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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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.

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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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Review: An American Dream Hits The Strand Theatre with Sojourners

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

Running Time: Approx. 2 hours with one intermission

The American Dream. I often wonder what people from other, less fortunate countries see and hear about America. Are they really told and believe the streets are paved in gold? Are they told you can be anything you want to be? Do they understand we have the right to pursue happiness but not outright happiness itself? The Strand Theatre‘s latest offering, Sojourners by Mfoniso Udofia and Directed by Cheryl J. Williams, touches on one young Nigerian family’s pursuit of happiness but also includes the obstacles and downfalls that come along with that pursuit.

(l-r) Ama Brown and Jenelle Brown. Credit: Shealyn Jae Photography/The Strand Theatre

I sheepishly admit that I can’t tell you exactly what this piece is trying to accomplish. From what I gather, and with a little bit of research, Sojourners is the origin story in Udofia’s Ufot Family Cycle of plays. This story concerns itself with Abasiama (Ama) and Ukpong Ekpeyong, a young Nigerian couple expecting their first child and the father has gotten a little too comfortable in America, forgetting his purpose for being here, which is to acquire an education and degree then head back to the homeland. Conversely, Ama has her eye on the prize and is working hard to accomplish it while being very pregnant and working all at the same time. While Ukpong is selfishly having the time of his life, Ama is trying to obtain her goals and meets Moxie, a down-her-luck, streetwise young woman and Disciple Ufot, an astute student from the same area of her hometown. Ama’s new friends care deeply for her and she eventually opens up to both of them, while realizing it’s up to her to be the change she wants to see.

Set Design is always tricky in this space, but The Strand Theatre and their production teams always seem to pull it off nicely. This is no different in this production as Set Design by Gabriella Castillo manages to turn the space into many different locations with the use of a couple of simple set pieces and levels. The simple design is practical but presents the locations of each scene nicely and easily.

Director Cheryl J. Williams has a deep comprehension of this material and her staging in the intimate, unique space is superb. She has a good grasp on these characters and their conflicts and her casting is spot on. Aside from a couple of clunky scene changes, the action moves smoothly and the presentation is polished. As for time period, the setting is a bit unknown and there’s not a lot of help from costumes by Costume Designer Sharlene Clinton. The wardrobe is a mix of traditional designs with fashions that one would see on the street today. I believe it may be the late 60s or 70s, but don’t quote me on that. Don’t get me wrong, the Costume Design is good but doesn’t make one take much notice, which some could argue is just what a Costume Design is supposed to do.

Ama Brown takes on the role of the strong Abasima (Ama) Ekpeyong and she very much carries this entire piece. She is a standout with her exquisite, natural delivery and dialect work. She completely embodies this character and emotes all the feels within this woman and the one to watch in this piece. She seems to have a deep understanding of Ama (the character) and gives a strong, confident performance. In tandem with Brown’s Abasiama, her real life husband, Kenyon Parson takes on the role of Abasiama’s husband, Ukpong Ekpyeong and he, too, is a highlight in this production. Parson portrays a character we are supposed to hate, but his portrayal is so authentic and natural, he comes off as the friend you call to have a good time. In context, this character is having a good time when he’s not supposed to and seems quite selfish, but the dialogue and Parson’s presentation makes him a charming, if not loveable character who we seem to be able to forgive easily, against our better judgement.

Rounding out this small ensemble is Jenelle Brown who takes on the role of the savvy Moxie and Grant Emerson Harvey, who excellently portrays Disciple Ufot. Jenelle Brown does well with her character, but seems a little scripted at times and it throws off the flow, just a tad. She seems to get her character but her performance seems forced. Harvey, on the other hand gives a spot on performance and is believable and precise in character. He, too, completely embodies his character and has a tight comprehension of what his character is all about. His portrayal of a young man who is deeply grounded in his traditions but is able to look forward to the future is magnificent and he is confident in his movement and delivery. Overall, he gives an assured and praiseworthy performance.

Final thought… Sojourners at The Strand Theatre is a thoughtful and interesting tale of the human experience and keeps the audience entertained, even if it’s hard to pin-point exactly what the piece is about. The strong performances and relatable characters are what make this production extremely successful. There aren’t a lot of bells and whistles with the set and other technical aspects, but the minimal approach works nicely with this piece. I may not get it completely but I can’t deny it’s damn entertaining. It’s definitely worth checking out and is a great addition to The Strand Theatre’s season.

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

Sojourners will play through March 10 at The Strand Theatre, 5426 Harford Road, Baltimore, MD. For tickets, call the box office at 443-874-4917 or you can purchase them online.

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

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: It’s “Loverly” at Spotlighters Theatre with Pygmalion

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pygmalion will play through March 10 at Spotlighters Theatre, 817 St. Paul Street, Baltimore, MD. For tickets, call the box office at 410-752-1225 or purchase them online.

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Review: Disney’s Newsies at Third Wall Productions

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

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

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

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

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

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

Andy Collins and Jamie Williams. Credit: Stasia Steuart Photography

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

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

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

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

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

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

Andy Collins. Credit: Stasia Steuart Photography

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

Lizzy Jackson Fleischmann. Credit: Stasia Steuart Photography

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

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

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

Sarah Mackin. Credit: Stasia Steuart Photography

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

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

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

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

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Review: Everything is Wonderful at Everyman Theatre

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

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

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

Bruce Randolph Nelson, Deborah Hazlett. Credit: ClintonBPhotography

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bruce Randolph Nelson, Deborah Hazlett. Credit: ClintonBPhotography

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

Tony Nam, Alex Spieth. Credit: ClintonBPhotography

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

Steve Polite and Hannah Kelly. Credit: ClintonBPhotography

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

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

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

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

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