historic park into the solid and larger than life Athens, as well as a blissful and fanciful forest in which fairies and imps romp, all with the opening and closing of two large canvases. It works beautifully with the piece and adds great value to the production as a whole.

Jose Guzman as Nick Bottom and Alana Michelle. Credit: Shealyn Jae Photography

For Costume Design, Heather C. Jackson chose to keep it traditional with colorful flowing robes and sashes that work extremely well for this traditional setting. Her design is well thought-out and the ensemble seems comfortable in their wardrobe which helps the overall performance of the piece. It’s apparent she’s familiar with the both the era and the fanciful theme and it shows in her impeccable design.

Gerrad Alex Taylor take the reins as Director of this production and it couldn’t be in better hands. His choice to use a traditional setting is wise and takes everything back to basics. So many companies like to adapt and modernize Shakespeare’s work (which I’m all for), but it’s good to see that the traditional setting still works and works brilliantly. Taylor has a strong comprehension of the material and his whimsical and fantastic vision is clear in every scene. The pacing is on point and the staging is engaging every step of the way. Taylor also takes on double duty as Fight Choreographer and he hits the nail on the head with this aspect, as well. Each fight is finely tuned and exciting making for an overall delightful experience. Kudos to Gerrad Alex Taylor for a superb production.

Moving on to the performance aspect of this production, I’d be amiss if I didn’t mention that the entire ensemble did their part and performed with 100% effort. It’s easy to see this cast is comfortable with each other and their chemistry is second to none.

Michael Toperzer as Oberon and Elana Michelle as Titania. Credit: Shealyn Jae Photography

Michael Toperzer as Oberon and Elana Michelle as Titania shine in these roles, as well as their takes on the characters of Theseus and Hippolyta. Their interaction with and off of each other draw the audience in and Toperzer and Michelle portray the complex relationship between Oberon and Titania beautifully and with confidence making for intense and engaging performances from both.

Christine Watt as Peaseblossom, Abigail Funk as Cobweb, and Sydney Thomas as Mustardseed are the perfect complement to Elana Michelle’s Titania and these three play their characters to the hilt. They, too, work well with and off of each other to create a tight circle that moves the dialogue and story along nicely. All three actresses are well rehearsed and well suited for their roles.

The story revolves around two couples, mainly, and Nina Marti and Rafael Sebastian portray Hermia and Lysander, the two forbidden lovers. Marti is a firecracker and as the script states, “…she’s fierce, even though she’s little.” and that’s exactly what she is. Marti has a tight grasp on the text and performs it effortlessly while Sebastian, too, portrays Lysander with just the right amount of innocence and a young man’s lust making for commendable performances from both.

The Fairies Dance. Credit: Shealyn Jae Photography

The other unfortunate couple, Demetrius and Helena, are portrayed brilliantly by Nick Fruit and Kate Forton. Though their characters start out as anything but a couple, through a little bit of magic and luck, they end up happily joined. Fruit plays the uppity Demetrius well with confidence and grand gestures but also understands and does well with the slapstick that is required of the character. Likewise, Forton is stellar in this role. She completely embodies this character and it’s easy to see the love and passion she has for this character and the piece as a whole. She has a strong stage presence and gives a natural, seemingly unscripted performance that makes her a highlight in this production. Fruit and Forton work well off of each other and their timing is flawless making for a delightful and strong performance, overall.

Imani Turner as Puck. Credit: Shealyn Jae Photography

Young Imani Turner, still in high school, tackles the role of Puck, the little trouble making imp who doubles, at times, as narrator of this story. This young actor is a true talent and his instincts and natural ability are apparent as he portrays this comedic character with just enough mischief for him to irritate but with a mix of a bigheartedness, one cannot help but like this character. His delivery and comedic timing is on point and I’m looking forward to seeing more of his work in the future.

The Athens acting troupe, also known as The Rude Mechanicals consist of Colin Connor as Peter Quince, Brenden Edward Kennedy as Francis Flute, Tim Neil as Snug, Owen Halstad as Robin Starveling and the casting of these gents is superb. All of them comedians and the performance of their featured part, the play within a play called Pyramus and Thisby will have you rolling in the isles. It can be seen as the play that goes wrong, and it was one of the most enjoyable moments of theatre I’ve encountered this season. Connor, Kennedy, Neil, and Halstad show off their comedic timing and slapstick abilities impeccably and have the audience roaring with laughter. This crew is certainly a highlight of the production.

Iman Turner as Puck and Michael Toperzer as Oberon. Credit: Shealyn Jae Photography

Another member of this troupe is standout Jose Guzman as Nick Bottom. Seemingly a vain and obtuse character, Guzman plays Nick Bottom to perfection. Guzman has a complete grasp of the text and plays it over the top, but not so over the top as to be annoying… just the right amount. Guzman is a force to be reckoned with onstage with a strong stage presence and a natural comedic ability. You can’t miss him in any scene he is in whether he is speaking or pantomiming in the back and his delivery is spot on. He’s certainly one to watch in this particular production and I can’t wait to see future performances from this actor.

Final thought…A Midsummer Night’s Dream is not a show you want to miss this season. The production is top-notch in every aspect and the setting couldn’t be more picturesque. From the scenery to the staging to the performances, this production of a Shakespeare favorite will not disappoint and makes for an absolutely delightful evening of theatre. The thought and care that went into this performance is apparent and the actors, who are giving 100% of their effort and passion, make this a successful retelling of this classic comedy that will have you doubled over, laughing, and engaged every step of the way. Get your tickets now!

This is what I thought of Chesapeake Shakespeare Company’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream… What did you think? Please feel free to leave a comment!

A Midsummer Night’s Dream will play through July 29 at The Patapsco Female Institute Historic Park, 3655 Church Rd, Ellicott City, MD 21043. For tickets, call 410-244-8570 or purchase them online.

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Review: James and the Giant Peach at Heritage Players

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

Running Time: Approx. 2 hours with one 15-minute intermission

When it comes down to it, family is what matters, whether it’s by blood or by choice, we all need a place to belong, where we are loved for who and what we are with no questions asked. Some families look alike and some are a tapestry of colors and shapes and sizes but none of that matters when the love is there. This important message is clear in Heritage Players latest production of James and the Giant Peach with a Book by Timothy Allen McDonald and Words and Music by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. This new production, based on the classic novel of the same name by Ronald Dahl, is Directed by Elizabeth Tane Kanner, with Music Direction by Emily Taylor and Chris Pinder, and Choreography by Malarie Zeeks.

(l-r) Rebecca Hanauer as Ladybug, Brandon Goldman as James, Jeremy Goldman as Grasshopper, Matt Scheer as Earthworm, Megan Mostow as Spider, and John “Gary” Pullen as Centipede. Credit: Shealyn Jae Photography

If you are not familiar with the story, briefly, it is about little orphan James who is sent to live with his horrible Aunts, Spiker and Sponge, who treat him badly. While performing some hard labor on the property, he runs into the mysterious Ladahlord, who gives him a magic potion that helps the old, dying peach tree produce a peach, but not just any old peach. This peach grows and grows until it’s as big as a house and James finds his way into this peach and meets a gaggle of insects, all his size, including a Spider, a Ladybug, an Earthworm, a Grasshopper, and a Centipede. All of them must get off the property before Spiker and Sponge destroy them in one way or another and they embark on a journey across the sea, all the while learning what it means to be loved and a part of a family.

Set Design by Elizabeth Tane Kanner and Atticus Copper Boidy is simple but effective for this piece. The decision for a unit set is wise and allows for set pieces to be rolled in to represent various locations, keeping it simple. The growth of the magic peach is clever, using various items at different stages of growth, so it’s easy to see a lot of thought went into this design. Some of the scenic painting is elementary, but it works for this fanciful piece and, overall, it’s easy for the actors to navigate and is appropriate for the production.

Costumer Lisa Chicarella had her work cut out for her with this whimsical tale but she has stepped up and created a wardrobe that works brilliantly with this piece. Each principle character is a different insect and the choice of wardrobe is flawless with elegant dresses and skirts for the French Spider and English Ladybug and the snazzy Grasshopper suit with a splash of green to get the point across. Not to mention the horrible Aunt costumes, which are over the top but absolutely fitting for this piece. The costumes were appropriate and the cast seems comfortable in them which adds great value to this production.

(l-r) Megan Mostow as Spider, Brandon Goldman as James, and Rebecca Hanauer as Ladybug. Credit: Shealyn Jae Photography

Malarie Zeeks’ Choreography is impressive and entertaining making for fun and energized numbers. She seems to know her cast and works with the different levels of abilities to create dances and movement that complement the ensemble and produce tight, strong dance numbers making for a delightful production, all around. Kudos to Zeeks for her work on this piece.

Emily Taylor and Chris Pinder tackle Music Direction for this production and their efforts are to be applauded. Using recorded music can be challenging, but Taylor and Pinder have this ensemble performing near flawlessly and bring Pasek and Paul’s score to life, vocally, with ease. The ensemble and individual performers are on key and in rhythm making for a tight, on point performance.

Director, Elizabeth Tane Kanner, seems to have a good grasp of this material and it’s message and presents it in a well thought-out production. Those the sets leave a little to the imagination, the character work and staging is on point. The pacing is stellar and Kanner creates a production that engage both children and adults, which can be tricky. She hasn’t just put on a “kids show” but a show that the entire family will enjoy. Her vision is clear and she has gathered a superb ensemble to present it.

It’s worth stating that the entire ensemble of this piece is a joy to watch. Every single actor and actress on the stage is giving 100% effort and it shows in the group numbers and scenes in between those numbers. Kudos to this entire ensemble for their efforts and the production they’ve mounted.

Brandon Goldman as James. Credit: Shealyn Jae Photography

Brandon Goldman takes on the titular character of James and it’s easy to see he enjoys portraying this role. For being a younger actor, he holds his own against the older, more experienced actors and portrays James near perfectly as the longing orphan, just looking for a family to love and to love him. Though little Goldman isn’t extremely strong vocally, yet, he’s young, has great potential. His featured numbers are poignant and he pulls in the audience, especially in numbers such as “Middle of a Moment” This reviewer thinks he’s going to make a big splash in the theatre community as time goes on. It’s tough being the youngest in an ensemble but Goldman shines in this role.

(l-r) Megan Mostow, Rebecca Hanauer, Brandon Goldman, Jeremy Goldman, Matt Scheer, and John “Gary” Pullen. Credit: Shealyn Jae Photography

Stephen M. Deininger as Ladahlord, the mysterious storyteller with a flair for magic who pops in every now and again, completely embodies this role and his energy is infectious. He takes this role and runs with it making him a joy to watch. Deininger knows how to read his audience and roll with the punches making him one to watch. Two other principle players, John “Gary” Pullen as Centipede and Matt Scheer as Earthworm also know their characters well and play them to the hilt. Pullen’s curmudgeon Centipede is believable and balances out the rest of the Insect crew while Scheer’s plays the anxious and jumpy Earthworm in such a way, you’re rooting for him throughout the production. Vocally, he’s confident and performs his featured number, the hilarious “Plump and Juicy” without a hitch. Having a taller stature, the jumpiness seems a little clunky rather than light and airy, but this doesn’t affect his character and he plays it easily.

Highlights of this production are Jeremy Goldman as Grasshopper, Rebecca Hanauer as Ladybug, and Megan Mostow as Spider. These three actors superbly play these characters as the ones who seem to bond most closely with James and they’re portrayals are spot on. Goldman’s Grasshopper is polite and caring, and has beautiful chemistry with his cast mates. His strong vocals add to the Insect numbers such as “Floating Along.” He’s a joy to watch and it’s easy to see he’s having a blast in this role. Rebecca Hanauer has a great grasp on her character and plays her with the dignity and grace that is required and performs a pretty believable English accent. Vocally, she’s a powerhouse and shines in numbers such as “Everywhere That You Are.” Working in tandem with Goldman and Hanauer is Megan Mostow who radiates in the role of the Spider. Her French accent is on point as his her character work. Her confidence and comfort being on the stage shines through and her solid vocals make her, too, a vocal powerhouse, especially in numbers where she is featured like “Floating Along” and the heartfelt “Everywhere That You Are.” Hats off to these actors for jobs well done and for giving the utmost effort in their roles.

(l-r) Ashley Gerhardt as Spiker and Amy E. Haynes as Sponge. Credit: Shealyn Jae Photography

Last but certainly not least, Ashley Gerhardt as Spiker and Amy E. Haynes as Sponge, the nasty, horrible aunts are absolute standouts in this piece. They’re chemistry seems effortless and they completely embody these roles. Haynes, who plays the less intelligent of the two, plays her seriously enough to get the job done but has enough fun to give the audience a great show. Her costumes are over the top and work perfectly for this story. Gerhardt, who is a brilliant character actress, chews this role up and spits it out making for a funny and unblemished performance. From her outfits to her English (Cockney) accent, she’s on point. Vocally, both Haynes and Gerhardt both give hearty performances and will have your ribs tickling with such featured numbers as “A Getaway for Spiker and Sponge” and the slapstick, and straight-up funny “I Got You.”

Final thought… James and the Giant Peach is a heartwarming, entertaining piece that is appropriate for the entire family. It teaches and spreads the message that family can be by blood or chosen and that there are all kinds of families out in the world. You don’t need to be from the same place or look the same way and this is absolutely relevant today. This important teaching is presented in a way that children will easily understand but engaging enough for adults to maybe learn a thing or two, as well. The production is well though-out and the casting is on point. Though only one more weekend to go, this is definitely a show you want to check out this season.

This is what I thought of Heritage Players production of James and the Giant Peach… What did you think? Please feel free to leave a comment!

James and the Giant Peach will run through July 14 at Heritage Players in the Thomas-Rice Auditorium on the Spring Gove Hospital Campus, Catonsville, MD. For tickets, purchase them at the door or online.

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Review: Judy and the General at Spotlighters Theatre

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

Running Time: Approx. 2 hours with one 15-minute intermission

Kay-Megan Washington and Kellie Podsednik. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre / Shaelyn Jae Photography

It seems no matter what time or era, women have always been underestimated, especially in biblical times. Women were supposed to act a certain way, be accepting of everything men threw at them, and docile and obedient. However… there were a few “rouge” women who weren’t having it, whatsoever. One of those women is Judith from the biblical Book of Judith which we don’t hear much about (I wonder why?) but is a great story of strength, faith, and love. Spolighters Theatre latest offering, the World Premiere of Judy and the General, by Baltimore playwright Rosemary Frisino Toohey, Directed and Musically Directed by Michael Tan, presents this epic story in an accessible, humorous telling of this intriguing and important story.

Kellie Podsednik as Judy. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre / Shaelyn Jae Photography

As stated, we don’t hear much about Judith today but there are representations in paintings, monuments, and song all over the world. Briefly, Judy and the General tells the story of Judith, a young girl who lives in a small farming village with her father and they seem to be on the verge of bankruptcy. She meets the very rich and very tender Manasseh and the two fall madly in love. With her newfound riches, Judith becomes quite a pill for others, especially her maid. Unfortunately, Manasseh keels over soon after and Judith is left alone. Meanwhile, a neighboring Assyrian king wants to take over the land in which the village sits and sends his best general, Holofernes. All the while, Judith has put herself in solitary confinement and has seen the light and wants to be a better person by helping others. The Assyrians and the villagers are at a standoff and Judith realizes she can use her feminine wiles on Holofernes to help her village and be a better, more pious person.

Richard Greenslit as Soldier. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre / Shaelyn Jae Photography

Alan Zemla’s Set Design is minimal but, as always, on point. The space at Spotlighters is intimate and in the round and Zemla knows it like the back of his hand. His use of the entire theatre is wise and opens up the production more than what the stage has to offer. His scenic art work is brilliant and he puts the audience smack dab in the middle of the ancient village and dwellings. Simple set pieces are used to represent locations and allow for smooth transitions. Kudos to Zemla for adding great value to the production.

Wayne Ivusich, Kellie Podsednik, and Rob Wall. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre / Shaelyn Jae Photography

Putting new work out can be frightening, but, someone has to do it and I’m glad those “someones” do. Rosemary Frisino Toohey has given us a strong piece to mull over. Her script is spot on in all aspects including dialogue, structure, and timing. It’s witty, engaging, and tells this epic story in an accessible, witty way that is entertaining and keeps the attention of the audience. My criticism is with the music aspect. It is a musical, so, music is half the deal, but with this particular production, the music just seemed to fall flat. Don’t get me wrong, the songs are simple and sing-able, but you won’t find yourself tapping your foot or humming any of the tunes when you walk out of the theatre. Some might, but most probably won’t. That being said, the music is appropriate for the piece and it yields some cute melodies, but overall, it doesn’t make a deep impression. Toohey’s lyrics may be the biggest problem. At times they are elementary and predictable and might work better as simple dialogue than in a song. Again, that’s not to say the music aspect of this piece is bad, but it’s the weakest, especially up against a strong, intelligent script.

Wayne Ivusich, Rob Wall, and Richard Greenslit. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre / Shaelyn Jae Photography

Michael Tan takes the reigns of both Direction and Music Direction of this piece and he pulls it off flawlessly. His staging works well for the space and the pacing is near perfect. He seems to have a good comprehension of these characters and this story and has presented it clearly to an audience. Directing the first full production of any piece can be daunting, but Tan has stepped up nicely. His Music Direction, too, is top-notch keeping the cast in harmony and in tune while playing along as the lone musician! Tan is to be applauded for his efforts in this well put-together production.

Richard Greenslit as Servant. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre / Shaelyn Jae Photography

Moving into the performance aspect of this production, Wayne Ivusich and Richard Greenslit, who play multiple roles are quite an act together. Ivusich gives off such a jovial air, no matter which character he’s playing, making him a delight to watch and it works for all of his characters, including Dad, King, Head Man, and Captain. He has a good grasp on the material and presents it beautifully. Now, Greenslit… I could watch him onstage all day. He could have two lines or ten monologues in a row, it doesn’t matter because of his expressive face, it’s all a joy to watch. He’s a master of the subtle glances and side pantomimes as well as comedic timing which is required for his roles as Workman, Servant, Soldier, and Advisor. Vocally, both of these gentlemen are confident and not only sing their featured numbers, such as “The Guy in Charge” and “The Servent’s Lament, Why Can’t We Switch,” nicely, they also act them out which adds so much to the performance.

Rob Wall as General Holofernes. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre / Shaelyn Jae Photography

Rob Wall takes on the roles of Manasseh and Hologernes; two completely different characters – one being tender, one being hard as nails, and he portrays them both superbly.  His switch between the characters is effortless and he plays them like night and day, which is required, and he does it without a hitch. Vocally, Wall is a pro with a rich, smooth voice that resonates and is filled with emotion making for a strong, confident performance all around, especially in his featured numbers sucha s “April” and “Plunder Pillage, and Loot.”

Tackling the role of Judith (rather, Judy) is a highlight of this production, Kellie Podsednik. She is on point in her portrayal of this complex, driven woman and her gradual change from poor farm girl to pain-in-the-ass rich girl, to the pious woman she ends up being is unbroken. Because of her skill, her character at the end of the piece is completely contrasting with the character at the beginning of the piece which makes her one to watch in this production. Her high, delicate soprano is a perfect fit for this role and she knocks it out of the park, vocally, as in her featured numbers, “Closer to My Heart” and the poignant “Gone Now.”

Kay-Megan Washington as Maid (Narrator). Credit: Spotlighters Theatre / Shaelyn Jae Photography

The standout in this piece is Kay-Megan Washington, who portrays Maid (Narrator), though she is called Fallacia, it may not be her actual name, but that’s how it goes when you’re a servant in biblical times, right? Washington gives a confident, effortless performance and is absolutely natural on the stage and with the delivery of her dialogue. She has a deep understanding of this story and her character and it shows in her portrayal. Her vocal skills are strong and makes one take notice, especially in the opening number, “Tale to Tell” and her humorous “A Prayer”. She’s comfortable on stage and gives a strong, confident showing.

Kellie Podsednik as Judy. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre / Shaelyn Jae Photography

Final thought… Judy and the General at Spotlighters Theatre is a fun, lighthearted take on an epic biblical story that is not well known, but should be. The subject matter is relevant and serious but Rosemary Frisino Toohey manages to make it accessible with a witty, humorous, and well-structured script. The score, on the other hand (or beginnings of the score as this is the world premiere), is quaint and, at times, lackluster, but appropriate for this piece. Production value for this particular production is top-notch with well thought-out staging and Music Direction, a minimal but clever Set Design, and superb performances from every member of this small 5-person ensemble. Premieres can be challenging and World Premieres can be downright difficult, but Spotlighters Theatre and everyone involved in this production should be applauded for their efforts and this is certainly a production you want to check out this season.

This is what I thought of Spotlighters Theatre’s production of Judy and the General… What did you think? Please feel free to leave a comment!

Judy and the General will play through July 29 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: Laughter on the 23rd Floor at Cockpit in Court Summer Theatre

By Yosef Kuperman

Run time: Approx. 2 hours and 15 minutes with one intermission

(L to R) Alan Berlett as Kenny Fanks, Thomas “Toby” Hessenauer as Max Prince, Chris Cahill as Vlad Slotsky, and John Dignam as Milt Fields Credit: Cockpit in Court

Cockpit in Court Summer Theatre’s Laughter on the 23rd Floor (written by Neil Simon and directed by John D’Amato) is a work of historical fiction, biography, and comedy. I have no personal knowledge of the historical parts, but it’s a great comedy. Expect a witty combination of wordplay, one liners, and slapstick in a world with artistic

notes a la Mad Men.

John D’Amato’s staging deserves a shout-out in Cockpit in Court’s upstairs cabaret  theater, which is an intimate space with small numbered tables (Side note: You can bring food in; no table service). The stage is set up in the round in the center of the room, raised slightly off the ground and the center stage becomes the office for a team of TV comedy writers. Of the four corners of the stage, the characters enter through one, throw stuff out the window at the end of another, scribble on a third, and literally punch through the fourth. D’Amato uses the space effectively and the ensemble moves around so well you never feel anyone’s got their back to you.

Laughter’s core comedy derives from a combination of slapstick antics and the different eccentric writers (the funniest is Tirrell Bethel as Ira Stone) playing off each other and their boss —Max Prince (Thomas Hessenauer). Max Prince is a substance-abusing and angry star who’s losing his touch. He can barely understand what happens around him and lives in a semi-delusion world of cryptic classical allusion, paranoia about NBC cutting his show, and rage. However, he loves his show and his writers, and doesn’t want to fire his writers even as the show fails. Hessenauer’s performance gives the show the heart the comedy needs.

Jeniffer Skarzinski and John Dignman. Credit: Cockpit in Court

Laughter is also historical fiction set in the 1950s. The Second Red Scare is happening and the characters worry about (and deeply hate) Joseph  McCarthy. Stalin’s death happens, the USSR gets the hydrogen bomb, and, in the end, the characters reference that the Senate censors McCarthy. Though it’s not a huge part of the story, the Neil Simon cleverly leaves it in the background to establish the setting.

Laughter is also thinly veiled biography with Max Prince is a stand-in for Sid Caesar, Ira Stone for Mel Brooks, Lucas (the narrator) for Neil Simon himself, etc. It’s literally one-to-one. Look it up and you’ll see the not-so-well-hidden similarities. I’m not familiar enough with the history to know how well Neil Simon described what “really happened”, but this is his portrayal of his workplace full of famous comedians.

The historic and biographic elements make the show’s most invisible decision leap out at fans of history. Laughter refreshingly uses color blind casting. As a result, a play located in pre-Civil-Rights 1952 has two African-American writers on the team and makes tons of vaguely-racist ethnic-based jokes, and ignores race. The characters in fact rag on Ira Stone (played by African-American Tirrell Bethel) being Jewish (along with other character’s Russian and Irish heritage). From the dialogue, you’d never realize race relations were even a thing and that’s because the playwright’s Lucas (i.e Neil Simon) and Ira Stone (i.e. Mel Brooks or maybe Woody Allen) were Jewish in the original.

The Cast of Laughter on the 23rd Floor. Credit: Cockpit in Court

If you see this play as historical fiction / biography, that casting decision breaks the suspension of disbelief. Race relations were the defining issue of the 1950s. Think Martin Luther King, Brown v. Board of Education, school desegregation, Selma, etc. You can’t set a show in the 1950s and pretend it wasn’t a thing. But that’s exactly what this production does.

This production of Laughter does this because it cares more about the comedy than the history. They cast Tirrell Bethel because he’s an awesome comic actor who turns Ira Stone into the funniest role on set. He makes the comedy pop and that’s more important than accurately portraying racial attitudes in 1952. I watch to be entertained, not educated. You just need to suspend your historic disbelief a little.

For the non-historically inclined, don’t worry. You don’t need to know (or care) about the history to get the jokes. This isn’t historical humor like Death Of Stalin. It’s a story about the antics of TV comedy writers and their half-crazy-but-very-funny boss. The performances are admirable, the script is witty and engaging, and the gives us a rare glimpse into the office of TV comedy writers. It’s got heart and humor and is definitely worth seeing.

Laughter on the 23rd Floor will run through July 1 at Cockpit in Court Summer Theatre, CCBC Essex, Robert and Eleanor Romadka College Center, Cabaret Theatre. For tickets call the box office at 443-840-ARTS (2787) or purchase them online.

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Review: Avenue Q at Cockpit in Court

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

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

If you’re looking for some good old fashioned educational television that teaches kids how to count to 12 or has a word of the day presented by a green frog… you won’t find any of that here at Cockpit in Court Summer Theatre’s first offering of the season, Avenue Q by Jeff Whitty and Music and Lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, Directed by Todd Starkey with Music Direction by R. Chris Rose and Choreography by Elise Starkey. This is a stretch for Cockpit in Court, compared to their previous showings and I, for one, am glad they took the leap. It’s a funny, in-your-face show that leans more toward adult humor that will have you laughing and nodding your head about things you often think of but don’t say because you’re too courteous to do so.

The Cast of Avenue Q at Cockpit in Court Summer Theatre. Credit: Cockpit in Court

Avenue Q tells a tale about a college graduate, Princeton, trying to find his “purpose” in life. It is set in NYC, all the way out on Avenue Q (because Princeton couldn’t afford anything more). While he is struggling to find his purpose, he meets friends, finds love, loses love, and finds it again. Loosely inspired by the famous Sesame Street, this puppet-filled world reflects the crazy, sometimes filthy, adult realities of the world around us. We learn that real life isn’t really as simple as we dreamed it would be when we were kids, but this show hints that, even though it’s not like the dreams we had, life is still colorful and worthwhile.

Bob Denton’s Set Design is simple, yet superb. His design treats us to a set of detailed row homes and shop fronts that have been seemingly turned into apartments and his choice of drab, dull colors and use of second story levels adds a distinct realism to the piece. His attention to detail is fantastic and he uses his space wisely, creating a unit set with set pieces that enter and exit to express more specific spaces. Overall, Denton is to be applauded for his work.

Costume Design by Eva Grove is spot on as the characters come to life in their individual attire. Though most of the puppets probably came in their own garb, Grove’s work is still evident in the “human” characters in this piece and her choice of costumes enhanced the characters. For instance, the unkempt look of Brian, the slacker, and the more put together but traditional Asian fashions for Christmas Eve really took these characters to the next level. Kudos to Grove for a job well done.

Elise Starkey took on the task of Choreographing this piece and creates engaging movement that is a delight to watch. She seems to know and understand her cast and their abilities and her choreography enhances their abilities and makes for fun, upbeat numbers that the cast obviously enjoys performing. This production doesn’t require huge dance numbers but Starkey has created choreography that is simple enough to fit perfectly into the production but intricate enough to stay interesting and entertaining.

Veteran Music Director R. Chris Rose has guided this ensemble beautifully keeping them in harmony and on key. Many of the ensemble members are singing in character voices, but Rose has not skipped the musicality in spite of that challenge. He has a tight grasp on this material and it’s apparent through the performances of the apt ensemble. It’s absolutely worth mentioning the stellar and on point pit orchestra he’s assembled though it is unfortunate that the program (both hard copy and online) does not list the players as it wouldn’t be a musical without music and this pit orchestra should be applauded for their efforts.

The Cast of Avenue Q at Cockpit in Court Summer Theatre. Credit: Cockpit in Court

Todd Starkey takes the helm of this production and is no-holds-barred, which is just the kind of kick in the rear that Cockpit in Court needs. He takes the script, in full, and presents it with a clear vision and fearless attitude. Now, this type of show could be considered tame in some theatres in town, but this is actually a big step for Cockpit in Court and I’m very excited they’re taking it. Starkey’s casting is superb and it’s clear he has a great comprehension of the text and the message that being an adult just plain sucks sometimes, but life goes on and we figure things out as we go. Kudos to Mr. Starkey for a job very well done on this production.

Moving on to the performance aspect of this production of Avenue Q, I’d be amiss if I didn’t mention the hard work this ensemble put into the performance of this production. It must be a major challenge working with puppets but these actors seem to have mastered this task. In some cases, two people are needed to operate one puppet and those teams are flawless. The audience may even forget these characters are puppets because the actors are doing such a great job in their operation and portrayals.

As the human characters, Tigga Smaller as Gary Coleman, Stanton Zacker as Brian, and Suzanne Zacker as Christmas Eve give terrific performances and hold their own against the novelty of puppet characters. Smaller, though a bit scripted and stiff in her dialogue is a powerhouse when it comes to vocal stylings and Stanton Zacker and Suzanne Stacker’s characters are spot on with great chemistry and timing that is necessary for this piece.

Lauren Stuart, who is no stranger to the Baltimore stages, takes on the character of Lucy, the promiscuous and slutty puppet and she pulls off this character near flawlessly. Her featured number, “Special” is impressive and she certainly makes a splash.

Josh Schoff as Princeton. Credit: Cockpit in Court

Josh Schoff takes on Princeton, our “hero” and his character work is notable had one really feels for this character throughout the show. Vocally, he pulls off his numbers nicely, but his strengths lie in the character which he portrays authentically and with confidence giving a great showing.

Will Meister as Trekkie Monster (with Tate Erickson) may be one of my favorite characters as it seems Trekkie Monster has lost all give-a-f***. Meister’s portrayal, with the help Erickson (he’s a big monster so, he needs two puppeteers to manage), makes this character both crude and lovable. His featured number “The Internet is for Porn” is definitely funny and the tinge of truth it has makes on think. The teamwork between Meister and Erickson is top-notch and they are to be commended for their portrayal as Meister is to be commended for the character study he’s put into it.

A highlight in this piece is Clare Kneebone as Kate Monster, the sweet “girl-next-door” who, like Princeton, has aspirations but doesn’t quite know how to achieve them. Kneebone plays her sweetl,y but real and rough around the edges, which makes this character so authentic. She understands this character and the material and even though she is using a character voice, the realism comes through because of that comprehension. Vocally, Kneebone does not disappoint with a clear, booming voice that resonates throughout the theatre as it does in her featured, poignant number, “There’s a Fine, Fine Line.” She’s certainly one to watch.

Amanda Poxon and Will Poxon as Nicky and Josh Starkey as Rod. Credit: Cockpit in Court

Definite standouts in this production are Josh Starkey as Rod and Will Poxon (with Amanda Poxon) as Nicky. These actors take their performances to the hilt and completely embody these characters. Starkey, as Rod, skillfully uses a character voice that fits perfectly (and is reminiscent of Bert from Sesame Street fame) and an uptight attitude to match. He brings this character to life easily and through the character voice, vocally, he is spot on, especially in his cute and tender featured number, “Fantasies Come True.” A perfect match for Starkey’s Rod is Will Poxon’s Nicky, who he operates with Amanda Poxon). If any of these characters are perfect, it would be Nicky. Will Poxon’s character voice couldn’t be more perfect (which, of course, is an homage to Ernie from Sesame Street) and it takes his performance to the next level. It’s worth mentioning, too, that Amanda Poxon, though silent, gives a stellar performance with just her face and gestures that help this performance rise to the top. In his featured and hilarious number, “If You Were Gay” will have you in stitches and he doesn’t falter once, vocally. Kudos and congratulations to Starkey and Poxon for impeccable performances.

Final thought…Avenue Q is a fun and quirky look at the adult side of puppetry and no-holds-barred look at life from the point of view of someone just starting out in the real world. The production value is phenomenal, the performances are top-notch, the puppetry and character work are stellar, and the story/script, though not suited for all, is engaging and good in the way that it is not trying to be more than what it is… a comedy that makes people laugh (sometimes nervously) and says the things we are all sometimes thinking but are too polite to say. The music is modern with some catchy tune and makes for a delightful evening well spent. Don’t let this one pass you by this season. Get your tickets!

This is what I thought of Cockpit in Court Summer Theatre’s production of Avenue Q… What did you think? Please feel free to leave a comment!

(Puppets Constructed by Character Translations, Inc. for Music Theatre International. Avenue Q has not been authorized or approved by the Jim Henson Company or Sesame Workshop, which have no responsibility for its content.)

Avenue Q will run through July 1 at Cockpit in Court Summer Theatre, CCBC Essex, Robert and Eleanor Romadka College Center, F. Scott Black Theatre. For tickets call the box office at 443-840-ARTS (2787) or purchase them online.

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Review: The Quickening at Fells Point Corner Theatre with The Collaborative Theatre

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

Running Time: Approx. 2 hours with one intermission

It’s late, you’re safely tucked away in bed… you hear a noise. Is the house settling? The cat looking for a treat? An uninvited critter in the kitchen?… or something more sinister? These are the types of things that can keep you up at night and a good ghost story can have the same effect. Fells Point Corner Theatre’s (in collaboration with The Collaborative Theatre Co.) latest offering, the World Premiere of The Quickening by Mark Scharf, Directed by Ann Turiano, gives us an original ghost story that, with a few jump-scares and cleverly placed effects, will not only raise your pulse and possibly keep you up at night, but also make you think about what happens when we close our eyes for the last time.

Amanda Spellman as Beth and David Shoemaker as Matt. Credit: Shealyn Jae Photography

As stated, The Quickening, is a good old-fashioned ghost story set in present day. The story revolves around Beth, a young pregnant woman in a new neighborhood in a new town who knows the new house she lives in is more than meets the eye. She befriends her neighbor, Philomena (better known as Phil), a logical thinker with an open mind. Matt, Beth’s husband is a Civil War reenactor (a confederate soldier, no less), who believes most of the trouble has to do with Beth’s “condition” and how it effects the way she thinks. Meanwhile, Rosemary, Beth’s mother has come to help prepare for the baby and reveals a family secret that explains some of the strange goings on at the new house. Along with this explanation and a little research by Phil, the real story of the home unfolds with frightening conclusions that makes us question life, death, and the afterlife, if one believes it so.

Cassandra Dutt’s Set Design is phenomenal and uses the space wisely. Her use of levels to present different rooms and locations is wise and her attention to detail is top-notch. The Fells Point Corner Theatre stage is an intimate space but, with such a natural, authentic design, Dutt has managed to bring us into the living space of this young family which makes the audience feel closer to the action, adding to the experience.

Technical aspects for a horror story or ghost story on stage can be tricky and teeter on the line of corny but, working in tandem with Set Design, I’d be amiss not to mention that the Lighting Design by Tabetha White and Sound Design by Devyn Deguzman which is absolutely stellar giving life to this story. White sets the scenes and changes moods with her sometimes subtle, sometimes drastic change in lighting to invoke both calmness and a frenzy with lighting effects. Deguzman, too, adds value to this production with the “bumps in the night” sounds and disembodied voices that go hand-in-hand with ghost stories and would fall flat without them. Both White and Deguzman are to be applauded for their work on this piece.

Ann Turiano, who is no stranger to the stage, on or off, takes the helm of this production and her Direction is exceptional. Bringing a brand new piece to the stage can be a daunting task, but Turiano seems to have taken it in stride with a clear-cut vision and great comprehension of the material. Her handling of this new work is impressive in both staging and overall concept. It’s a modern setting with an intricate story but Turiano has given us a polished, well-presented production that shows and tell the audience a story simply without the bells and whistles but with just the right amount of effects and concentrating more on character and dialogue. It’s also worth saying her casting is on point for this piece. Kudos to Turiano for a job well done.

Marianne Gazzola Angelella as Rosemary. Credit: Shealyn Jae Photography

Award winning Baltimore playwright Mark Scharf has crafted a lovely story that is more about questioning faith, life, and death rather than a simple horror story. The scares are there and the creepiness factor is definitely apparent throughout, but his dialogue is well-thought out and well-researched. A few obligatory mentions of Baltimore seem a bit out of place, but there are only a few and do not hinder the production from moving forward. His in depth explanation of theories of physics and Catholic dogma are on point and actually teach a few things. The script did feel rushed at times – for instance, I would have preferred the realization and acceptance of what was going on in the house to be a little more gradual. It’s as if the characters simply accept the strange goings on with a few objects moving on their own and a strange little boy lurking about. However, that being said, I completely understand, for the sake of time, things need to be cut and the action still moved along smoothly and the story was told completely. Overall, this is an outstanding showing and I’m looking forward to seeing more of Scharf’s work in the future.

Moving on to the performance aspect of this production, we are treated to a strong, small ensemble who brings these characters to life with great authenticity and emotion making for beautiful performances all around. To begin, Mariane Gazzola Angelella takes on the role of Rosemary, the clairvoyant mother of Beth and Amanda Spellman tackles the multi-faceted role of Beth, the tortured and targeted occupant of the house.

Debbie Bennett as Philomena (Phil). Credit: Shealyn Jae Photography

Angelella is perfectly suited for her role as Rosemary, a good ol’ Bawlmer girl, who desperately wants to help her daughter through a tough time. Angelella even produced a good Baltimore accent but those born and raised can easily pick up that it is not a natural accent, but… it’s a hard accent to crack so, all in all, she does a superb job. Her character work is notable, as well, and she seems to have a good grasp on Rosemary, keep the character consistent throughout exuding the emotion of a parent of a child who is hurting in one way or another. Along the same lines, Spellman is excellent as the Beth and plays her to the hilt. Her chemistry with her cast mates adds a realness and natural air to her performance and she, too, has a good comprehension of this character and trials. Though she sounded a bit scripted, at times, overall, she gives a strong, confident performance that is a joy to watch.

A highlight of this production is David Shoemaker as Matt Wells, the doting, logical husband of Beth (and completely outnumbered male). Shoemaker is no stranger to the stage and his natural abilities shine through in his gestures delivery of his dialogue, adding an absolute authenticity to the character. It’s clear he understands his character and his performance helps the audience understand him, as well. He is certainly one to watch in this production.

Last, but certainly not least, Debbie Bennett takes on the role of Philomena (Phil), the kindly neighbor who befriends and helps the family even though her logical side is conflicting with her faithful side and she is the standout in this particular production. This character is the most complex of all the characters because of this conflict and Bennett presents it superbly. Her delivery and portrayal of the character is sincere which adds to her performance. This character seems to be the bridge between the supernatural and the natural in this piece, putting a lot of responsibility on Bennet, but she carries it well and does not falter. I’m looking forward to seeing more performances from this actress.

Final thought… The Quickening at Fells Point Corner Theatre is a scary (or horror) story that is presented in a very well put-together, well thought-out production. The script flows nicely, though at time seems a bit rushed, but overall, is a good story filled with intelligent, natural dialogue and diligent research. Be forewarned, there are a couple of jump scares but the effects are absolutely brilliant. The performances are admirable and the technical aspect is outstanding. Creating characters and bringing a piece to life for the first time can be difficult, but this team has done it beautifully. The entire cast, crew, and playwright are to be commended for their efforts and this is not a production you want miss this season.

This is what I thought of Fells Point Corner Theatre and The Collaborative Theatre Co.’s production of The Quickening… What did you think? Please feel free to leave a comment!

The Quickening will play through July 1 at Fells Point Corner Theatre, 251 S Ann Street, Baltimore, MD. For more information log on to fpct.org, or purchase tickets online.

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Review: SOUL the Stax Musical at Baltimore Center Stage

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

Running Time: Approx. 2 hours and 10 minutes with one intermission

It’s likely that we’ve all heard of Motown Records, RCA, Atlantic, A&M, and all the other big names in the music business, but what about the smaller labels that gave us the classics we know and love today? Unbeknownst to many, small companies like Sun Records, Chess Records, and Stax Record Co. have given us numerous hits and given starts to such legendary performers such as Elvis Presley, Muddy Waters, Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, and countless others, but we usually don’t think about where these folks started. Baltimore Center Stage’s latest offering, SOUL the Stax Musical with a Book by Matthew Benjamin, Directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah, Musically Directed by Rahn Coleman, and Choreographed by Chase Brock, tells the story of one of these aforementioned companies, Stax Record Company, and it’s rise and fall in that crazy business of music.

In a nutshell, SOUL the Stax Musical concerns itself with the rise and fall of Stax Record Company and the evolution of American soul music. It begins with a brother and sister team, Jim Steward and Estelle Axton, who combined the first two letters of each of their last names to form Stax Record Company. It touches on the careers of many well-known artists such as Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, Sam & Dave, and others who started their long, illustrious careers at the small label. It also tells of how the music business isn’t all about the music, sometimes, and bad deals, novice businessmen, and egos get in the way of the magic. Every good thing must come to an end whether we like it or not and this is not only a history of soul music but also a cautionary tale of the business part of show business.

Scenic Design by David Gallo is intelligent and practical adding value to this production. Using a unit set with set pieces coming in and out, create each space perfectly and seamlessly in this fast paced piece. Though in the background, the orchestra is presented nicely and they are noticeable but cleverly out of the way of the action. A simple looking set, it allows for ease of entrances and exits of the actors and helps tell the story in an interesting and engaging way.

Dede Ayite’s Costume Design is divine and on point as each era of this production is represented from the late 1950s through the 1970s, with a bit of the 90s thrown in there. Her attention to detail is commendable and there is no question as to which era we are in by the styles and wardrobe chosen for each character. Kudos to Avite for a superb design.

Since this piece is all about the music, Music Supervisor and Musical Director Rahn Coleman is to be commended for his fantastic direction. The tunes are recognizable and folks are familiar with most of them so it can be tricky not to mess with the music so much, but, wisely, Coleman has decided to stick to the original arrangements and the audience couldn’t have been more entertained and pleased. It’s worth mentioning the outstanding band consisting of Jared Denhard (Trombone), DeAnte Haggerty-Willis (Guitar), Matt Kruft (Guitar), Todd Harrison (Drums), Fred Irby, III (Trumpet/Flugelhorn), Winston Philip (Keyboard), Mark Russell (Bass), and Ed Walters (Saxophone/Flute). These folks hit the nail on the head when it came to performing the music of this energized, delving music and they deserve many kudos for their efforts for this production.

To go along with music being a main component of this production, Choreographer Chase Brock also gives us high energy, brilliant, and engaging choreography that is simply a joy to watch and is actually infectious, causing me to tap my foot along with the classics I grew up hearing. I found myself looking forward to and waiting with anticipation for the next choreographed number and I the dancers themselves were tight and well-rehearsed adding great value and vitality to this production.

Kwame Kwei-Armah, former Artistic Director of Baltimore Center Stage, has taken this script and presented it in a thoughtful and attentive manner, giving us the history and the humanity of a story not often told. Technically, this is a historical piece and has to be handled carefully, but Kwei-Armah with clever staging, on point pacing, and wonderful casting has managed to tell this story and stay true to that history. It’s obvious he has a great comprehension of the material (both the text and the music), and it shows in his dynamic vision that reaches into the psyche and soul (no pun intended) of the audience.

Moving on to the performance of this piece, I would be amiss if I didn’t mention how well polished and dedicated the entire ensemble of this piece is. They work well together and off of each other and it’s easy to see every member of this cast is giving 100% of him or herself and is confident in the story they are telling. Major kudos to the ensemble as a whole.

Among this amazing ensemble are a few higlights, such as Robert Lenzi as Jim Stewart and Warner Miller as Al Bell, the creator (Jim Stewart) and somewhat savior (Al Bell) of Stax Record Company. Lenzi is confident and has a complete grasp of his character – an unexperienced, wet-behind-the-ears music executive. His mannerisms and character work is impressive and makes Jim Steward a likeable character in the end. Miller, too, has a good comprehension of his character – a smooth-talking, good-intentioned radio DJ turned music executive. Miller’s blend of sincerity with a hint of sleaziness is impressive as he’s created a character that keeps the audience guessing whether or not they like him or not, making for a complex, engaging character.

There’s an old adage that goes something like “behind every great man is a great woman” and there is no exception in this story. Mary Jo Mecca takes on the role of Estelle Axton, co-founder of Stax Record Company and the logical thinker of the crew, and Anastacia McCleskey tackles the role of Deanie Parker, dedicated employee and peace-keeper of sorts. Mecca gives an authentic and poignant performance as Estelle Axton and plays this character as rough-around-the-edges but it’s easy to see she has a heart of gold and cares deeply for her brother and business partner, Jim. Mecca is able to portray this character with the perfect blend of acidity and charm that makes her a multifaceted, but likeable character. Also, her vocal performance is spot on, especially in her featured number, “Your Good Thing (Is About to End)” which she duets with an able and resonating Tasha Taylor (as Mable John).

Rounding out this uber-talened and able ensemble is Harrison White as Rufus Thomas, Ricky Fante as Otis Redding, and Boise Holmes as Isaac Hayes. These three actors couldn’t be more on point with not only their performances but their look and representation of these well-known soul singers of a bygone era. Harrison’s energy is relentless and remarkable as he sings and dances his way through is featured numbers such as “Walking the Dog,” “Can Your Monkey Do the Dog,” and the party staple “Do the Funky Chicken.” He also has a heartwarming duet with a velvet-voiced Allison Semmes (as Carla Thomas), “Cause I Love You,” which gives us a taste of the good music to come in this production.

Ricky Fante takes on the persona of the famous Otis Redding and shines bright not only in his portrayal but in his vocals in such numbers as “These Arms of Mine,” “Respect,” and the ever-popular smooth sounding “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay.” Pure magic.

Kwei-Armah couldn’t have cast anyone more appropriate than Boise Holmes as (arguably) the most famous performer to come out of Stax Record Company, Isaac Hayes (who started at Stax while he was still working at a slaughter house… who knew?!). Holmes completely embodies Isaac Hayes as he transitions this character from the early 60s to through the 70s in style and mannerisms. His deep, smooth bass vocals resonate throughout the theatre and make one stand and take notice. His featured songs are performed flawlessly, such as “Soul Man” in which he duets with an equally notable Trevon Davis (as David Porter), the slow-groove and moving “Walk on By,” and even the mostly instrumental, mostly spoken “Theme from Shaft.” Overall, Holmes is an absolute standout in this production.

Final thought…  SOUL the Stax Musical at Baltimore Center Stage is a high energy, nostalgic look at the rise and fall of a special time and place that brought us some of the most memorable and meaningful music in American history. It not only entertains but teaches us a little about the music business and its darker side where it’s not just about the music, no matter how the creators want it to be. The performances are spot on, the choreography is inspiring, and the story is one that has been wanting and needed to be told and it is told with love and care. Whether you’re a fan of soul music or just discovering it, you do not want to miss this production this season. Get your tickets as fast as you can!

This is what I thought of Baltimore Center Stage’s Productions’ production of SOUL the Stax Musical… What did you think? Please feel free to leave a comment!

SOUL the Stax Musical will play through June 10 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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