Tidewater Players Bares All in The Full Monty!

By Jennifer L. Gusso

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

Every so often, a production comes around where every element works perfectly and transcends to a level of sheer theater magic. One of those productions is the Tidewater Players’ current production of The Full Monty with Book by Terrence McNally and Music & Lyrics by David Yazbek, Directed by Laurie Starkey, with Music Direction by R. Christopher Rose, and Choreography by Elise Starkey. If you don’t already have tickets to this hysterical and heartwarming delight, you should buy them immediately. This cast and production team consistently deliver in bringing to life one of the funniest scripts in Musical Theater.

The Cast of The Full Monty at Tidewater Players. Credit: Tidewater Players

Fair warning: This is the tale of a group of out-of-work steel workers who have decided to make some money by taking off all their clothes. There will be some skin, combined with language and other adult themes, that does make this production not appropriate for young audiences. However, mature teens and even the most conservative adults are unlikely to be offended, as this is not skin for the sake of skin – this is a story about loving yourself and about body acceptance. It has a strong moral foundation and excellent themes about what it means it be a “Man.”

Director Laurie Stentman Starkey’s curtain speech talked about her great love for this piece and her desire to really do justice to the message of this show. That love shows in every detail of this production. From assembling a dynamic cast to effective staging, quick scene changes, and seamless integration of technical aspects, a strong and skilled directorial hand is evident throughout. Her vision is furthered with strong musical leadership at the hands of R. Christopher Rose. Both soloists and ensembles shine consistently in their knowledge of the music and how to deliver the music for maximum impact. Another shining star is the choreography of Elise Starkey. Her choreography is not only eye-catching and delivered with stunning synchronicity, it also often tells the story and adds to the humor.

The technical aspects are also very well-designed and effective. Laurie Starkey & Todd Starkey create a set design that easily transforms into a variety of locales, ending in the amazing culmination of the “Full Monty” sign in the closing scenes. The lighting design by Thomas Gardner adds depth and character throughout and works perfectly in the most crucial of moments. Costume Design by Eva Grove is clever and detailed. Like the other aspects, it highlights the two key aspects of this production: character and humor.

With these things in place, the cast is set up for success, and they take that ball and run with it. There is truly not a weak link in the entire ensemble. The thing that works so brilliantly is that the production team and cast really got the characters and the theme of the piece. What makes this show both funny and touching is that these are real men stepping outside of their comfort zone. The characters are quirky and zany at times, but, above all else, they are real. It is only in playing these characters as real and complex and not over-the-top that this show can truly work. Starkey and her cast understand this and instead of trying to play for laughs or manipulate audience emotion, they allow themselves to be real characters who experience this story as it unfolds. The result is that the audience laughs and cries and falls in love with the vulnerability and reality on display in front of them.

The cast also melds together so well as an ensemble that is practically impossible to single out and talk about these performances as individuals. They are always working as a team, reacting and supporting as much as taking the spotlight. The supporting characters are just as real as the leads and played by some equally strong actors. With just a few small scenes, Matt Peterson allows the audience to see things from Teddy’s side, as much as we may be inclined to dislike him. The same is true of Angie Sokolov as Pam. It’s tough to play characters that are standing in opposition to the protagonist. Sokolov allows us to see Pam’s point of view in way that lets us feel OK about rooting for her happiness as well. Another strength in the supporting characters can be seen in Samantha Jednorski’s portrayal of Estelle. She finds ways to build layers and depths with her reactions that create a real person and not a one-dimensional cliché. Audiences will also definitely remember the supporting performance of Wayne Ivusich (Rev. Willoughby/Minister) who almost bares it all with zeal in one of his several standout comedic moments.

Two actresses that definitely deserve some individual attention are Barbara Snyder (Jeanette Burmeister) and Lisa Pastella (Georgie Bukatinsky). Snyder consistently brings joy and laughter to the audience with her feisty character and solid comedic delivery, and Pastella easily has one of the best female voices in the local theater community. Pastella also has incredible chemistry with her onstage husband and creates a character who is vibrant and believable.

However, at the end of the day, this show is truly about the six men who decide to bare it all. These six men forge an incredible bond on stage that is the foundation of this show, while each creating unique and loveable characters. Austin Barnes (Ethan Girard) sparkles with optimism and heart. Ethan is a character that could easily be overplayed, but Barnes finds the reality in his constant belief that he can do impossible things. Balancing Ethan’s often misguided optimism is Malcolm’s often misguided pessimism. As Malcolm, Josh Schoff finds the balance and the lightness in his conflicted character. The onstage chemistry between Barnes and Schoff is also impressive, as they say so much through simple looks and gestures and tiny moments that slowly build. During “You Walk With Me,” Barnes and Schoff, in beautiful harmony, make the audience’s hearts both break and swell with them.

Adding to the dynamic group of gentlemen is Steve Flickinger as Harold Nichols. Flickinger has stellar comedic timing and the most priceless facial reactions. Then, there is Lamar Leonard as Noah “Horse” Simmons with his smooth dance moves, sweet vocals, and comedic calisthenics. He lights up the entire room with his performance of “Big Black Man.”  Like so much of the cast, Flickinger and Leonard balance all of these crazy comedic moments with vulnerability. Both men have these touching, small moments in which we see the fears and real person inside. This group of men is so unafraid to be exposed on stage – emotionally and mentally as well as physically that the audience leaves feeling like it is a group of old friends.

The Cast of The Full Monty at Tidewater Players. Credit: Tidewater Players

The cornerstone of old friends, with such a believable onstage dynamic that you feel like they must truly be old friends, are Dave Bukatinsky (Mark Lloyd) and Jerry Lukowski (Jake Stuart). Everything that this production does well is crystallized in the amazing performances by these two gentlemen. Lloyd has these moments like “You Rule My World” or wrapped in Saran Wrap, where he shows the audience Dave’s fears and insecurities and pains despite the fact that everyone is laughing. He does an excellent job of living those moments rather than trying to chase the cheap humor. The audience laughs at him, but knowing that we are laughing at him also builds a deep empathy for everything that Dave struggles with. It is empowering and a testament to Lloyd’s strong character development to watch Dave slowly gain confidence and sense of self throughout the piece. Ultimately, though, the heart of the show is its unconventional protagonist Jerry, and Stuart gives the most impressively real portrayal. There is not a single moment where it feels like he is acting or pretending. Every line, every action, and every reaction feels real and genuine and in the moment. He creates the most believable, flawed, and loveable man, and it just feels natural. A beautiful example of Lloyd and Stuart together is “Big-Ass Rock.” The song is hilarious. The vocals are gorgeous. The harmonies are solid. Right beneath the surface, though, is real pain and real men. We get to know them. We get to love them. In many ways, we are them.

When Starkey talked in her curtain speech about the powerful and important theme of this show, she touched on something that was then brought to life for her audience. The Full Monty is about real people – people with insecurities and flaws and quirks and weaknesses – people who succeed sometimes and fail other times – people who are victims to external things they can’t control and internal things that they can control. The Full Monty shows how real people can learn to love themselves and each other despite all of that – despite our own flaws, despite others’ flaw, despite an imperfect world – an imperfect world which is perfectly represented in this flawless production that should top everyone’s to-do list within the next two weekends.

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

The Full Monty will play through May 19 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: 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.

Email us at backstagebaltimore@gmail.com

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