Tidewater Players Bares All in The Full Monty!

By Jennifer L. Gusso

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Full Monty will play through May 19 at Tidewater Players at The Cultural Center at the Opera House121 N. Union Street, Havre de Grace, MD. Purchase tickets at the door one hour before show time or purchase them online.

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Review: A Christmas Story at Tidewater Players

By Jennifer L. Gusso

Approx. Running Time: 2 hours and 20 minutes with one intermission

“You’ll shoot your eye.” A tongue stuck to a freezing pole. Ominous images of Santa while a young boy careens down a slide. For anyone who has seen and loved the iconic film A Christmas Story, all of those memorable moments find themselves brought to life on stage at the Havre de Grace Opera House in Tidewater Players‘ production of the musical of the same title, Directed by Laurie Starkey, with Music Direction by Stephanie Cvach, and Choreography by Amanda Poxon. In addition to the expected elements of the film, there is a score by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (of Dear Evan Hansen fame) and Book by Joseph Robinette that brings new nuances to the original story. With a multi-generational cast, a fun Christmas message, a lot of big dance numbers, and a few tender moments, this production is certain to warm the hearts of audiences both old and young.

The stage is set from the moment that audiences enter with a Christmas tree and lights hung all around the stage. While the set design is simple, there is a careful eye to detail in the set dressing that really makes the Parker home come to life. Set Designers Dickie Mahoney and Laurie Starkey have focused on the details with the pictures on the mantle and coats on the coat rack. It instantly feels like a home. Several simple and quick movements transform the entire space into a variety of other locations. Adding to the overall tone and mood set with each location is a Lighting Design by Thomas Gardner. He is especially able to demonstrate his creativity in moments like the slow-motion exchange with Santa. There are several instances in which the lights are the perfect accompaniment to Ralphie’s current emotional state. Carefully selected or designed props (like the leg lamp) and costumes (like the Elf costumes and the pink bunny suit) are more strong homages to the movie that are equally entertaining to new audiences.

However, the stage really comes to life when it is inhabited by the residents of Hohman, Indiana. The ensemble, both young and old, is full of life and energy. The script also allows for many of them to take scenes and make them their own. Stacey Bonds and Samantha Jednorski have an entertaining turn as Santa’s Chief Elves. Reagan McComas delights as he tries to sing with his tongue stuck to a pole. Sophia MacKinnon is adorable as she lists her wants to Santa and impresses in an early scene by freezing perfectly to give the illusion that her hand is pressed against a glass window. Carly Greaver is consistently alive with energy and really bring her choreography to life. Michael Maroney has the audience in stitches with his turn on Santa’s lap. He and Braeden Waugh shine in their slick dance routine in their suits. Chip Meister brings a chuckle with his portrayal of a tired department store Santa. As Miss Shields, Amanda Poxon provides a larger-than-life character and a stunning turn on the dance floor. All of these little bits and moments bring the world around the Parkers to life.

Right at the center, literally bringing the Parkers to life, is the narrator, Jean Shepherd. Tom Hartzell bring a genuine folksy warmth to the role. Especially strong are his physical reactions and facial expressions in the way that he sometimes squirms with the excitement of his child self and other times gazes at these younger versions of his parents with a longing that makes us wonder if they are still around. He looks upon the events in such way that the audience members feel like they really are seeing the events through his memory.

As his younger counterpart, Jamie LaManna gives a solid performance as Ralphie. It is a huge role and a huge score for a young actor, and he conveys himself with poise and has a lovely tone quality to his voice. LaManna really comes into his own as actor, just as his character matures, in the touching “Before the Old Man Comes Home.” His interactions with his brother Randy (played by the adorable Evan Christy) are warm and genuine.

What really makes this production though are Ralphie’s parents: The Old Man (Gary Dieter) and Mother (Eva Grove). Dieter brings just the right blend of loveable and curmudgeonly to his portrayal of Ralphie’s father. So much of the character’s material is subtext. There are clearly concerns about money and the pride that goes with that for a father, which Dieter brings to the front with just the right amount of subtlety.  It doesn’t hurt either that Dieter gets to show off his skill as a showman in two big dance numbers, walking over a chair and breaking out his tap shows. It is almost as if this role was written just for him.

Right over his shoulder though is the emotional heart of the entire production. Grove’s performance as Mother is practically flawless. She never appears to be performing. Every word and gesture is natural. She feels like your own mother or grandmother in the safety and warmth and joy that she brings to the Parker family and to the entire show. Nowhere is this more evident than in the beautiful moments of “Just Like That.” I can’t imagine that I was the only audience member with tears in my eyes. Grove commands the stage without ever trying to do so and, therein, creates the emotional center of everything.

Overall, there is a lot of energy and heart on display in this production. Even though there are a few spots in Act One where the script seems to drag a little, Director Laurie Starkey does an excellent job of planning transitions and moments that keep things moving along quickly to the next joke or large musical number. Choreographer Amanda Poxon keeps the cast moving throughout a significant amount of dance. When the cast comes together and all hit their marks, the choreography is fun. In a cast with a ton of big numbers and some members of the cast who may not be natural dancers, she really finds way to help them sell the choreography. Similarly, despite a few clear winter colds and a relative weakness in harmony, Musical Director Stephanie Carlock Cvach pulls out strong soloists and focuses the cast on signing mainly in a robust unison.

The strong work by the cast and production team was evident in the constant laughter, hooting, and applause by the audience. There were chuckles of appreciation from fans of the movie and gasps of delight from the children. My 8-year old daughter walked around all night singing “When You’re a Wimp,” clearly a fan of the score. Certainly, with the theme of the show resonating in my head, I appreciated it all the more, because “just like that the moment’s gone.” Young or old, fans or not fans of the movie, there is something for everyone to enjoy in this production. There is no doubt that you will leave ready to embrace some Christmas stories of your own.

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

A Christmas Story will play through December 2 at Tidewater Players at The Cultural Center at the Opera House, 121 N. Union Street, Havre de Grace, MD. Purchase tickets at the door one hour before show time or purchase them online.

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