Review: Side Effects May Vary… The Effect at Fells Point Corner Theatre

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

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

When one thinks about drug trials, rarely does theatre come up in the same thought. However, from my experience, anything, any topic, and any story can become theatre and, in this instance, the topic happens to be drug trials. In Fells Point Corner Theatre‘s latest offering, The Effect by Lucy Prebble, Directed by Andrew Porter, presents us with a sneak peek of what might happen in a drug trial for a nondescript drug that is going through human testing.

Nate Krimmel and Meghan Stanton. Credit: Trent Haines-Hopper/THsquared Photography

From what I could gather, in a nutshell, The Effect concerns itself with two volunteers, Tristan and Connie, and two doctors, Dr. Lorna James and Dr. Toby Sealey. They are all in the process of testing a new drug and all the while, a new relationship develops between the volunteers and an old relationship is reminisced between the doctors. Ethics are questioned and results are recorded but those results may not be what was intended.

I’m usually quite fond of the shows produced by Fells Point Corner Theatre but this particular production did not pique my interest in the least. I tried to be interested in the story and invested in the characters, but, alas, I was not. The production value and performance is superb, don’t get me wrong, but I’m not sold on the script and characters. Also, it seems the whole drug trial story line is simply a backdrop for the real story, which is the complex relationships between the characters. Some of the trial process is presented but most of the action revolves around the relationships. Maybe that’s the point?

It’s worth mentioning a definite highlight of this production which is the impressive and superlative Set Design by Bruce Kapplin. This design is clean and modern and fits this production perfectly. Two levels and perfectly symmetrical, Kapplin has captured the sanitized look of a hospital with a couple of levels and a few set pieces and he should be applauded for his impeccable design.

(l-r) Nate Krimmel, Mia Robinson, and Meghan Stanton. Credit: Trent Haines-Hopper/THsquared Photography

I must say, though, Director Andrew Porter certainly has a deep comprehension of this material and he has given us a polished, well put-together production with precise staging (though, be prepared for loud, thumping dance/electronic music shaking the entire theatre), and his vision is clear. Porter can only work with what he has, text-wise, and he does a splendid job in presenting the piece.

Most of the performances are spot on and Megan Stanton is a standout, taking on the role of Connie, one of the volunteers, gives a brilliant performance. Her delivery is natural and smooth making her character believable. She seems to have a good grasp of her character’s conflict and presents her beautifully. Nate Krimmel, who takes on the role of Tristan, a volunteer with experience with taking part in these types of trials, seems to understand his character, but also seems to be trying a little too hard to portray his character’s quirks. He presents Tristan a little over the top at times that takes away from the naturality. Both work well together and the chemistry is there… but I don’t buy it lock, stock, and barrel. This probably is not so much a comment on Stanton and Krimmel’s performances, but they fact I just didn’t connect 100% with the characters as written. Regardless of my feelings or connection (or lack thereof) of these characters, Stanton and Krimmel give confident and commendable performances.

Nate Krimmel and Megan Stanton. Credit: Trent Haines-Hopper/THsquared Photography

Another highlight of this piece is Mia Robinson, who tackles the role of Dr. Lorna James, who’s heading up the trial but is a licensed psychologist who seems to have needed a job, and this is in the medical field, after all. Robinson, like Stanton, has a natural flow to her performance that makes her character more believable. She makes good choices with her character and she’s one that I could find myself just the tiniest bit invested in, which is a good thing. Her delivery is authentic and she’s comfortable on stage which makes for a strong, assured performance. Her counterpart, Dr. Toby Sealey, portrayed by Gareth Kelley, is a little stiffer, as apparently written, but Kelley’s performance is a bit stiff as well. He seems scripted and, at times, uncomfortable in the role. He doesn’t completely falter and he seems to have a good comprehension of his character, but there’s no “oomph” behind his portrayal. The chemistry between the two is nil, at most, but they do get the idea across.

Again, my major beef is with the story and material itself, the performers did, for the most part, admirable jobs and, like I stated with Director Andrew Porter, you work with what you got and this ensemble’s presentation is commendable.

Final thought… The Effect, is a well put-together and polished piece and (most of) the performances are on point but it just couldn’t keep my interest. Staging was great and the message of ethics within drug trial testing is apparent but, it’s not something I think an entire show can be written around. So, I suppose it’s the subject matter itself is what didn’t capture my attention. Medical dramas are tricky and if you’re not into it, there’s not much that can happen to bring you in. Production-wise, this production is top notch from the Set Design to staging to performance and it’s definitely worth checking out!

This is what I thought of this production of The Effect at Fells Point Corner Theatre.… what do you think?

The Effect will play through March 17 at Fells Point Corner Theatre, 251 S Ann Street, Baltimore, MD 21231. For tickets, call 410-276-7837 or purchase them online.

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Review: Dear Diary, Heathers Comes to Tidewater Players

By Jennifer L. Gusso

Running Time: Approx. 2 hours with one intermission

Dear Diary: I know that Heathers is that kind of cult, fringe piece that true Theatre nerds are just supposed to adore. I don’t. I find the characters flat and confusing and unlikeable. I find the script filled with some major plot holes and raunchy humor for the sake of shock. Still, the current production of Heathers by Laurence O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy at Tidewater Players almost changed my mind. Co-directors Laurie Starkey and Austin Barnes (along with Music Director R. Christopher Rose and Choreographer Leslie Perry) seemed to be very mindful of some of the concerns and limitations with the script and really found ways to appeal to a broader audience. Strong performance after strong performance worked to make this show appeal to a broad audience. So, if you are thinking about giving Heathers another chance, this is the production with which to make that happen. Conversely, if you are already a fan of the show, this production is certain to be the “Big Fun” that you are looking for; it has all the hallmark trades of the cult classic mixed with some new, multi-dimensional spins on the characters.

Some of the things that I was left wondering after some past productions of Heathers are: Why should I care about Veronica Sawyer? And why the heck does she care about Jason “J.D.” Dean? Rylynn Woods and Gabriel Webster provide those answers. Woods’ Veronica is multi-layered. Even as she becomes caught up in evil schemes from all directions, her heart and her human longing is vividly on display in this performance. Even when Veronica is making some major mistakes, the vulnerability and transparency that Woods lets hang out for display in front of the audience creates a compelling, raw performance. Her consistent and strong vocals also carry the show. Likewise, Webster makes J. D. more real and more layered than the character is frequently portrayed. There is a light-hearted and fun side to J. D.. There are times when he really seems to want to do more and better. Webster’s nuanced performance helps the audience understand why Veronica keeps standing by his side through other moments in which he is truly a cruel and ferocious monster. Webster convincingly alternates between madman, charmer, and tormented little boy with believability. His dynamic acting performance makes up for his occasional vocal imperfections. In the moment, where he nails before the vocals and acting, it is pure magic. Woods and Webster also have sizzling chemistry and a playful comfortability. This is evident in both “Dead Girl Walking” and “Our Love is God.”

Other characters who are often, in other productions, one-dimensional and provide little reason to like are the Heathers: Chandler (Holly Blondheim), McNamara (Mary Cate Carder), and Duke (Elise Starkey). Blondheim masters Queen of Ice, as she mocks and tortures everyone around her, and yet there are subtle moments that make the audience see that “The Me Inside of Me” may not just be a construct in Veronica’s head. She takes this caricatured villain and makes her a real, not-so-live, girl. Likewise, Starkey’s Heather Duke appears all evil, ruling with even greater cruelty when she gets the chance, but there is this moment at the end where she lets down her guard and joins the rest of ensemble. It is such a small moment played so authentically that it speaks volumes. Another one of the best moments in the show – when everything comes together (masterful acting, beautiful and haunting vocals, powerful staging and lighting) – is Heather McNamara’s “Lifeboat.” Carder seizes this opportunity and absolutely shines. Her performance is spectacular throughout the show with well-timed comedic one-liners paired with emotional depth. As good as they are all separately, the Heathers are also dynamic together. Tight harmonies and crisp synchronicity of choreography makes for a memorable “Candy Store.”

Another standout is Emily Caplan in the role of Martha Dunnstock. Once again, the directorial vision of this show is clear in her portrayal. This is the kind of script in which it can be so easy to leave the characters as one-dimensional caricatures. However, Starkey and Barnes clearly made sure to tease out the emotional depth of each character and to cast actors that were able to handle that level of complexity. Caplan is no exception. Her Martha is not just weak, not just a victim. There is strength and hope even in her darkest moments. Her rendition of “Kindergarten Boyfriend” is light on the surface and brimming with pain just underneath. Caplan gives a perfectly restrained performance. Rather then over-singing or over-acting, she lets the vocals and the heart flow effortlessly.

All that being said, sometimes a little – or a lot – over the top is necessary. There is honestly nothing in the script that provides Nick Castillo (Kurt) and Henry Jester (Ram) with emotional levels for their characters. These characters are pure id, pure unlikeable, and pure comic relief. Castillo and Jester definitely deliver on all fronts. Their timing, chemistry, and comic delivery is up there with any of the great comedic duos. They also show off great physical comedy skills especially in their slow-motion fight scene and their final moments on stage. Equally delightful are the pairs’ fathers: Brian Ruff (Ram’s Dad) and Phil Hansel (Kurt’s Dad). “My Dead Gay Son” is a big, fabulous, hysterical number, and Ruff takes his moment voraciously. He has a natural presence and charm on stage that lights up this number.

Overall, the ensemble was solid. They were especially strong as a vocal ensemble with the harmonies often being noticeable and accurate when they joined as group. At times, the choreography was a little muddied, but overall enthusiasm and energy made up for any missed steps. Two standouts in the ensemble were Elias Courtney (Hipster/Officer McCord) and Lamar Leonard (Preppy/Officer Milner). Their bit as the officers was extremely well-delivered and memorable. Courtney also made an impression with several perfect one-liners throughout the show, and Leonard was especially memorable in his standout 80’s dance moves.

The final star of the show was the lighting design by Thomas Gardner. Different colors were used with great intentionality to highlight emotions and mood in different scenes. This was just another layer of the strong design and vision in this production. Tidewater Players’ Heathers is a well-constructed performance with lots of strong and realistic character portrayals. Whether you love the show or weren’t a fan before today, take a step back to being “Seventeen” and check out this production.

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

Heathers the Musical will play through March 3 at Tidewater Players at The Cultural Center at the Opera House121 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: It’s “Loverly” at Spotlighters Theatre with Pygmalion

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

Running Time: Approx. 2 hours and 30 minutes with one intermission

In this day and age, there’s no real distinction between how a woman should look and act and how a man should look and act, and there shouldn’t be, but some folks think so and they certainly did think so in the early 20th century. Not only the way one looks, but how one should act was also a product of the precise class distinction that went on around that same time. However, Spotlighters Theatre latest offering, Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw, Directed by Sherrione Brown, breaks down that comfortable way of thinking and presents us with a opposing view that a person can indeed make changes to oneself to be whatever he or she wants to be, without losing those qualities that make them unique. Written in 1912, it’s a period piece, but, deep down, has a message that is timeless.

(l-r) Phil Gallagher, Randy Dalmas, and Linae’ C. Bullock. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre / Shaelyn Jae Photography

Now, I’m sure most of you are familiar with the smash Lerner and Loewe musical My Fair Lady and all the catchy songs that go along with it including “Wouldn’t it Be Loverly” and “I Could Have Danced All Night,” but… it all started with this play right here. Pygmalion, in a nutshell, takes us back to 1912 England where a brash flower seller is taken on by the sometimes harsh Dr. Henry Higgins and the gentle, caring Colonel Pickering to see if Higgins can transform her from a “gutter rat” into a duchess by simply changing the way she speaks.

Spotlighters always manages to impress me with their Set Designs and what they do with their intimate space, however, in this instance, Set Design by Director Sherrione Brown is a bit uninspired, but it is simple and works with the piece. However, in a piece such as Pygmalion where there is supposed to be a distinctive contrast between the streets of London and the parlors of high society, there’s not much change as this production uses simple but appropriate set pieces (as is the fashion at Spotlighters). To present locales and Brown has selected pieces that do this nicely, but the usual ambiance that presents any particular production throughout the theatre and immerses the audience in the story just seems to be missing.

(l-r) Phil Gallagher and Randy Dalmas. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre / Shaelyn Jae Photography

Set Design aside, Costume Design by Jenifer Grundy Hollett is splendid. She has managed to capture the time period and gives the main character, Eliza Doolittle a definite and precise change in look to show her transition. Her attention to detail is exquisite and she should be applauded for her efforts. I’d be amiss if I didn’t mention Hollett is also a performing ensemble member taking on the role of Mrs. Pearce, Henry Higgins level headed housekeeper and she is definitely a standout in this production. Though taking on a supporting role with limited stage time, she makes the most of her character and gives a strong, solid performance with a natural delivery of the dialogue that make her performance a joy to watch.

Sherrione Brown, who has taken the helm of this production really knows her stuff when it comes to this story. She has a strong comprehension of this material and her staging is smooth (with only a few clunky and lengthy scene changes) and the pacing of this two-and-a-half hour period piece is on point. She handles this well known story nicely and presents it in an easy-to-follow manner. She guides this production with an assured hand and seems to get the best performances from her ensemble. Kudos to Brown for her Direction of this production.

(l-r) Melissa McGinley as Mrs. Eynsford Hill and Caelyn Sommerville as Calra Eynsford Hill. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre / Shaelyn Jae Photography

Speech and accent are a huge aspect of this story; after all, it’s what Higgins thinks makes the difference between a poor girl and a duchess. Though the performances, overall, in this production are poised and polished, the accents do fall a bit short. They’re there… I can hear them, but I don’t buy them. The ensemble is working hard and their efforts are not for naught, but when it comes to dialect work, they probably would have been well served with a bit more rehearsal. The traditional cockney accent is a beast so, unless there is a certain amount of time to master it, which is just about impossible during any rehearsal schedule for a show, there will always be flaws but, again, that’s not to say the performances weren’t good, because they certainly were in other aspects.

Carlo Olivi as Freddy Eynsford Hill. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre / Shaelyn Jae Photography

In the way of supporting characters, portraying the upper-crust Eynsford Hills are Melissa McGinley as Mrs. Eynsford Hill, Caelyn Sommerville as Clara, and Carlo Olivi as Freddy, then there’s Sarah Weissman who takes on various roles such as a parlormaid and elegant hostess. Weissman fills out the ensemble well but her performance is scripted and stiff at times. She understands why her characters are there, but seems to be going through the motions for most of the production. McGinley seems to understand her character as the mother of young adults but her performance falls a little flat. She’s a bit scripted making for an unnatural delivery, but she does portray the gentleness and dignity the character requires. Sommerville, as Clara, a young woman of high society, does a terrific job of emoting the snobby, spoiled, holier-than-though attitude with slivers of politeness, especially with other members of the upper class. Sommerville is comfortable in this role though her speech seems to be off as if she’s speaking in a voice higher than her own natural voice, but other than that very minor flaw, her performance is delightful. Olivi, as the young and in love Freddy shines in this role. His authentic portrayal of this lovelorn character is believable and it’s easy to see he’s giving 100% effort in his character. He looks the part, he acts the part, and he gives a fine, sophisticated performance. An honorable mention goes out to Don Lampasone, who, a little birdy tells me, stepped into various small roles two nights before opening and gives an impressive, authentic performance as a Taximan, a Constable, and a lower class comrade of Eliza Doolittle’s. Though he keeps his script cleverly hidden in a newspaper, that doesn’t hinder his abilities and he gives a praise-worthy performance and I’m quite sure that script will be out of his hands quickly. My hat off to you, Mr. Lampasone, for stepping in and stepping up.

Rich Espy as Alfred Doolittle. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre / Shaelyn Jae Photography

Rich Espy takes on the character of the lazy, living-in-the moment Alfred P. Doolittle, who, at heart, is a con-man that reluctantly comes into some money and is forced into being respectable. Espy’s portrayal is charming, as this character is naturally charming, if not sketchy at times, and his take causes the audience to dislike him then because of his transition riles up sympathy so, with good writing and a good performance, Espy pulls this character off nicely.

Rounding out the ensemble, Hillary Mazer who takes on the role of Mrs. Higgins, Randy Dalmas tackles the loveable and kind Colonel Pickering, and Phil Gallagher portrays the no-nonsense, logical Henry Higgins. Mazer is believable in her role as a matriarch who does care about her son, who embarrasses her every chance he gets, but has no qualms in telling him so and her chemistry with Gallagher is spot on. She plays this role with a certain finesse that makes her a likeable character and makes for an enjoyable performance.

Phil Gallagher and Hillary Mazer. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre / Shaelyn Jae Photography

Randy Dalmas seems to embody this character of Colonel Pickering and the way he plays this role makes Pickering endearing from the start. His work with and off of Gallagher’s Higgins is wonderful and he gives a strong, confident performance throughout. Speaking of Gallagher, his portrayal of the crotchety, straight forward Henry Higgins is outstanding. He really captures the stuffiness of the character with that hint of caring that he tries so hard to hide. Henry Higgins is such a complex character, he’s easy to play to heavily stern and it’s the balance an actor needs to find within him that Gallagher does near flawlessly. His comedic timing is on point and his calm chemistry with Linae’ C. Bullock helps make his performance that much more superb.

Linae’ C. Bullock. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre / Shaelyn Jae Photography

Finally, we have a highlight of this production, Linae’ C. Bullock, who takes on the challenging role of Miss Eliza Doolittle. I don’t mind saying Bullock is truly marvelous in this role. She impressively spits out the cockney, not necessarily perfectly, but near perfect and it makes the transition this character makes all the more believable. She has a good grasp of this character and her portrayal gets across the message I think this piece wants to send which is we may change on the outside but we’ll always be who we are on the inside. She gives a high-energy performance that balances out her more subdued portrayal later that is required of the character. She manages to get the audience invested in Eliza early on and we’re rooting for her throughout. She works very well with and off of Gallagher, who makes it easy with his performance, as well as with Dalmas, and the sincerity of her different relationships with both shine through. She’s certainly one to watch in this production.

Final thought… Pygmalion can be interpreted very different ways. On one hand, it’s a story of trying to change someone to better their station in life, in the other, it’s a story of what matters is on the inside and not the outside. Seeing as though it was written in 1912, it was probably the former, but the latter still rings true. It’s always challenging to produce a 100+ year old piece for a modern audience, but Spotlighters has managed to do it with finesse and charm. The production is simple when it comes to Set Design, but it just makes the performers work harder and they’ve certainly stepped up to the task. The production, as a whole, is polished and well put together from Costume Design, staging, and performance, it’s a delightful triste to a bygone era that teaches us you can take the girl out of [insert city/town/area name] but you can’t take the [insert city/town/area name] outta the girl! Definitely worth checking out!

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

Pygmalion will play through March 10 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: Disney’s Newsies at Third Wall Productions

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

Running Time: Approx. 2 hours and 30 minutes with one intermission

In the spring of 1992 a young Christian Bale was starring in this little Disney motion picture called Newsies and, for being a Disney production, it didn’t get much fanfare or response. However, there were quite a number of die-hard Disney fans who loved it making it a success… not a blockbuster hit, but a success none the less. Fast-forward 20 years to 2012, almost exactly 20 years later, to the date (give or take a month) Disney’s Newsies with Music by Alan Menken, Lyrics by Jack Feldman, and Book by Harvey Fierstein opens on Broadway and is an instant success with a hefty run of 1004 performances. Disney’s Newsies closed it’s Broadway run in August of 2014 but, fear not, Baltimore! Third Wall Productions have picked up the torch and are presenting it as their latest offering, Directed by Henry Cyr, with Music Direction by W. William Zellhofer and Choreoraphed by Mother-Daughter team Cecelia DeBaugh, Lucy DeBaugh, and Maia DeBaugh, and it’s a quite enjoyable evening of theatre.

The Cast of Disney’s Newsies at Third Wall Productions. Credit: Stasia Steuart Photography

Briefly, Disney’s Newsies concerns itself with the “newsies” or newspaper sellers on the streets of New York City near the turn of the 20th century. Work conditions are horrible (not only for newsies, but for children all over the city) and the newsies have to buy the papers they sell. When Mr. Pulizter, owner of most of the newspapers in the city, decide to raise prices for the newsies, with the help of an unbeknownst highly placed friend, they newsies decide to go on strike, making the front page and practically crippling the entire city when other children from other professions decide to join.

This production takes place in a sanctuary of a church, but with the splendid Set Design by Pat Rudai and Jordan Hollett, the audience is transported back to the summer of 1899 in New York City. The design is a clean unit set with levels and balconies that keep the staging interesting and moving nicely. Simple set pieces are brought in to represent various locations and this design is a good example of less is more. A special shout out has to go to the full-sized, moving printing press that I found out was created from scraps, a found broken wheelchair, and a broken recliner, showing this design team knows how to use their resources.

Andy Collins and Jamie Williams. Credit: Stasia Steuart Photography

It’s worth mentioning Costume Design by Amy Rudia that also takes us back to 1899 New York. This design is hands down perfect for this production and Rudai’s attention to detail is superb and her ability to wardrobe such a large cast is commendable. A round of applause should go to Rudai for her work and authenticity in design.

Henry Cyr takes the helm of this production and his Direction is exemplary. The pacing is on point and Cyr has a tight grasp on this material. For such a large cast, his staging is near flawless, getting folks on and off stage smoothly, as well as near-seamless transitions that are quick, keeping up with the pace of the entire show. Kudos to Cyr for a job well done.

Commenting on the performance of this piece, I’d love to mention every ensemble member, but with it being an extraordinarily large ensemble, you’d be here reading all night, however… I’d like to mention that this is a tight ensemble and every single member held his or her own making for a terrific performance, overall. They kept up nicely with ballet-heavy choreography by Cecelia, Lucy, and Maia DeBaugh which is intense and energized and absolutely required for this piece. Bottom line – the DeBaughs have hit the nail directly on the head with this production.

The Cast of Disney’s Newsies at Third Wall Productions. Credit: Stasia Steuart Photography

Along with the choreography and staging, Music Director W. William Zellhofer is outstanding. Honestly, this is some of the best vocalization I’ve heard on the Third Wall Productions stage to date. He has familiarized himself with this score and has his cast sounding phenomenal, especially in group numbers such as the fun “King of New York,” and the inspiring “Seize the Day.” Zellhoffer should be applauded for his work and efforts.

Speaking of music, a special mention must be made for the musical stylings of the superb orchestra consisting of Andrew Zile (Conductor), Ed Berlett (Piano), W. William Zellhofer (Keyboard), Jonathan Goren (Violin), Alice Brown and Sharon Aldouby (Cello), Kevin Jones (Bass), Winfield Clasing (Drum Set), merrell Weiss and Matt Elky (Reeds), Matt Elky and Dan Longo (Clarinet), Liam Slowey (Percussion), Richard Sigwald (Trumpet), and tony Settineri (Trombone). Congratulations to this entire orchestra for a job very well done.

Andy Collins. Credit: Stasia Steuart Photography

To mention a few, there are definite “adult” and “child” characters, Joel Signor takes on the role of Pulizter, the villain in this particular piece, and though he gives a good portrayal, he seems a bit stiff and, vocally, he could use a little more umph, but a good performance, overall. His cronies, including H. Ray Lawson as Seitz, Kirsten Mackin as Hannah, and Forest Deal as Bunsen, are adequate, but seem a little lackluster in their performances as a group. Their featured number “The Bottom Line” left a little to the imagination, but they seemed to know their roles and are comfortable in them.

Lizzy Jackson Fleischmann. Credit: Stasia Steuart Photography

Lizzy Jackson Fleishmann is charming as Miss Medda Larkin, one of the only adult characters who cares for the newsies, and she shines in her performance of “That’s Rich.” Her comprehension of this character shows in her portrayal of this kind-hearted character.

Logan Snyder takes on the role of Davey and Bailey Gomes portrays his little brother, Les. Snyder’s portrayal is spot on and he gives a solid, confident performance. Gomes, too, gives an admirable performance as the “cute little brother” with a lot of one-liners that are hit with good comedic timing for an actor so young.

Taking on the role of Jack Kelly, the hero, is Andy Collins and his performance is near perfect. He knows this character and keeps him consistent throughout. Vocally, Collins stays strong, but does seem to lose some steam by Act II. Regardless, his character work and vocal skills are showcased and delightful to experience, especially his renditions of the popular “Santa Fe” and the poignant “Something to Believe In,” a duet with Jamie Williams, who takes on the role of the staunch, but caring Katherine. Williams is well suited for this role and plays the role well, though it seems a bit stiff in some scenes. Vocally, Williams holds her own quite nicely, but her belt is exceptional and makes up for any minor issues she may have with, otherwise, when a belt is not required. Both Collins and Williams have great chemistry that makes it easy to believe these characters and their relationship and makes their performances highlights of this production.

Sarah Mackin. Credit: Stasia Steuart Photography

A standout in this presentation is Sarah Mackin, who takes on the role of Crutchie. The audience is supposed to feel for this poor character and Mackin seems to be able to get this reaction naturally. Her delivery of the dialogue is fantastic, carrying a stero-typical New York accent consistent throughout and her physical work, though minimal, is brilliant and consistent, as well. In her featured number “Letter from the Refuge” is emotion-filled with bits of humor, and her performance is top-notch. Vocally, Mackin is strong and her voice rings out throughout the theatre making the audience take notice. Her interaction with the rest of the cast, especially Andy Collins, is authentic and she gives a solid and assured performance. I’m looking forward to seeing more from this young actress.

Final thought…  Disney’s Newsies is a fun, high-energy production that is full of great music and fine performances. Though it’s a lesser known Disney feature, as compared to most, it’s got quite a following and the musical version is a definite recent theatrical hit and Third Wall Productions has taken on the daunting cast of presenting such a popular piece, but they make good… strike that… very good on their successful attempt. The entire ensemble gives 100% effort and the staging keeps the audience engaged. It’s polished and well-put together production that is not to be missed!

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

Disney’s Newsies will play through February 17 at Third Wall Productions, St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, 1108 Providence Road in Towson, MD. For tickets, you can purchase them at the door or online.

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Review: [title of show] at Harford Community College

By Jennifer L. Gusso

Running Time: 1 hour 30 minutes with no intermission

I am one of those nine people. This is the only way you start a review about [title of show] while making an obscure reference to [title of show], which is Harford Community College Actor’s Guild’s latest offering, Directed by Lizzie Detar, Choreographed by Jessica Auguste, with Music Direction by Dominic LaFrancesca. [title of show] is definitely a unique experience that takes a different twist on the original musical. It is “a musical about two guys writing a musical about two guys writing a musical.” There is something absurdist about the construct and yet the characters are real, compelling, and relatable. There are also a lot of really cool inside jokes and inside references for true theatre geeks laced throughout.

The intimate black box space is ideal for this show. You feel like you are there in the living room, hanging out and experiencing the creative process with these characters. By the end, you really feel as if they are old friends. For the most part, the decision to not use microphones also works with creating this mood; however, there are a few times when soloists are lost under the keyboard and a better sound balance could have been achieved. The most noticeable incidences are in “An Original Musical” (where Hunter should be powering above the music) and “A Way Back to Then” (in which it would nice to see the keyboard softer to match Heidi’s intimacy). Overall, especially when the cast members unite in the many harmonies of the score, the sound balance works well for the space.

What is so engaging and endearing about this production is the way that everything really feels spontaneous. Director Lizzie Detar and Choreographer Jessica Auguste have done an impressive job of creating staging and choreography that looks beautiful and is clearly carefully designed and yet also appears spontaneous and like it is being improvised in the moment. This script just wouldn’t work if anything came across too canned or too rehearsed or too much like “acting,” and Detar clearly recognizes that and keeps it at the forefront of her vision.

The actors have also clearly internalized this necessity. As a group, their reactions and interactions always feel genuine and spontaneous. The chemistry and the unity of the performers is also solid, as it is almost difficult to talk about each of them individually. The characters and the scenes are so interconnected, and none of them are ever pulling focus from the others. Still, each of them creates a unique and individual character.

Morgan Tacka gives a brilliant performance, even as she is playing an actress playing this character of herself who is self-admittedly not really much of an actress. If it sounds complicated, that’s because it is; still Tacka makes all of those realities come to life at once in a well-developed and very real performance. At the opposite end of the spectrum is the always over-the-top Heidi, and yet Katie Pendergast makes her also very genuine without losing any of the pizzazz. These two women complement each other perfectly in these two contrasting roles.

The same is true of the very believable friendship and partnership between Hunter (Samuel Walton) and Jeff (Justin Strittmatter). Walton gives an incredibly endearing performance with subtle ease, while Strittmatter emotionally connects with the audience in a more playful manner. With Walton, genuine delivery garners laughter, and, for Strittmatter, it is impeccable timing. Together, their voices blend beautifully and their personalities mesh seamlessly.

Even with these four amazing performances, there are moments when it seems like Larry (Dominic LaFrancesca) might just steal the show with his fabulous one-liners delivered from behind the onstage keyboard. The stellar harmonies and vocal stylings of the cast throughout also show LaFrancesca’s excellent work as the Musical Director of this production.

[title of show] is a strong and cohesive production. The cast is dynamic and genuine. The concept is fun and funny and original. The space is perfect. The characters?/cast?/ both? ultimately decide that they would “rather be nine people’s favorite thing/Than a hundred people’s ninth favorite thing.” With a production as wonderful as the current offering at HCC Actor’s Guild, it is more than worth deciding for yourself if you are also part of the nine.

This is what I thought of Harford Community College Actor’s Guild’s [title of show]… What did you think? Please feel free to leave a comment!

[title of show] will play through February 17 at Harford Community College, 401 Thomas Run Rd, Bel Air, MD 21015, Joppa Hall Black Box Theater. For tickets, call the box office at 410-752-2208 or you can purchase them online.

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Review: Everything is Wonderful at Everyman Theatre

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

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

Different cultures have different ways of dealing with tragedy. Most will encourage looking to your faith to find a higher meaning than what we mere mortals can imagine. Some encourage forgiveness to those who have wronged you and, some go even further to encourage forgive and forget. How do you forgive and forget someone who has taken the lives of your loved ones, accident or not? Everyman Theatre’s latest production, Everything is Wonderful by Chelsea Marcantel, Directed by Noah Himmelstein, tries to answer this tough question as we see tragedy and loss through from the viewpoints of a family in crisis, a young man full of guilt, and a man who believes he’s near perfect because he’s practically been told so his whole life.

Bruce Randolph Nelson, Deborah Hazlett. Credit: ClintonBPhotography

In a nutshell, Everything is Wonderful concerns itself with an Amish family who lost two sons when a drunk driver smashed into their buggy, a daughter who doesn’t seem cut out for the Amish life, and a culture that forgives and forgets, but only on the surface. Ultimately, I gathered this piece is about following your own conscience to find forgiveness, regardless of what those around you may think or do.

Marcantel’s text is easy to follow and presents these complex problems in simple terms which is why I believe this script is so successful. The dialogue is natural and it flows as conversation between folks should. She has a good comprehension of the subject matter and creates a world into which we can step and be a part of the story making for an enjoyable evening of theatre.

L-R: Steve Polites, Bruce Randolph Nelson*, Tony Nam, Alex Spieth, Deborah Hazlett. Credit: ClintonBPhotography

The story that Chelsea Marcantel weaves is flawless and Noah Himmelstein has given us simple, yet engaging presentation with the help Daniel Ettinger’s exquisite Set Design. Himmelstein and Ettinger use the space well and the action moves at a great pace working in tandem with a precise and effective Lighting Design by Cory Pattak that puts us in each appropriate location without a bunch of bells and whistles. Sometimes less is more and it is absolutely true for this production and both Ettinger and Pattak knock it out of the ballpark.

L-R: Alex Spieth, Bruce Randolph Nelson, Tony Nam, Deborah Hazlett, Hannah Kelly. Credit: ClintonBPhotography

Himmelstein has a tight grasp on this material and his staging is immaculate. He keeps the audience interested in the story by using practically the entire theatre with the correct entrance and exit points while keeping a good flow without a lot of clunky scene changes, which is what I’ve come to love about theatre these days… not a lot of, if any, blackouts, unless they are absolutely appropriate. It’s the details that make this production so successful, as well. For instance, the slight accent of the Amish characters is so authentic, both Himmelstein and the performers are to be applauded for their efforts. Overall, Himmelstein hit the nail on the head with this and should be commended for his work.

Bruce Randolph Nelson, Deborah Hazlett. Credit: ClintonBPhotography

The cast is simply amazing, and I mean every single one of them. Resident Company member Bruce Randolph Nelson portrays Jacob, the patriarch of the Amish family and, he completely embodies this character taking on all of his trials and troubles. He seems comfortable in this role and his performance is strong and confident making him a standout in this piece in both his authenticity with the role and his gentle handling of the character. Along with Nelson, another Resident Company member, Deborah Hazlett shines as Esther, the matriarch, and the mixed, bottled up emotions just spill out of her throughout this production. She has a deep understanding of this character and her portrayal of her, as a grieving, staunch mother is impeccable. Both Nelson and Hazlett, through their performances, bring home the message of forgiveness in their portrayals of these two characters, and not just surface forgiveness, but true and deep forgiveness, even in the hardest of situations.

Tony Nam, Alex Spieth. Credit: ClintonBPhotography

Two highlights in this production are Alex Spieth, who tackles the role of Miri, a former Amish girl and estranged daughter to Jacob and Esther, and Tony Nam, who takes on the role of Eric, the driver of the car that hit the buggy, taking the lives of Jacob and Esther’s sons. Both Spieth and Nam are able actors who have a good comprehension of their characters and portray them naturally in both delivery of the dialogue and in manner. Eric wants to get in and Miri has gotten out, and is fine with her choices and the conflict between these two characters is beautifully presented by Speith and Nam and both give strong, confident, and poignant performances.

Steve Polite and Hannah Kelly. Credit: ClintonBPhotography

Rounding out the small ensemble, the adorable Hannah Kelly takes on the role of Ruth, the good daughter, who is content with her Amish life and wants to be a good person and is a good person, and the dashing Steve Polites, tackles the role of Abram, the tall, handsome, boy next door who seems to be the apple of the community’s eye, but has a secret dark side. Kelly undoubtedly knows her character inside and out and her portrayal is authentic, and, because of her portrayal, you can’t help but like this character from the get. She invokes a gentleness that’s believable and gives a tender performance that is required of this young girl. Polites has a strong command of the stage (it doesn’t hurt that he’s a little over 6’ in height, or so it seems) and his voice is smooth and booming, which works very nicely with this character. He takes this character and makes it his own, walking the line between the perfect son and the devil among us, making for an intriguing and exciting performance.

Final thought…  Everything is Wonderful at Everyman Theatre is a poignant, thoughtful piece that makes us look into our own selves and question what we would do in a certain situation. From Set Design to Costumes Design to performance, this production is not one you want to miss this season. There’s not one performer who can’t hold his or her own and the material is through provoking with dashes of humor that take the audience on a roller coaster of all the feels. It enlightens us about a culture that is seemingly veiled in plain sight and puts us all on a level playing field. If you don’t have your tickets already, get them now. I reiterate… you do not want to miss this one.

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

Everything is Wonderful will play through February 24 at Everyman Theatre, 315 W Fayette Street, Baltimore, MD. For tickets, call the box office at 410-752-2208 or you can purchase them online.

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Review: Jerusalem at Fells Point Corner Theatre

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

Running Time: 3 hours with two 10-minute intermissions

I’ve heard it said that a story about a day-in-the-life of someone doesn’t make for good theatre because, real life can actually be quite boring. Then, another school of thought is that day-in-the-life pieces are engaging because of the drama and emotion of real life.  Whichever side of the fence you’re on with day-in-the-life pieces, Fells Point Corner Theatre’s latest offering, Jerusalem by Jez Butterworth, Directed by Ann Turiano, gives us that glimpse into a day-in-the-life of an interesting character with interesting friends trying to get through a day of county fairs, alcohol and drug binges, and side-stepping the law.

Sitting Down from Left to Right: David Shoemaker as Ginger, Dylan McKenzi as Tanya, Kelly Hutchinson as Pea, Sean Coe as The Professor, Nate Krimmel as Lee, Terrance Flemming as Davey. Credit: Fells Point Corner Theatre

From what I could gather, briefly, Jerusalem takes place in Flint in one day, St. George’s Day, as well as the annual local county fair. Johnny “Rooster” Byron, a local drunk, addict, ne’er-do-well, and Pied Piper figure, knows his days are numbered on his land as the local officials want to evict him to make room for new development. His friends (some under-age) gather frequently throughout the day to relieve him of his supply of alcohol and drugs while his young son wants him to take him to the fair and a thug, the step-father of a missing girl, wants to give him a good thrashing. And… yeah… that’s about it. If anyone else has anything to add, please feel free to do so.

I’ll admit, this piece could be going over my head because I didn’t see or hear much of a plot, other than a stubborn dude, Rooster, played superbly by Ian Blackwell Rogers, saying “F**k You!” to the world and going about his business but Rogers plays him in a way that I was invested in him, much like his friends. A highlight of this piece is David Shoemaker, who takes on the role of Ginger, Rooster’s oldest mate who seems to understand him better than the others, and his natural delivery and take on the “sidekick,” true-friend character is phenomenal. Director Ann Turiano knocks it out of the ballpark with her staging and she keeps the piece moving smoothly throughout, and it’s easy to follow, but I think it’s the script that I can’t figure out.

The cast of Jerusalem. Credit: Fells Point Corner Theatre

Set Design by Christopher Flint and Scenic Art by Kim Speaks also seems to be a bit much for the space. Don’t get me wrong, it’s an outstanding design and the audience is transported to this trashy little plot of land in the English countryside, but it may have been too much for the intimacy of Fells Point Corner Theatre. Authentic, no denying, with a full trailer façade (which is impeccable), and turf covered stage with vines and trees strewn about, but the shit load of just about everything including an old commode, seems to draw more attention from the action than needed.

Ian Blackwell Rogers as Rooster. Credit: Fells Point Corner Theatre

Performance-wise, this is a large ensemble and, yes, some are more apt than others but, overall, the entire ensemble works well together to create this motley crew that follows this charismatic leader… almost sounds cultish, doesn’t it? The dialects were 50/50 and I lost a lot of dialogue because of it, but not enough that I still couldn’t follow the story. Most of the actors and actresses were apt enough to be believable British-folk, and honestly, depending on where you are in Great Britain, it’s kind of difficult to understand the different dialects anyway, so, kudos on authenticity. The character work is commendable such as Nate Krimel as Lee and Terrance Flemming as Davey, the young, party-boys, and Sean Coe as Professor and Michael Salconi as Wesley, the older friends of Rooster, who have been around and seen most, if not all.

Overall, the production value and performances were admirable and the show itself is entertaining. My frustrations with this piece probably root in my not getting what the show is about but, production-wise, Turiano and her cast and crew have put on a polished, thoughtful production that you should check out.

Final thought… Jerusalem, though entertaining with splendid performances, just isn’t my cup of tea. It seemed to be a good story of standing your ground and sticking it to the man, but there was a lot of stuff to get through to get to that message, (IF that’s the message, not to mention, it’s about a 3-hour journey (but with two intermissions to break it up, nicely). The set was immense for the intimate space, but I’m assuming the clutter is what they were going for, so, it works… in a way. Overall, it’s a well put-together production so I’m thinking it’s just the script I’m having second thoughts about but, Fells Point Corner Theatre always manages to put on a great show with fantastic production value so, I’d chalk it up to a success, with minor reservations, in the end.

This is what I thought of this production of Jerusalem.… what do you think?

From a different angle: The Bad Oracle or B.I.T.R. Sisters

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Jerusalem will play through February 3 at Fells Point Corner Theatre, 251 S Ann Street, Baltimore, MD 21231. For tickets, call 410-276-7837 or purchase them online.

Review: Fun Home at Baltimore Center Stage

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

Running Time: Approx. 90 minutes with no intermission

If you ask anyone about their family, it’s rare someone will come back with, “Oh, my family’s just your everyday, normal family.” If they do, they’re probably lying. Every family has its quirkiness. Sometimes it’s what makes us love them, other times it makes us hate them, but there’s no changing it and we learn to deal with it, or we don’t. It’s all up to us. When it comes to homosexuality, it can get tricky for some, depending on the family. Speaking from experience, it was a breeze for me, but I know there are others who have had a more difficult time. In Baltimore Center Stage’s latest production, Fun Home, with Music by Jeanine Tesori and Book & Lyrics by Lisa Kron, we get a glimpse into one family’s story of a lesbian daughter and her closeted gay father with the background of a funeral home in an ordinary town in Pennsylvania. This production is Directed by Hana S. Sharif, with Music Direction by Evan Rees, and Choreography by Jaclyn Miller.

(l-r) Jeffry Denman, Liam Hamilton, Michelle Dawson, Molly Lyons, Andrea Prestinario, and Jon Martens. Credit: Baltimore Center Stage

Briefly, Fun Home is based on an autobiographical graphic novel of the same name by Alison Bechdel concerning her complex relationship with her closeted father in the mid to late 70s in a small town in Pennsylvania. Through flashbacks, of childhood and college years, the present day 40-something Alison tells the story of her own coming out and coming to terms and of her own father’s coming to terms, as well as her own realization that her beginning was his end.

Scenic Design by Scott Bradley & Projection Design by Hana S. Kim is simple, but stellar. Bradley has managed to use a sparse stage and set pieces to represent various locations in the old Victorian house and their use of the trap doors to bring in different pieces such as a representation of an old car and living room is quite clever. It keeps the stage clean and the transitions smooth as not to hinder the action of the piece. The carefully selected projections and animations add great value to the piece and, running in tandem with the action and dialogue, adds variety to the setting and immerses the audience in each scene. Bradley and Kim are to be commended for their efforts.

Andrea Prestinario, Molly Lyons, and Jeffry Denman. Credit: Baltimore Center Stage

Karen Perry’s Costume Design manages to take the audience from the past to the present and back again, flawlessly. The 70s (much like every other decade) had a certain style and Perry has captured this look in a way that isn’t campy (except in one number, “Raincoat of Love” in which it is required – gold platforms and all) but authentic and it’s kind of a cross between modern and vintage which works beautifully for this piece. Her instincts are spot on and kudos to her for her design.

Though a production like Fun Home doesn’t require much choreography, Choreographer Jaclyn Miller has taken those bits that do require it right back to the era in which they take place. Reminiscent of The Brady Bunch or Partridge Family (though more of the former), or even the Jackson 5, Miller has created engaging and upbeat moves for the ensemble in numbers such as “Welcome to the Fun Home” and “Raincoat of Love” and the results are delightful. “Welcome to the Fun Home” consists of only children but they managed the choreography beautifully which tells me Miller knows her cast and fashions dances that will enhance their performances, and it does indeed. The fun, fluffy, bubble gum pop “Raincoat of Love” is no different and looks as if it were snatched off a music special of the 1970s. Again, there’s not much choreography to speak of, but what Miller has put on the stage is splendid and adds that extra “oomph” to an already engaging show.

(l-r) Molly Lyons, Andrea Prestinario, and Laura Darrell. Credit: Baltimore Center Stage

Evan Rees takes the reigns as Music Director and his work on this production is terrific. Musically Directing a Tony award winning piece is no small feat but Rees has stepped up to the challenge and has accomplished the goal. It doesn’t hurt that his cast is musically apt, and Rees has guided them to beautiful and emotional performances making for an very entertaining evening of theatre. Shout out to the exceptional orchestra of this production including Alex Aucoin (Percussion), Andy Axelrad (Reeds), Zack Branch (Basses), Amelia Giles (Violin/Viola), Gerry Kunkel (Guitars), MaryAnn Perkel (Cello), and Even Rees, himself, on Keyboards and serving as conductor.

Taking the helm of this production is Hana S. Sharif and her Direction makes it clear she has a hearty comprehension of this material and her presentation is impeccable. The pacing is upbeat when it needs to be and slows down when required but always engaging. Sharif understands telling a story in flashbacks and jumping back in forth in time and presents it in a way that is easy to follow making for smooth transitions and story-telling.

(l-r) Molly Lyons, John Martens, and Liam Hamilton. Credit: Baltimore Center Stage

Moving on to the performance aspect of this piece, the younger members of this ensemble consist of Jon Martens as John Bechdel and Liam Hamilton as Christian Bechdel and these young gentlemen are already setting themselves up for successful careers. Both boys portray their supporting characters with confidence and ease making them a joy to watch during their scenes and especially their fun performances in numbers like “Welcome to the Fun Home.” They hold their own throughout and give strong performances.

Two other supporting roles are taken on by Shannon Tyo as Joan and Justin Gregory Lopez as various characters. Tyo is clearly comfortable in her role as she delivers her dialogue naturally and she puts the audience at ease with her portrayal of this friendly, but straight forward character of Joan, the love interest of Alison. In the same vein of authentic portrayals, Lopez shines in his various roles, showing his ability to play different characters exiting and entering only moments apart. He’s believable in his portrayals and, vocally, Lopez is a powerhouse as he exhibits in his featured number, the nostalgic, upbeat “Raincoat of Love.” Kudos to both Tyo and Lopez for jobs very well done.

(l-r) Laura Darrell and Jeffry Denman. Credit: Baltimore Center Stage

Through flashbacks, Laura Darrell as Medium Alison and Molly Lyons as Small Alison give exquisite performances. Darrell, though looking a little older than the oldest Alison, gleams as the college aged Alison and completely embodies her role. Her rendition of the poignant and humorous “Changing My Major” is a memorable one and shows off her beautiful, strong vocals. She has a deep understanding of her character’s conflicts and portrays them effortlessly. Also, the young Lyons is brilliant as the youngest version of Alison and gives a confident performance well beyond her years. Vocally, Lyons stands her ground and belts out a near flawless “Ring of Keys” making for an impressive and charming performance, overall.

Molly Lyons. Credit: Baltimore Center Stage

A definite highlight of this production is Michelle Dawson as Helen Bechdel, the matriarch of the Bechdel family and a woman who is just trying to keep her family together, in spite of her husband. Dawson’s performance is superb as she emotes the emotion and strife this character is feeling throughout. Her gentleness with the character is in beautiful contrast of the obvious turmoil she is feeling inside. Her strong and confident performance of “Days and Days” in the second act is show-stopping and makes the audience take notice. Dawson is to be commended and applauded for her efforts in this role.

(l-r) Jeffry Denam, Molly Lyons, and Andrea Prestinario. Credit: Baltimore Center Stage

Standouts in this production are Jeffry Denman as Bruce Bechdel and Andrea Prestinario as Alison, the two pivotal characters around which this story revolves. This being the first time I’m experiencing Fun Home live, I’d done some light research before attending this performance, but I wanted everything to be fresh, so I limited my research. I had no idea how shady the character of Bruce Bechdel and it’s a little unnerving to know he’s based on a real person. That being said, Jeffry Denman is spot on in his portrayal of Bruce Bechdel. His authenticity in playing a man who is caught between two worlds is believable and, vocally, Denman is a wonder with a smooth timbre that resonates throughout the theatre. His performance of the emotional and heavy “Edges of the World” brings his character together and gives a better understanding of this person and his inner-conflict. In tandem with Dennam’s portrayal, Andrea Prestinario is an absolute joy to watch. Her portrayal of the present day Alison is so splendid, it’s easy to connect with this character instantly. She is confident and comfortable in this role, which puts the audience at ease, as well. Working as the narrator of this story, Prestinario skillfully walks us through each scene and her slight interactions within the scenes are subtle and she certainly makes this character the heart of the story. Vocally, she is a powerhouse as seen in her performance of  the tense but thoughtful “Telephone Wire.” Prestinario should be applauded for her work and I can’t wait to see more from this able actress.

Final thought…  Fun Home deserved every accolade it received and continues to receive. Not only is the text well though-out and put together, the music is modern and catchy, but heartfelt. The production at Baltimore Center Stage is top notch with exquisite talent and should not be missed this season. There is not one weak link in this chain of performers and everything from Set Design to staging to Music Direction is on point. The story in Fun Home been around for ages and will probably continue on for ages and this particular presentation of a family in crisis, learning about each other, and how to deal with each other has everything – poignancy, humor, sadness, and hope. Get your tickets now, before it’s too late. Come on down to the Fun Home! You won’t regret it!

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

Fun Home will play through Feburary 24 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: In the Closet at Third Wall Productions

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

Running Time: Approx. 2 hours with one intermission

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: Thank You, Dad at Rapid Lemon Productions

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

Running Time: Approx. 2 hours with one intermission

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

Lance Bankerd as Jim Jones. Credit: Rapid Lemon Productions

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

Lance Bankerd as Jim Jones. Credit: Rapid Lemon Productions

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

Lance Bankerd as Jim Jones. Credit: Rapid Lemon Productions

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

Lance Bankerd as Jim Jones. Credit: Rapid Lemon Productions

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

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

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

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

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