Review: Judy and the General at Spotlighters Theatre

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

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

Kay-Megan Washington and Kellie Podsednik. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre / Shaelyn Jae Photography

It seems no matter what time or era, women have always been underestimated, especially in biblical times. Women were supposed to act a certain way, be accepting of everything men threw at them, and docile and obedient. However… there were a few “rouge” women who weren’t having it, whatsoever. One of those women is Judith from the biblical Book of Judith which we don’t hear much about (I wonder why?) but is a great story of strength, faith, and love. Spolighters Theatre latest offering, the World Premiere of Judy and the General, by Baltimore playwright Rosemary Frisino Toohey, Directed and Musically Directed by Michael Tan, presents this epic story in an accessible, humorous telling of this intriguing and important story.

Kellie Podsednik as Judy. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre / Shaelyn Jae Photography

As stated, we don’t hear much about Judith today but there are representations in paintings, monuments, and song all over the world. Briefly, Judy and the General tells the story of Judith, a young girl who lives in a small farming village with her father and they seem to be on the verge of bankruptcy. She meets the very rich and very tender Manasseh and the two fall madly in love. With her newfound riches, Judith becomes quite a pill for others, especially her maid. Unfortunately, Manasseh keels over soon after and Judith is left alone. Meanwhile, a neighboring Assyrian king wants to take over the land in which the village sits and sends his best general, Holofernes. All the while, Judith has put herself in solitary confinement and has seen the light and wants to be a better person by helping others. The Assyrians and the villagers are at a standoff and Judith realizes she can use her feminine wiles on Holofernes to help her village and be a better, more pious person.

Richard Greenslit as Soldier. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre / Shaelyn Jae Photography

Alan Zemla’s Set Design is minimal but, as always, on point. The space at Spotlighters is intimate and in the round and Zemla knows it like the back of his hand. His use of the entire theatre is wise and opens up the production more than what the stage has to offer. His scenic art work is brilliant and he puts the audience smack dab in the middle of the ancient village and dwellings. Simple set pieces are used to represent locations and allow for smooth transitions. Kudos to Zemla for adding great value to the production.

Wayne Ivusich, Kellie Podsednik, and Rob Wall. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre / Shaelyn Jae Photography

Putting new work out can be frightening, but, someone has to do it and I’m glad those “someones” do. Rosemary Frisino Toohey has given us a strong piece to mull over. Her script is spot on in all aspects including dialogue, structure, and timing. It’s witty, engaging, and tells this epic story in an accessible, witty way that is entertaining and keeps the attention of the audience. My criticism is with the music aspect. It is a musical, so, music is half the deal, but with this particular production, the music just seemed to fall flat. Don’t get me wrong, the songs are simple and sing-able, but you won’t find yourself tapping your foot or humming any of the tunes when you walk out of the theatre. Some might, but most probably won’t. That being said, the music is appropriate for the piece and it yields some cute melodies, but overall, it doesn’t make a deep impression. Toohey’s lyrics may be the biggest problem. At times they are elementary and predictable and might work better as simple dialogue than in a song. Again, that’s not to say the music aspect of this piece is bad, but it’s the weakest, especially up against a strong, intelligent script.

Wayne Ivusich, Rob Wall, and Richard Greenslit. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre / Shaelyn Jae Photography

Michael Tan takes the reigns of both Direction and Music Direction of this piece and he pulls it off flawlessly. His staging works well for the space and the pacing is near perfect. He seems to have a good comprehension of these characters and this story and has presented it clearly to an audience. Directing the first full production of any piece can be daunting, but Tan has stepped up nicely. His Music Direction, too, is top-notch keeping the cast in harmony and in tune while playing along as the lone musician! Tan is to be applauded for his efforts in this well put-together production.

Richard Greenslit as Servant. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre / Shaelyn Jae Photography

Moving into the performance aspect of this production, Wayne Ivusich and Richard Greenslit, who play multiple roles are quite an act together. Ivusich gives off such a jovial air, no matter which character he’s playing, making him a delight to watch and it works for all of his characters, including Dad, King, Head Man, and Captain. He has a good grasp on the material and presents it beautifully. Now, Greenslit… I could watch him onstage all day. He could have two lines or ten monologues in a row, it doesn’t matter because of his expressive face, it’s all a joy to watch. He’s a master of the subtle glances and side pantomimes as well as comedic timing which is required for his roles as Workman, Servant, Soldier, and Advisor. Vocally, both of these gentlemen are confident and not only sing their featured numbers, such as “The Guy in Charge” and “The Servent’s Lament, Why Can’t We Switch,” nicely, they also act them out which adds so much to the performance.

Rob Wall as General Holofernes. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre / Shaelyn Jae Photography

Rob Wall takes on the roles of Manasseh and Hologernes; two completely different characters – one being tender, one being hard as nails, and he portrays them both superbly.  His switch between the characters is effortless and he plays them like night and day, which is required, and he does it without a hitch. Vocally, Wall is a pro with a rich, smooth voice that resonates and is filled with emotion making for a strong, confident performance all around, especially in his featured numbers sucha s “April” and “Plunder Pillage, and Loot.”

Tackling the role of Judith (rather, Judy) is a highlight of this production, Kellie Podsednik. She is on point in her portrayal of this complex, driven woman and her gradual change from poor farm girl to pain-in-the-ass rich girl, to the pious woman she ends up being is unbroken. Because of her skill, her character at the end of the piece is completely contrasting with the character at the beginning of the piece which makes her one to watch in this production. Her high, delicate soprano is a perfect fit for this role and she knocks it out of the park, vocally, as in her featured numbers, “Closer to My Heart” and the poignant “Gone Now.”

Kay-Megan Washington as Maid (Narrator). Credit: Spotlighters Theatre / Shaelyn Jae Photography

The standout in this piece is Kay-Megan Washington, who portrays Maid (Narrator), though she is called Fallacia, it may not be her actual name, but that’s how it goes when you’re a servant in biblical times, right? Washington gives a confident, effortless performance and is absolutely natural on the stage and with the delivery of her dialogue. She has a deep understanding of this story and her character and it shows in her portrayal. Her vocal skills are strong and makes one take notice, especially in the opening number, “Tale to Tell” and her humorous “A Prayer”. She’s comfortable on stage and gives a strong, confident showing.

Kellie Podsednik as Judy. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre / Shaelyn Jae Photography

Final thought… Judy and the General at Spotlighters Theatre is a fun, lighthearted take on an epic biblical story that is not well known, but should be. The subject matter is relevant and serious but Rosemary Frisino Toohey manages to make it accessible with a witty, humorous, and well-structured script. The score, on the other hand (or beginnings of the score as this is the world premiere), is quaint and, at times, lackluster, but appropriate for this piece. Production value for this particular production is top-notch with well thought-out staging and Music Direction, a minimal but clever Set Design, and superb performances from every member of this small 5-person ensemble. Premieres can be challenging and World Premieres can be downright difficult, but Spotlighters Theatre and everyone involved in this production should be applauded for their efforts and this is certainly a production you want to check out this season.

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

Judy and the General will play through July 29 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: Big Fish at Silhouette Stages

By Yosef Kuperman

Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes with one Intermission.

If you’ve ever wanted to be someone you’re not or wanted to do things you think you can’t do, usually, you make up big beautiful stories in your head, to help you, to get you by, or just to take yourself away for just awhile. In Silhouette Stages latest offering, Big Fish, with Book by John August and Music & Lyrics by Andrew Lippa, Directed by TJ Lukacsina, with Music Direction by Michael Tan, and Choreography by Rikki Lacewell – this is exactly the case. This 2013 Broadway musical adaptation of a 1998 novel by Daniel Wallace and 2003 film of the same name.

Don’t be put off by this being an adaption. You don’t need to know the Big Fish movie or novel to get this show and still enjoy it. I think I saw the movie once, but can’t remember anything besides the name. I hadn’t realized a book existed until I Googled it, but that didn’t matter. John August and Andrew Lippa did their job so well that you don’t need to be familiar with the source material.

(l-r) Christa Kronser, Missy Spangler, Samuel Greenslit, John Machovec, Luis Matty Montes, Drew Sharpe, Emily Machovec, Emily Alvarado, Emily Mudd. Credit: JOhn Cholod

Briefly, Big Fish concerns itself with Edward Bloom, who is a dying old man who tells improbable self-aggrandizing comical stories to his son, Will Bloom. Will finds this habit aggravating as his is a reporter interested in the historic truth and what actually happened. He responds to his father’s fatal diagnosis by digging into his father’s past, looking for historic truth amid the lies. He eventually discovers his dad has anti-skeletons in his closet including the fact he helped his neighbors rebuild after a flood. This leads him to accept his dad’s use of exaggeration and story telling to avoid talking about painful subjects.

This story is a good drama. You feel the conflict between father and son, the bitterness it causes, and the catharsis.

Emily Mudd, Luis Matty Montes. Credit: John Cholod

Putting it on the table, I’m a brand new reviewer, trying something new. I just see a lot of shows so I figured I’d try my hand at reviewing. I don’t play an instrument, build sets, or act. I just watch lots of plays. So umm… The Set Design by Alex Porter looked cool and the live orchestra and cast sounded great. The performers sang and moved well, including Luis Montes as Edward Bloom, Michael Nugent as Will Bloom, and Emily Mudd as Sandra Bloom, the little dysfunctional family. Nothing broke, the lights came on when they were supposed to, so, when all is said and done, the production value is top notch, but I love theater for the story telling, so I’ll focus on that.

Big Fish balances between being funny and being serious and, in the process, it tells a story about the power and purpose of the stories people tell about themselves.

(l-r) Luis Matty Montes, Samuel Greenslit. Credit: John Cholod

As the story of Big Fish progresses, Will finds a series of stories Edward tells about himself. These are exaggerated tall tales are funny, nonsensical, and increasingly fictional and are presented to the audience in scenes and musical numbers. For instance, Edward says he learns of his demise from a Witch (Emily Alvarado), takes up with a giant named Karl (Nick Rose), learns how to swim from a mermaid (Emily Mahovec), discovers his circus boss, Amos (Richard Greenslit) is a werewolf, and gets shot out of a cannon, among other situations.

These stories are good comedy. They’re feel good, funny, and well delivered and they blend in smoothly with the frame story’s heavier material.

For its conclusion, Big Fish ties the stories together and, finally, Will discovers the truth. His father is hiding a disappointed former sweetheart, Jenny Hill (Christa Kronser). He makes peace with his father’s casual approach to historic fact. We assume the tall tales are false. Then Karl the Giant shows up at the funeral. So what if anything was true?

Big Fish asks, “Who cares what the actual truth is?” Big Fish asks. The now enlightened Will embraces exaggeration, tall tales, and myth as modes of communication. The historic truth is no longer the only truth he cares about.

(l-r) Emily Machovec, Christa Kronser, Emily Alvarado, Luis Matty Montes, Grace La Count. Credit: John Cholod

However, there’s another story that Silhouette Stages could have told and didn’t – a dark reflection of the cheerful and upbeat production they actually staged. One might also see Big Fish as a story about the alluring power of fake news. Here’s another equally true reading:

Edward Bloom has a reckless disregard for historic facts. He tells so many tall tales that maybe he doesn’t know or remember the “real truth”. He definitely doesn’t care and he just tells the story that matters to him. His son, a reporter, finds this infuriating. When Edward gets his fatal diagnosis, Will’s investigative reporting leads him to a witness, Jenny Hill, Edward’s allegedly jilted high school sweetheart. Jenny tells Will about how awesome his lying father really is.

Well… does Jenny tell the son the historic truth? Her story sounds like fake news. Did Edward really buy his high school sweetheart a house to sooth her broken heart? Oh, come on! Will suspects an affair and that sounds way more probable than the Jenny’s version. She even suggests she doesn’t want to ruin Will’s image of his father before telling him a transparent whopper.

(l-r) Michael Nugent, Missy Spangler, Emily Mudd, Luis Matty Montes. Credit: John Cholod

But Will accepts the tall-tale about how his dad magically moved a town without anyone posting it on the internet (Will’s smartphone actually gets used a few times as a prop and he’s got Google installed). Why? Because Will realizes that the lies let everyone get along better. He could confront his dying father and his grieving mother with the affair. But why? The truth will make everyone miserable, not free. So he says nothing and humors his dying father, like a normal well-adjusted human. The story then shows us that Edward Bloom really had a very big friend named Karl. Fact and fiction have blended and the audience can no longer tell the true story from the tall tales,  or fact from fiction. In the final scene, we see the reporter son has abandoned his dream of teaching his son to crave and search for truth and instead embraces telling tall tales to keep people happy. That’s #2018 for you.

(l-r) Richard Greenslit, Emily Machovec, Emily Mudd, Grace La Count. Credit: John Cholod

Now, Silhouette Stages and TJ Lukacsina didn’t go there and, considering the production’s superb, I’ll write that down as a good call! But you can see this darker story peaking out over the wooden stage fencing around the live orchestra’s box on stage.

Regardless of how you see this story, if you’re familiar with it or not, Silhouette Stages has put together an entertaining, well produced production that shouldn’t be missed this season! You won’t be disappointed!

Big Fish will run through May 27 at Silhouette Stages, Slayton House, 10400 Cross Fox Lane, Columbia, MD. For tickets, call 410-637-5289 or purchase them online.

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Review: Das Barbecu at Spotlighters

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

barbecu-artwork-smring_orig

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

A series of Wagner operas and the great state of Texas?! Can the two mix? Sounds crazy, right? Well, Spotlighters Theatre‘s latest contribution to Baltimore theatre, Das Barbecu, with Book & Lyrics by Jim Luigs and Music by Scott Warrender, proves that it can be so. Directed by Greg Bell, with Music Direction by Michael Tan and Choreography by Jillian Bauersfeld and Greg Bell, Das Barbecu manages to take Wagner‘s complex four-part Ring Cycle opera and make it just a little more accessible and (some would argue) more interesting and fun for audiences not so versed with the classics. Now, this isn’t to say that Das Barbecu is a dumbed-down version of the Ring Cycle, but more contemporary and in-tune with today’s audiences. The story, characters, and message is still in tacked, only now it has a charming Texas drawl.

Rob Wall and Clare Kneebone. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre /  Shealyn Jae Photography  / Shealynjaephotography.com

Rob Wall and Clare Kneebone. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre / Shealyn Jae Photography / Shealynjaephotography.com

The intimate, in-the-round space at Spotlighters would usually be a challenge for a show like this with its multiple locations and, well, they say everything is bigger in Texas, but Spotlighters has a lot of experience putting big shows up in this small space and Set Designer Alan Zemba used his space very wisely. With simple yet creative set pieces, Zemba manages to take the audience from the garden of a palatial mansion to a vast ranch, to bedrooms, then to a bar, then to the top of a mountain, then to a barbecue (whew!), all with minimal set pieces. Not only was the set creative, but it is easy and practical enough for the stage crew to get on and off quickly. I will say, however, there were a few scene changes that seemed a bit longer than usual, but all in all, the stage crew had razor sharp, rehearsed precision and the set worked beautifully with the piece and certainly helped tell the story.

The cast of Das Barbecue. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre /  Shealyn Jae Photography  / Shealynjaephotography.com

The cast of Das Barbecue. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre / Shealyn Jae Photography / Shealynjaephotography.com

Adding great value to this production is Costume Design by Andrew Malone. There are so many characters in this piece played by only five actors, Malone does an impeccable job making each character absolutely individual and memorable with simple, yet noticeable wardrobe changes. An actor can play up to five characters, but, because of the character costumes, it is easy to distinguish each character, which is invaluable with this involved, twisting story. Major kudos to Andrew Malone for his creative and flawless design.

With the space being as intimate as it is, Light Design by Al Ramer is simple, yet very befitting to this production and did not impede but enhance the action onstage. The lighting is well thought-out and sets the proper mood for each scene helping move the story along.

Moving into the production aspect of this piece. Choreography by Jillian Bauersfeld and Greg Bell is fun and very appropriate for this piece and the space in which it is performed. The dancing is tight and entertaining and adds to the production rather than takes away from this piece. Also, the actors are comfortable with the choreography and perform it confidently and with high energy making it enjoyable to watch.

Allison Comotto and Clare Kneebone. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre /  Shealyn Jae Photography  / Shealynjaephotography.com

Allison Comotto and Clare Kneebone. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre / Shealyn Jae Photography / Shealynjaephotography.com

Baltimore theatre veteran Music Director Michael Tan does not disappoint in this production. He manages to take his small cast and have them harmonizing and blending beautifully to bring this story to life. Some songs are funny and some poignant, but whichever mood, under the direction of Tan, the actors seem to understand what these songs are about and perform them accordingly. It helps that the most of the ensemble is already strong, vocally, and Tan uses this to his advantage making for a very impressive showing.

Directing 5 actors to play 26 characters can be quite a challenge for any director, experienced or otherwise, but Greg Bell takes on this challenge and executes his impeccable skill. It is important for whomever takes the reigns of this piece to completely understand the story of Wagner’s complicated Ring Cycle and Bell seems to have a tight grasp and his vision for this piece is apparent and well put together. He excels in blocking his actors to keep the story moving smoothly and at a near perfect pace. Though, as an audience member, I did have to do my part by paying attention, but the story was presented to me clearly and I wasn’t scratching my head or asking questions during intermission or after the performance. Das Barbecü is another well-done project from Greg Bell.

Jim Gross. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre /  Shealyn Jae Photography  / Shealynjaephotography.com

Jim Gross. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre / Shealyn Jae Photography / Shealynjaephotography.com

Jim Gross, a.k.a. Actor 4, takes on the role of Woton, Gunther, Hagen, a Texas Ranger, and a Giant and, according to his bio, is back after a year hiatus from the stage. He gives an admirable performance having to take on so many characters and keeping each an individual through not only costumes, but mannerisms and physicality, as well. His Texan/Southern accent could use a bit more work as I don’t hear much of one throughout and his solo number “River of Fire” does fall a bit flat for being so early in the second act. However, he does hold his own commendably against the other strong actors in the ensemble and his performance is to be applauded.

Clare Kneebone. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre /  Shealyn Jae Photography  / Shealynjaephotography.com

Clare Kneebone. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre / Shealyn Jae Photography / Shealynjaephotography.com

Clare Kneebone was last seen at Spotlighters in Tick, Tick… Boom! and, in this production, she is known as Actor 3, taking on the roles of Brünnhilde, a Norn Triplet, a Texas Ranger, and a Rivermaiden. Kneebone is comfortable on this stage and takes strong command when she appears. Though this is a complete ensemble piece, she takes on what’s closest to the female lead in this piece and she gives a confident, natural performance. Her beautiful, strong vocals b
lend very nicely with the ensemble and shine through in her solo number “County Fair.” Kneebone is a joy to watch and I look forward to experiencing her future work.

Rob Wall. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre /  Shealyn Jae Photography  / Shealynjaephotography.com

Rob Wall. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre / Shealyn Jae Photography / Shealynjaephotography.com

Rob Wall is no stranger to the Spotlighters stage, also having been last seen in Tick, Tick… Boom! Wall takes on the responsibilities of Actor 5, performing the roles of Siegfried, a Norn Triplet, Milam Lamar, Alberich, and a Giant. Taking on what could be considered the lead male role, Wall gives a very enjoyable, strong performance. His gorgeous, booming voice resonates throughout the theatre but he blends well with the ensemble, filling out the sound beautifully. He is able to separate each character he plays and give them each their own respective lives. He understands his characters and works hard to bring them to life. He has a great command of the stage and seems quite comfortable and natural in his roles and this is another great performance from Rob Wall.

Allison Comotto is Actor 1 and takes on the roles of Gutrune, a Norn Triplet, Freia, Y-Vonne Duvall, a Rivermaiden, and a Valkyrie. She, too, is a veteran of the Spotlighters stage having been last seen in Zombie Prom.

Allison Comotto. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre /  Shealyn Jae Photography  / Shealynjaephotography.com

Allison Comotto. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre / Shealyn Jae Photography / Shealynjaephotography.com

Comotto is a busy bee in this production but she is certainly a highlight with her spot-on comedic timing and natural acting chops that make her characters very enjoyable to watch. Vocally, she’s strong and is able to hold her own in the harmonies and blends well. Not to beat a dead horse, but her comedic timing is absolutely flawless. Her character, Y-Vonne Duval (actually pronounced WHY-vonne), a high society Texas wife who knows all the gossip in town, is just plain hysterical. She’s comfortable on stage and has a very strong presence that makes one take notice. Her natural talents are a joy to watch and I’m looking forward to seeing more from Ms. Comotto in the future.

Andrea Bush. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre /  Shealyn Jae Photography  / Shealynjaephotography.com

Andrea Bush. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre / Shealyn Jae Photography / Shealynjaephotography.com

Lastly, but certainly not least, Andrea Bush, who is most decidedly another standout of this production. Bush is an absolute pleasure to watch as she navigates through her characters as Actor 2, taking on the roles of Narrator, Fricka, Erda, Needa Troutt, Back-Up Singer, Katsy Snapp, a Rivermaiden, and a Valkyrie. For as many characters as Bush had to play, she transitioned seamlessly and gave each character an individual personality, displaying her on-point acting skills. Vocally, this woman has some strong pipes and her booming voice is an asset to this piece. In both her comedic and more serious numbers, she gave a strong vocal showing and found the feeling in every song through her performance. Her comedic timing is outstanding and she seems to understand all her characters and the story, allowing her to give an assured performance that adds value to this production. She’s defintiely one to watch.

Andrea Bush and Allison Comotto. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre /  Shealyn Jae Photography  / Shealynjaephotography.com

Andrea Bush and Allison Comotto. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre / Shealyn Jae Photography / Shealynjaephotography.com

Final thought… much like the Looney Tunes made Wagner much easier to swallow (and introduced children and a lot of adults to the opera genre), Spotlighters production of Das Barbecu takes a complex, classic piece and makes it more accessible and funny. Wagner’s Ring Cycle is not a piece I am entirely familiar with, but now, should I delve into a performance of it somewhere in my journeys, I’ll have a better understanding of the story and will probably appreciate more than I would have going in blind. Who knew Texas and a Wagner series of operas would mesh so well together?

Want another point of view? Check out what The Bad Oracle had to say!

Das Barbecu will play through October 30 at Spotlighters Theatre, 817 St. Paul Street, Baltimore, MD. For tickets, call the box office at 410-752-1225 or purchase them online.