Review: Dear Diary, Heathers Comes to Tidewater Players

By Jennifer L. Gusso

Running Time: Approx. 2 hours with one intermission

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heathers the Musical will play through March 3 at Tidewater Players at The Cultural Center at the Opera House121 N. Union Street, Havre de Grace, MD. Purchase tickets at the door one hour before show time or purchase them online.

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Review: Titanic the Musical at Scottfield Theatre Company

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

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

Throughout our human history, many tragedies have struck us unawares but some stand out more than others and become legendary. This is just the case with the RMS Titanic in April of 1912. In 1997, the tragedy was brought back to the forefront of the world psyche with James Cameron’s film, Titanic, that mixed history, historical speculation, and fiction to produce one of the bestselling US films to date earning fourteen Academy Awards and garnering eleven of them. Some may know that same year, about 8 months prior, Broadway opened its own version of the story that swept the Tony Awards, earning five Tony nominations and winning all of them! Titanic the Musical with Music & Lyrics by Maury Yeston and Story and Book by Peter Stone is Scottfield Theatre Company’s latest offering. This production is Directed by Al Herlinger with Music Direction by Niki Tart and Rick Hauf and Choreography by Becky Titelman.

Credit: Scottfield Theatre Company

This version of the story of the ill-fated Titanic is also a mix of historical fact and fiction with many subplots of created characters mixed in with portrayals of actual people who were sailing on the ship. Cameos of the most famous and influential people pop up throughout the production including J.J. Astor, Benjamin Guggenheim, Captain Smith and Crew, and White Star Lines associates Thomas Andrews and J. Bruce Ismay. Curiously, my favorite passenger is omitted from this piece and the notably brash and unsinkable Margaret “Molly’ Brown is nowhere to be found, but I suppose that’s another show in itself. But I digress… sometimes a story can look good on the screen but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll work on the stage and Titanic the Musical might fall in that category. It certainly has its flaws such as the music and lyrics tending to get hokey at times and there are too many subplots going on in a couple of hours, but, if carefully presented, the pros outweigh the cons and this is a show that can turn into a commendable production. The story progresses through the maiden voyage of the ship and the goings on throughout each deck, concentrating on class which, for some, was all the difference between life and death in this tale set toward the end of the Gilded Age and entering the Progressive Age.

Scenic Design by Bob Denton is minimal, but this is a wise choice as there’s only so much one can do with a ship setting, but he does use moving flats cleverly and the opening scene, a sunken Titanic that transforms into a brand new ship on her maiden voyage is impressive.

Picking up Costume Design duties is Elizabeth Marion and her design is impeccable. Her attention to detail is impressive as there is a certain distinction between the classes on board and each character is individual which is no small feat when it comes to a period piece of theatre. Marion is to be commended on her Costume Design efforts.

The Cast of Titanic the Musical. Credit: Scottfield Theatre Company

Choreography by Becky Titelman, a co-founder of the company, is minimal as well, but that’s only because this is a ballad driven show with only a few chances for any complex choreography, but in those few moments, Titelman’s choreography is admirable and energized. She seems to know her cast and instead of hindering their talents, her choreography allows them to shine.

This is a music heavy show where the score takes the lead and Music Direction by Niki Tart and Rick Haugh is praiseworthy. I will say some of the songs are trite with hokey lyrics, having the cast sing through scenes that probably work better as a dramatic scene rather than a musical number, but Tart and Hauf have the cast harmonizing and have handled this heavy score quite well. The orchestra, Directed by Hauf, consists of members Enid McClure, Margaret McClure, Andrew McClure, Keiko Myers, Maddie Clifton, and Dan Vaughan and bring the notes on the page to life in a full, lush sound that accompanies this ensemble beautifully.

Pamela Provins and Wayne Ivusich as Isador and Ida Strauss, and Gabe Ward as Bellboy. Credit: Scottfield Theatre Company

Allan Herlinger, a co-founder of Scottfield Theatre Company, stands at the helm of this production and his comprehension of the material is clear and the first act is a series of vignettes concerning the different characters on board and Herlinger emphasizes this to a slight fault, presenting each vignette almost separately breaking up the flow and pacing of the piece. Instead of melding one scene into the next, there are slight breaks and slow the production down a bit. That’s not to say the pacing is off, because it certainly is not. The production still moves along nicely, but could move along better without the slight breaks between the scenes. SPOILER ALERT (if you don’t know the story of the Titanic already) One flaw that stood out for me is the portrayal of the moment the Titanic encounters the ice berg that would seal its fate. Jess Hutchinson, as Frederick Fleet does an admirable job throughout playing various characters, but in this fateful moment, the iconic words, “Ice berg, right ahead!” falls completely flat and the urgency and energy is lost as the second act moves on. Herlinger’s vision seems to get lost along the way, as well, throughout the second act. However, this being said, his efforts are to be applauded as it is always a challenge to take on a piece about a famous, historical event and give it a fresh presentation for a current audience, but Herlinger has done a fine job in doing so.

Moving on to the performance aspect of this piece, it’s worth stating that this ensemble gives 100% effort and they all work well together. As an ensemble, they bring this poignant, tragic story together superbly and all should be commended for their work.

The Cast of Titanic the Musical. Credit: Scottfield Theatre Company

Some of the characters are important crew members including Sam Ranocchia as Henry Etches, a 1st class valet. Ranocchia is confident in his role but there were times when he seems to take it over the top and the performance becomes stiff. He’s doesn’t give the strongest vocal performance, but he does portray the character quite well. He seems to embody this 1st class valet and makes the most of this time on stage. Two characters that actually keep the ship running are 1st Officer William Murdoch, played by Scott Kukuck and Frederick Barrett, a stoker in the bowels of the ship, played by Charlie Johnson. These two gentlemen have a good comprehension of their character but, unfortunately, their performances fall a little flat. They do an admirable job, but they are both missing a subtle energy that is required of these characters. Johnson takes a “plant and sing” style of portrayal and there are times when Kukuch’s performance seems forced and unnatural, especially the moment his character is at the wheel of Titanci during the collision. Vocally, Charlie Johnson is a powerhouse with a strong tenor that rings throughout the theater and that does make up for the lack of enthusiasm in his portrayal. Along those lines, Scott Kukuch has a confident presence on the stage and is comfortable in his role.

Jesse Hutchinson as Frederick Fleet. Credit: Scottfield Theatre Company

Wireless operator Harold Bride is portrayed by Matthew Tulli and he does an impressive job working with what looks like an actual wireless machine and his featured number “The Proposal/The Night Was Alive,” is performed well, with lots of emotion.

Lisa Rigsby and Donovan Murray tackle the roles of Caroline Neville and Charles Clarke, two secret lovers running away to a fresh start and their characters are important because, historically, many people started new lives in this way – traveling across the ocean and simply starting over. Rigsby and Murray give tender and authentic performances and embody the many folks who were on Titanic, heading for a better life for themselves. They’re poignant moment during “We’ll Meet Tomorrow” is memorable and tugs at the heart, which is exactly what it should do.

Taking on roles of the powers that be on Titanic, Phil Hansel portrays Captain Smith and Matthew Tart takes on the role of  J. Bruce Ismay, President of the White Star Line. Both of these gentlemen give superb performances as these two characters. Hansel not only resembles the real Captain Smith, but carries himself like a leader and gives a natural portrayal. Playing J. Bruce Ismay is a challenge for any actor as this character is seen as the antagonist or villain, whether it’s warranted or not, but Tart plays this character as walking a very fine line between progress and the safety of the passengers. He’s absolutely believable as this character and gives a strong performance.

Elizabeth Marion and Brian Ruff as Alice and Edgar Beane. Credit: Scottfield Theatre Company

A couple of highlights in this particular production are Wayne Ivusich and Pamela Provins as Isador and Ida Strauss. Their story is famous as witnesses state that Ida Strauss wouldn’t leave her husband’s side even though she was repeatedly offered a seat on a lifeboat. Their story is one of a lifetime love and Ivusich and Provins have a great chemistry that make their impressive portrayals authentic and natural and their duet “Still,” can easily bring a tear to your eye or cause your eyes to get watery, at least.

Two more highlights of this production are Brian Ruff and Elizabeth Marion as Edgar and Alice Beane, a second class married couple who are traveling mainly to ease the wanderlust of Mrs. Beane, who wants to see the world and hob-nob with the rich and famous. These two characters, who seem to be complete opposites, work well together and provide some comedy relief to a deep, heavy show. Ruff, who plays the straight man as Edgar Beane, portrays the overwhelmed but patient husband humorously but with realistic flair as he tries to reign in his wife and Marion gives an impeccable performance as the excited, yearning wife who wants more from life than any small town can give her. Marion has great comedic timing and plays the character silly enough to be funny, but serious enough to be moving. Vocally, she does a fantastic job with her featured numbers “The First Class Roster” and the poignant “I Have Danced” and both of these actors add great value to this production as a whole.

Sophia Williams, Isabela Bordner, and Jonathan Cicone. Credit: Scottfield Theatre Company

Two standouts in this production are Isabella Bordner as Kate McGowan and Rob Tucker as Thomas Andrews. Bordner, a senior at C. Miltion Wright High School, is quite impressive as the Irish immigrant, Kate McGowan, who is trying to make it to America to start anew and this young actress has her character and accent down pat. She has a strong, confident presence and is a joy to watch and I’m looking forward to seeing more stage work from this budding actress.

Rob Tucker as Thomas Andrews. Credit: Scottfield Theatre Company

Rob Tucker, who is no stranger to the area stages, takes on the important role of Thomas Andrews, architect of Titanic and the one man who knew every nook, cranny, and bolt on this massive ship. Tucker completely embodies this character and portrays his perpetual worry beautifully. Vocally, Tucker is a dynamo as he belts out his featured numbers, “The Largest Floating Object in the World” and the moving and intense “Mr. Andrews Vision” flawlessly. Both Bordner and Tucker are a joy to watch and are to be commended for their efforts.

Final thought… Titanic the Musical is a poignant telling of the well-known fate of the ship they called the “Ship of Dreams” and though the music is lovely and the performances are admirable, there’s something about this show that doesn’t work. Firstly, the writers are trying to make a horrible event beautiful and, secondly, they seem to try to pack as many stories as they can into a couple of hours, jumping around from sub-plot to sub-plot, affecting the flow of the piece as a whole. As stated, the music is lovely, but there are moments when it is a bit trite and elementary and those moments take away from the soaring harmonies and more complex melodies (that the cast accomplishes quite well) that make a great show. The performance and execution of the show is quite well-done and this ensemble gives 100% effort and I want to make it clear my dislike is with the writing and composition of the show, but… they made it to Broadway, so, what do I know? It is an audience favorite so it’s definitely worth checking out whether you’re a Titanic expert or someone just discovering this legendary ship and its ill-fated journey through the ages.

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

Titanic the Musial will run through April 15 at Scottfield Theatre Company, The Cultural Center at the Opera House, 121 N. Union Avenue, Havre de Grace, MD. For tickets, the box office is open one hour prior to performance but it is strongly encouraged to purchase tickets online.

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