Six Characters and Three Actors Shine in And Baby Makes Seven at The Strand Theatre

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

Running Time: Approx. 90 minutes with no intermission

Young expecting parents may have strange ways of coping with the inevitable. Some research and read every book they can get their hands on or watch every video they can find on the Internet, and some just let it happen, taking advice from those who have gone through the same experience. Everyone has their own way of coping and preparing and in The Strand Theatre’s latest offering, And Baby Makes Seven by Paula Vogel, Directed by Emily Hall, gives us a glance into what could be called an unconventional coping and preparation mechanism from an expecting mother, her lesbian partner, and male friend/father. The trio works their way through the usual issues of expecting parents with humor and poignancy, which, in the end, is pretty much like everyone else.

(l-r) Grant Emerson Harvey, Jess Rivera, and Katherine Vary. Credit: The Strand Theatre

In a few words, And Baby Makes Seven concerns itself with a trio of folks expecting a baby, but realize they have to get rid of the three imaginary children in the house before the real baby comes. Sound a little off? Well, it is, but it all comes out in the wash.

Set Design by Kate Smith-Morse works just about perfectly for this piece. It’s an intimate space, but Smith-Morse has used her workspace wisely. There is a simple separation between the two main spaces, a bedroom and the kitchen area, but it’s just enough to be distinguishable. It is a realistic set that fits nicely with this production. Smith-Morse’s design doesn’t hinder any action and helps the action flow smoothly making for a well thought-out design.

Emily Hall takes the helm of this production and her Direction of this piece is superb. As I mentioned, this theatre is an intimate space and a show like this, with only three characters, is perfect for this stage. Hall seems to have a good comprehension of the characters and she has guided this apt cast into telling this story well. For such a quirky tale, Hall has presented it in an easy to follow fashion and her vision is clear… it’s a group of folks simply trying to cope with a pending birth, and doing what they feel is right, regardless of what anyone else may think about it. Hall is to be commended for her work on this production.

Moving to the performance aspect of this piece, this trio of actors work their way through this script superbly.

(l-r) Jess Rivera, Grant Emerson Harvey, and Katherine Vary. Credit: The Strand Theatre

Though Jess Rivera, as Ruth, the non-pregnant female in this trio, started off by annoying me with her over the top  portrayal of imaginary Henri, a young French boy, and imaginary Orphan, a dog of sorts, but I found myself getting used to it as the play progressed. Rivera certainly knows what she’s doing on stage, but it looked as though she was trying to hard as the imaginary kids. However, when she switched off to play the normal, everyday Ruth, she shined and portrayed her effortlessly, so, I can see this actress has an real talent. Overall, Rivera has a tight grasp on this character and gives a great showing and makes these characters endearing, making for a delightful performance.

Next up, Katherine Vary takes on the role of Anna, and the imaginary child genius, Cecil. Vary is well in tune with this character and her character’s imaginary counterpart. She plays Anna, the pregnant character, with ease. She seems to have a good understanding of this character, as well as with Cecil, making him just irritating enough, but charming a the same time, which is not small feat. Her delivery is smooth and natural and, overall, she gives a strong, confident performance.

Rounding out this stellar ensemble is Grand Emerson Harvey, who takes on the role of Peter, the father of the unborn child, and thought it’s eluded to him being a homosexual, it’s only really hinted at in a few lines toward the beginning of the play. Either way, Harvey pulled this role off beautifully and confidently. This character seems to be the only “normal” one in this trio, keeping his feet grounded in the real world, but he also understands that Ruth and Anna need to have these imaginary kids to cope and prepare themselves for what’s to come, and… maybe he does, too. Harvey was near flawless in his portrayal of this character. He made this character his own and seemed to embody him. His delivery is clear and concise and he really brings the character to life. Working in tandem with Rivera and Vary, this trio seems to naturally fit with brilliant chemistry and it just makes the characters more real and the story more believable.

Final thought… And Baby Makes Seven at The Strand Theatre is a quirky, comedic take of how people prepare themselves and cope with pregnancy and the inevitable addition of a new baby to the family. However, don’t let the imaginary children fool you. In the end, I really liked these characters because they knew the kids were imaginary and knew they were pretending and nothing more, adding a realism that was needed. Paula Vogel has weaved a poignant, off-center story about a blended family and their interpretation of the world around them. It may take a moment to get into the groove with this piece, but the small three-person ensemble presents these characters beautifully and truthfully, making for a delightful evening of theatre. You may have to pay extra attention to to keep up with the characters, but the ensemble does a good job keeping everything in place. If you haven’t seen it yet, it’s definitely worth checking out.

This is what I thought of The Strand Theatre’s production of And Baby Makes Seven… What did you think? Please feel free to leave a comment!

 And Baby Makes Seven will play through April 21 at The Strand Theatre, 5426 Harford Road, Baltimore, MD. For tickets, call the box office at 443-874-4917 or you can purchase them online.

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Review: An American Dream Hits The Strand Theatre with Sojourners

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

Running Time: Approx. 2 hours with one intermission

The American Dream. I often wonder what people from other, less fortunate countries see and hear about America. Are they really told and believe the streets are paved in gold? Are they told you can be anything you want to be? Do they understand we have the right to pursue happiness but not outright happiness itself? The Strand Theatre‘s latest offering, Sojourners by Mfoniso Udofia and Directed by Cheryl J. Williams, touches on one young Nigerian family’s pursuit of happiness but also includes the obstacles and downfalls that come along with that pursuit.

(l-r) Ama Brown and Jenelle Brown. Credit: Shealyn Jae Photography/The Strand Theatre

I sheepishly admit that I can’t tell you exactly what this piece is trying to accomplish. From what I gather, and with a little bit of research, Sojourners is the origin story in Udofia’s Ufot Family Cycle of plays. This story concerns itself with Abasiama (Ama) and Ukpong Ekpeyong, a young Nigerian couple expecting their first child and the father has gotten a little too comfortable in America, forgetting his purpose for being here, which is to acquire an education and degree then head back to the homeland. Conversely, Ama has her eye on the prize and is working hard to accomplish it while being very pregnant and working all at the same time. While Ukpong is selfishly having the time of his life, Ama is trying to obtain her goals and meets Moxie, a down-her-luck, streetwise young woman and Disciple Ufot, an astute student from the same area of her hometown. Ama’s new friends care deeply for her and she eventually opens up to both of them, while realizing it’s up to her to be the change she wants to see.

Set Design is always tricky in this space, but The Strand Theatre and their production teams always seem to pull it off nicely. This is no different in this production as Set Design by Gabriella Castillo manages to turn the space into many different locations with the use of a couple of simple set pieces and levels. The simple design is practical but presents the locations of each scene nicely and easily.

Director Cheryl J. Williams has a deep comprehension of this material and her staging in the intimate, unique space is superb. She has a good grasp on these characters and their conflicts and her casting is spot on. Aside from a couple of clunky scene changes, the action moves smoothly and the presentation is polished. As for time period, the setting is a bit unknown and there’s not a lot of help from costumes by Costume Designer Sharlene Clinton. The wardrobe is a mix of traditional designs with fashions that one would see on the street today. I believe it may be the late 60s or 70s, but don’t quote me on that. Don’t get me wrong, the Costume Design is good but doesn’t make one take much notice, which some could argue is just what a Costume Design is supposed to do.

Ama Brown takes on the role of the strong Abasima (Ama) Ekpeyong and she very much carries this entire piece. She is a standout with her exquisite, natural delivery and dialect work. She completely embodies this character and emotes all the feels within this woman and the one to watch in this piece. She seems to have a deep understanding of Ama (the character) and gives a strong, confident performance. In tandem with Brown’s Abasiama, her real life husband, Kenyon Parson takes on the role of Abasiama’s husband, Ukpong Ekpyeong and he, too, is a highlight in this production. Parson portrays a character we are supposed to hate, but his portrayal is so authentic and natural, he comes off as the friend you call to have a good time. In context, this character is having a good time when he’s not supposed to and seems quite selfish, but the dialogue and Parson’s presentation makes him a charming, if not loveable character who we seem to be able to forgive easily, against our better judgement.

Rounding out this small ensemble is Jenelle Brown who takes on the role of the savvy Moxie and Grant Emerson Harvey, who excellently portrays Disciple Ufot. Jenelle Brown does well with her character, but seems a little scripted at times and it throws off the flow, just a tad. She seems to get her character but her performance seems forced. Harvey, on the other hand gives a spot on performance and is believable and precise in character. He, too, completely embodies his character and has a tight comprehension of what his character is all about. His portrayal of a young man who is deeply grounded in his traditions but is able to look forward to the future is magnificent and he is confident in his movement and delivery. Overall, he gives an assured and praiseworthy performance.

Final thought… Sojourners at The Strand Theatre is a thoughtful and interesting tale of the human experience and keeps the audience entertained, even if it’s hard to pin-point exactly what the piece is about. The strong performances and relatable characters are what make this production extremely successful. There aren’t a lot of bells and whistles with the set and other technical aspects, but the minimal approach works nicely with this piece. I may not get it completely but I can’t deny it’s damn entertaining. It’s definitely worth checking out and is a great addition to The Strand Theatre’s season.

This is what I thought of The Strand Theatre’s production of Sojourners… What did you think? Please feel free to leave a comment!

Sojourners will play through March 10 at The Strand Theatre, 5426 Harford Road, Baltimore, MD. For tickets, call the box office at 443-874-4917 or you can purchase them online.

Email us at backstagebaltimore@gmail.com

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Review: Detroit ’67 at The Strand Theatre

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

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

Some of us are lucky to come from close knit families and they are important parts of our lives. Brothers and sisters the world over have a special bond, sometimes they like each other, sometimes they hate each other, sometimes they don’t understand each other, and sometimes they’re on the exact same page. If you are fortunate enough (or, at times, unfortunate enough) to have a sibling, you know they never cease to amaze whether it be for the good or for the bad. The Strand Theatre’s latest offering, Detroit ‘67 by Dominique Morisseau, Directed by Erin Riley gives us a glimpse into the lives of an African-American brother-sister relationship amidst the strife and change of late 60s Detroit. Part of a trilogy including Skelton Crew and Blue Paradise, Morisseau manages to capture the authenticity of these people and their times in both dialogue and storyline. With the addition of all the great music of the time from The Temptations to Mary Wells to Marvin Gay, this piece promotes a certain nostalgia that makes for a charming evening of theatre.

Shamire Casselle as Chelle and Mack Leamon as Sly. Credit: The Strand Theatre

Detroit ‘67, as the title states, concerns itself with happenings in Detroit, Michigan during the year 1967. Chelle and Lank, sister and brother, try to earn some extra money by opening up their basement as an after-hours joint and everything is running smoothly, if not under the legal radar. One evening, a hurt, broken woman with a mysterious past finds herself into Lank and Chelle’s home and lives and soon the brother and sister are arguing over more than after-hours “business.” Just as their bottled up feelings explode, so does Detroit and they find themselves stuck right in the middle of the Detroit riots of 1967.

Brian Douglas’ Set Design and David Cunningham’s Scenic Art is superb, to say the least. Walking into the theatre, one is transported to a basement of an average home in Detroit and the attention to detail is amazing. From the staircase leading to “upstairs” to the concrete façade on the back wall, including two highly placed windows, places the audience into the action and adds great value to the production. Douglas uses his intimate space wisely and Cunningham, with the help of the script, gives us little touches here and there such as an old painting of a 6 year old adds authenticity to the entire setting. Kudos to Douglas and Cunningham on jobs quite well done.

Lighting Design by Lana Riggins and Sound Design by Carlos Guillen are also stellar adding realism to the piece, as a whole. A good light and sound design are not very noticeable and do not take away from the action, but, instead, blend into the action and this is exactly what Riggins and Guillen have accomplished. The script calls for a hefty sound design as is, with music and songs from the era, but the added effects that are chosen fit in flawlessly and with the lights and sound working in tandem moving the story along, it makes for a well put-together design.

Rachel D. Reckling as Bunny. Credit: The Strand Theatre

When it comes to an overall look of a piece, this era, the 60s, is one of my favorites to experience. With so much fashion and cutting edge designs (for the time), costuming for this period can be daunting but Costume Design by Lori Travis hits the nail on the head. Each character seems to have stepped right out of a late 60s closet but all look totally natural in their threads. Finding period costuming for gentlemen isn’t necessarily easy, but it’s a little easier to find pants and shirts for guys than it is to find particular period styles for the ladies. However, Travis has done it in this piece, especially for the character of Bunny, who seems to be on top of the fashions of the day, and every outfit she appears in is on point. All of the costume choices made for this production are spot on and realistic adding a great deal of value to the entire production.

Erin Riley takes the helm of this production of Detroit ‘67 as Director and it’s clear she has a great comprehension of this piece and understands the material quite well. Her staging is terrific and her casting couldn’t have been better for this particular production. She has a good grasp on the message of family and compromise in this piece and presents it beautifully on this stage. Through her guidance and Morisseau’s script, it makes for a delightful, emotional evening of theatre with peaks and valleys that are required for a great show.

Betse Lyons as Caroline and Troy Jennings as Lank. Credit: The Strand Theatre

Moving on to the performance aspect of this piece, we being with Rachel D. Reckling as Bunny and Mack Leamon as Sly. Both of these actors know their characters and portray them genuinely with little flaw. Reckling is comfortable as Bunny, the fast-talking, quit witted go-to girl of the neighborhood. Though her lack of eye contact can be distracting at times, disconnecting her with her fellow cast mates, her performance, overall, is commendable. She gives just the right amount of attitude, sass, and compassion as required, making her a very likeable character. Leamon, too, is confidant and comfortable in his role as the laid back, helpful best friend and he completely embodies this character. He has a strong presence and gives a great showing making him a character to whom the audience wants to be pals and can relate.

Caroline, the mysterious outsider who has, by a strange fateful meeting, finds herself engrossed in the lives of Chelle and Lank, is played ably by Betse Lyons. Lyons does quite well in this role and seems to have a good grasp of what her character is going through. She portrays the beaten and broken Caroline beautifully, if not a little too timid. The character is afraid for herself and for her new friends but many times, it was hard to follow along with Lyons as she stuttered and mumbled her way through a lot of her lines. However, that’s not to say her performance was bad because it most certainly was not. She’s comfortable on stage and her presence is strong making for an admirable performance, overall.

A certain highlight of this production is Troy Jennings who tackles the role of Lank, a young man just trying to make his way in life who is tired of making ends meet through different odd jobs and wants something stable for himself and his family and friends. Jennings takes this part and makes it his own. He emotes the conflict in Lank and his ideas of what is right and wrong. His chemistry with his cast mates is natural and he moves and speaks with purpose delivering the dialogue as if he were simply holding a conversation, adding legitimacy to his performance, especially in his scenes with Shamire Casselle.

Speaking of Shamire Casselle, she is a standout in this piece as Chelle, the worrying, older sister who likes things the way they are and is resistant to change, but understands it’s inevitable. Casselle is superb in her portrayal of this character. Her ability to show the emotions of her character from happy to upset to angry is spot on. Right away, she is able to connect with her audience making her and endearing character. She gives a solid, robust, and charming performance that makes her one to watch. I’m looking forward to seeing more of Casselle’s work in the future.

Final thought… Detroit ‘67 is a nostalgic and poignant look at a bygone era when the music was great and people helped each other, when in need. Dominique Morisseau has crafted a beautiful piece incorporating humor, tenderness, high emotion, and humanity that crosses time and space. The story takes place in the late 60s and concerns itself with subjects of family, racial tensions, and blurred lines between the races, but it is still quite relevant today. The production is one of the best I’ve seen this season (so far) from the set, to the staging, to the performances, this is not a show you want to miss this season. Get your tickets now, while they last!

This is what I thought of The Strand Theatre’s production of Detroit ‘67… What did you think? Please feel free to leave a comment!

Detroit ‘67 will play through November 18 at The Strand Theatre, 5426 Harford Road, Baltimore, MD. For tickets, call the box office at 443-874-4917 or you can purchase them online.

Email us at backstagebaltimore@gmail.com

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Review: ‘Night, Mother at The Strand Theatre

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

Running Time: Approx. 90 minutes with no intermission

The relationship between a mother and her child is a complex one, not to understate it. Mom is the only person in this world who has really known us our entire life, and then some! As we grow, we may stray away from each other, but the bond is always there, no matter what – whether we like it or not. Mom is that one person we can never explain to anyone else and we are the only one who sees her in a particular way. Vice versa, Mom can only see us in a certain way unlike anyone else. The Strand Theatre’s latest production, ‘Night, Mother by Marsha Norman, Directed by Anne Hammontree, peeks behind the curtain into one strained and intricate relationship between an “it-is-what-it-is” kind of mother and a daughter who has managed to find herself in a deep, dark place with only one seemingly way out. It’s a 90-minute snapshot in the lives of two women that is chillingly, but poignantly real.

Briefly, ‘Night, Mother concerns itself with Jessie, the daughter, and Thelma, the mother as they go about a regular Saturday night with one twist… Jessie has announced that she has decided to commit suicide within the next hour or so. Through the dialogue, we discover more about these characters and Jessie’s reasoning for making such a decision, as well as a little family history and feelings that had not been discussed before. As Thelma tries to convince Jessie that she can’t go through with her plan, it’s clear that Jessie has thought it through and might not be convinced.

I’d seen the 1986 film version of ‘Night, Mother, starring Sissy Spacek and Ann Bancroft (which I highly recommend) but this stage production of this piece is my first venture to Strand Theatre (and I don’t know why I waited so long!) and the space is unique but absolutely charming. Set Design by TJ Lukasina is, without a doubt, superb. The details from the working sink in the kitchen, to the lit lamps, to the grandfather clock that actually chimes on the hour are impeccable and give an authentic feel to the piece. This design puts the audience right into the action and makes one feel as though he or she is sitting at the kitchen table with these two ladies which keeps the entire production appealing throughout. The interestingly shaped space was not match for Lukasina as he transforms it into a living space that is cozy and real that adds great value to this production.

Kathryn Falcone as Thelma Cates and Andrea Bush as Jessie Cates. Credit: Shealyn Jae

Anne Hammontree takes the reigns of this production of ‘Night, Mother, and it’s clear she has a great comprehension of this piece, overall, and the thoughtful dialogue. Her staging is on point and though this piece could very well be two people sitting at a table talking all evening, she keeps the action going and engaging for the audience. It’s a challenging piece, but her casting is spot on and the presentation is clear and concise making this a delightful and thoughtful evening of theatre.

Moving on to the performance aspect of this piece, Kathryn Falconetakes on the role of Thelma (Mama) Cates and Andrea Bush tackles the role of Jessie Cates. Both of these actress give strong, confident performances and their chemistry is incredible. From time to time, I completely forget these are two actresses performing roles in a play rather than a mother and daughter on a regular Saturday night – that’s how good they work with and off of each other.

From the moment she steps onto the stage, Kathryn Falcone completely embodies this character. Her delivery of the text is natural and she’s quite comfortable in this role with a strong presence and purpose. Falcone’s understanding of this character is clear and the audience can feel her urgency throughout the production. Overall, a job well done and Falcone should be commended for her splendid performance.

As Jessie Cates, the totally capable and able Andrea Bush could not be better suited for this role. It’s clear that Bush pulls from a very deep place to pull out this interpretation of this character. She becomes this character from the moment we see her walking onto the stage carrying bath and beach towels. Her instincts are correct and her compassion for this character guides her hand. She has a good grasp of what her character is going through and presents it authentically and clearly with a confident presence with a delicate handling. Kudos to Bush for an outstanding performance.

Final thought… ‘Night Mother is a heart-wrenching look at strained mother-daughter relationship full of resentment and regrets, but with a deep love for each other. It’s also a redemption, of sorts, with new connections and positive self-realizations. It’s an emotional roller-coaster that brings out the best and worst in family relationships, especially between mothers and daughters, when they are seem to be so similar but are actually vastly different. This one hit home hard for me. TRIGGER WARNING: this piece deals with suicide. However, it presents this story exceedingly well with poignancy as well as with a pinch of humor, giving a well-blended mix of ups and downs that make for a good drama. The performances are authentic and natural, and the characters are extremely relatable. The staging and pacing is on point making for an impeccable evening of theatre. Do yourself a favor – grab your tissues and get out to experience this show! It’s not one you want to miss this season.

This is what I thought of The Strand Theatre’s production of ‘Night Mother… What did you think? Please feel free to leave a comment!

‘Night Mother will play through October 14 at The Strand Theatre, 5426 Harford Road, Baltimore, MD. For tickets, call the box office at 443-874-4917 or you can purchase them online.

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