Review: Charley’s Aunt at Fells Point Corner Theatre

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

Running Time: 2 hours with one 15-minute intermission

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

David Shoemaker as Lord Fancourt Babberley.

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

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

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

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

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

By Jennifer Gusso

Running Time: 1 hour 50 minutes with one intermission

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: Newsies at Street Lamp Productions

By Jennifer Gusso

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

Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes with one intermission

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: A Christmas Story at Tidewater Players

By Jennifer L. Gusso

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: Side Show at Dundalk Community Theatre

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: Detroit ’67 at The Strand Theatre

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: My Fair Lady at Third Wall Productions

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes with one intermission

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jessica Preactor as Eliza Doolittle. Credit: Emma Thompson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: Songs for a New World at Spotlighters Theatre

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

Running Time: Approx. 2 hours with one intermission

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kristen Zwobot. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre / Shaelyn Jae Photography

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

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

and make them relatable making for spot on performances.

Andrew Worthington. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre / Shaelyn Jae Photography

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

Erica Irving. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre / Shaelyn Jae Photography

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

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

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

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Review: King of the Yees at Baltimore Center Stage

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

Running Time: Approx. 2 hours with one intermission

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: Sweat at Everyman Theatre

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

Running Time: Approx. 2 hours with one intermission

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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