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.

Email us at backstagebaltimore@gmail.com

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Review: The Addams Family at Silhouette Stages

By Yosef Kuperman

Approx. Running Time: 2 hours with one intermission

The cast of The Addams Family. Credit: Jeremy Goldman

The Addams Family is a 2010 musical adaption by Marshall Brickman, Rick Elise, and Andrew Lippa of the venerable media property of the same name. As Silhouette Stages latest offering, Directed and Choreographed by Tommy Malek, with Music Direction by Rachel Sandler, it pays enough homage to the original to please the many fans snapping along with the theme song, but also remains open enough for the uninitiated to enjoy.

Expect the trappings of the modern musical genre: fast music, energetic choreography, one-liners interspersed into the dialogue, predictable crescendos in the songs, and some cracks in the fourth wall. But also expect an authentic entry in the Addams Family universe. I’m only loosely familiar with the characters, but I didn’t need a score card to recognize anyone.

(l-r) Heather Moe as Wednesday, Caitlin Grant as Grandma Addams, Vincent Musgrave as Gomez, Michael M. Crooke as Fester, and Santina Maiolatesi as Morticia. Credit: Jeremy Goldman

Silhouette Stage’s production values are up to snuff. Set Coordinator Becca Hanauer and Scenic Artist Jessie Krupkin have built a two-level stage that doubles (with different dressings) as the family crypt and the front room of the Adams house. These set changes don’t delay the show because they create scenes set outside those areas in front of the curtain, allowing seamless (at least from the audience perspective) transitions. (Central Park, for example, is outside the curtain.) The two levels allow the performers (including a ten-person ensemble dance team done up as Addams family ghosts) the space to create the show’s dance numbers.

Heather Moe as Wednesday Addams. Credit: Jeremy Goldman

All of the actors gave superb performances. Heather Moe’s Wednesday captures her character’s introversion and expressive-nonexpressiveness. Vincent Musgrave’s Gomez appears genuinely caught between his daughter and his wife. Sammy Greenslit, the kid who played Pugsley on opening night, not only captured his character’s fear of losing his sister but also carried his songs beautifully. I could go on, but with such a large ensemble and featured characters, I’d just like to make it clear that every actor on the stage gave 100% effort and added great value to the production, as a whole. Kudos to the entire cast!

Okay. Now the fun part… the script/story, itself.

I can imagine a lot of stories you could tell in The Addams Family. The writers chose to tell a romantic comedy. By scene 2, I expected a meet-the-parents romcom that turns on a scandalous/unacceptable/unexpected romantic partner. Fester (Michael Crook) literally enters in Scene 2, breaks the fourth wall, and explains the plot directly to the audience, thereby setting expectations.) But this isn’t a normal romcom. Instead of focusing on the people getting married, the play’s main character is Gomez. He’s a middle-aged father seeing his daughter Wednesday growing up and keeping his marriage with Morticia (Santina Maiolatesi) alive. The show then (in a super meta twist) closes with a conventional romcom ending. Everyone leaves happy in a world famous for embracing the macabre and depressing.

Michael M. Crooke as Fester and Ensemble. Credit: Jeremy Goldman

The Addams Family argues that the root of its character’s problem is their futile attempts to be normal, attempts that fail because nobody is really normal. The Addams refer to themselves as “crazy” and Wednesday’s fiancé Lucas’s (Drew Sharpe) family as “normal.” Lucas’s family is “normal” because they’re from the “real America.” (“Real America” is apparently not in New York City but rather in Ohio…) The two families spend the first act trying to convince the other family that they’re totally 100% normal Americans. But neither family is actually normal in any conventional sense of the word. Lucas in fact spends as much time trying to get his family to pretend to be “normal” as Wednesday spends lobbying hers.

In this universe of oddballs, normality becomes a shared illusion. Everyone knows the basic script and tries to perform it. Both Lucas and Wednesday make their families pretend to be normal. They think everything will go smoothly if they can just fool the other side for an evening. Neither side succeeds. But this mutual attempt at deception generates conflict only resolved by the characters embracing the unique “crazy” in each of them. The conformist desire for normality in fact caused the problems the characters thought their quest for normality would solve.

Drew Sharpe as Lucas, Ashley Gerhardt as Alice, and Richard Greenslit as Mal. Credit: Jeremy Goldman

Is this script perfect? I thought the plot suffers from a lack of focus. This show has four romantic plots running through it, plus other Addams family dynamics. This leaves some plot decisions rushed. There’s so much story that the show does not have time to develop everything as much as I would’ve liked but I’d like to make it clear this is not a production problem, just a script problem.

Like a few other modern Broadway shows, the Addams family has multiple versions. Silhouette Stages is producing the revised “Touring” version and, judging by my research, there are significant change from the original cast album. The original apparently included an assignation with a giant squid. (I am unclear on how that could even fit into the plot and a little scared to ask.) You can hear the original sound track on (at least) Google Play and decide based on that. Overall, however, this is a polished, well put-together production that you don’t want to miss!

This is what I thought of Silhouette Stage’s production of The Addams Family… What did you think? Please feel free to leave a comment!

The Addams Family will run through October 28 at Silhouette Stages, 10400 Cross Fox Lane, Columbia, MD. For tickets, call the box office at 410-637-5289 or purchase them online.

Email us at backstagebaltimore@gmail.com

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Review: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum at Silhouette Stages

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

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

Most folks love a good comedy, especially when there’s something familiar and something peculiar and with Silhouette Stages‘ latest offering, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum with a Book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart and Music & Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, there’s something for everyone! This latest venture is Directed by Conni Ross, with Music Direction by William George and Choreography by Tina deSimone.

Rich Greenslit (Miles Gloriosus) and Bob Gudauskas (Pseudolus). Credit: Russell Woodridge

In a nutshell, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is formatted much in the same way as the ancient Roman farce and, tells the humorous tale of Pseudolus, a slave, and his cunning plans to win his freedom by helping his young and in love master, Hero, get the girl next door, who happens to be a virgin prostitute (or the ancient Roman version of one). Throughout the story we are presented with classic elements of farce with puns, doors slamming, and mistaken identity, of course, as well as a social commentary on social class. Throw a complex but bouncy score by Sondheim and you have a nice satirical evening of theatre.

Alex Porter’s stellar Scenic Design and Set Decoration by Jessie Krupkin and Bill Pond is large and in charge, taking up the entire stage and adding great value to this production. He is wise to choose a unit set, making it easier to move the action along smoothly. Though farce calls for a lot of slamming doors, you won’t find any doors on this set, but it’s okay because, sans doors, the quick entrances and exits are easily made, keeping the momentum up. The Set Decoration and Dressing by Krupkin and Pond is spot on bringing a whimsical feel to the piece, as required. Porter has managed to give us two story structures, as well, which can be tricky when it comes to smaller, community theatres, but the structures seem strong and sturdy and make for a great setting, overall. Krupkin and Pond have a great eye for detail and have created a near perfect comedic rendition of an ancient Roman street including two life-sized Roman sculptures that add great value to the overall design. Porter, Krupkin, and Pond should definitely be applauded for their scenic efforts and execution for this production.

(l-r) Jeff Dunne (Lycus), Matt Scheer (Hysterium), Robert Gudauskas (Pseudolus), and Don Patterson (Senex). Credit: Russell Woodridge

Costume Design by Linda Swann is impeccable and fitting for this production presenting the ancient roman setting but also blending in the modern and humor of each character. Swann uses her modern day resources (t-shirts and sunglasses) and mixes them with the more traditional garb of Roman soldiers and citizens to make for a delightful design. When need be, each character is an individual, as well, and all seem comfortable in his or her wardrobe which adds great value to the production.

Tina deSimone takes on the responsibility of Choreographer for this piece and though the choreography is a bit elementary and basic, it’s still entertaining and the cast seems to have a great time performing it. It’s fitting for the piece and deSimone is obviously familiar with her casts varied movement experience and manages to create numbers that are easily performed by all.

As Music Director, William Georg already had a lot to work with going in because, vocally, this ensemble is quite strong. The use of canned music is a bit offsetting as it seems to bring down the energy, but the cast knows their stuff and Georg has done his job superbly. His cast is in harmony and in tempo in each number and any Sondheim score is a challenge but Georg has definitely risen to this challenge for our listening and toe tapping pleasure.

Conni Trump Ross takes the helm of this production and does a commendable job bringing this story to the stage. There are built in challenges with this piece, one being it’s not only a comedy, but also has many farcical aspects and this is a challenge for any cast and director. The story is presented nicely in a traditional setting and the pacing is fantastic but when it comes to the farce, it falls a little flat. One has to have a strong comprehension of farce to direct it and it needs to be flawless to be effective. The speed in which a farce is supposed to happen, like rapid fire, just isn’t as strong in this production as it could be, but that’s not to say the production isn’t quick and funny, because it certainly was. The casting is spot on and the piece is well rehearsed and Ross seems to have a good grasp of the material and how to present it, making for a very good showing.

(l-r) Bob Gudauskas (Pesudolus) and Todd Hochkeppel (Erronius). Credit: Russell Woodridge

Moving on the to performance aspect of this production, it’s worth mentioning that this ensemble is top notch as a whole, they are well rehearsed and really get the humor in this material. For instance, Todd Hochkeppel takes on the role of Erronius, the poor elderly neighbor who is searching for his kidnapped children through most of the show and makes what really can only be called cameos throughout, but… he makes the most of his short time on stage and is absolutely hilarious as the goofy, seeking old man with brilliant comedic timing and a great presence for this character.

Bob Gudauskas (Pesudolus) and Rich Greenslit (Miles Gloriosus). Credit: Russell Woodridge

Tommy Malek tackles the role of Hero, the lovelorn boy next door to Rachel Sandler’s Philia, the virginal, naïve prostitute next door. Both of these actors have a good understanding of his or her character and though Malek comes off a little lackluster in his scene work in which he is a little too stiff and scripted, he has a booming, smooth vocal performance that is enthralling, especially in his featured numbers such as “Love, I Hear,” “Lovely,” and “Impossible.” Sandler, an accomplished music director in her own right, is a delight as the ditzy, beautiful blond and she plays the role to the hilt with good comedic timing and a lovely voice that rings out throughout the theatre.

Don Patterson portrays Senex, the henpecked, hormone raged patriarch of the House of Senex, and Ande Kolp plays his wife, Domina, the take charge mistress with a strong libido. Patterson does well with this role and portrays Senex appropriately giving him a good blend of obedience to his wife and a wild streak when he sees a young lady he fancies. He has a good sense of comedy but his farce is a little too slow for my liking. However, he starts off one of the funniest numbers in the entire show, “Everybody Ought to have a Maid” and he completely gets and presents the humor of this number beautifully. Vocally, he can hold his own and, through his scene work and chemistry with the rest of the ensemble, makes the character quite lovable.

Kolp, as Domina, has this character down pat and her presence is impressive. She too, gets the humor, taking her character serious enough to present the humor of her. She works well and off of her fellow cast mates and gives admirable and racy (but funny) rendition of “That Dirty Old Man.”

Bob Gudauskas (Pseudolus) with Courtesans Allie Press and Kelly Nguyen. Credit: Russell Woodridge

Bob Gudauskas tackles the quick and fast paced role of Pseudolus and Mat Scheer Matt Scheer takes on the role of Hysterium, the two slaves who, somehow, have to keep everything together throughout the production. Though Scheer gives a good technical performance, there doesn’t seem to be much urgency behind his character, physically. The character’s name alone, Hysterium, puts pictures of a hysterical, on edge, jumpy character in the minds of the audience but I simply don’t get this from Scheer. He plays him a little too subdued making his featured number, “I’m Calm,” a little forced and out of place. However, he does have a great presence onstage, understands the material quite well, and he works well with and off of his fellow actors making for a worthy performance.

As Pseudolus, Gudauskas is supposed to guide the audience through the story and he does his superbly. He has a fantastic presence and does well vocally, but he too is a bit subdued for the role with no urgency. Also, he seems to understand the shtick and farce, but, as mentioned, it is a bit hokey and Gudauskas seems a bit forced and scripted at times. With that being said, vocally, he’s got a strong voice and is confident in his vocal performances, as in the opening number, “Comedy Tonight,” that gets the ball rolling. Overall, he gives a solid, charming performance making him a very likable character.

The definite highlights of this production are Richard Greenslit as Miles Gloriosus and Jeff Dunne as Lycus (is it just me of could these two almost be twins?). They are both hilarious in their respective roles and their comedic timing is on point. Dunne gives an impeccable performance as the sly, greasy, friendly flesh peddler next door and his facial expressions are second to none. His expressive eyes and gestures add great value to this character and to the production as a whole. He seems fearless of making a fool of himself and that’s one of the best characteristics a good comedian can have. He has a good grasp of his character and plays him in a way that is sleazy, but yet, still likable which is tricky, but of no challenge to Dunne. He’s a stronger actor than he is a singer, but he certainly holds his own and shines in his featured numbers like “The House of Lycus,” and “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid.” Overall, he gives an outstanding performance and will have you in stitches.

Greenslit, as the manly, egotistical captain in the Roman army plays his part to the hilt and has a large presence with great facial expressions and gestures. Vocally, he’s a powerhouse with a booming baritone that resonates throughout the theatre, especially in his featured numbers such as “”Bring Me My Bride” and “Funeral Sequence.” Funny, confident, and giving a solid comedic performance, Greenslit is certainly one to watch.

(l-r) Bob Gudauskas (Pseudolus) and Rich Greenslit (Miles Gloriosus). Credit: Russell Woodridge

Final thought… A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is a fun romp through ancient Rome with catchy Sondheim tunes performed by an able cast of crazy characters. Though the pacing is a bit off at times, especially when it comes to the farce, and some of the humor may be hoky and vaudevillian, but the zany story holds up nicely and is well thought-out. It’s clear that the ensemble gives 100% effort and each actor takes his or her role serious enough to emote the humor and absurdity of each character. It’s fluffy, it’s light, but it takes a certain discipline to pull off a comedy effectively (especially when a Sondheim score is involved) and, for the most part, this production is quite successful and makes for an enjoyable evening of theatre.

This is what I thought of Silhouette Stages’ production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum… What did you think? Please feel free to leave a comment!

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum will play through March 25 at Silhouette Stages, 10400 Cross Fox Lane, Columbia, MD. For tickets, call the box office at 410-637-5289 or purchase them online.

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