Little Women Makes a Big Splash at Strand Theatre

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

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

(l-r) Surasree Das, Kay-Megan Washington, Elizabeth Ung, Katharine Vary, and Anabel Milton. Photo: Shealyn Jae Photography

The bond between sisters is a strong one that is not easily severed if at all possible. In Strand Theatre’s latest offering, Little Women adapted and Directed by Erin Riley, based on the novel of the same name by Louisa May Alcott, this sentiment couldn’t be more true and it’s a production you won’t want to miss.

In a nutshell, if you are unfamiliar with the story of Little Women, it concerns itself with the four March sisters, Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy, and their loving mother, affectionately known as Marmee, and their next door neigbors. Through the years, each March sister finds her own way and in Riley’s adaptation, from sister Jo’s point of view, we see the effects each life has on the others. Reiley’s choice of having Jo March’s tell the story, her story, helps move the story along smoothly and keeps the audience engaged from beginning to end.

Surasree Das and Kathryn Falcone. Photo: Shealyn Jae Photography

With a brilliant Set Design by Laurie Brandon, the audience is placed smack dab in the middle of the story in the Victorian era. Strand Theatre never ceases to amaze me with what they can do with their space and Brandon’s design is no different. A splendid and detailed Costume Design from Amy Rawe Weimer completes the setting beautifully and the to designs work in tandem to transport the audience into the lives of these women easily. Kudos to Brandon and Weimer for their efforts on this production.

Erin Reily also takes the helm of this production with help from Assistant Director Ruta Douglas-Smith. Their staging is top notch and the pacing is on point. The character work makes each character an individual and their grasp and comprehension of this material is clear. The dialogue and scenes are easy to follow and smoothly played out. It’s easy to see the love Reily and Douglas-Smith have for this story and their presentation is spot on. Both should be commended for their work.

(l-r) Kathryn Falcone, Kay-Megan Washington, Surasree Das, Anabel Milton, Katharine Vary, and Elizabeth Ung. Photo: Shealyn Jae Photography

I can confidently say this is one of the tightest and dedicated casts I have come across this season and each pulls his or her own weight making for a charming production, as a whole.

The ensemble is led by Surasree Das, as Jo March, and she hits the groung running, embodying this character with ease. Her natural portrayal of this strong-minded young woman is superb and pulls the audience in and has you rooting for her throughout. She has a deep understanding of this character and gives a solid, confident performance.

In the same vein, her sisters, Meg, Beth, and Amy, played by Elizabeth Ung, Katharine Vary, and Anabel Milton, are equally excellent in their portrayals and the chemistry between these women is natural and strong. Ung plays the older sister Meg with a gentleness that captures your heart while Vary shines as the fragile Beth while Milton, in contrast, is brash and confident as the youngest sister Amy. All together, they form a formidable troupe that makes one stand up and take notice.

Bill Brekke and JC Payne. Photo: Shaelyn Jae Photography

Joining the March women are Kay-Megan Washington as Marmee and Kathryn Falcone as Aunt March and Hannah (Falcone also tackles Hair Design and Styling and it is absolute brilliant). These women give strong, confident performances and are standouts in this particular telling. Washington portrays the matriarch of this family effortlessly and seems to have a great understanding of this character who is just trying to keep things together during times of strife. Falcone, in the same vein, is simply amazing in her portrayal of the old, crotchety Aunt March in both manner and delivery and the contrast in her portrayal of the loving and sweet Hannah, the March’s maid, is flawless. Hats off to Washington and Falcone for their beautiful, dedicated, and strong performances.

Alexander Scally and Elizabeth Ung. Photo: Shaelyn Jae Photography

The male characters in this story, Mr. March, Mr. Laurence, Laurie, Brooke, and Bhare are taken on marvelously by Bill Brekke, JC Payne, and Alexander Scally, with Brekke and Scally taking on dual roles. Bill Brekke is believable enough as Mr. March and Mr. Laurence but at times seems a little stiff and scripted, but his chemistry with his cast mates is top notch and he holds his own. JC Payne as the young, energetic, fun Laurie, knows his way around the stage and gives a wonderful, seamless portrayal as his character grows from childish young man to responsible adult. Scally, too, shines in his portrayal of Brooke, family friend and tutor who finds his way into the heart of the eldest March sister. He plays Brooke with a nice balance of straight-forwardness and gentleness that makes for a superb performance and his contrast in playing Bahre, a seemingly rough and gruff German professor, is spot on making for an impressive performance overall. In short, Brekke, Payne, and Scally should be applauded and commended for their efforts and work on this production.

Final thought… Little Women is a tour-de-force for Strand Theatre and is a beautiful adaptation of Lousia May Alcott’s classic that pulls it nicely into the 21st century. The script is splendidly put together, the staging is on point, and the performances are top notch. All should be commended for their efforts on this production and you don’t want to miss this production this season. Get your tickets now because they will probably be hard to come by the longer you wait.

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

 Little Women will play through December 22 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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Fells Point Corner Theatre Rises with She Stoops to Conquer

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

Approx. Running Time: 2 hours with one intermission

In today’s climate, the empowerment of women is of the utmost importance (along with the empowerment of many other under-represented communities), but we mustn’t forget that folks have been talking and writing about this sort of thing for centuries. In Fells Point Corner Theatre’s latest offering, She Stoops to Conquer by Oliver Goldsmith, Directed by Lance Bankerd and Barbara Madison Hauck, we are reminded of the struggles and ingenuity of woman through the ages.

Briefly, in She Stoops to Conquer, Mr. Hardcastle wishes for his daughter, Kate, to marry Sir Charles Marlow, a shy but attractive young man. Marlow and his friend Hastings travel from London, but are tricked by Tony Lumpkin, Hardcastle’s step-son, that Hardcastle’s home is an inn. Hastings is involved with Constance, who is being pushed by her aunt, Mrs. Hardcastle to marry Tony, whom she is not keen on. While thinking Hardcastle’s home is an inn, Marlow and Hastings behave badly, but when Marlow meets Kate, he is shy and awkward. Kate disguises herself as a barmaid to see how Marlow really acts and he’s the complete opposite. When he learns her true identity, he is embarrassed. Eventually, after some slapstick and farce, the confusion is cleared up with a happy ending. Make sense?

I didn’t know much about this piece aside from recognizing the title, but have come to the conclusion it’s not my cup of tea, so to speak. The attempts to update this piece seem only to do with costuming which didn’t make much sense, at best. I wasn’t sure where Costume Designer Rache Austin was trying to go. It was a mix between 80s punk, 70s glam, and a dash of the Roaring 20s that was all over the place. The bold colors are nice to look at, and, in general, it’s a creative, bold, and consistent design, but since the dialogue stays pretty much in tack, this particular design doesn’t seem beneficial to the piece as a whole. It’s not a bad design (and I can tell Austin knows the craft well) just a bit ill-fitting for this production.

Set Design by David Shoemaker is spot on and he is to be commended for his use of the space. Being a farce, multiple entrances and exits are required and Shoemaker has managed to give us as many as we needed, no more, no less, and his base design helps move the piece along nicely adding and subtracting appropriate set pieces, when needed. Kudos to Shoemaker for a well thought out design.

Ari Juno and Corey Hennessey. Photo: Shaelyn Jae Photography

Taking the helm of this production are veteran Director Lance Bankerd and novice Director Barbara Madison Hauck. Now, Directing a period piece can be a challenge and updating a piece can be even more of a challenge and must be handled delicately. Overall, this production is a good production and everyone involved is giving 100% effort, but, with that said, it doesn’t seem to live up to its full potential. The staging is suitable and the pacing is on point, but the characters aren’t always fleshed out and believable, on the whole, save a few. Technically, Bankerd and Hauck do give a phenomenal showing with tight staging, but the character work is lacking. It seems these actors are simply reciting the dialogue without knowing exactly what it means. This could be an actor problem, but in the end, the Director(s) should be watching closely and guiding these actors. Regardless of these criticisms, the production value is terrific and Bankerd and Hauck should be proud of their efforts and they should be commended for tackling such a challenging piece and Hauck is to be applauded for her Directorial debut. I’m looking forward to seeing more from both of these fine Directors.

Moving on to the performance aspect, as stated, the entire ensemble gives a valiant and concerted effort and all are to be commended for their commitment to their roles. Gareth Kelly, Ari Juno, Christian O’Neill, and Thomas Peter work well in their supporting roles and help move the action along nicely with impeccable comedic timing and understanding of the quick entrances and exits of farce. They all work well with and off of each other and it’s easy to see they are enjoying every minute. All are to be commended for their work on this production.

Corey Hennnessey takes on the role of the impish, childish Tony Lumpkin who starts all the trouble with his mischief and though Hennessey has a tight grasp on his character, he plays him a little too nonchalantly with grand gestures and flamboyancy that, at times, can be a bit much for the intimate space. That being said, he does have a great presence on the stage and is absolutely dedicated to this role giving a strong, confident showing.

Elizabeth Norman tackles the role of the strong-willed, intelligent Kate Hardcastle and though she seems to understand the character, in her delivery of the dialogue, I must admit I’m not convinced she has a tight grasp of the text. Much of her performance seems to be simply reciting the text rather than a full understanding of what she’s saying and the connection and authenticity is lost. However, she does have a solid presence and is confident on stage making for a delightful performance.

Taking on the role of Constance, a ward of the Hardcastle’s who doesn’t seem to have say in what happens in her life, is Hannah Folger and she portrays this character beautifully. Her delivery is natural, and her comprehension of this character is clear. Folger knows her way around the stage and is comfortable in this role making for a robust and charming performance.

Elizabeth Norman and Ian Charles. Photo: Shaelyn Jae Photography

A couple of highlights in this production are Richard Peck and Lindsey Schott as Mr. and Mrs. Hardcastle and these two actors shine in these roles. Peck plays Mr. Hardcastle as the straight man in this piece and he plays him seriously enough that it enhances the comedy and his chemistry with his cast mates is impeccable. He knows this character and plays him splendidly with subtle but spot on reactions and mannerisms. In the same vein, Schott is hilarious as Mrs. Hardcastle, a woman who is trying to stay on top of things and in control. She takes the role and makes it her own and balances Mrs. Hardcastle’s deviousness and tenderness nicely. Schott knows this character well and gives a durable and entertaining performance, overall.

The standouts in this production are, hands down, Albert Lolu Collins as George Hastings and Ian Charles as Young Marlow. From the moment these two step onto the stage, it’s clear they are believable and committed to their roles. Collins is a bit hard to understand at times in his British accent, but he plays this character in a way that makes him likable from the start, and his understanding of his character, his presence and assurance makes for a strong performance.

Ian Charles is exquisite in his portrayal of Young Marlow and he is to be applauded for his efforts. His comprehension of the role, comedy, and farce are spot on and he seems to embody this character. He does quite well with the staging and every movement has purpose and that, in tandem with a natural, easy delivery of the dialogue make for an outstanding performance.

Final thought… She Stoops to Conquer is a piece of theatre that should be experienced by all theater makers and lovers at one time or another. I’m glad I’ve finally been able to experience it myself and the story is well put together. For being over 200 years old, it still makes a point and holds its own. This particular production has its flaws, but, overall, is a tight production with a dedicated cast and production team. The language (or use of language) may be unfamiliar at first, but still easy to follow if you pay attention. This is an important show that seemed to be ahead of its time concerning women empowerment, but it’s still relevant and makes sense for today’s audience. Through comedy and farce, this piece shows that, after 200 years, some things never change. If you want a fun, delightful evening of theatre, you’ll want to check out She Stoops to Conquer at Fells Point Corner Theatre.

This is what I thought of this production of She Stoops to Conquer at Fells Point Corner Theatre.… what do you think?

She Stoops to Conquer will play through December 15 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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Lizzie Borden Took an Axe in Lizzie: The Musical at Guerrilla Theatre Front

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

Approx. Running Time: 2 hours with one intermission

Picture it: Fall River, MA, August of 1892. Most say, “Lizzie Borden took an axe, gave her mother 40 whacks, when she saw what she had done, she gave her father 41.” We’ve all heard it at one point in our lives and when we got older, we may have delved more into the story. Along with writing reviews for theatre, and participating in theatre in most of my free time, I am an admitted and proud true-crime junkie, and the story of Lizzie Borden up there with the handful of stories and events I (and many others) cannot get enough of. My head exploded a little (in a good way) when I heard the Lizzie Borden story had been turned into a musical, and not just a regular musical, but a rock opera with a modern twist and I was even more ecstatic when I was invited to a performance from Guerrilla Theatre Front earlier this month. Directed by Greg Bell, with Music Direction by Megann Baldwin, Lizzie: The Musical, is an instant hit and one show you need to put on your calendar.

The Cast of Lizzie: The Musical. Credit: Shealyn Jae Photography

Set Design by Aaron Elson is nothing short of perfection. His design incorporates the space at Creative Labs (which one might call a warehouse basement, if that’s a thing), and it blends in so naturally with its surroundings. The raw material look of the entire set sets the mood the moment the audience walks in and the grunge works wonderfully with the production as a whole. Kudos to Elson for his creative design.

Amy Bell, Marie Bankerd, and Maggie Flannigan’s Costume Design is on point in bringing this 100+ year old story to life as well as dragging it into the 21st century. It’s a kind of “Modern Victorian,” if you will with corsets and lacy gloves, high-top boots, and floor-length dresses, all in dark and dank colors that set the mood of this grizzly but infatuating tale. The wardrobe choices for this production are suited nicely to the cast and they seem comfortable and confident in every garment making this a truly successful design from Bell, Bankerd, and Flannigan.

Lighting Design by Jim Shomo and Sound Design by Charles Hirsch work in tandem to create the feel for the entire production… ROCK. The intense light show puts you in a legit rock concert and the audience is encouraged to dance around, cheer, and whatever else mood takes them! Shomo seems to have a good grasp on this material and has created a design that fits in perfectly with strobe effects, flashes of light, blackouts when necessary and it’s easy to see he’s no stranger to this Lighting Design game. Hirsch had some challenges to deal with, including a non-traditional space, but he seems to have overcome the challenge and given us a good design, overall. Both Shomo and Hirsch are to be commended and applauded for their efforts on this production.

The Cast of Lizzie: The Musical. Credit: Shealyn Jae Photography

Blending in perfectly with the lights and sound, but also making a splash are the Projections by Christopher Uehlinger. His choices were impeccable and fit in with ever scene. The split screen and background projections kept the action moving onstage, but didn’t hinder it or get in the way. More and more projections are being used in theatrical productions and Uehlinger seems to be ahead of the game and I’m looking forward to seeing more of his work in other productions in the area and beyond.

Music Direction by Megann Baldwin is top notch with a top notch pit orchestra to boot! Her comprehension of this score translates beautifully to her cast and the melodies and harmonies soar throughout the theatre. The heavy rock style is not lost on Baldwin, either, as she navigates through this non-traditional musical with ease like a light in the darkness.

JacQuan Knox as Alice. Credit: Shealyn Jae Photography

Greg Bell takes the helm of this production and his Direction of this piece exemplifies his grasp not only on this story, but the style of the piece, and his work is spot on. His staging is simple, but effective and his casting is just about perfect. His vision is presented clearly and the mix of rock concert and traditional theatre mesh effortlessly making for a fresh, engaging production that will have you interested from beginning to end. Bell is to be commended for his impeccable work on this production.

Moving into the performance aspect of this production, this quartet is nothing to mess with, Each and every lady in this cast has come ready to smash it with their A-game and that just adds to the beauty of this production. Not only do they smash it musically, they each seem to have a tight grasp on their respective character and play them to the hilt.

Caitlin Weaver as Emma. Credit: Shealyn Jae Photography

JacQuan Knox as Alice, the reserved friend and secret lover of Lizzie, is a joy to watch and with her honeyed vocals that seemed to be reserved until she let it all out with bursts of intensity that drove the song and sentiment home. This character, Alice, seems to be the one who has the steadiest grasp on real life and Knox portrays that authentically and confidently.

Caitlin Weaver, as Emma, the elder Borden sister, is a highlight in this piece as she navigates her way through this crazy story and she does it with a great confidence and presence that does not falter throughout. Every time she stepped onto the stage, she had a mission and accomplished it through her passionate portrayal of this character. Vocally, Weaver knocks it out of the park, especially in featured numbers such as “Sweet Little Sister.”

Parker Bailey Steven as Lizzie. Credit: Shealyn Jae Photography

In the titiular role of Lizzie, Parker Bailey Steven is a powerhouse and left me wanting more. She effortlessly transitions from the shy, awkward young lady of domineering parental figures to a strong, confident woman with just a look, a gesture, and voice inflection. Her take on the infamous, complex Lizzie Borden is not a performance to be missed and she pulls it off with ease. With a hint of Stevie Nicks mixed with Janis Joplin, and Ann Wilson, Parker Bailey Steven effortlessly rocks the stage and makes this part her own.

The standout, however, in this production is Siobhan Beckett as Bridget “Maggie” Sullivan, the sulky, scheming maid of the Borden household and sometimes narrator. I can’t say enough of about how much life Beckett gave me in her portrayal of this character. The character was spot on and she seems to embody this sly character with natural delivery of dialogue and movement and gesturing that has purpose. Vocally this woman can wail and makes the audience stand up and take notice. Her pure, distinct voice resonates throughout the space and gave me chills at points (which is not small feat). She takes this part, chews it up, spits it out, and gives a strong, heartfelt performance that sticks with you long after the show is over.

Siohhan Beckett as Bridget Sullivan. Credit: Shealyn Jae Photography

Final thought…  Lizzie: The Musical is a high-energy, modern, engaging success that looks at one of the most enthralling true-crime events in this country’s history. Pulled right into the 21st century with rocking, in-your-face music, this isn’t your run of the mill musical theatre experience but it is an experience you do not want to miss, especially if you like your music loud and hard. With wailing actresses reminiscent of the Wilson sisters (Heart), Grace Slick, and Stevie Nicks, who will melt your face with their amazing vocals, staging that keeps you in the story, and a score that tells the story well with a modern twist, this is the show to see. Do yourself a favor and get out to see this show. You won’t regret it in the least and will leave thoroughly satisfied.

This is what I thought of Guerrilla Theatre Front’s Lizzie: The Musical… What did you think? Please feel free to leave a comment!

Lizzie: The Musical will play through October 25 (8pm & 11pm) and Oct 26 (8pm & 11pm) at Guerrilla Theatre Front, at Creative Labs, 1786 B Union Ave, Baltimore, MD 21211. For tickets, purchase them at the door or online.

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Go Go Go Just Off Broadway with Joseph & the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat

By Kara M. Bauer

Approx. Running Time: 90 minutes with one 15-minute intermission.

*DISCLAIMERPlease note, one or more persons directly involved in this production are members of the staff of Backstage Baltimore. This individual or persons directly involved with the production did not write or participate in writing this review. The only editing performed on this piece was for grammar, punctuation, and organization. No content editing (adding, changing, or omitting words) were completed without the expressed permission of the author.*

In all my years in theatre I have seen countless theatre companies produce Joseph & the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. I myself have been involved in numerous productions of Joseph and each time I am amazed at the creativity that directors and actors bring to the stage. Each production that I have seen and  been a part of has attempted to spruce up the familiar tunes, scenes, and characters, usually without success. Fortunately for us, Just Off Broadway’s production, Directed by Tammy Oppel, with Music Direction by Patty Delisle and Choreography by Katie Gerstmyer, brought something new that I have never seen before.

When you attend the show, I encourage you to spot the absolutely hilarious props! See if you can find the cheeseburger beret and the razor scooter. The creative team really came together and provided the Baltimore theatre scene with a great production of Joseph. That being said, no show will ever be perfect– as a professional theatre teacher and director I know this. All we can do is ask that the actors put their everything into a role and hope that it works out. Despite some minor criticism, I would consider this production a success. This is definitely a production that you would not want to miss.

The moment I walked into the theatre, something felt different. I’ve been to several productions at Just Off Broadway and the first thing I noticed was that the pit had been moved. When the overture began, I immediately knew that the creative team had made the right call. Under the direction of Patty Delisle, the orchestra’s first notes brought back so many memories for me of waiting anxiously behind the curtain for an entrance. Andrew Vida is also to be commended for his creative light design. I can say with confidence that I have not met a more professional high school student (and I teach high school). He attends Calvert Hall College High School and hopes to pursue technical theatre once he graduates this coming year. Unfortunately, the issues with the microphones took me out of the performance at times. No theatre company is immune to technical difficulties. I recall a time when the microphones completely stopped working during a production that I was involved with. Due to the microphone issues, it was hard to hear every single line and note.

Unless you are familiar with the story of Joseph, it is somewhat hard to follow. The person I came with had never seen Joseph before and was constantly asking me to clarify what was happening on the stage. The chorus was too overpowering when a soloist was taking the lead and the orchestra volume was too intense during certain scenes. One thing that I enjoyed was the ability of the actors to blend their voices together. The harmonies during “Close Every Door” were perfect to the point of giving me goosebumps. I can look past the technical errors to a degree because the entire cast was not only vocally capable, but proved itself able to pull me back into the story with their intoxicating harmonies. While preserving the professionalism and style of the original work, Just Off Broadway has preserved its meaning as well. “Close Every Door”, while Joseph, played by Josh Schoff, is singing the famous lyrics of Tim Rice, “I do not matter. I’m only one person”, words that certainly resonate with anyone who has ever felt alone,  cast members turn their back to him, symbolizing his complete neglect and loneliness.

As the cast made their way onto the stage during the overture, it was easy to see which actors were genuinely invested in their role. Most of them were, but a few actors seemed distracted. One great challenge as an actor is to be completely immersed in their character. Jason Crawford Samios-Uy, Chris Thomas,  B. Ever Hanna, and Kate Forton were a few of my favorites throughout the performance. Their facial expressions, crisp clear vocals, ability to harmonize, and overall pizzazz on stage kept me engaged and entertained throughout the performance. I legitimately laughed out loud when Hanna and Forton were performing “One More Angel”, they are truly a dynamic duo. Also worth a “ention is the falsetto voice from Micah Rufsvold, which was used both for comedic relief as well as musical entertainment. There are lots of reasons to see this show, but the “One More Angel” number really takes the cake. It’s also worth mentioning and the effervescence of Elton Knupp as the Narrator, who skillfully and beautifully keeps the action moving on stage while telling the story with confidence and on point vocal ability.

One thing that confused me at first was the costume choices. There were hardly any costume changes and most actors were in street clothes the entire time. I have never seen that done before. My one criticism is that I would have loved to have seen a few more costume pieces used to help the audience understand when the brothers took on various roles like the Baker and Butler. This was also the first production of Joseph that I have seen where there were no set changes. Props and various benches were moved by the cast seamlessly and allowed the flow from one scene to the next without too much interruption.

Despite the small stage, the choreography was effective, creative, and enjoyable. Katie Gertsmeyer is to be commended for her fantastic skill as a choreographer. Each movement appeared natural for the characters, easy enough for all cast members to perform, and yet still appeared complex. The cast obviously worked extremely hard to pull off some of the choreography. One dancer in particular stands out in my mind. Samantha Jednorski, featured as Mrs. Potiphar, was one of the highlights of the performance. Jednorski has been involved in theatre for years; her expertise in the theatre realm shines through. Her facial expressions, reactions, and vibrant attitude was a true pleasure to witness. Speaking of cast members talent, I was extremely impressed by B’Jion Wright, Naphtali and the Butler, As someone who directs shows at a high school level, the first thought that ran through my mind when I saw her take the stage was, “Wow! This is a perfect example of an actress who has all the essential components to be successful! I wish my students could see her on stage!” Wright has the presence about her; total investment in her character and the skills to make it happen. I was also extremely impressed by Patrick Jay Golden’s performance as Pharaoh. Despite the simple costume, his characterization is what sold me on his solo. I even had the privilege of touching the hand of Ramessess *swoon* when he came into the audience to keep theatre goers on their toes.

I am very much looking forward to the Just Off Broadway’s 2020 Season. Their theme for the upcoming season is #RunningAway. I am very curious to see if they run away with their imagination or if they end up with their heads in the clouds. No matter what, I know the next shows they produce will be a real treat, just like Joseph.

This is what I thought of Just Off Broadway’s production of Joseph & the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat… What did you think? Please feel free to leave a comment!

Joseph & the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat will play through November 3 at Just Off Broadway at Epiphany Lutheran Church, 4301 Raspe Avenue, Baltimore, MD. Purchase tickets at the door one hour before show time or purchase them online.

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Magic is in Abundance at Matilda at Children’s Playhouse of Maryland

By Jennifer L. Gusso

Running Time: 2 hours and 40 minutes with one intermission

Children’s Playhouse of Maryland always seems to be increasing the challenge of the pieces that they select for their young performers, and they always seem to be providing those performers with the exactly the right skills to meet the challenge. Once again, with Matilda, they have selected a difficult score with complicated characters. Presenting the full version, rather than a truncated Junior version, these young people mastered complex songs, scenes, harmonies, and even monologues. They truly show that “even though you’re little, you can do a lot,” and are blessed to work with an adult team of directors that believe just that. Director Liz Boyer Hunnicutt, Music Director Charlotte Evans, and Choreographer James Hunnicutt never shy away from giving the young performers intricate skills to learn and opportunities to shine.

Boyer Hunnicutt’s staging is incredibly strong. Even with a lot of moving pieces and people, she keeps scenes and transitions seamless. The pace is excellent, which is key for a long show. The lighting design of Ed Lake is also a real star of the show. He really uses color in intentional ways to reflect the mood and dynamics of the scene. The lighting is the perfect complement to the beautiful set design of Diane M. Smith. A representational background with set pieces to create changing locations brings the world to life without slowing down the flow. Simple set pieces also move easily in and out to aid in the swirling, magical feel of the movement.

Matilda’s magic is furthered by number after number of complex rhythms and harmonies, mastered by the cast under Evans’ direction. Each of those numbers is brought to life with interesting and varied choreography by Hunnicutt. He brings out precision and energy in each performer, and each song has unique qualities to make it more fun and exciting than the last number.

Of course, none of this would be anything without the amazing children performers, and they are quite amazing. The entire group works as a cohesive unit, and there is not one member of the ensemble that lacks excitement. Even in some the smaller, featured roles, children take their moment and shine. Sam Izzo as the Doctor has a beautiful voice that soars over the opening number. Pierce Elliott is funny and flashy as Rudolpho. Soren Lange’s Nigel is as cute as can be as he hides from certain punishment in Chokey. Bella Pollara (Amanda) and Evelyn Acerno (Alice) are alight with energy in the children’s scenes and dance numbers. Even in a talented group, they both stand out with that extra star quality.

Perfect examples of taking featured roles and making them memorable by milking the comedic material for every ounce are Myles Taylor (Michael) and Bella Comotto (Lavender). Michael is not a man of many words, but Taylor’s facial expressions are the constant reminder that a picture is worth a million words. He creates a believable and loveable character while barely opening his mouth. It is a very impressive and nuanced performance from such a young performer. Comotto, on the other hand, shows the beauty of over-the-top and comedic delivery as the larger-than-life Lavender. Her exaggerated energy is just perfect in this role.

Speaking of exaggerated, two brilliant performances come at the hands of Dylan Morrison (Mr. Harry Wormwood) and Kathyrn Schudel (Mrs. Zinnia Wormwood). The Wormwoods are just about the worst people that you could ever meet, but it’s hard not to like them with these two in the roles. They both possess strong instincts about how to be funny without going too far over the top. In contrast to the Wormwoods, Miss Honey (Emily Signor) is kind and sweet and good. Signor has a beautiful soprano voice and a natural sweetness that really does justice to the role.

At the center of all of these crazy characters is Matilda (Maeve Acerno). In many respects, Matilda is the “straight man” of the piece which can make it difficult to play. She has to retain a calm, strength in the storms of exaggeration all around her. Acerno does just that. Her performance is grounded, and it brings real heart to the crazy tale. She radiates maturity and strength and is the perfect glue to hold it all together.

Despite not being the title character, it seems that the best material is reserved for Miss Agatha Trunchbull, and Ethan Holler’s performance never lets the audience forget that. Holler takes each and every word and squeezes every ounce of comedic evil out. His Trunchbull is deliberate and horrifying, just as she should be.

Matilda is a delightful story with nonstop laughter and fun. Everyone should get a chance to check out these young performers while they have the chance.

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

Matilda will play through September 29 at Children’s Playhouse of Maryland at CCBCEssex Campus, Administration Building. For tickets, call 443-840-ARTS (2787) or purchase them online.

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Bright Half Life is Living Well at The Strand Theatre

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

Running Time: Approx. 90 minutes with no intermission

Love is love. No matter who it happens to or how it happens, love is love, plain and simple. I’ve heard it said that there’s someone for everyone in this crazy world and you never know when and where you’ll find them. Sometimes it comes as quite a shock to those who do. Regardless, when that “one” is found, what does that do to us as individuals? The Strand Theatre’s latest offering, Bright Half Life by Tanya Barfield and Directed by K. Tony Korol-Evans gives us a glimpse into one love story that spans the years and asks us to think about our own relationships and what we’re willing to sacrifice and compromise for someone else.

In a nutshell, Bright Half Life concerns itself with Vicky and Erica, a couple who meet when they’re young, working for some corporation, Vicky a supervisor and Erica a temp. They move on from a professional relationship to a personal one and begin a forming a life together. Both seem to have different views of the world and of themselves. Vicky is stable, but her idea of a good time is spinning around a Ferris wheel and jumping out of planes while Erica is afraid of heights. When marriage, kids, and half a life together are thrown into the mix, where does that leave them?

Katherine Vary and Ayesis Clay. Credit: Shealyn Jae Photography

Director K. Tony Korol-Evans took on double duty of Set Designer and this design fits the bill perfectly. Since the story is told in chunks that ping-pong through time, it needed to be simple and simple it was, not dull, but minimal and it worked nicely for this production. Locations and props were more insinuated rather than physical and it’s a wise choice considering how quickly the scenes change in time and space. A kitchen table and chairs, a few bar stools, a futon in the corner and a couple of wooden boxes is all that is needed to simply allude to where and when these characters are and it all flows together nicely.

Lighting Design by Robert Brooks and Sound Design by Brad J. Ranno work beautifully, in tandem, to set the mood for each scene for audience and we are transported transported to each location and time seamlessly. Neither design hinders the action going on onstage but enhances it sometimes subtly and sometimes in a flash making for a well put-together design from both. Kudos to Brooks and Ranno for their efforts.

Direction by K. Tony Korol-Evans is on point, especially with this type of text that bounces back and forth throughout the piece. She has a tight grasp on this material and the story that is being told. Her vision is clear and her staging is precise making for great pacing and audience engagement. It’s an intimate space, but she’s managed to use this intimacy in her staging. The character work is impeccable, as well, and her presentation of this material is entertaining and thoughtful.

Moving on to the performance aspect of this piece, the two actors chosen to portray these characters, Katharine Vary as Erica and Ayesis Clay as Vicky, give polished, dedicated performances and each have their individual character and both play their parts splendidly. Unfortunately, the intimacy and connection between the two characters doesn’t seem to be 100% believable. Both work well together, but the chemistry is more friendly than romantic, which is tough on an actor, and I just wish it had been a bit more authentic. However, I reiterate… both actors play their parts quite well.

Vary is comfortable in her role as Erica and she plays her confidently and energetically. She understands the turmoil and conflict of her character and her portrayal is heart wrenching and delightful at the same time. Within the drama, her comedic timing is spot on as she knows the line of playing it straight enough to be funny. Kudos to Vary on a wonderful portrayal.

Likewise, Clay is phenomenal as Vicky and gives a standout performance. Her natural delivery and confident stage presence makes this character believable and likable. Clay understands her character and the compromises Vicky makes as she navigates through a tough relationship not only with her partner but with her family and Clay doesn’t miss a beat. Overall, her performance is strong, confident and she should be commended for her outstanding efforts.

Final thought… Bright Half Life is a quirky but poignant love story. It jumps around, but after a few minutes, you get the rhythm of the piece and it’s not so jarring. The story is well told and the ability of the writer to fit practically a lifetime (or half a lifetime) into 90 minutes is no small feat and quite impressive. The performances are top notch and the staging is spot on. The two actors have a tight grasp on the material and the Director seems to have a deep understanding of the material making for an entertaining, thoughtful evening of theatre that is not to be missed.

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

Bright Half Life will play through September 29 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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Proof at Everyman Theatre Proves They’re on Their A-Game

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

Running Time: Approx. 2 hours with one intermission

Mental illness and care seems to be in the forefront these days, as well it should be. For too many years, we’ve turned a blind eye to mental illness and it hasn’t done us or those who suffer any favors. It’s all around us and sometimes it’s a little too close for comfort especially when it’s a family member and even more so when it’s a parent. Everyman Theatre touches on these topics and more in their 2019-2020 season opener, Proof by David Auburn, Directed by Paige Hernandez.

(l-r) Bruce Randolph Nelson, Jeremy Keith Hunter, Katie Kleiger, and Megan Anderson. Credit: DJ Corey Photography

In short, Proof concerns itself with Robert, an unstable but famous mathematician, his daughters Catherine, who has cared for him for years, Claire, a well put-together adult living her own life, and Hal, a former student turned professor. After Robert’s death, Catherine has to deal with her capricious emotions, her estranged and level-headed sister, and the blossoming affections of Hal. All this on top of 103 notebooks her father left behind in which Hal hopes to find valuable work. During this long weekend, Catherine has to figure out what or how much of her father’s mental instability or genius she has inherited.

It’s an important piece in the way it portrays a family in distress because of mental illness and the uncertainty it brings to surviving members of the family and the questions it raises. It also highlights the tendency to think women are not as apt in fields such as science and math that is still, unfortunately, prevalent thought in today’s modern society. However, it also helps to begin to answer not all, but a few questions such as inheritance or propensity of mental illness and how women are actually quite apt with unlimited ability in the world of math and science. Though almost 20 years old, this play is still as relevant and though-provoking as when it was first written.

Jeremy Keith Hunter, Katie Kleiger, and Bruce Randolph Nelson. Credit: DJ Corey Photography

Set Design by Daniel Ettinger has done it again and it’s not big surprise. His design is both modern and practical but transports the audience to whichever location he chooses. The stage is no longer a stage, but the back porch of an old Chicago home that needs a little TLC but is livable and homey. The aged furniture adds to the feel and overall notion of what Ettinger was going for and this design is top-notch.

At the helm of this production is Director Paige Hernandez, who happens to be an Everyman Resident Company member, as well. It’s clear Hernandez has a deep comprehension of this material and has presented it in an easy to follow and authentic manner. The characters are fleshed out and polished and the staging is natural and smooth, making for a near flawless production. It’s clear Hernandez knows her way around the stage as well as in guiding a successful production. Her vision is clear and makes for a successful and strong production. Kudos to Hernandez for her efforts.

Bruce Randolph Nelson. Credit: DJ Corey Photography

Moving on to the performance aspect of this production, it’s worth saying this small quartet of actors are perfectly cast for their roles. They each have a tight grasp on their characters and work quite well with and off of each other making for a solid ensemble to tell this poignant story.

Resident Company Member Bruce Randolph Nelson tackles the role of the unstable genius, Robert. Nelson takes this role and completely makes it his own with every subtle move and facial reaction making for a natural, real portrayal of a troubled man. His delivery of this dialogue is effortless and he portrays this character as someone you feel comfortable with, regardless of the situation. Robert is both fatherly and child-like and Nelson’s portrayal is nothing short of impeccable as he tackles this tough, emotional role.

Katie Kleiger, Megan Anderson. Credit: DJ Corey Photography

Another Resident Company Member, Megan Anderson as Claire, the older, stable sister knocks it out of the park with her portrayal. She’s what I would think of as any overly helpful, condescending older sister would be. For a bit of trivia, Anderson actually tackled the role of Catherine a few years back, so, she has a good grasp on how Claire should be reacting to Catherine and it shows. Her character work is splendid and she gives a strong, confident performance overall.

Katie Kleiger, Jeremy Keith Hunter. Credit: DJ Corey Photography

Jeremy Keith Hunter takes on the role of Hal, the former student who is searching through 103 notebooks to find something of value from his former teacher. Hunter fits nicely into this role and plays it authentically with just the right amount of comedy and poignancy. His comedic timing is on point as is his ability to switch into more dramatic material seamlessly. He understands this character and his place in this piece and plays it to the hilt.

Katie Kleiger as Catherine is a standout in her portrayal. A new Resident Company Member, she comfortable in this role giving a strong, confident performance and a polished portrayal. Her grasp of the character is apparent and her delivery is natural and smooth making for a solid performance. The chemistry between her and the rest of the ensemble is authentic and makes for a tight presentation of this characters relationships with the other characters. Overall, Kleiger becomes this character and portrays her uncertainties, conflicts, happiness, and crisis beautifully and delicately that makes for a praiseworthy performance.

Final thought…  Proof at Everyman Theatre is a poignant, thoughtful look at a family relationship and dynamic and how it is effected by mental illness. It also touches on the misogyny that still exists in the sciences and scientific fields but handles both mental illness and the misogyny delicately and powerfully. The Set Design is superb, the staging is near flawless, and the small ensemble is perfectly cast with an abundance of chemistry that adds an authenticity to the entire production. This is quite the opener for Everyman Theatre and I, for one, can’t wait to see what the rest of the season holds. Get your tickets now as you don’t want to miss this well put-together, polished production.

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

Proof will play through October 6 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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Everything is Nearly Perfect with Perfect Arrangement at Fells Point Corner Theater

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

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

Picture it, 1950; Washington, D.C. The war is over, the U.S. has come out of it victoriously, and Korea is just a thought. Nuclear families are popping up all over, with their white picket fences, and everything just seems to be right and polite. It was a simpler time… or was it? If you didn’t fit the norm, was it so simple? Could you make it simple? These are the questions touched on by Fells Point Corner Theatre’s latest production, and the first of their 2019-2020 season, Perfect Arrangement by Topher Payne, Directed by Patrick Gorirossi. It’s a funny, sad, uplifting, and poignant roller coaster about how you never really know what happens behind closed doors.

(l-r) Ari Eckley, Shamire Casselle, Holly Gibbs, and Nate Krimmel. Credit: Shaelyn Jae Photography

According to Samuel French, “It’s 1950, and new colors are being added to the Red Scare. Two U.S. State Department employees, Bob and Norman, have been tasked with identifying sexual deviants within their ranks. There’s just one problem: Both Bob and Norma are gay, and have married each other’s partners as a carefully constructed cover. Inspired by the true story of the earliest stirring of the American gay rights movement, madcap classic sitcom-style laughs give way to provocative drama as two ‘All-American’ couples are forced to stare down the closet door.”

From the start, I had a feeling this production was going to yield good things because Set Design by Bruce Kapplin is top notch. This design completely transports the audience back to 1950 Georgetown in Washington D.C. and Kapplin’s attention to detail is second to none. From the mid-century-style furniture to the fireplace and mantel on the back wall, and subtle colors, this set is a character all on its own and Kapplin deserves a hefty round of applause for his outstanding efforts.

Costume Design by Heather Johnston impeccable. As we’re nicely into the 21st century, any 1950s piece can be considered a “period piece” and those can be tricky to costume. However, Johnston has done it and managed to put these actors in the time period without skipping a beat. Her choices for each character made them individuals and believable. From formal wear to every day duds, Johnston has pulled off a brilliant design and deserves all the kudos.

Patrick Gorirossi takes the reigns of this production and it is well in hand. Aside from a few “too hokey” bits dealing with advertising that go a little over the top (thought it may have been written this way), this is a tight, well put-together production. Gorirossi knows this material and has a deep comprehension of the text and this is clear in his staging and character work from his ensemble. A truly phenomenal production from a truly skillful director.

(l-r) Ebony N. Jackson, Gabe Fremuth, David Forrer, HOlly Gibbs, Nate Krimmel, and Ari Eckley. Credit: Shaelyn Jae Photography

I’ve got to begin the next part of this review, concerning performances, by stating every single one of these performers held their own in this ensemble piece. Their chemistry was exquisite and they seemed to know their characters quite well making for great performances all around.

David Forrer as Theodore Sunderson and Ebony N. Jackson as Kitty Sunderson, are the seemingly elder characters; he’s the boss and she’s the bosses wife. Forrer and Jackson have these characters down pat. They are both totally believable in these roles and grasp the slight naiveté of folks who may have come of age in a different, earlier time. Forrer plays Theodore with a tough nosed man’s man and boss, but with a compassionate underbelly that does shine through making his character likeable and unlikeable at the same time. He’s confident in this role and has a great presence. Jackson is an absolute highlight in this production as Kitty. She performs the 1950s housewife (albeit rich housewife) flawlessly and knows how to get around the stage. Her comedic timing is on point and she’s certainly one to watch in this particular production.

Another strong performance comes from Shamire Casselle, who is a standout as Barbara Grant, the antagonist turned friend. This character is out of the ordinary for the time and she really doesn’t seem to care about what others think or say about her and is willing to fight for what she believes, even if it goes against the grain. Casselle is extraordinary in this roll and gives a strong and impressive showing.  She knows her character and has a good grasp on what this woman is trying to accomplish making for a praise-worth performance all around.

Moving to the central characters of this piece, we have Nate Krimmel as Jim Baxter, Holly Gibbs as Norma Baxter, Gabe Fremuth as Bob Martindale, and Ari Eckley as Millie Martindale. These four performers are near-perfectly cast and play well off of and with each other making for an authentic portrayal of their complicated relationships.

Nate Krimmel as Jim Baxter does well with his character, but there are times I feel he’s trying a bit too hard for the laugh. He gives off more of a childish behavior throughout that is, frankly, somewhat annoying but… he makes up for this with his heart-felt performance towards the end of Act 2. His character seems to become deeper, in a way, and Krimmel’s portrayal  shows his understanding of this character and this character’s place in the story.

Ari Eckly, who takes on the role of Millie Martindale, gives a confident performance but, at times, seems uneasy with the comedy. Thier dramatic performance is remarkable and they have a good grasp on the material and this character, but the comedy is not the strongest. However, that’s not to say their performance isn’t up to par, because it most certainly is. Their portrayal is believable, as is their portrayal of the secret relationship their character has with Holly Gibbs’ character, Norma. The chemistry between these two make for an authentic relationship.

Speaking of Holly Gibbs, she knocks it out of the park and is a standout in the role of Norma. She takes this role and makes it her own with a deep understanding of the turmoil within this character. Norma is the first to vocalize how fed up she is with the “arrangement” and wants to live her life in a way she sees fit and Gibbs’ mannerisms and delivery are on point to make this clear. She is comfortable on the stage with a strong presence, giving way to an impeccable performance.

Another standout is Gabe Fremuth in the role of Bob Martindale, the more level-headed, if not staunch member of this unfortunate quartet. His uptight take on this character is just what it needs and his portrayal of a conflicted man, wanting to protect what he has as well as uphold his beliefs (which seem to clash) is incredible. His chemistry with Nate Krimmel as Jim, his secret lover, is good and he plays off of and with Eckly and especially Gibbs, quite nicely. The conflict in his character of wanting to keep the world and the U.S.A. moral but living a life that is thought of, at the time, to be amoral, and Fremuth’s portrayal of that conflict is what makes this performance so poignant as well as infuriating. Kudos to Fremuth for his efforts and work.

Final thought… Perfect Arrangment, is right up my alley when it comes to shows. It’s a drama heavy show but throws in an abundance of comedy to balance it out and the balance in this script is spot on. The cast is top notch and have great chemistry and the staging and Set Design bring it all together got make for a phenomenal production. It’s an important story that needs to be told and it’s still quite relevant in 2019. This is not a show you want to miss and Fells Point Corner Theatre has hit the ground running and set the bar high with this production. Get your tickets now. You won’t be sorry.

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

Perfect Arrangement will play through September 22 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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War is Hell in Crusade at Rapid Lemon Productions

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

Running Time: Approx. 90 minutes with no intermission

Flynn Harne (Mitch), Emma Hawthorn (Galen), Noah Silas (Hector). Credit: Rapid Lemon Productions

What would happen if policy and thought tipped one way or another in a country divided? We’re seeing more and more of this each day in real life America, but what would happen if it went to extremes? This question is explored in Rapid Lemon Productions’ latest offering, Crusade by Bruce Bonafede, Directed by Timoth David Copney. It’s a story of division and how humans, soldier or civilian, act in times of war and unrest.

Briefly, Crusade concerns itself with a country at war, civil war, really where the Christians have taken over government and have outlawed every other religion and anything they consider to be hedonistic. A small band of soldiers find themselves in a tucked away cabin lived in by a former professor of genetics who just wants to be left alone. The rag-tag group is then joined by a Christian prisoner and all of their morals and beliefs are tested in one way or another as each tries to find their way out of a desperate situation.

Emma Hawthorn (Galen), Flynn Harne (Mitch), Stephen Kime (Kershaw), Noah Silas (Hector), Lola Reign (Britt). Credit: Rapid Lemon Productions

Lights and sound have major roles in this production and Lighting Design by Brad J. Ranno and Sound Design by Max Garner are spot on. Each subtle change of light sets the mood for each scene and adds value to the production, as a whole, while Garner’s impeccable Sound Design adds to the story and does not hinder it in any way. The designs blend perfectly into the staging and keeps the production engaging making for fantastic work from both Ranno and Garner.

Flynn Harne (Mitch). Credit: Rapid Lemon Productions

In tandem with the Light and Sound Design, Set Design by Sebastian Sears fits this production perfectly. It’s simple with no bells and whistles. Sears transports the audience into this little run down cabin in the woods and his set piece choices integrate flawlessly with the story with old furniture, dark colors, and simple pieces. I love the space at Baltimore Theatre Project but I can see how it might be tricky to create sets upon, but it didn’t hinder Sears and he should be applauded for his efforts.

Direction by Timoth David Copney is absolutel superb. It’s tough material, but Copney has a definite understanding of it and presents it beautifully. His staging is near flawless and he keeps the action moving and engaging for the audience. It’s clear he has a tight grasp on these characters as his guidance helps each actor make their characters personable and believable. Pacing is on point and Copney’s knowledge of the stage is clear. Kudos to Copney for a job quite well done.

Emma Hawthorn (Galen). Credit: Rapid Lemon Productions.

Moving on to the performance aspect of this piece, it’s worth mentioning that all six ensemble members bring their A-game to this production and all give strong, confident performances of this heavy material. Eric Boelsche as Josh, the communications man in this small group, is believable and natural in this role and the delivery of his monologue is touching and true. Flynn Harne as Mitch, the leader of this troop, has a great command of the stage and his presence is bold.

Flynn Harne (Mitch) Noah Silas (Hector). Credit: Rapid Lemon Productions

Emma Hawthorn takes on the role of Galen, the civilian and former professor of genetics who is working on a scientific history of the world, and Stephen Kime tackles the role of Kershaw, the Christian soldier captured by one of the soldiers. Hawthorn is stupendous in this role. She takes it and makes it her own with all the emotion and mannerisms that are required. She works well with her cast mates and makes the character someone with whom one can empathize. Kime, who actually replaced the original actor late in production, knocks it out of the ball park. I would have thought he was with the production from the beginning, so, he was certainly a lucky find! Kime is consistent with his stoicism and is unshaken in his character. He is a highlight in this production with his strong presence and focused performance.

Lola Reign (Britt). Credit: Rapid Lemon Productions

Rounding out the cast are standouts Lola Reign as Britt and Noah Silas as Hector, both weary soldiers in this small troop. Silas couldn’t have been better cast in his role, maybe it’s because of his great stage presence, but his was the most believable as a soldier and he certainly has the rugged look. But beyond that, his character and his character’s conflict is heart wrenching and he portrays it beautifully. He’s certainly one to watch in his characters climactic scene and his emotion is absolutely authentic. In the same vein, Reign is spot on as a young woman full of rage. Her delivery of the heavy dialogue oozes anger and wrought. Kudos to both Reign and Silas for outstanding performances and I hope to experience more performances in the future.

Eric Boelsche (Josh) and Noah Silas (Hector). Credit: Rapid Lemon Productions

Final thought…  Crusade from Rapid Lemon Production was a Baltimore Playwrights Festival submission and is a heavy production that makes you think about faith, loyalty, and what you would do if you were caught in between. I, personally, was not offended by any of the content, but I can see where certain folks might be. I’m speaking on the portrayal and interpretations of the Christians and though only one is actually seen in the flesh, they are spoken of throughout the piece. Christians are made out to be Nazi-like figures who are blinded by their faith and, though, some are, many, in my experiences, are not. Then, again the portrayals of the soldiers aren’t any more flattering, making them out to be killers who have a grudge against anyone with faith, because of their own, personal reasons (some good, actually, in my opinion). Don’t get me wrong, the writing is stellar, if not (seemingly) a tad one-sided, but makes up for itself in the climax. The production value is superb in its simplicity and the performances are top notch. If you’re familiar with the old hymn “Onward Christian Soldier,” this piece gives it an entirely new meaning. Get your tickets because you’ll want to see this production.

Note: There is a content advisory stating “Crusade is a fictional story, but on whose themes are increasingly real to us today. It’s a violent story. Its characters deal with mental and physical torture, rape, mass murder, and other horrible things that happen in war. Our production addresses all of these; and specifically, employs very realistic-looking but nonfunctional prop weapons and a variety of lighting and sound effects which may be disturbing to some in our audience.”

This is what I thought of Rapid Lemon Productions’ production of Crusade… What did you think? Please feel free to leave a comment!

Crusade will play through August 18 at Rapid Lemon Productions, Baltimore Theatre Project, 45 W. Preston Street, Baltimore, MD. For tickets, you can purchase them at the door or online.

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Nice Work If You Can Get It, and You Can Get it at Cockpit in Court!

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

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

Chances are, somewhere in your life you’ve at least hear a George and Ira Gershwin tune, whether in a movie, a wedding, a gathering of some kind, or you may have even had a chance to experience an actual Gershwin show. Cockpit in Court’s latest offering, Nice Work if You Can Get It, with Music and Lyrics by George and Ira Gerswhin, a Book by Joe DiPietro, and Inspired by Material by Guy Bolton and P. G. Wodehouse, is a jukebox musical, of sorts, of songs by the Gershwin brothers and sets it in a cute, funny story of a bygone era. Under the charge of Director Eric J. Potter, Music Director Gerald Smith, and Choreographer Ilona Kessell, this is a production that takes you away for awhile and adds a little pizzazz to the everyday grind.

According to Broadway.com “Set in the 1920s, Nice Work If You Can Get It is the story of charming and wealthy playboy Jimmy Winter, who meets rough female bootlegger Billie Bendix the weekend of his wedding. Jimmy, who has been married three (or is it four?) times before, is preparing to marry Eileen Evergreen, a self-obsessed modern dancer. Thinking Jimmy and Eileen will be out of town, Billie and her gang hid cases of alcohol [in] the basement of Jimmy’s Long Island mansion. But when Jimmy, his wife-to-be, and her prohibitionist family show up at the mansion for the wedding, Billie and her cohorts pose as servants, causing hijinks galore.”

Lizzy Pease and J. Bradley Bowers. Credit: Cockpit in Court

Costume Design by Tracy Bird of Stage Garb, Inc. is on point with this production. Set in the decadence of the 1920s, Bird has hit the nail on the head with all of the fashions and her attention to detail. Her efforts transport the audience to this fashionable era with every gown and pinstriped suit that graces the stage and she is to be applauded and revered for her precise and well thought-out design.

Michael Raskinski’s Set Design, too, is beyond praise-worthy. With clever set pieces that fly in and out easily and quickly, the pacing is kept on point and the Art Deco style that Rasinski has chosen adds immense value to the production as a whole. The entire design from set pieces to the simple, but detailed proscenium façade, this design is top notch and Rasinski is to be commended for his well planned efforts.

A particular highlight of this production is, indeed, Choreography by Ilona Kessell. It is high-energy and engaging and this ensemble has the ability to pull it off. I am quite impressed with the precision in which Kessell’s fun and well-rehearsed choreography is executed. Kessell knows her cast and their abilities, which is probably the most important aspect of a Choreographer’s job, and her routines are filled with variety and traditional styles that keep the audience interested. Kudos to Kessell for this superb choreography.

Many, if not all of these Gershwin tunes are familiar to most, and Music Direction by Gerald Smith is splendid as this cast manages to breathe fresh life into each number. Harmonies are spot on and featured numbers emit the dynamics and emotions that the Gershwins intended. This production has also managed to round up a very impressive pit orchestra consisting of Tim Viets (Conductor), Michael DeVito (Keyboard 1), Michael Clark (Keyboard 2), Dieter Schodde (Percussion), Steve Haaser and Helen Schlaich (Reeds), Jay Ellis (Trombone), Tony Neenan and Ginger Turner (Trumpet), Matthew DeBeal (Violin), and Bob DeLisle (Bass).

The book for this piece is light and fluffy, and is, in a word, trite, but that’s to be expected with jukebox musicals, right? Maybe not, but this one is. Crazy For You, the other Gershwin musical, has a meatier book, and probably got dibs on most of the best George and Ira Gershwin songs, but this piece is not without it’s merits. The thing that helps this production Direction by Eric J. Potter and he really has a good grasp on this material. It’s an old-fashioned song-and-dance type show, happy ending and all that, but Potter has taken these songs and this book and weaved them into a well put-together, polished production with near perfect pacing and character work that is superb. Under his charge, the classic music is given a fresh coat of paint and it shines bright making for an entertaining, energetic evening of good theatre. Snaps to Potter for a job quite well done.

I’d be amiss if I didn’t mention that this production of Nice Work If You Can Get It has an absolutely phenomenal Ensemble consisting of Mary Margaret McClurg, Olivia Aubele, Angela Boeren (Dance Captain), Sarah Jones, Emily Machovec, Rachel Verhaaren, J. Purnell Hargrove (Dance Captain), Ryan Christopher Holmes, Conner Kiss, Shane Lowry, and Josh Schoff. These folks dance and sing their way across this stage effortlessly, will grab you from the moment the curtain goes up, and bring you into the performance with them. Hands down, one of the best and able ensembles I’ve seen in community theatre in a good while. Kudos to all for their hard work and excellent abilities.

J. Bradley Bowers and Lynn Tallman. Credit: Cockpit in Court

Taking on the role of the seemingly bumbling, sensitive Chief Berry is Thomas “Toby” Hessenauer and he does quite well with the role, even if his accent or lack of accent is noticeable. Actually, I’m not sure if he was going for an accent or not, but one seems to be trying to peek out once in awhile, but I might be hearing things. Regardless, Hessenauer is a wonderful actor and understands this comical character and pulls him off nicely. Vocally, Hessenauer is not a powerhouse in this particular production, but he does hold his own and brings comedy into familiar numbers such as “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off.” In the same boat is Lynn Tallman as Eileen Evergreen, the snooty, oblivious fiancé who needs to be put in her place. Evergreen has a good grasp on what her character is about and portrays her beautifully. Again, the attempted accent, if that’s what it can be called, may hinder her witty dialogue, at times, but overall, she gives an admirable performance. She certainly makes you take notice with her charming featured number “Delichious,” on which she gives a strong delivery.

Patrick Martyn and Jane E. Brown. Credit: Cockpit in Court

Taking on the more non-savory characters in this story are Patrick Martyn as Cookie McGee, Gary Dieter as Duke Mahoney, and Casey Lane as Jeannie Muldoon. First off, these folks couldn’t have been cast better. Martyn and Dieter completely embody their characters and I believed them from the moment they stepped onto the stage. Both play the somewhat bumbling criminals well, with impeccable comedic timing, and had me laughing out loud throughout their performances. Lane, too, as the gold-digging, deceived young woman, is natural in this role and makes this supporting character something to take notice of. Dieter is definitely the stronger vocalist, shining in his humorous featured number, “Blah, Blah, Blah,” and Lane does very well, also, in the reprise of the same song and in the adorable “Do It Again.” Martyn, though not as strong, vocally, does give heartfelt and confident in his featured “Fascinating Rhythm,” and “Looking for a Boy.”

Highlights in this production are, hands down, John Amato as Senator Max Evergreen, the staunch, uptight father of the fiancé, Jane E. Brown as Duchess Estonia Dulworth, the self-righteous anti-liquor crusader, and Joan Crooks as Millicent Winter, the strong, confident mother of the leading man. As with the rest of this cast, these folks were cast perfectly in their roles. Amato exudes the rigidness this straight-man character needs, but his comedic timing is superb, getting befuddled when needed and trying to take charge of the situation. His booming, smooth voice just adds to this character and his natural delivery is like butter. In tandem with Amato’s performance, Brown’s portrayal of Duchess Estonia Dulworth is absolutely and completely on point. She has embodied this character and has made it her own. Her strong stage presence and thoughtful, though seemingly effortless portrayal of this character is make her one to watch in this production. Not only does she have the staunchness down, her comedic timing is just as wonderful. Vocally, Brown is a powerhouse and one can help but notice her powerful technique and know-how in her featured number, “Demon Rum” (with impeccable and superb back up from the ensemble), and the side-splitting “Looking for a Boy.” In the like, Crooks, who only shows up toward the end of the piece, makes her short time on stage well worth it. She, too, embodies this character of Millicent and takes charge of the stage from the moment she steps onto it. This trio of which I call the “previous generation” of this story, is well-cast, and well performed and I can’t give enough kudos to Amato, Brown, and Crooks.

J. Bradley Bowers and Lizzy Pease. Credit: Cockpit in Court

Rounding out this praise-worthy ensemble are standouts Lizzy Pease as Billie Bendix and J. Bradley Bowers as Jimmy Winter. It’s easy to see both of these actors are disciplined and hard working as it shows in their portrayal of these young lovers that carry the show. Pease knows her character well and portrays her with just the right balance of roughness and tenderness. Again, the story is fluffy, but Pease makes the most of her character and glides through her performance naturally, with a distinct delivery and ease. She comfortable on stage and gives a strong showing. Vocally, she’s top notch with a voice that soars throughout the theatre, especially in her featured numbers, the poignant “Someone to Watch Over Me,” and the cutesy duet, “S’wonderful.” Overall, her performance is grade-A and should not be missed.

In the same vein, Bowers knocks it completely out of the ball park into the next town in his performance. Completely at ease in this character and a definite knowledge of the stage, his performance leaves me wanting more. He’s not simply going through the motions of the script, but becomes this person, Jimmy Winter, and his performance alone is worth the price of admission. His natural talent, strong stage presence, and confidence drives his performance and he’s a fun to watch. He’s what folks might call a triple-threat… he can act, he can sing, and boy he dance. Who could ask for anything more? (See what I did there?) Vocally, Bowers is phenomenal with a smooth, silky baritone, with a great range that makes listening to all his numbers a joy, especially his renditions of “Nice Work if You Can Get It,” “I’ve Got to Be There,” “I Do, Do, Do” (with absolutely perfect backup and harmony from the gentlemen in the ensemble), and the aforementioned duet, “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off.” I’m looking forward to seeing more stage work from Mr. Bowers in the future.

Final thought… Nice Work if You Can Get It is a high-energy, old-fashioned song-and-dance kind of show that will have you tapping your toes, feeling nostalgic, and take you a allow you to escape for just a couple of hours, at least. Casting is spot on, Set Design is brilliant, Choreography is engaging, and the talent and abilities of the entire ensemble are top notch. The production is polished and fun for the entire family. Though, the story and script can be a bit trite and fluffy, it’s still a fun piece with good message. Whether your familiar with the work of the Gershwins or not, you’ll be thoroughly entertained and humming as you leave the theatre.

This is what I thought of Cockpit in Court Summer Theatre’s production of Nice Work if You Can Get It… What did you think? Please feel free to leave a comment!

Nice Work if You Can Get It will run through August 4 at Cockpit in Court Summer Theatre, CCBC Essex, Robert and Eleanor Romadka College Center, F. Scott Black Theatre. For tickets call the box office at 443-840-ARTS (2787) or purchase them online.

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