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: 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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Review: Into the Woods at Heritage Players

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy
Title
Running Time: Approx. 2 hours and 45 minutes with one 15-minute intermission
Fairy tales are probably some of the best fodder for stage adaptations because, after all, they’re entire stories that are already written and told. It’s up to the author and, if a musical, the lyricist and composer of that stage adaptation to put the story together with a script and songs. In the case of Heritage Players latest offering, Into the Woods with Music & Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and Book by James Lapine, Directed by TJ Lukacsina, with Music Direction by Chris Pinder and Choreography by Rikki Howie does something refreshingly different. By intertwining a bunch of different stories into one big story, we get a delightful, interesting spin on what happens in the life of these popular characters outside of the stories we all know and love.
Briefly, Into the Woods gathers together the title characters of Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel, and a few other popular tales and throws them together in a story of trying to our happy-ever-after in life, regardless of what it throws at you, and learning that life, in fact, is not a fairy tale. Through aspects of each story, we learn a little more about these characters and realize all is not always what it seems.
Set Design by Ryan Geiger, though simple, is fitting and quite effective. The unit set is good for different settings with a simple opening of a swinging panel and small props and set pieces. For a complex show like this, this set design is well-thought out and doesn’t hinder the action, but helps by not getting in the way. Kudos to Geiger for an inspiring design.
Andrew Malone, an established Costume Designer in the area, reveals his able talents in this production. Every character is fitted appropriately to character but unique enough that no one is the traditional image we know from the stories. This piece gives the costumer a chance to be fanciful as well as elegant and Malone hit the nail on the head in this production.
Sound Design by Brent Tomchick and Lighting Design by TJ Lukacsina had some issues, but overall, the design worked for the prouduction. Whether it was a dependency on microphones or directorial neglect, there were many characters I couldn’t understand because I could not hear them. A few of the members of the ensemble didn’t project as they should and their lines were lost. Of course, the mics themselves had their own troubles of not being at the correct levels or even turned on at the correct times. Lighting Design is its own beast and can make or break a show. Now, Lukacsina’s design certainly did not break the show, but there were curious choices throughout. A favorite covering of light seems to represent some sort of light and shadows through leaves, as if in the woods, so, I get it, but it doesn’t do the ensemble any favors as most of them are lost in the shadows. It gets rather dark at times, as well. Yes, there are dark parts in this show… metaphorically, they don’t have to actually be IN the dark. Again, there were some technical issues with Sound and Lighting Design but, overall, it is suitable for this production and doesn’t take away from the story or the performance. In fact, it just might need a little tweaking or closer attention because for the most part, it works.
Choreography by Rikki Howie is minimal, at best. Not because Howie is lazy but the piece itself doesn’t call for a lot of dancing. There are a few moments when the cast gathers together to do what look like jazz squares (or box steps, depending on where you came up), and hand gestures but, that’s all that is required, really. Most of the songs simply need staging and not a lot of bouncing around. Howie does her best with the material she’s given and, all in all, the choreography is delightful. The cast is comfortable and that makes them look good, which is somewhat the point.
Chris Pinder tackles this piece as its Music Director and his work is to be applauded. Teaching and working on a Sondheim score is no easy feat and Pinder has succeeded. He seems to understand the music and its nuances and he has guided his cast to give a splendid performance. Not only does he have a strong ensemble, vocally, he has a phenomenal orchestra backing them up. Well-rehearsed, and spot on, the orchestra is near flawless with this score and adds great value to the production as a whole. Included in the orchestra are Chris Pinder, Conductor; David Booth, Flute; Matt Elky, Clarinet; Allyson Wessley, Horn; Kevin Shields, Trumpet; Lynn Graham, Piano; John Keister, Synthesizer; Zachary Sotelo, Percussion; Naomi Chang-Zajic and Susan Beck, Violins; David Zajic and Kyle Gilbert, Viola; Ina O’Ryan and Juliana Torres, Cello; and Joe Surkiewicz, Bass.
TJ Lukacsina takes the helm of this production as its Director and, as stated, taking on any Sondheim piece is a challenge but Lukacsina, with a few minor hiccups, seems to have stepped up to the challenge. Casting is superb and his staging is concise making for a good pace and tempo for a naturally long piece with smooth, quick transitions. Overall, the piece is focused with a clear vision from Lukacsina and it moves along nicely… in Act I. Act II in this production has its problems but it’s mainly in the staging of this fast-paced script. Actors seem to be coming and going haphazardly through the various entrances and exits on the stage and if one is not familiar with the piece already, it’s easy to see how one might get a little perplexed in Act II. With cleaner staging, Act II may run a bit more smoothly. Again, the hiccups are minor and, overall, Lukacsina seems to have a good comprehension of the piece and a good grasp on what the characters are about making for a well thought-out, delightful production.
Moving on to the performance aspect of this piece, Todd Hochkeppel takes on the supporting role of the Narrator, the first character we encounter and Hochkeppel gives a respectable performance but, compared to the other characterizations, seems a bit over the top at times with grand, sweeping gestures that could be pulled back a bit. However, he has a great booming voice and fits well in the role.
A couple of other supporting but important roles that move the piece along are the Mysterious Man played by Richard Greenslit and the Steward to the royal family, played by Sean Miller. Both Greenslit and Miller give commendable performances and make the most of the stage time they have.
The princes, played by Josh Schoff (Rapunzel’s Prince) and John Carter (Cinderalla’s Prince), are well cast in the roles and give admirable performances but their rendition of “Agony” falls a little flat. This is one of the most well-known numbers in this piece and it’s a hilarious song. Schoff and Carter sing the song beautifully, but really just stood opposite each other and didn’t seem to capitalize on the physical humor and melodramatic presentation that makes this number so enjoyable. It’s as if they both took the roles too seriously. Though both give entertaining performances, the stronger of the two is John Carter whose interpretation of Cinderella’s Prince is absolutely befitting, if not a tad too soft spoken (which is a shame as his smooth, deep timber is perfect for the stage!), and his take on The Wolf is spot on.
Scott AuCoin tackles the role of the Baker, the unlikely hero of the piece and Mia Coulborne takes on the character of Red Riding Hood, the bratty little girl who has no choice but to grow up throughout the story. Both actors are confident and committed to their roles and with characters being so intricate to the plot, both carry the responsibility nicely. Vocally, both give superb performances as in Red Ridinghood’s number “I Know Things Now” and the Baker’s “No More” and both seem to have an easy go with the material. Their chemistry with the rest of the ensemble is believable and they give 100% to their parts. Their interpretations of the characters could use a little kick as the performances were a bit scripted and forced but, overall, they give an admirable showing.
Rapunzel (played by Kirsti Dixon), the hapless girl stuck in a tower by her “mother”, who happens to be a Witch (portrayed by Rowena Winkler), are a good match to play these complex characters who play a big part in the plotline. Dixon shines with her beautiful soprano and gives an authentic portrayal as the young girl who knows there’s more out in the world than what she knows of her small tower. Winkler gives a completely dedicated, high energy performance as the Witch and her transition from Act I to Act II is more subtle than it should be both in character and presentation, but it works for the most part. Vocally, she has a better go with her higher register rather than the lower, but, overall, she gives a praiseworthy performance.
Some of the most humorous bits of this production come from Cinderella’s stepmother (Traci Denhardt), and the Stepsisters Florinda (Jamie Pasquinelli) and  Lucinda (Danyelle Spaar). This trio of actresses understand the importance of these characters but don’t take the roles so seriously that they’re not having fun. Pasquinelli and Spaar have a stupendous chemistry and play their characters to the hilt making for delightful performances. Denhardt as the stern Stepmother is poised and elegant, as the character requires and all three performances are on point. Along with this trio, Jessa Sahl takes on the role of Cinderlla’s Mother, a guiding ghost in a tree in the woods, and she gives a strong showing, especially vocally, with a clear voice that resonates throughout the theatre.
Jack is portrayed by Atticus Boidy and Jacks’ Mother, played by Temple Forston are a befitting duo with a great chemistry that makes for a charming mother/son relationship. Boidy has a good grasp of his character and gives an impressive vocal performance, shining in his featured number “Giants in the Sky” while Forston is believable as the stern but loving mother who only wants what’s best for her son. She makes the role her own and, though her character’s demise could have been tweaked out a bit more, she gives a commendable, strong performance.
The absolute highlights of this production of Into the Woods are Sydney Phipps taking on the role of Cinderella and Alana Simone who tackles the role of The Baker’s Wife. These two powerhouses are the ones to watch. Phipps effortlessly sings through Cinderella’s numbers such as her bit in the opening of Act I and her featured number “On the Steps of the Palace.” Also, her portrayal of Cinderella is authentic and because of Phipps splendid portrayal, you feel for this girl and are rooting for her. She has a good comprehension of the character, has a good presence on stage, and gives a strong, confident performance.
Likewise, Alana Simone starts off strong and keeps up the energy and consistency throughout the production. She has a booming voice and good chemistry with her fellow ensemble members, especially with Scott AuCoin, who plays her character’s husband. Simone belts out her numbers such as “It Takes Two” (with AuCoin), and the poignant “Moments in the Woods” with just the right amount of intensity and gentleness that is required of each number. Major kudos to Phipps and Simone for jobs very well done.
Final thought…Into the Woods is a monumental feat for any theatre, especially community theatres. Heritage Players certainly gives it the old college try and though some aspects fall short, others absolutely thrive. The show is long, by nature, and though this production has terrific pacing with an energetic cast, plan on sticking around for near three hours. Most of the cast is absolutely able and committed making for some great performances but as the production moves along, it seems to lose a little steam. That’s not to say it is not a commendable performance, because it most certainly is. With an ensemble who works well together, a simple but effective set, an orchestra that is on point, and a few standout performances, it’s definitely worth checking out this interpretation of a Stephen Sondheim favorite.
This is what I thought of Heritage Players production of Into the Woods… What did you think? Please feel free to leave a comment!
Into the Woods will run through November 19 at Heritage Players in the Thomas-Rice Auditorium on the Spring Gove Hospital Campus, Catonsville, MD. For tickets, purchase them at the door or online.
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Review: The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at Heritage Players

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy
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Running Time: 2 hours with a 15-minute intermission
It’s been repeated through the ages – being a kid isn’t easy! If you can remember (and most of us can), the world is a completely different place for a kid and Heritage Players latest offering The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Directed by Ryan Geiger, with Music Direction by TJ Lukacsina and Robin Trenner and Choreography by Jose Reyes Teneza, takes us right back to that crazy time when changes in body, mind, and viewpoints were happening and every day was a struggle… then the bastards throw something like a spelling bee in the mix to pit us against each other!

Chip Tolentino (Charlie Roberts) at the mic as the rest of the cast looks on. Credit: Heritage Players

Chip Tolentino (Charlie Roberts) at the mic as the rest of the cast looks on. Credit: Heritage Players


Walking into the Rice Auditorium at Spring Grove is a treat! It’s bright, neat, and clean and it’s a space that lends itself nicely to community theatre! Ryan Geiger, who takes on double duty as Director and Set Designer uses the traditional setting (a school gymnasium) for this production and, liking traditional theatre as I do, I thought it worked very nicely. It was a minimal set but Geiger’s attention to detail is on point and large printouts of a scoreboard and sports banners are clever and give the set a neat, precise look. This is a unit set show with movable set pieces and every piece had a purpose and helped tell the story.
Lighting Design by TJ Lukacsina and Sound Design by Stuart Kazanow is appropriate and sets the mood for this quirky piece. Notably, there is a very neat effect concerning the Taj Mahal that is very clever and quite effective.
Sound is always a challenge for small theatres depending on the space and what the space is originally intended for. Kazanow’s Sound Design for this production is good, but seems a bit muted, slowing down the action onstage. Again, this could be because of venue and, overall, Lighting and Sound are respectable.
William Barfee explains his "Magic Foot" as the rest of the cast joins in. Credit: Heritage Players

William Barfee explains his “Magic Foot” as the rest of the cast joins in. Credit: Heritage Players


The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is an eccentric kind of show where there’s a lot of music but it doesn’t call for a ton of choreography. However, Choreography by Jose Reyes Teneza fits in nicely. There are only a few big group numbers including “Magic Foot” and “Pandemonium” but the choreography is creative and tight and the cast seems to be having a great time with it.
Music Direction by TJ Lukacsina and Robin Trenner is impressive with great solo numbers and harmonic ensemble numbers that are on point and well-rehearsed. For being a fun, breezy show, Spelling Bee does, in fact, have some complex harmonies, but these were handled beautifully under the direction of Lukascsina and Trenner.
Going along with Music Direction, the orchestra is worth mentioning, giving a commendable performance with Robin Trenner on Piano, Ellie Whittenberger on Synthesizer, David Booth on Reeds, Ina O’Ryan and Juliana Torres on Cello, and Mykel Allison on Drums.
The spellers take center stage. Credit: Heritage Players

The spellers take center stage. Credit: Heritage Players


Taking on double duty as both a character in the production and Costume Designer, Stephen Foreman hit the nail on the head with these costumes. The costume design follows the original Broadway production’s scheme, for the most part, and his eye for detail is impressive. All of this actors seems comfortable in their wardrobe and the well though-out, meticulous costumes definitely add great value to this production.
Being a first time director has its own set of challenges but being a first time director for a musical is something entirely different. However, Director Ryan Geiger does a fantastic job with this piece, understanding its humor and its poignancy in a very balanced production. His casting is superb and his vision is clear, seeing life through the eyes of some very anxious, over-achieving kids in competition with each other and trying to discover themselves in the process. Kudos to Geiger for a job well done on his inaugural production as a director.
The cast. Credit: Heritage Players

The cast. Credit: Heritage Players


Moving into the performance aspect of this piece, I have to say the ensemble, as a whole, is outstanding. Audience participation is the name of the game for this show and the ensemble works with the participants brilliantly. The seemingly random audience members who are asked to participate in the bee seem to have a great time with this ensemble and the ensemble assures each audience member is at ease during the performance. The chemistry is crystal clear, the harmonies are flawless, and the dancing is tight and concise. Every one of these actors is giving 100% and seem to be having a blast onstage, which, in turn, brightens the mood of the audience.
Marcy Parks (Kristi Dixon) explains her many talents, backed up by the girls. Credit: Heritage Players

Marcy Parks (Kristi Dixon) explains her many talents, backed up by the girls. Credit: Heritage Players


Kirsti Dixon’s Macy Park is staunch and uptight, as the character calls and her number was upbeat and energetic. Though Dixon may have slight issues with the higher register of her number, “I Speak Six Languages,” her character is near perfect and she gives a strong, confident performance.
Matt Scheer tackles the role of Mitch Mahoney, the rough and tough, ex-con Comfort Counselor who’s job it is to give the kids a hug and juice box when they’ve been eliminated. Scheer plays the role as more of an 80s metal-head throwback rather than the original gruff, leather jacket and chains wearing character. Still, this character works nicely and he’s comfortable in the part and has a strong, booming voice for his number “Prayer for the Comfort Counselor” that is a fitting finale for the first act.
Logainne Schwartzandgrubinierre (Libby Burgess) tries to describe her strife as her dads discuss behind her. Credit: Heritage Players

Logainne Schwartzandgrubinierre (Libby Burgess) tries to describe her strife as her dads discuss behind her. Credit: Heritage Players


Logainne Schwartzangrubenierre, played by Libby Burgess, is an over-over-achiever pushed by parents who want what’s best for her, but might not see the burden it puts on her young, frail shoulders. Burgess tackles this role beautifully and her character is strong. The anxiousness and nervousness come out in her performance and she seems to really understand this poor kid. She’s comfortable on stage and has great chemistry with Zach Roth and Richard Greenslit, who play her two fathers.
Charlie Roberts takes on the role of Chip Tolentino, the “alpha male” of the group and the winner of last year’s Spelling Bee. Roberts certainly looks the part in his clean cut Boy Scouts uniform but his portrayal of Tolentino falls a bit flat. Overall, he did a fine job with his performance, choreography, and songs, but I want his character to be a little more forceful and less delicate. His featured numbers “Pandemonium” and “Chip’s Lament” was performed nicely, but may have been a little too high for his register. However, he’s confident and comfortable onstage and gives a commendable performance.
William Barfee, the obnoxious, know-it-all, and probably the keenest speller in the Bee, is played by Stephen Foreman who does a good job pulling this character together. His comedic timing is very good, though some of the jokes could be milked just a tad bit more as he tends to skim by them at times and, dare I say it, he could be just a bit more obnoxious as it’s what’s funny about this character. His number, “Magic Foot” is performed well and confidently and he seems comfortable and his look is spot on for this role.
Kristen Zwobot as Olive Ostrovsky. Credit: Heritage Players

Kristen Zwobot as Olive Ostrovsky. Credit: Heritage Players


Kristen Zwobot as Olive Ostrovsky is definitely reaching in for her inner child for this role. She’s believable in the role and captures the awkwardness of a young girl with separated parents who may be too smart for her own good. She seems to get this character and doesn’t play her with pity but with compassion. Her numbers, “My Friend the Dictionary” and “The I Love You Song” (a trio with Rachel Weir and Matt Scheer), are touching and she performs them well with a strong, confident voice.
Zach Roth as Leaf Coneybear. Credit: Heritage Players

Zach Roth as Leaf Coneybear. Credit: Heritage Players


Among the “child” characters, Zach Roth as Leaf Coneybear is definitely a highlight. His character is different from the other characters in that he’s really in it for the fun, not the competition. His innocence and naiveté makes you feel for him and root for him and he pulls the character off with ease. He’s comfortable in the role and his comedic timing is top-notch. He keeps his character interesting and makes a connection with the audience. Kudos to Roth for an admirable performance.
Rachel Weir portrays Rona Lisa Peretti, one of the three adult characters in this show and one of the moderators of the Bee as well as a former winner. Weir is also a highlight in this production in this role as she embodies this character heart and soul. It isn’t hard to believe this woman is a adamant fan of spelling and of spelling bees and that, deep down, she does care for this kids and wants them to succeed because she had been in their shoes at one time. Weir has an absolutely beautiful voice that resonates throughout the auditorium in songs such as her “Favorite Moment” songs throughout the production explaining how the bee actually works. She acts this character flawlessly and has a strong confident presence making her a joy to watch.
Richard Greenslit as Douglas Panch is the standout in this production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. As Douglas Panch, Greenslit has impeccable comedic timing and doesn’t take his character too seriously making for a phenomenal performance. He had me at stitches with his delivery of some of the definitions and sentences for some of the words in the bee. His chemistry with his cast mates is excellent and he seems to have a grasp on the purpose of this character which makes him quite believable in this role. He’s comfortable with a very strong stage presence and gives a performance that knocks it out of the park.
Matt Scheer as Mitch Mahoney and the Cast. Credit: Heritage Players

Matt Scheer as Mitch Mahoney and the Cast. Credit: Heritage Players


Final thought… The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at Heritage Players is an entertaining and funny show to which mostly everyone can relate. We’ve all had that crazy time in life where changes were happening and things we don’t find so important today were life or death situations. It’s easy to relate to these characters and see a little of ourselves in each of them. If you want a fun show to check out, get your tickets now!
This is what I thought of Heritage Players 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 November 20 at The Heritage Players, Rice Auditorium at Spring Grove Hospital Center, 55 Wade Avenue, Catonsville, MD. For Tickets, email heritageplayerslive@gmail.com or purchase them online.