Extra! Extra! A Murder is Announced at Artistic Synergy of Baltimore

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

Running Time: Approx. 2 hours with one intermission

A good murder-mystery is a staple of community theatre and you don’t get any better than a tried and true Agatha Christie tale. She had it down to a science and have had readers and audiences guessing and scratching their heads for the past nine decades (coming up on 100 years in 2020) and many have adapted her novels into stage plays, including Christie herself. Artistic Synergy of Baltimore’s latest production, A Murder is Announced by Leslie Darbon, Directed by Michael Crook and Assistant Director Lou Otero, brings one of those stories to life, having us scratching our heads and wondering… whodunnit?

(l-r) Jim Gerhardt, Donna Zubrowski, Chloe Scully, and Ashley Gerhardt. Credit: Artistic Synergy of Baltimore

A Murder is Announced, the novel, was first published in June of 1950 and both the novel and the play concern themselves with an announcement in the local paper of a murder to be committed at a planned birthday party at a local boarding house. The house is owned by Letitia, a staunch, soft spoken woman, who has an old friend living with her, Dora “Bunny” Bunner (the birthday girl), as well as her adult niece and nephew, Julia and Patrick, who she hasn’t seen since they were small children. Joining the fray are the maid/cook/housekeeper, Mitzi, a steely Russian, and three neighbors, Edmund Swettenham, his mother, and the famous and inquisitive Mrs. Marple. At the party, a fuse is blown momentarily, an intruder breaks in in the dark, scaring the party-goers, and when the lights come back up, the intruder is dead on the floor. Enter a patient Inspector Craddock, and you have the makings of a good old fashioned Christie mystery.

Donna Zubrowski and Ashley Gerhardt. Credit: Artistic Synergy of Baltimore

Though no Set Designer is listed in the program, the design for this production uses the intimate space wisely. One is transported to a parlor room of a small English country house with not bells and whistles which is absolutely appropriate for this piece. Rachel DiGraizia and Joshua Perry (the two names listed as “Set Construction” and the only two names associated with the set in the program) have put together a sound set that helps the action of this mystery and assists the staging that the audience should be watching carefully.

Speaking of staging, Director Michael Crook and Assistant Director Lou Otero seem to have a strong vision and have executed it beautifully. Staging a murder-mystery is no small feat, one must understand the script, but also the action and has to work that out within the space he or she has. Crook and Otero’s staging is smooth and easy to follow and it shows they have a deep comprehension of this material and the presentation is praise-worthy, indeed.

Jim Fitzpatrick and Catherine Shinaberry. Credit: Artistic Synergy of Baltimore

Moving on to the performance aspect of this production, Jim Morgan pulls double duty in supporting, but important role as Rudi Sherz/Sergeant Mellors, the unfortunate intruder and a constable, respectively and he pulls both characters off nicely with decisive blocking and dedication to his roles. Claire Levine takes on the character of Mrs. Sweetenham, a neighbor, and though she seems stiff and scripted, she seems to understand the frailty of her character and makes a good showing.

Donna Zubrowski tackles the role of Dora Bunner, a childhood friend of Letitia’s and a woman who seems to be slipping slowing but surely into dementia, forgetting simple things and remembering things from the far past. Zubrowski has a tight grasp on this character, but gives a rigid performance with a deliberate delivery that makes it unnatural at times, but her chemistry with her cast mates is fantastic and she plays the character adequately enough to get the point across nicely. In the same vein, Chloe Scully takes on the role of Phillipa Haymes

Ann Marie Taglavore, Phill Vannoorbeeck, and Donna Zubrowski. Credit: Artistic Synergy of Baltimore

Phil Vannoorbeeck takes on the role of Patrick Simmons and Ann Marie Taglavore portrays Julia Simmons, the young brother-sister team who may or may not have ulterior motives for visiting their sweet, old aunt. Both Vannoorbeeck and Taglavore give strong, confident portrayals and know their characters well. Vannoorbeeck may be playing the character a bit larger than he should, at times, but still comes off as believable and natural. Taglavore is the stronger actor, giving a smooth, natural performance and delivery are both natural and effortless.

Catherine Shinaberry and Mel Tillery. Credit: Artistic Synergy of Baltimore

A few highlights of this production are Jim Gerhardt as Edmund Sweetenham, Mel Tillery as Mitzi, and Catherine Shinaberry as Letitia Blacklock. Gerhardt is comfortable in his role and has a great presence on stage with natural delivery of the dialogue and a solid take on the character. Shinaberry is aptly cast in her role of Letitia, and, though she is too soft spoken at times, making it hard to make out what she is saying, she seems to embody this character nicely and has a strong comprehension of her character. Tillery is phenomenal as Mitzi and is the one to watch whenever she’s on stage. Her delivery, in a believable Russian accent, is impressive and her energy is second to none, making for one of the strongest showings in this production.

Jim Fitzpatrick, Catherine Shinaberry, and Ashley Gerhardt. Credit: Artistic Synergy of Baltimore

Rounding out the cast we have the sleuths, Inspector Craddock played by Jim Fitzpatrick and the loveable, famously intuitive Mrs. Marple, portrayed by Ashley Gerhardt. These two are the definite standouts in this production and pull their characters off effortlessly. Fitzpatrick is near perfect in this role and he seems to completely embody this character. His delivery is flawless and his chemistry with the rest of the ensemble is on point and it makes for a strong, faultless performance. Gerhardt, who may be a bit young to play Mrs. Marble just yet, still gives an impeccable performance, regardless of this. She knows the character well, and she portrays her with a certain charm that makes you like her from the get. I’m a big fan of Jessica Fletcher in Murder, She Wrote (who is probably structured after Mrs. Marple), so I’m pretty hard on any character that resembles her, but Gerhardt hits it out of the park with this performance. She’s a wonderful character actress and seems to become this character making for a standout performance, overall.

Final thought…A Murder is Announced at Artistic Synergy of Baltimore is well put-together presentation of a great Agatha Christie story with mostly solid performances and a solid vision from its Director and Assistant Director. Being it’s a murder-mystery, there are times when the dialogue seems to drag along, but, it’s the nature of the beast… things have to be explained thoroughly, so, the excessive exposition is a necessary evil. The story is dated, but definitely not stale, and is still relatable today. Murder and/or mystery really never go out of style. Get your tickets now. You wouldn’t want to miss this classic this season.

This is what I thought of Artistic Synergy of Baltimore’s production of A Murder is Announced… What did you think? Please feel free to leave a comment!

A Murder is Announced will play through May 5 at Artistic Synergy of Baltimore, Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, 8212 Philadelphia Road. For tickets, purchase them at the door or online.

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Six Characters and Three Actors Shine in And Baby Makes Seven at The Strand Theatre

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

Running Time: Approx. 90 minutes with no intermission

Young expecting parents may have strange ways of coping with the inevitable. Some research and read every book they can get their hands on or watch every video they can find on the Internet, and some just let it happen, taking advice from those who have gone through the same experience. Everyone has their own way of coping and preparing and in The Strand Theatre’s latest offering, And Baby Makes Seven by Paula Vogel, Directed by Emily Hall, gives us a glance into what could be called an unconventional coping and preparation mechanism from an expecting mother, her lesbian partner, and male friend/father. The trio works their way through the usual issues of expecting parents with humor and poignancy, which, in the end, is pretty much like everyone else.

(l-r) Grant Emerson Harvey, Jess Rivera, and Katherine Vary. Credit: The Strand Theatre

In a few words, And Baby Makes Seven concerns itself with a trio of folks expecting a baby, but realize they have to get rid of the three imaginary children in the house before the real baby comes. Sound a little off? Well, it is, but it all comes out in the wash.

Set Design by Kate Smith-Morse works just about perfectly for this piece. It’s an intimate space, but Smith-Morse has used her workspace wisely. There is a simple separation between the two main spaces, a bedroom and the kitchen area, but it’s just enough to be distinguishable. It is a realistic set that fits nicely with this production. Smith-Morse’s design doesn’t hinder any action and helps the action flow smoothly making for a well thought-out design.

Emily Hall takes the helm of this production and her Direction of this piece is superb. As I mentioned, this theatre is an intimate space and a show like this, with only three characters, is perfect for this stage. Hall seems to have a good comprehension of the characters and she has guided this apt cast into telling this story well. For such a quirky tale, Hall has presented it in an easy to follow fashion and her vision is clear… it’s a group of folks simply trying to cope with a pending birth, and doing what they feel is right, regardless of what anyone else may think about it. Hall is to be commended for her work on this production.

Moving to the performance aspect of this piece, this trio of actors work their way through this script superbly.

(l-r) Jess Rivera, Grant Emerson Harvey, and Katherine Vary. Credit: The Strand Theatre

Though Jess Rivera, as Ruth, the non-pregnant female in this trio, started off by annoying me with her over the top  portrayal of imaginary Henri, a young French boy, and imaginary Orphan, a dog of sorts, but I found myself getting used to it as the play progressed. Rivera certainly knows what she’s doing on stage, but it looked as though she was trying to hard as the imaginary kids. However, when she switched off to play the normal, everyday Ruth, she shined and portrayed her effortlessly, so, I can see this actress has an real talent. Overall, Rivera has a tight grasp on this character and gives a great showing and makes these characters endearing, making for a delightful performance.

Next up, Katherine Vary takes on the role of Anna, and the imaginary child genius, Cecil. Vary is well in tune with this character and her character’s imaginary counterpart. She plays Anna, the pregnant character, with ease. She seems to have a good understanding of this character, as well as with Cecil, making him just irritating enough, but charming a the same time, which is not small feat. Her delivery is smooth and natural and, overall, she gives a strong, confident performance.

Rounding out this stellar ensemble is Grand Emerson Harvey, who takes on the role of Peter, the father of the unborn child, and thought it’s eluded to him being a homosexual, it’s only really hinted at in a few lines toward the beginning of the play. Either way, Harvey pulled this role off beautifully and confidently. This character seems to be the only “normal” one in this trio, keeping his feet grounded in the real world, but he also understands that Ruth and Anna need to have these imaginary kids to cope and prepare themselves for what’s to come, and… maybe he does, too. Harvey was near flawless in his portrayal of this character. He made this character his own and seemed to embody him. His delivery is clear and concise and he really brings the character to life. Working in tandem with Rivera and Vary, this trio seems to naturally fit with brilliant chemistry and it just makes the characters more real and the story more believable.

Final thought… And Baby Makes Seven at The Strand Theatre is a quirky, comedic take of how people prepare themselves and cope with pregnancy and the inevitable addition of a new baby to the family. However, don’t let the imaginary children fool you. In the end, I really liked these characters because they knew the kids were imaginary and knew they were pretending and nothing more, adding a realism that was needed. Paula Vogel has weaved a poignant, off-center story about a blended family and their interpretation of the world around them. It may take a moment to get into the groove with this piece, but the small three-person ensemble presents these characters beautifully and truthfully, making for a delightful evening of theatre. You may have to pay extra attention to to keep up with the characters, but the ensemble does a good job keeping everything in place. If you haven’t seen it yet, it’s definitely worth checking out.

This is what I thought of The Strand Theatre’s production of And Baby Makes Seven… What did you think? Please feel free to leave a comment!

 And Baby Makes Seven will play through April 21 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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Boogie into the 60s at Spotlighters Theatre with Beehive, the 60s Musical

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

Running Time: Approx. 1 hour and 30 minutes with one intermission

The 1960s. It was quite a turbulent time in the country, as far as I can tell from research, history class, and stories my parents have told me. Everything and everyone was changing and though, it too was changing, one of the constants was music. New sounds, new voices, voices of different colors and creeds, and it was something everyone could turn to. Spotlighters Theatre latest offering, Beehive, the 60s Musical, by Larry Gallagher, Directed and Choreographed by Quae Simpson, with Music Direction by LaVar Betts, takes us back to that bygone era and brings back or introduces those tunes to today’s audience reminding us that music is always with us, no matter what.

(front, l-r) Marela Kay Minosa, Asia-Lige Arnold. (back, l-r) Quae Simpson, Karen Steelman, Timoth David Copney, Nicholas Miles, Danielle Harrow. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre / Shaelyn Jae Photography

Beehive, the 60s Musical is a jukebox musical, so if you’re looking for a story line, don’t look too closely. There really isn’t one to speak of. There is a half-hearted attempt to introduce a reunion of sorts, but it really isn’t needed and would have done well to cut it completely and start with the opening number. The ensemble tries to keep up this reunion feel throughout the evening, but it just falls flat. It’s curious, also, that the first song we hear is a recording of “Welcome to the 60s” from another hit musical, Hairspray, but… why? Regardless, you’ll spend a delightful evening hearing the biggest hits from the 1960s (of course) and be treated to beautiful performances from this very able cast.

Again, I’m not sure direction Director Quae Simpson was going in with the “reunion” but, it really was not needed. The musical numbers would have stood on their own if we would have trusted them just a little more. I get it, some of these songs are unfamiliar to a younger audience, but they are good songs and can stand on their own. Another curious bit for this production is casting. The show is written for 6 females, supposedly giving it a 60s girl group atmosphere, but here we have two gentlemen joining the cast. I’m all for gender-blind casting, if it works for the production, go for it! However, it just seemed a little off for this production. It may have modernized the piece, but it comes off a little off. Also, I’m not saying the gentlemen in this cast gave subpar performances because they most certainly did not. All of the ensemble members are top notch and gave top notch performances. But including the men seems to take it over the top as if this piece is trying too hard to cover up with comedy and it comes off as hokey. Those minor flaws aside, it’s definitely a good showing for Spotlighters Theatre.

The cast of Beehive, the 60s Musical. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre / Shaelyn Jae Photography

Alan Zemla’s Set Design is appropriate to the piece, and all the clichés are there, but they are needed for a piece like this. The intimate space is used wisely and, though I wasn’t blown away as I usually am by Zemla’s work, that’s no mark against him. This piece doesn’t call for much, and what he has created is superb and works well for the production.

Music Direction by LeVar Betts is stellar. This show is all about the music and Betts has guided this cast into beautiful, fun renditions of these old hits. He is even the featured performer in the poignant “Abraham, Martin, and John” and gives a heartfelt, sincere performance. As for the cast, they are in just about perfect harmony and well-rehearsed on the other numbers and Betts’ work is to be applauded.

Timoth David Copney. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre / Shaelyn Jae Photography

Directions & Choreography by Quae Simpson has it’s flaws, but is, for the most part, commendable. Choreography is minimal and there is opportunity for more than what is presented, but any movement offered also depend on the ensemble and the choreography fits this ensemble nicely. It doesn’t take away from the performances but is enough to be engaging. Simpson’s use of audience participation and breaking the fourth wall, though probably required for this type of show, seems a bit forced, especially because of the intimate space at Spotlighters. The audience does seem to enjoy the participation, but it’s not my cup of tea, so, it could just be me. Aside from the interesting casting and the few aforementioned minor faults, Simpson’s staging is quite good and he keeps it interesting with seamless transitions from one song to the next. Overall, Simpson has done a fine job with this presentation.

Danielle Harrow. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre / Shaelyn Jae Photography

Moving on to the performance aspect of this production, Nicholas Miles and Marela Kay Minosa are crowd pleasers, and it’s easy to see their energies are not for naught especially in Minosa’s fun and upbeat rendition the popular and timeless Lesley Gore song “It’s My Party” and the poignant “Baby, I Love You,” made popular by The Ronnettes. Meanwhile, Miles gives us a fun and humorous performance of “My Boyfriend’s Back,” originally released by The Angels, with all the schtick and tongue and cheek you can handle.

Highlights of this particular production are Timoth David Copney, who really seems to have a great comprehension of this music and style, especially with his near flawless performance of The Shirelles “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” which ends up being one of my favorite interpretations of this song, and his featured bit in Dusty Springfield’s “Son of a Preacherman.”  Karen Steelman holds her own and makes the audience take notice taking on and belting out the intense and popular Janice Joplin hits, “Me and My Bobby McGee” and “Take a Little Piece of My Heart.”

Asia-Lige Arnold. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre / Shaelyn Jae Photography

Rounding out this stellar cast are two definite stand outs, Danielle Harrow and Asia-Lige Arnold. These two ladies perform every one of the their numbers with heart and soul, and with superb, strong voices. Harrow, knocks it out of the park with her takes on Ike and Tina Turner’s “River Deep, Mountain High” and Ike and Tina Turner’s “Proud Mary,” among other hits from The Ronnettes such as ”Walking in the Rain” and “Be My Baby.”  In the She is also featured in an Aretha Franklin medley, including songs such as “Chain of Fools,” “Never Loved a Man,” and “Natural Woman.” In the same vein, Arnold give splendid, memorable performances of Lulu’s “To Sir With Love” and is featured, as she should be, in the same Aretha Franklin medley in which she will knock you out with her strong, emotional vocals that are hard to forget.

Final thought… Beehive, the 60s Musical is a fun journey of nostalgia and great music that will take you back, even if you didn’t live them. It’s easy to at least recognize the tunes, and they are definitely the sounds that changed the world. Though the story line isn’t much to speak of, it doesn’t matter because the songs will keep you engaged and even singing along and tapping your foot. The ensemble gives 100% effort and their work is stupendous. The voices in this production are absolutely amazing and each performer is a powerhouse on his or her own, with a band to match. Really, the years will melt away as the both poignant and rockin’ songs are performed one after another. Though unplanned from Spotlighters Theatre original season, this is a perfect replacement and one you should not miss!

This is what I thought of Spotlighters Theatre’s production of Beehive, the 60s Musical… What did you think? Please feel free to leave a comment!

Beehive, the 60s Musical will play through April 21 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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Between the Lines with Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead at Fells Point Corner Theatre

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

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

Poor Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. If you’re familiar with Shakespearian tragedies, you’ll recognize these two characters as supporting players in Hamlet and their unfortunate demise. Fells Point Corner Theatre’s latest production, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead by Tom Stoppard, Directed by Lance Bankerd, takes a peek between the lines of the Shakespeare classic to gives us a theoretical peek into what these two ill-fated characters were up to in the background while our friend Hamlet was going crazy.

Matt Wetzel, Bethany Mayo, Rory Kennison, Michael Panzarotto. Credit: Trent Haines-Hopper/THsquared Photography

I’m usually a big fan of stories that include telling more in depth, parallel stories about minor or supporting characters of established stories. It’s always interesting to see and hear what’s going on in the background of other stories, and they are usually quite creative and imaginative. So, not knowing much about this title, but being familiar with Shakespeare’s Hamlet, I was excited to see what could transpire. I was excited. Then I realized this is Absurdist theatre. Admittedly, I am not a fan of Absurdist theatre and, after five minutes of rambling dialogue about probabilities and odds, I was turned off. The actors were doing a magnificent job, but the dialogue left me cold. The text is ostentatious and the fast pace of dialogue seems to me that the author is trying to create a character who’s mind works so fast he or she has to get out all the words before the next bright idea comes along. Ugh. Also, this doesn’t seem to be a stand-alone piece (as other titles are, this isn’t the only one) and one must have a familiarity with Hamlet before seeing this piece. There is an attempt to keep the audience up to pace with the introduction of certain characters and light explanations, but it’s half-hearted, at best. However, Stoppard does keeps true to the action of Hamlet, but when it comes to these two characters (and company), you can keep ‘em… but that’s just me.

No matter my feelings of the script, there’s absolutely no denying the fabulous production value Fells Point Corner Theatre gives us. Lance Bankerd, who takes the helm of this production, has a clear vision and tells the story straight-forward, with simple staging but superb character work. He seems to have a tight grasp on the tedious material and presents it in a laidback, easy-to-follow way making for a delightful showing. Also, it’s worth mentioning the creative Costume Design by Deana Fisher Brill and Maggie Flanigan who have managed to find and gather more denim in one place than I’ve seen since house party in the 90s. Their design compliments the piece and is consistent which makes it a praise-worthy design.

Moving on to the performance aspect of this production, I’d be amiss if I didn’t mention the effort and dedication this entire ensemble puts into this production and their work pays off, nicely.

(l-r) Thom Sinn and Dominic Gladden. Credit: Trent Haines-Hopper/THsquared Photography

Though most of the ensemble seemed like fillers, all gave beautiful performances such as Elizabeth Ung as Ophelia, who didn’t have much stage time, but made the most of what she had and Michael Panzarotto and Rory Kennison, who took on the roles of The Tragedians Horatio and Alfred, respectively. Panzarotto and Kennison didn’t have many lines, but they certainly played their characters to the hilt, physically, with appropriate gestures, mannerisms, and impeccable reactions to the other happenings on the stage.

Dominic Gladden takes on the role of Hamlet, who actually isn’t the main character in this particular story, but Gladden played the role effortlessly. It’s hard to make out his dialogue, at times, through a heavy dialect, but he has a good comprehension of the twisted character and plays him with confidence giving a strong performance. In step with the freaky family, Tom Piccin tackled the role of Claudius, the conniving uncle to Hamlet, and Kay-Megan Washington portrays Gertrude, the award-winner for Worst Mother of the Year. Both Piccin and Washington know these characters well and they have a good chemistry to play well off of and with each other. Both are quite able actors and they shine through the supporting roles to give brilliant performances.

There are certainly highlights in this production, including Bethany Mayo as The Player, the leader of a passing troupe of actors, and a little bit of a con artist. She has this role down pat and her comedic timing, as well as understanding of dramatics is crystal clear. She is comfortable in the role and plays it with ease, making for a solid and robust portrayal.

Thom Sinn as Polonius, the hapless, disheveled advisor to Claudius, is also a highlight mainly because of his comedic timing. His take on this character is spot on. Playing Polonius as more of a bumbling assistant, Sinn makes this character likeable and you start rooting for him, but you don’t why, you just know you want everything to work out for this poor fool. His delivery is a bit mushed at first, but that could be what Sinn is going for as it would fit with the character, but otherwise, his performance is strong and confident, making for a charming character.

(l-r) Logan Davidson and Matt Wetzel. Credit: Trent Haines-Hopper/THsquared Photography

Rounding out the cast is the truly remarkable Logan Davidson as Rosencrantz and Matt Wetzel as Guildenstern, who are the standouts in this production and they are working their asses off on that stage. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, in the Shakespeare play, are friends of Hamlet, but are assigned by Claudius to take Hamlet to England with a letter to the King of England asking him to kill Hamlet, unbeknownst to the duo. Hamlet finds out, and, well… let’s just say things don’t turn out so well for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. You read the title already.

Davidson and Wetzel have a fantastic chemistry and work well off of each other, and, a little birdy told me they learned this hefty script in a little over a month, which is impressive with the amount of dialogue these two have to deliver throughout the show. They’re physical work is also spot on and they keep the audience engaged and entertained. Wetzel has a natural flair in his delivery and precise mannerisms that make him a joy to watch. Davidson, too, has a knack for the physical and portrays her role (whether it be Rosencrantz or Guildenstern, depending on what’s happening on stage at the time) with confidence and ease. Both of these actors have a tight grasp on their characters and play them solidly. Their effort is apparent, and they deserve the utmost kudos for their work on this production. They are certainly ones to watch.

Final thought… Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, is a polished, beautifully performed, well-thought out production but it’s not one I’d be running to see if it comes around again. Many folks love this kind of stuff, but absurdist theatre is just not my cup of tea, as it were, and the script is a little too pretentious for my tastes. However, Tom Stoppard’s pretentious “look-how-smart-I-am” script and dialogue aside, this is a splendid production. The ensemble is giving 100% effort in their superb performances and Bankerd’s staging is spot on, creating a smooth flow that keeps it engaging and entertaining. It’s definitely a praise-worthy production that deserves checking out.

This is what I thought of this production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead at Fells Point Corner Theatre.… what do you think?

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead will play through May 5 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: Praise Be! Sister Act is making a joyful noise at Scottfield Theatre Company

By Jennifer L. Gusso

 

Running Time: 2hr 40min

Scottfield Theatre Company is currently wrapping up its second season at the Havre de Grace Opera House, and they once again have audiences clapping along and rolling on the floor with laughter in their current offering of Sister Act, Directed by Allan Herlinger, with Musical Direction by Niki Tart, and Choreography by Becky Titelman. If you didn’t get a chance to see the performance last weekend, you should definitely check out one of the remaining performances this coming weekend. There are more than a few can’t-miss songs and performances in this relatively new and not yet overdone musical.

(l-r) Anne Acerno and Tara Nicole Vinson. Credit: Scott Serio

Fair warning: the production does have a bit of a slow start and there are some places where the production drags a little. These are overall issues with the uneven script and a score that contains a few too many unnecessary ballads and not the fault of the production. Conversely, when the script and the music do pick up, there are scenes and songs that are just amazing. This is definitely a script that could benefit from a reworking, but Scottfield does a good job of capitalizing on what works and moving as quickly as possible through what doesn’t.

Based on the 1992 film of the same title, Sister Act centers around Deloris Van Cartier (Tara Nicole Vinson), a messed-up girl with a heart of gold and a powerful belt. Vinson lands easily and believably in the shoes of this character. She is at her strongest showing off her comedic timing and delivery but is also quiet of capable of getting serious, as her character develops inner strength throughout the production.

Forced into hiding, Deloris lands under the care and protection of Mother Superior, played flawlessly by Anne Acerno. Acerno is a masterful actress, who seems to know exactly how to capitalize on the humor of a line without making any of her delivery feel forced. Her beautiful vocals are the icing on the cake of her hysterical and touching performance.

(l-r) Sophia Williams and Elizabeth Marion. Credit: Scott Serio

Also part of Deloris’ new life are a crazy cast of nuns that fill that choir. The nuns, with their unique personalities and endless energy, also get to show off a lot of the careful design put into the production by Director Allan Herlinger and Choreographer Becky Titelman. Thrown in every scene and music number are entertaining bits and little touches, as the elder Sister Mary Theresa (Pam Provins) may need some help learning the steps or the choir infuses the sign of the cross into a sizzling dance move. The women in the habits take this direction and run with it, creating distinct personas. Sister Mary Patrick (Elizabeth Marion) with her nonstop jabber and Sister Mary Lazarus (Mary Guay Kramer) with her new gift for rapping especially standout among the group. As Sister Mary Robert (Sophia Williams), seemed to be battling with a voice about to fall to illness, but she persevered through with great energy and vigor.

Although the ladies are most of the predominant roles, it was three gentlemen who stole the show. Just to see “Lady in the Long Black Dress” is worth every penny of the admission price. As Joey, Eric Bray demonstrates what comedic perfection looks like. Every move, every facial expression, and every note is solid gold. Add in TJ (Chuck Hamrick) and Pablo (played in this performance by Terry D’Onofrio) with their smooth and ridiculous performances, and it is impossible to stop laughing long enough to breathe during this song.

The cast of Sister Act at Scottfield Theatre Company. Credit: Scott Serio

The other featured males in the production do struggle a little more to hit the mark. As Eddie Souther, Falan Laguerre is inconsistent in his performance. When his vocals hit the mark, he has a tone quality that can’t be beat, and, when he hits a spoken line just right, he lights up the stage with charisma. Unfortunately, Laguerre would alternate between this level of performance and seeming to retreat into himself. This may have been opening night jitters that hopefully resolved in subsequent performances, as he does have great potential. As far as Curtis (Chris Barsam), it is unclear what the vision or direction was supposed to be. Although Barsam looks the part, he consistently struggles with both the vocals and line delivery. Even with the phenomenal back-up and one of the better pieces of writing in the score, “When I Find My Baby” falls flat with Barsam at the helm.

Sister Act has some flaws, mostly unavoidable or easily fixable as the production goes along, but it has even more strengths. Everything taken into account, it is most definitely an enjoyable production and a fun evening. Luckily for all, there is still one more weekend to head to Havre de Grace and “Raise Your Voice” along with this stellar cast and production team.

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

Sister Act will run through April 14 at Scottfield Theatre Company, The Cultural Center at the Opera House121 N. Union Avenue, Havre de Grace, MD. For tickets, the box office is open one hour prior to performance but it is strongly encouraged to purchase tickets online.

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Review: Friends and Lovers hit Everyman Theatre with Dinner with Friends

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

Running Time: Approx. 2 hours with one intermission

(l-r) Beth Hylton, M. Scott McLean, Megan Anderson, Danny Gavigan. Credit: Teresa Castracane

I’ve often heard, in many turns of phrase, “you can’t choose your family but you can choose your friends.” I’ve also found, through my experiences, you find friends who become family and those are cherished relationships throughout life.  However, what draws us to these people, these friends of ours? Is it who they are or who we think they are? Unique are the relationships between couples. There’s a different kind of dynamic when it comes to a foursome, especially two married couples. We forget that we often only see glimpses of the lives of our friends. What happens behind closed doors? Is it really our business? Everyman Theatre‘s latest production touches on these issues and questions in Dinner with Friends by Donald Margulies, Directed by Vincent M. Lancisi and leaves us wondering what we would do if the friends we know are all of a sudden… different.

Megan Anderson, Beth Hylton, and M. Scott McLean. Credit: Teresa Castracane

Briefly, Dinner with Friends concerns itself with two married couples, Tom and Beth, and Gabe and Karen, who have known each other for many years. The foursome is the best of friends and everything seems to be status quo until Beth abruptly, over dinner with Gabe and Karen, spills the news that she and Tom are divorcing and that Tom is in love with another woman. Later, Tom discovers Beth has already told their best friends and is angry that she has the advantage and sympathy for telling them first, by herself. The feelings of Gabe and Karen do shift negatively for Tom and he tries to tell his side of the story. Flashback 12 years earlier when Tom and Beth first met, to show how it was between the two in the very beginning. Flash forward to present day and both Tom and Beth are moving on and evolving while Gabe and Beth, feeling they have to choose sides, at first, begin to see the meaning behind the friendship with Tom and Beth.

Megan Anderson, M. Scott McLean, and Beth Hylton. Credit: Teresa Castracane

The first thing you may notice walking into the theatre is the superb Set Design by Donald Eastman. Eastman has given us an authentic and clean design that pulls the audience into the story as if we are sitting at the dinner table with these couples. The use of a revolve that sections out each scene is resourceful, allowing for smooth, seamless transitions from scene to scene and keeping the momentum of the story intact. Eastman’s attention to detail and realism is spot on and he deserves accolades for his efforts on this production.

Speaking of momentum, Vincent M. Lancisi’s direction is on point and his staging is simple, but effective working in tandem with Eastman’s Set Design. Lancisi has a tight grasp on this story and its characters and he presents it well with an apt ensemble and a solid vision. It’s a human experience piece and he keeps the settings and characters relatable without the bells and whistles which makes this production successful.

M. Scott McLean and Beth Hylton. Credit: Teresa Castracane

Moving into the performance aspect, M. Scott McLean and Beth Hylton take on the roles of Gabe and Karen, a couple who seems to have their act together. McLean was a little scripted and stiff at first, but eventually found his grounding and portrayed Gabe as a charming, likeable character and he emoted the devotion his character has to his wife, making for a strong, confident performance. Hylton,  always a pro, seems to embody the character of Beth and makes it her own. Her delivery and mannerism fit the character perfectly and she’s comfortable in the role giving an assured and solid performance. The chemistry between these two actors is praiseworthy and their understanding of the complexities of the characters (looking good on the surface with uncertainty deeper inside), is commendable. McLean and Hylton play these character with a certain authenticity that makes for enjoyable and thoughtful performances all around.

Megan Anderson and Danny Gavigan. Credit: Teresa Castracane

Megan Anderson and Danny Gavigan take on the roles of the other, more difficult couple, Beth and Tom and they hit the nail on the head with both of these characters. Anderson, who rarely disappoints, has a good grasp on her character and plays her to the hilt. She understands the turmoil and confusion in her character and her portrayal is on point with a good blend of the expressions of hurt and anger, feelings to which we can all relate in one way or another. Her delivery is near flawless and her mannerisms and movement for Beth, a free spirit, makes for a delightful and moving performance. Gavigan, too, understands his character and plays him so well, you might end up rooting against him. Again, it’s a human experience piece and the author seemed to have it right when he assumed we (usually) take the side of the person who breaks the news first. I did. I took Beth’s side and sneered at Tom for the rest of the production. However, Gavigan doesn’t make it hard to sneer at him with his impeccable performance of a man who is trying to find happiness no matter who it hurts. It’s a double edged sword for this character. We want people to be happy, but we also want people to be responsible. Sometimes the two don’t match up and the consequences are vast. Gavigan has a solid grasp on the character and his issues and plays him superbly. Superbly enough that you want to hate him. That’s good acting! Together, Anderson and Gavigan have a natural chemistry that transcends the script and is authentic making for performances that give us all the feels and emotions that come along with this kind of issue. Kudos to both for durable, intense performances.

Final thought…  Dinner with Friends at Everyman Theatre is a poignant, thoughtful look at friendship and marriage with a well-written script and a tight, solid ensemble. It’s a human experience piece, without a lot of fluff and it has us walking away thinking and questioning, which any good theatre will do. The actors take the roles and make them their own and help us relate to these four complex souls. The production value is top-notch with an ingenious Set Design that is intricate but doesn’t overwhelm and staging that keeps the action flowing seamlessly. Get your tickets now. You won’t want to miss this one!

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

Dinner with Friends will play through April 7 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: Nothing Indecent at Baltimore Center Stage with Paula Vogel’s Indecent

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

Running Time: Approx. 2 hours and 20 minutes with no intermission

What is and what is not indecent is really up to each individual but what is indecent in society changes as society grows and evolves. It’s interesting that what is looked on as no big deal today could throw a crowd of people into a rage a century ago. Much of what is on the stage today would send the previous generation reeling and Baltimore Center Stage’s latest offering, Indecent by Paula Vogel, Directed by Eric Rosen, gives us a look at how early 20th century audiences reacted to racy material that we don’t even blink an eye at today. It also reminds us that, though we may generally agree, as a society, what is indecent… in the end, it is in the eye of the beholder.

Briefly, Indecent is a historical play with music about a playwright, Sholem Asch, and a troupe of actors producing a real Yiddish play entitled God of Vengeance, by Asch in 1907 that caused quite an uproar when it got to Broadway. The play itself is a love story between two young women and was a success all over Europe (seems they weren’t as stuffy with this kind of material as America was at the time). It had to be toned down for American and Broadway audiences and even then, it was too much and the entire troupe was arrested for indecency. Throughout, the artists question what they must sacrifice for their storytelling and presentation of their art.

I’ve got to start by stating this is just a beautiful piece of theatre, all around. From Set Design, to Costume Design, to staging, and performance. I was enthralled from the moment the lights went down in the theatre and stayed engaged throughout. Vogel has weaved a splendid story that spans from the early 20th century through post World War II and she does it seamlessly. The dialogue is natural and wel thought-out and, even for someone who doesn’t have a Jewish or Yiddish background can appreciate the story itself and relate to the characters within that story. Baltimore Center Stage’s production is aesthetically pleasing, as well. Through the beautifully organized clutter on stage, a simple, yet complex story is told and pristinely performed by an apt ensemble.

Set Design by Jack Magaw is splendid and he uses his space wisely. Looking more like the backstage of a theatre, which it should, it complements the story beautifully. Using set pieces to present different locales instead of changing the space makes for smooth transitions and doesn’t interfere with the action and staging of the production. Kudos to Magaw for a wonderful design. Running in tandem with Magaw’s design is a terrific Lighting Design by Josh Epstein that blends nicely with the production as a whole and precisely sets the mood for each scene with an overall dim look with appropriate splashes of light and emphasis.

Having a sharp eye for detail, Linda Roethke’s Costume Design is superb. She captures the time settings and is consistent as the setting moves forward in time. The design is authentic and makes these characters real, bringing the audience even more into the story.

Director Eric Rosen has really nailed it with this production. His comprehension of the material is clear and his vision is exquisite. He knows these characters and has guided this cast to weave an intriguing, enthralling story. The smooth transitions in his staging are on point and keep the audience engaged from start to finish. The omission of an intermission is wise as it would break up the beautiful momentum this piece has. Rosen’s casting is spot on and he should be applauded for his efforts in this production.

On the performance side, every single member of this ensemble gives a marvelous performance. The chemistry is fantastic and they work well with and off of each other. Victor Raider-Wexler and Susan Rome take on the “elder” roles and Raider-Wexler makes you instantly feel at ease with his smooth, clear delivery of the material and his embodiment of each character he plays such as Otto, the first producer of God of Vengeance. In the same vein, Susan Rome is brilliant in the other “elder” roles she takes on. She portrays her characters with a certain gracefulness one would expect an experienced actor to have and she transitions through her various characters seamlessly. Both Raider-Wexler and Rome give strong, confident performances that are a pleasure to experience.

Jake Walker as “The Middle,” the actor of the troupe who plays the characters who no spring chickens but not young, bright eyed and bushy-tailed gives a great showing in this. He portrays his roles confidently, especially the character of Mendel, who is cynical of this new play and its content. He looks good in the role and portrays it with the perfect balance of pretentiousness and humbleness.

Two of the folks we see most are Susan Lynskey as The Middle/Halina and Emily Shackelford as The Ingenue/Chana. Lynskey has a great command of the stage and completely embodies her character. She plays her roles with confidence and emotes the no-holds-barred personality of them, making for a striking, emotional performance. Alike, Shackelford holds her own and portrays her characters with just the right amount of gusto and calm. These two actresses have a pristine chemistry that makes the roles work so well. It’s impressive because of the various roles these two are playing but yet, the chemistry between them is consistent and absolute in the scenes that call for it. Kudos to both Lynskey and Shackleford for exquisite performances.

Another familiar face throughout the production is Max Wolkowitz as The Ingenue/Avram. Wolkowitz also takes on the role of the playwright, Sholem Asch and he plays him to the hilt. His authentic portrayal and confidence in the role makes for a hard-hitting performance. He seems to have a deep knowledge of this character and respectfully portrays him. The conflict within Sholem Asch is clear and Wolkowitz’s urgency and passion is a joy to watch as he brings this man back to life.

A definite highlight of this production is Ben Cherry as Lemml, or “Lou”, the Stage Manager of this troupe of actors. Cherry, from the beginning, makes this charming, simple character loveable. You can’t help but get a warm feeling when he speaks and the way he plays this character makes you think he is just the nice guy next door. The character itself is amazing because he’s supposed to be a simple tailor from a small town but he seems to be the only one, among more sophisticated, scholarly folks, who understands the beauty of this new, brash play called God of Vengeance. Cherry plays him with just the correct amount of charm and childish naiveté that makes you just want to hug him and protect him. The authenticity in his portrayal makes it an impeccable performance.

Finally, I would consider this a play with music and giving standout performances are The Musicians, John Milosich, Maryn Shaw, Alexander Sovronsky, with Sovronsky being the Music Director and, Composer of Original Music. These folks are seriously singing for their supper but they do it flawlessly. Their impressive technique and talent on their musical instruments add so much value to this production and they are well-rehearsed and polished. Though all of ensemble take on double, even triple duty, with various roles, there’s just that extra bit for Milosich, Shaw, and Sovronsky by adding in musical instruments and these three step up to the challenge and absolutely succeed. Kudos and commendations to these fine musicians and their efforts.

Final thought…  Indecent may be one of the best productions I’ve seen this season. It’s a beautifully written and performed piece and will leave you questioning your own morals and values. The performers are on point with their characters and give 100% effort to tell this engaging and poignant story that needs to be told. The fact that it’s based on true events makes it even more enthralling and Paula Vogel has knocked it out of the park with her script. The story is relevant and thought-provoking, technical designs are exquisite, staging is superb, and performance is splendid. You need to see this show this season. Get your tickets now and experience it for yourself.

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

Indecent will play through March 31 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.

Email us at backstagebaltimore@gmail.com

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Review: All Aboard! Anything Goes Sails into Silhouette Stages

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

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

People do crazy things for love, especially young people, even if it means crossing the Atlantic Ocean on a luxury cruise ship, without a ticket and luggage, and bunking with a wanted criminal. In Silhouette Stages latest production, Anything Goes, with Music & Lyrics by the legendary Cole Porter and an Original Book by P.D. Wodehouse & Guy Crouse, and a New Book by Timothy Crouse & John Weidman, we get a look at how that kind of story turns out. This production, the 1987 revival version, is Directed by Conni Ross with Music Direction by William Georg and Choreography by Tina Marie DeSimone.

(l-r) Triana McCorkle, Maddie Bohrer and Abby McDonough. Credit: Russell Wooldridge

Anything Goes, in a nutshell, takes place aboard the S.S. American and brash Reno Sweeny, famous nightclub singer and evangelist, is on her way to England. Billy Crocker, an old friend has stowed away because he wants to be near his love interest, Hope Harcourt, how happens to be engaged to a wealthy and elderly gentleman, Evelyn Oakleigh. Throw in a loveable Public Enemy #13, a case of mistaken identity, and a handful of showgirls called Angels, and you have a triste worthy of witty and brash songs of Cole Porter.

The setting is a character of its own and when one mentions Anything Goes, usually, the first thought is “That show that takes place on the ship.” Set Design by Alex Porter is admirable with the distinct levels that make this setting interesting but other than the levels, the set seemed a bit sparse. It could be all the whitewashed walls/flats with very little color but other than being a little boring in the aesthetics, the design is classic and well-built. This is a good showing for Porter and he and his team are to be commended for their efforts.

Taps, taps, taps! That’s another thing one thinks of if one is familiar with Anything Goes and taps we have! Choreography by Tina De Simone is high energy and engaging… for the big, popular numbers, namely “Anything Goes” and “Blow, Gabriel, Blow.” The other numbers seem to be afterthoughts such as poor Bonnie’s featured numbers, “Heaven Hop” and “Let’s Step Out.” The savior of those numbers are the vocals and brilliant presentation of Bonnie by Maddie Bohrer, but we’ll get more into that later in this review. Looking to the bright side, DeSimone’s work shines and is precise and outstanding in the aforementioned “Anything Goes” and “Blow, Gabriel, Blow.” The energy is high and the ensemble is on point. DeSimone really gets these numbers and style and has created a fresh look that is a joy to watch.

(l-r) Miranda Snder, Abby McDonough, Robyn Bloom, Marcie Prince, Maggie Mellott and Lisa Rigsby. Credit: Russell Wooldridge

Vocally, this ensemble is phenomenal. With the help of Sound Design by Alex Porter, this ensemble is spot on and kudos must go to William Georg for his Music Direction. Many of these songs are well-known, so any flaws are easily noticeable, but, there weren’t many to speak of. The music is canned (recorded), but this cast is well rehearsed and they have this score down pat making for an enjoyable and toe-tapping experience.

This production is helmed by Director Conni Ross and she gives us a charming presentation of this beloved piece and her staging is smooth but it loses momentum at times which effects the comedic timing. Overall, Ross has done a splendid job with this production – you work with the material you got, so, she has given us a strong showing. The presentation isn’t necessarily fresh and innovative, but it keeps the more traditional, old-fashioned presentation in-tact, and that’s always a good thing. If it’s not broke, don’t fix it, right? My only issues with Ross’ work is her curious casting choices. Now, in community theatre, you work, first and foremost (or are supposed to) with the folks who come out for auditions and may the best man/woman land the role. I get that. But this cast seemed quilted together. Age ranges seem to be all over the place and there are actors who look to be playing characters younger or older than they actually are which throws off the entire feel of the production, for me. Regardless, Ross has given us a pleasant show that makes for a wonderful evening of theatre.

Jim Gross and Todd Hochkeppel. Credit: Russell Wooldridge

Moving toward the performance aspect of this production, we have Jim Gross as Billy Crocker and Rebecca Hanauer as Hope Harcourt, the young lovebirds of this story. Gross seems to have a good grasp of this character, but I question his casting in this role. Again, he gets this character, knows his objectives, and follows staging nicely but… I didn’t buy it. His delivery of the material is good, if slightly scripted at times, and, occasionally, his comedic timing is a little off. Vocally, Gross can hold his own but he just doesn’t fully capture the energy and urgency the character requires. However, that being said, he’s comfortable in the role and gives a confident performance. Along the same vein, Hanauer seems a bit miscast, as well. She, too, understands her character well and goes through the motions, but I just didn’t buy it. Vocally, Hanauer has a beautiful soprano and performs her featured songs quite well, such as “De-Lovely” and “All Through the Night.” I think one of the main issues is the chemistry between Gross and Hanauer. It’s easy to see their great friends, but it would be a stretch to think they were anything more than that. In general, both give good performances and are consistent throughout the show.

Todd Hochkeppel, Ryan Geiger and Robyn Bloom. Credit: Russell Wooldridge

Though this is a musical comedy in which all characters have a certain comedic value, Ryan Geiger as Sir Evelyn Oakleigh and Todd Hochkeppel as Moonface Martin have got the comedy down pat. These two are a pleasure to watch and their portrayals of these characters is top notch. Geiger embodies the role Evelyn Oakleigh and pulls off the pompousness mixed with charm that endears him to the audience. His comedic timing is spot on and he plays the character seriously enough to not take him over the top which makes for a solid, hilarious performance. Also, Hochkeppel seems to have been born for this role. His understanding of this character is clear and the way he portrays the loveable, but wanting-to-be-bad Moonface is quite enjoyable. There’s a tendency for actors to take this role over the top, but Hochkeppel keeps him reigned in just enough to be farcical but still charming and non-obnoxious. Kudos to both of Geiger and Hochkeppel for their efforts.

Lawrence Custis, Robyn Bloom and Doug Thomas. Credit: Russell Wooldridge

Playing the role of Reno Sweeney, an actor has some pretty big shoes to fill but Robyn Bloom take the reigns and makes the role her own. Seemingly channeling the spirt of Mae West, Bloom is comfortable and confident in this role and it shows. She gives an assured performance and makes the character likeable from the moment she steps onto the stage. Her Angels (Lisa Rigsby, Marcie Prince, Maggie Mellott, Tirana McCorkle, Abby McDonough, and Miranda Snyder) impressively keep up as well, displaying their apt dance and tap skills throughout. Her delivery is natural and her timing is fantastic. She has a clear, smooth voice that resonates throughout the theatre, especially in her featured numbers such as the highly energized title song, “Anything Goes” and the hand-clapping-foot-tapping “Blow, Gabriel, Blow.” Though she doesn’t have the usual “belt” actresses who play this character have, her performances of the songs and her dance abilities are a joy to watch making for a superb performance, overall.

Jim Gross, Becca Hanauer and Ryan Geiger. Credit: Russell Wooldridge

The standout in this particular production is Maddie Bohrer as Bonnie (remember, I mentioned her earlier in this review). Now, Bonnie is more of a supporting character, but Bohrer has put her front and center in every scene she’s in. She knows this character well and portrays her as a street-wise, but caring girl who does what she can to help her friends. Bohrer has the perfect look for the character and her delivery of the dialogue is clear and authentic. The thing that sets her apart is that she is so expressive, and one can’t help but notice her even when the entire ensemble is on the stage. She keeps her performance consistent throughout the entire production and is an absolute joy to watch. Her renditions of “Heaven Hop” and “Let’s Step Out” have you wanting more from her character and she’s one to watch. Hats off to Bohrer for an outstanding showing.

Final thought… Anything Goes exists mainly to highlight the songs of Cole Porter. There’s not much to the Book and, it seems very haphazardly thrown together to work around the music. Production-wise, there are a few interesting casting choices, the Set Design is appropriate, but a bit flat, and the choreography seems more concentrated in the more popular numbers, which leaves the other dancing a little lackluster throughout. However, the vocal work of the entire ensemble is quite admirable and makes up for the minor flaws in this production. Overall, it is a good, solid production and the ensemble is giving 100% effort and, it is a favorite classic to which the audience responds well. If you’re in it for a good fluffy, entertaining show, this one’s for you and you will have a delightful evening of theatre.

This is what I thought of Silhouette Stages’ production of Anything Goes… What did you think? Please feel free to leave a comment!

Anything Goes will play through March 24 at Silhouette Stages, 10400 Cross Fox Lane, Columbia, MD. For tickets, call the box office at 410-637-5289 or purchase them online.

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Review: What’s the Buzz at the The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at Artistic Synergy of Baltimore?

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

Running Time: Approx. 2 hours with one intermission

Growing up is difficult – there is no way around it, and it’s even more difficult for kids who realize they have something special about them, when their peers don’t. A lot of kids who compete in spelling bees across the nation probably feel this way. Some of us have a knack for spelling while others have a more, shall we say, challenging time, and sometimes, kids who are able to spell well are looked at differently by their contemporaries. Artistic Synergy of Baltimore’s (ASoB) latest production, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, with Music & Lyrics by William Finn, and a Book by Rachel Sheinkin from a story conceived by Rebecca Feldman, gives us a peek into this world of spelling bees with a humorous, but poignant and authentic presentation to which we can relate in some way or another. This production is Directed and Choreographed by Atticus Boidy with Music Direction by Rachel Sandler.

In a nutshell, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee concerns itself with the trials and tribulations of 6 kids who happen to be great spellers, a former champion who revels in the bee, an unexpected comfort counselor out on parole, and a high-strung, odd vice-principal who all learn a little about themselves in the duration of an afternoon at a spelling bee.

The Cast of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at Artistic Synergy of Baltimore.

The first thing you’ll notice in this production are the A-MAZING voices of this ensemble. Under the direction of Rachel Sandler, who has done a splendid job with this production, this ensemble is strong, tight in their harmonies and most give unforgettable performances. Even with recorded music instead of a live band, it’s easy to forget because of the phenomenal vocal work going on up on the stage.

Set Design by Atticus Cooper Boidy has got to be the cleanest, and most well thought-out design I’ve seen at ASoB. The space is intimate but Boidy has managed to use it wisely and transport the audience to an elementary school gymnasium without going overboard. It’s simple, precise, and appropriate for this piece.

Direction, also by Atticus Cooper Boidy, is interesting. He’s decided to change the look of the characters up a bit, which is refreshing, but in a way takes away from the original feel of the piece. His staging is a little clunky, which is a challenge when actors are playing more than one character, but because the actors are so apt, the staging that is slightly off, is pulled off nicely by them. Along with staging, Boidy puts on the hat of Choreographer, but, it seems he may have been spreading himself too thin and it’s the choreography that suffers the most. It’s a bit uninspiring, but this show isn’t about the choreography, it’d definitely not a show in which the choreography has to be stellar, but in this particular production, there are problems. It just seems haphazard, as if it were thrown together last minute, but again, the ensemble comes to the rescue with their performance and are bale to muddle through with what they have to work with and make it look good.

I’d be hard-pressed to pinpoint any standout performance in this production as they were all brilliant! There are a couple of performances that could have used some work, however, including Scott Sanders who takes on the role of Vice-Principal Douglas Panch. Sanders’ portrayal is a bit dry and stiff, but he pulls off the role nicely, though his comedic timing could use some work. The actor taking on this character has to be top-notch as it’s an acting role with no featured musical number to back it up. Again, Sanders does well, and I’m thinking he’ll grow into his character throughout the run of the production.

Ashley Gerhardt is on point with her portrayal of Rona Lisa Peretti and casting couldn’t have been better. Her vocal prowess is splendid and her character work is superb. Her renditions of “My Favorite Moment of the Bee” and the poignant “The I Love You Song” (in which she takes on the role of a spellers mother) are absolutely beautiful and makes for a strong performance all-round.

Mitch Mahoney, the out-on-parole Comfort Counselor is played by Jim Gerhardt, who takes this role and makes it his own. He has a good grasp on this character and plays him with the right amount of toughness and under-the-surface compassion – a blend that makes for a great character to play. Vocally, Gerhardt is in top form and his performance of “Prayer of the Comfort Counselor” is inspiring.

When it comes to the kids in the bee (played by adults, of course, adding to the hilarity), all of these actors are spot on. Max Wolfe, being the youngest actor in the ensemble is a little scripted and unnatural in his role as Chip Tolentino, the Boy Scout who was last year’s champion, and he seems to be trying too hard to portray a child. Vocally, he seems to understand his songs like the hilarious “My Unfortunate Erection (Chip’s Lament)” but he pushes a bit hard to get the tune that might be a little out of his range out and it looks like he’s uncomfortable with the song, but… he does give it 100% and gives a good showing, keeps up nicely with the more experienced ensemble members.

Amy Haynes Rapnicki takes on the role of the uptight, youngest contestant, Logainne Schwartzandgrunenierre, and Matt Wetzel, an impressive character actor, tackles the role of the gentle, slightly-off Leaf Coneybear. Rapnicki is a trip as this character and she has a very good comprehension of this character and plays her appropriately. Using an over-exaggerated lisp for the character, she still manages to get her lines out clearly and her delivery is spot on. Vocally, Rapnicki is a powerhouse and not only belts out her featured number “Woe is Me,” but also knows how to act the song making for a delightful performance. Along with Rapnicki, Wetzel takes on a character that requires delicate handling and he does it flawlessly. His portrayal of a young man who has to wear a helmet, for reasons unknown to us, is warm and charming. He knows this character and embodies him and all his gentleness and innocence. His featured number, the funny and pleasant “I’m Not That Smart” is a joy to experience.

Olive Ostrovsky, the quiet, abandoned little girl, is played by Caitlin Grant and the straight-forward, obnoxious William Barfee is played by Tommy Malek. Both of these actors couldn’t have been casted better. Their chemistry is effortless and their portrayal of these characters are near perfect. Grant understands the turmoil of her character and her relationship with her absent parents and, though Olive is more the “straight-man” in this comedy, she plays the role well, holding her own against the comedy. Her vocal performance is notable, especially of the sad, haunting “The I Love You Song” and her impressive rendition of “My Friend, the Dictionary,” which kind of explains this character and why she does what she does. Malek, plays William Barfee just right. This character could be easy to over-play, and I’ve seen a few actors do it, but Malek keeps it natural while not losing the comedy of this character, which is a feat in itself. His vocal renditions of “Magic Foot” is humorous, but precise and his take on “Second” is controlled and direct making for an all-round strong and confident performance.

Lindsey Litka, who takes on the role of the stead-fast, monotone Marcy Park, is one to watch in this production. Litka’s look for this character is a bit different, but it doesn’t affect her performance in the least. She seems to have a deep comprehension of this character and she plays her to the hilt. Without much emoting of feelings, Litka is impressively able to portray this character in a way that we, the audience, feel the chaos that’s just under the surface. Vocally, Litka is a definite power-house and there are no-holds-barred when she belts out a tune that makes the entire theatre take notice. Her performance of “I Speak Six Languages” is phenomenal (all while dancing and running around across the stage), and she is even noticeable in the ensemble numbers, but not so much that it takes away from any number.

Final thought…The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at Artistic Synergy of Baltimore is one of the best, if not the best production I’ve seen at this company. The cast is top-notch and filled with new folks not regularly seen on the ASoB stage which adds to the freshness of the experience. The set is precise and appropriate, using the space wisely, and the staging is engaging making for an all-round great theatrical experience. The story alone is a great story but this ensemble really takes this material and performs it exquisitely making the characters their own and breathing new life into an often produced show. You really don’t want to miss this production. Get your tickets now.

This is what I thought of Artistic Synergy of Baltimore’s production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee… What did you think? Please feel free to leave a comment!

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee will play through March 17 at Artistic Synergy of Baltimore, Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, 8212 Philadelphia Road. For tickets, purchase them at the door or online.

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Review: Fun in the Sun with Once On This Island Jr. at Children’s Playhouse of Maryland

By Jennifer L. Gusso

Running Time: 1 hour 35 minutes with intermission

High-quality theatre is always a “wow” moment. Achieving that effect with a cast of all young people is especially impressive, and Director Liz Boyer Hunnicutt has outdone herself again with Children Playhouse of Maryland’s current production of Once on This Island Jr. with Music by Stephen Flaherty and Lyrics and Book by Lynn Ahrens. From the moment that you arrive on property, meeting a real live goal and being welcomed to the island by young cast members, already in character, you are transported to another world. The bright and colorful costume design by Sharon Byrd sets the tone immediately that you have traveled off the campus and to a land faraway. The combined efforts of Diane M. Smith (Technical Director/Set Design & Construction), Tyrell Stanley (Lighting Designer), Laura Miller (Scenic Artist), and Donna Flaharty (Light Board Operator) really build on this vision with their excellent design work. There is a bubbling fountain on stage, and the show begins with sparks of special effects as the Gods enter from the back of the house. Even the traditional curtain speech is shortened and made into a recording to be certain not to break the spell of the transformation. The set, lighting, and technical choices continue throughout to be an intricate part of the action and the vision of the production.

Equally impressive are the vocals, under the Musical Direction of Charlotte Evans, and the choreography by James Hunnicutt. Hunnicutt does a particular impressive job of getting the young cast to master synchronicity in movement and creating interesting and varied visual images. These adults have truly provided an impressive framework in which these young performers are able to shine.

And shine, they do. The large ensemble is full of energy and takes little moments and little solo lines to show the wealth of talent among the cast. Several get to stand out in some featured roles as well. Zachary Byrd (Daniel’s Father) possesses such a strong stage presence that he seems older than his years. Ryann Nicole Reich also makes a memorable impression with her turn as The Gatekeeper. Creating the backbone of the show that move the story forward are the four storytellers (Bella Comotto, Molly Foggo, Rose Glennon, and Talia Lebowitz). Foggo especially stands out in the role with her mature poise and grace.

What makes the story so compelling, though, is the heart displayed by the characters in this world. Allyson Gray (Little Girl/Little Ti Moune) is likely bound for stardom with her beautiful vocals and believable characterization. Her natural innocence and optimism serves as a beacon for the entire tale. Surrounding her with love are the sweet and loveable Tonton Julian (Matthew Byrd) and Mama Euralie (Phyllis Wainaina). Wainaina also has a voice that is clear as a bell and conveys her warmth. As much as the audience might want to be mad at Andrea (Zoe Hammel) and Daniel (Kevin Franiak), it is hard when Hammel and Franiak do such a nice job of making them believable and likeable and showing clearly that they never meant to hurt anyone.

For this production to work, though, it is the Gods who must be larger than life as they manipulate the actions of the players within. All four of these young women rose to this challenge in interesting and different ways. Anna Sophia Claudio (Erzulie, God of Love) is grace and elegance personified with a legit Broadway belt. Catie Zimmer (Papa Ge, God of Death) is everything evil and manipulative with a hint of real emotion buried in the nuances of her characterization. Anderson Gray (Agwe, God of Water) is wisdom and strength and a powerful, mature vocal sound. Dersha Horrey (Asaka, God of Earth) is vibrant, hilarious, and fills the room with her soul.

Of course, none of this would mean anything without the perfect Ti Moune, our hero. Nyani Hawkins is indeed perfect in this role; she is the ideal leading lady. Hawkins draws the audience into her world and into her big, beautiful heart. We root for her, and we cry for her, because Hawkins makes Ti Moune real. Hawkins has a beautiful quality to her voice and demonstrates control throughout and she wows the audience with her compelling dance. Hawkins, like the entire production, is truly spot-on and then some more. Audiences should not miss their chance to catch this wonderful show in the next two weekends.

This is what I thought of Children’s Playhouse of Maryland’s production of Once On This Island, Jr.… What did you think? Please feel free to leave a comment!

Once On This Island, Jr. will play through March 17 at Children’s Playhouse of Maryland at CCBC, Essex Campus, Administration Building. For tickets, call 443-840-ARTS (2787) or purchase them online.

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