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Review: Pippin

Pippin

It’s opening weekend for the Arlington Players and as we walk in to the Thomas Jefferson Theatre our eyes are greeted by the eclectic set, designed by Jared Davis, which has a slightly mysterious quality that is perfect for Pippin – a musical that always leaves you questioning when and where you are. It looks like one impressive structure but to our pleasant surprise it splits into segments and provides a variety of interesting locations with varying levels for the Director (Christopher Dykton) and Choreographer (John K. Monnett) to utilize.  Unfortunately, over the course of the next couple of hours, that opportunity is squandered.

We are introduced to the troupe and the Leading Player (Erich DiCenzo) in Magic to Do and it’s a tepid start visually and vocally. Until the very end of the night we never get the sense of foreboding we require from the presence of the Leading Player. We’re looking for sinister and seductive in equal measure but DiCenzo comes across more like a Vegas magician. The lighting is an issue for much of the show. At times there appear to be huge dead spots downstage where people are unintentionally lost in shadow, and at others the whole stage is lit where isolation is badly needed. The spotlight is completely over used throughout, most egregiously at the same time that the back wall is being projected upon, spoiling the effect.

Pippin is a show that regularly breaks the fourth wall so it’s important to make the dialogue between those on stage as truthful as possible so that contrast is established. Disappointingly, so many of the conversations between characters are delivered with the actors standing in straight lines facing the audience. The players must become their characters and the material really needs to be handled honestly for the pay off in the second act to make sense. Dykton and his cast treat the whole first act as if it is some long lost sequel to Spamalot, with every funny moment in the writing delivered like a punchline, leaving the action feeling somewhat disconnected from the material. That same sense permeates Monnett’s choreography which fails to exploit the many levels the set presented. During Spread a Little Sunshine, Fastrada (Carla Crawford) is left with absolutely nothing to do on stage during a dance break that seems to last an eternity and you can’t help feel for her by the end of it.

There are other awkward moments in the first act. During No Time at All, Berthe (Melanie-Jennings-Bales) inexplicably turns her back on Pippin (Jonathan Gruich) to walk several paces across the stage (to where we can only assume X marked the spot) to deliver the next part of the song. What should be the highly suggestive staging of sexual discovery in With You, leaves Gruich looking like he wandered into a ballet class. We do end act one in a visually striking way. With the stage eerily lit, the ensemble enters in religious red robes before Pippin confronts his father, Charlemagne (Keith J. Miler).

Music Director, Blakeman Brophy, has dancers first, singers second in the leading male roles. There is no stand out ensemble moment and along with a hesitant performance from the orchestra the show is underwhelming musically. Act two focuses on the relationship between Pippin and Catherine (Patty Rupinen) after she discovers him in There He Was. Many of the jokes before the intermission were overplayed so it’s surprising when Catherine’s initial attraction to the arch of Pippin’s foot is all but discarded. Rupinen gives the strongest vocal of the night on Kind of Woman but the chemistry between her and Gruich is never really developed because of how the scenes are portrayed. There is no real sense that the relationship is evolving into something deeper – in fact Catherine and her son, Theo (Aidan Chomicki) seem like an unwanted distraction for Pippin. There is a rare candid moment when Rupinen starts to reveal Catherine’s feelings for Pippin to the Leading Player. This moment of truth, however, feels a little hollow as everything we’ve seen up to this point is fighting against it.

The staging of the finale features another beautiful set piece, a relatively impressive technical success for the fire effect, and a rather bizarre moment after one of the players pretends to jump into the flames. The gravity of what they are asking Pippin to do does not really land because the foundations for that darkness have not been laid. The final scene of the show is the strongest of the production as the set is deconstructed to make Catherine aware of what life will be like with the choices she is making. As Theo stands alone center stage, with the Leading Player looming in the background, lighting and staging work in harmony to deliver a fleeting image of the show this could have been.

#tothepoint Rating: 50/100

You can view a full breakdown of the allocated points here.

Ticket Price: $23

Value Review: -$13

With our scoring system and our unique value for money guide we rate this show at $10.  Pippin continues for the The Arlington Players until October 21st.

Review: The Wild Party

The Wild Party

Based on Joseph Moncure March’s 1928 poem of the same name, Andrew Lippa’s musical, The Wild Party, opened off Broadway in 2000. The poem was banned for its’ decadent portrayal of the roaring 20s and we settle into our seats expecting an evening of debauchery from The Constellation Theatre Company. The main feature of Scenic Designer, Tony Cisek’s set is an art deco wall with three central stairs leading to a glittering entrance. Behind the upper half of the beautifully lit back wall is a seven piece band.

Queenie was a Blonde opens the show as the male members of the company, in their newsboy attire, surround Queenie (Farrell Parker) and it’s a somewhat uncertain start vocally from the men. The lower half of the stage right wall smartly opens to reveal a bed as we see the origin of Queenie’s sexually abusive relationship with Burrs (Jimmy Mavrikes). Mavrikes plays the light and dark of his character brilliantly and the simple removal of his red clown nose transforms his face with his perfectly sullen eye makeup accentuating every brooding moment. Out of the Blue portrays the fading of the couple’s destructive passion and Parker finds her character somewhere between victim and boredom as ‘the girl who’s caught just staring in space.’ Embracing this introspective lyric is a fine baseline for her character but we need the public façade she presents to be in stark contrast. As Parker makes her entrance at the party she doesn’t so much Raise the Roof as slightly loosen a tile or two.

Look at Me Now marks Kate’s (Kari Ginsburg) arrival and it might as well be an audience instruction for the rest of the night as it’s hard to take your eyes off of her. Ginsburg oozes charisma as the slightly washed up party girl and you can feel her character’s life experience in every single thing she does on stage. Kate has brought Black (Ian Anthony Coleman) with her and he quickly becomes transfixed by Queenie. Poor Child introduces us to Coleman’s smooth vocals and when he drops into his lower register it’s like being wrapped in a warm blanket. The climax of the song, featuring Queenie, Burrs, Kate and Black is perhaps the musical highlight of the whole night. Music Director, Walter McCoy, finds the perfect blend to the overlapping lyrics and what started as melancholy ballad evolves into electrifying raw emotion with Mavrikes in particular pouring everything he has into the moment.

Allison Arkell Stockman has done a masterful job directing this cast and making the limited rhyming dialogue feel truthful and natural. It would be very easy for the other company members to be clichés – after all their stereotypes are named when they are first introduced – but they hit every comedic beat without ever falling into that trap. Rachel Barlaam steals her moments as the predatory lesbian, Madelaine True, and her performance in An Old Fashioned Love Story is laugh out loud funny as is her comic timing throughout the evening. The Juggernaut gives the band a chance to show their full repertoire and they sound at their sultry best (unfortunately the chemistry between Parker and Coleman does not quite reach the same heights) before a breathtaking finale to the song with Ginsburg singing like a women possessed.

The d’Armano brothers (Tiziano D’Affuso & Christian Montgomery) pitch their idea for a musical with A Wild, Wild Party and lighthearted storytelling gives way to high octane choreography. Ilona Kessell’s routines are relevant and entertaining all night but this is the highlight as the energy and execution are spectacular and it’s hard to tell if the audience or the cast are having the most fun. This feels like such a natural end to the first act it comes as somewhat of a surprise to find everyone is still on the stage. Two of a Kind seems destined to be an anticlimax but Eddie (Calvin Malone) and Mae (Emily Zickler) don’t allow that to happen and find their own moment in a thoroughly adorable routine. What is it About Her? is powerfully staged by Stockman, using the full depth of the space, as Burrs and Queenie sing about their relationship while sat with Kate and Black respectively. It is Parker’s best moment of the night as her tragic vocals intertwine wonderfully with Mavrikes’ passionate pleading.

Any thought that the momentum would be lost by the intermission is blown away as Ginsburg completely owns the stage in The Life of the Party. It’s the type of performance that should have her name at the top of any list when award season comes around. The arrival of a bathtub center stage moves the action to the bathroom and after Burrs fails to get his way with Queenie a smart lighting change transports him back into his role as performer as he briefly faces the audience before launching into the self-destructive anthem Let Me Drown. Kessell’s choreography is terrific again as despite the largely flat space she creates depth and levels with her actors as they crouch around the tub before Burrs climbs on top of it and is transported around the stage as the captain of his vessel. The slow motion fight scene that follows, choreographed by Robb Hunter, adds yet another layer to this production and A.J. Guban’s lighting, which is on point throughout, complements it perfectly with strobe effects.  Queenie leads Black to the bedroom and Come with Me certainly brings out the sex in Coleman’s voice but that doesn’t really translate into the physicality between him and Parker and the scene ultimately feels a little awkward. The tension is soon restored as the Queenie, Black, Burr, triangle reaches its’ tragic finale in Make Me Happy. Mavrikes is utterly believable as the unhinged Burrs as he threatens to Kill Black and himself and it’s a performance every bit as compelling as Ginsburg’s.

Constellation has pulled off something special. There is a great depth of talent in this cast and this production team has given them the platform to shine. With two unmissable performances and tickets available at an absolute steal it’s one of the must see shows of the season.

#tothepoint Rating: 82.5/100

You can view a full breakdown of the allocated points here.

Ticket Price: $55

Value Review: +$15

With our scoring system and our unique value for money guide we rate this show at $70. We have based the value rating of +$15 on the highest priced tickets of $55. This show is terrific value at this price but there are tickets available for this show at just $25! See this show while you can. The Wild Party continues at Constellation until October 29th.

Review: Into The Woods

Into The Woods

It’s Saturday night at the JBK Theatre on the Campus of the Frederick Community College and time for us to venture Into the Woods. The 1998 Stephen Sondheim musical, which intertwines many of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales, got a new lease of life after the release of the 2014 Disney movie and it’s the Fredericktowne Players opening show of their 2017/18 season.  The first impression is a positive one as the set design by Morgan Southwell and Steve Knapp is simple but visually impressive.  The back wall and flats feature intricately painted woodland scenes and there are two platforms, one across the rear of the stage, and another, like a catwalk, leading down center.

The curtain speech is delivered by a man in a grey suit and as the lights fade they are quickly brought back up to reveal he is in fact our narrator (Bob Ashby) for the evening. This is a nice touch but although the suit clearly distinguishes Ashby as separate from the rest of the action it makes him feel disconnected with the delivery more sale figures in the boardroom than imaginative storytelling. The lighting design of Steve Knapp works well in conjunction with the set giving the impression of sunlight finding its’ way through a canopy of branches – the slight distraction of the shadows across the faces of the actors is the price to pay for the effect.

Despite the initial aesthetic impact of the set, the limitations of the one fixed location quickly become apparent. The nature of the entrances and delivery become repetitive and overly presentational. Zach Harris, making his directorial debut, addressed this to an extent by using the stairs at either end of the stage as alternative ways of transitioning the action but unfortunately this adds to the overall feel that the pace is dragging a little. Finding more opportunities to utilize choreographer Kendall Sigman would have helped the overall balance of the show but it is difficult to pinpoint in this production where Sigman influenced the movement.

Little Red (Kaitlin McCallion) ups the energy whenever she is on the stage and her interactions with the Wolf (Alex Prete) are some of the best moments of the first act. McCallion brings a lot of attitude to the role and is always engaging but at times her delivery becomes screechy and difficult to understand. There are diction issues throughout the show, at times caused by the speed and nature of the delivery and at others due to the volume of the unseen orchestra which overpowers the actors. The Baker’s Wife (Lisa Shinn) and The Baker (William Lewis) give two of the strongest performances of the night. Shinn and Lewis are very good vocally but it’s the sincerity they bring to their relationship that makes them standout. Clay Comer has a commanding stage presence and comes close to stealing the show as Cinderella’s Prince. Comer’s duet with Rapunzel’s Prince (Steve Gondre-Lewis) on Agony (and later in the reprise) is the most interesting and entertaining of the night as the two men complement each other perfectly.

Music Director, Matt Dohm, has plenty of talent to work with and it’s a very solid show vocally. The Witch (Robin Samek) sounds simply beautiful on Stay with Me and Jack (Cam Sammartano) makes every word of I Guess This is Goodbye and Giants in the Sky believable. Neither Samek nor Sammartano find this truth in their character work however, to the extent that the deaths that occur in the second act completely pass us by until they are referenced by someone else on stage. We need the musical honesty that is displayed at its’ raw best on Your Fault to carry over into the acting and we are left wanting.

There are plenty of good choices along the way – the presence of the Giant is handled simply and effectively and the magic of the witch achieved with smart sound and lighting choices. There are more confused moments where Cinderella’s Prince arrives on a carousel horse complete with coconut shell sound effects lifted halfheartedly from Spamalot.  A needless sound effect suddenly asks us to believe there is a door to the home of Jack and his Mother where such logic to comings and goings has long since been discarded by the audience.  The costumes work well for the most part (the exception being Cinderella’s dress which is the sort of thing bridesmaids have nightmares about) adding to the sense that this looks like a good show. The tickets are competitively priced and it is encouraging to see a young director given an opportunity that he will only improve from.

#tothepoint Rating: 60/100

You can view a full breakdown of the allocated points here.

Ticket Price: $15

Value Review: +$5

With our scoring system and our unique value for money guide we rate this show at $20. Into The Woods continues at FtP until October 1st.

Review: Spring Awakening

Spring Awakening

Wildwood Summer Theatre is an all youth run organization that showcases the talents on and off stage of people between the ages of 14 and 24. It’s great to see these young men and women working together to produce theatre and when a request hit our inbox to come and see one of their productions we were encouraged that they wanted honest feedback on their work. Spring Awakening is a rock musical based on the 1891 German play of the same name and explores many aspects of teenage sexuality. The original production won eight Tony Awards and was revived on Broadway in 2015.

The stage at the Arts Barn is simply set with white flats, several seats and a coat rack, stage right. Music Director, Maddy Gershunkiy, has a live orchestra at her disposal and they are situated upstage center. The show begins with Wendla (Leslie Schneider) sat center stage as she delivers the familiar folk melody of Mama Who Bore Me. Schneider does a fine job vocally but doesn’t quite achieve the deep emotional connection the lyrics demand and the lack of movement in the staging contribute to the feeling of detachment from the material. She is joined by the other girls, Martha (Emily Gordon), Thea (Gabriela Schulman), Anna (Caitlin Barnes) and Ilse (Sanjana Taskar) who are all in fine voice for the Mama Who Bore Me (Reprise). Taskar is wearing an orange skirt, which sets the tone for the symbolic use of color in the show, and while the concept is a good one, it requires a more subtle way of presenting it as it becomes somewhat of a distraction.

A lack of character development is an issue throughout the production and is perhaps hindered somewhat by the interpretation of when the action is taking place. Director, Itai Yasur’s decision to transport the action from the late 19th century into the cell phone era is at odds with the dialogue and the sexual naivety of these teenagers. When Wendla and Melchior (Devin Cain) have sex at the end of act one the tension is broken and becomes anticlimactic at exactly the wrong time as Cain leaves the stage to get purple paint on his hands to smear onto Schneider.  It’s a bold symbolic choice but ultimately one that doesn’t work without sacrificing the flow of the storytelling. Once we have embraced the use of cell phones, we can appreciate the way in which they are used to light the action in one of the most striking scenes of the second act.

The best performance of the night comes from Ben Simon in the role Moritz. Simon comes across a little too sweet at times but it’s one of the more consistent acting choices and he has a beautiful voice highlighted by the lovely mix to his falsetto.

The choreography of Danielle Burman is relevant and well-staged for the most part, although at times, such as in The Bitch of Living, it becomes too big (and presentational) for the moment and doesn’t best represent the inner feelings of the characters.  In contrast, Burman gets the moment just right in Totally Fucked, injecting a much needed jolt of energy after the intermission. While at points this is a musically impressive show, and the orchestra does a respectable job with the sheer volume of music, there are pitch issues for Cain along with several other members of the cast. There were also projection and enunciation issues for some of the actors with Alina Gaynutdinova (also credited as Scenic Designer), playing the various adult women roles, particularly difficult to understand.

Yasur took some risks with his vision of the production and although they somewhat missed the mark on this occasion, it’s great that this opportunity exists for that kind of risk taking to occur – especially for a demographic that all too often disappears from working in theatre once high school is over.

#tothepoint Rating: 55/100

You can view a full breakdown of the allocated points here.

Ticket Price: $22

Value Review: -$7

With our scoring system and our unique value for money guide we rate this show at $15. Spring Awakening continues at the Gaithersburg Arts Barn until August 12th.

Review: Big Fish

Big Fish

It is the DC premiere of Big Fish and there is genuine anticipation to see how the small stage at the Keegan Theatre will accommodate a tale of such mythic proportions. Based on Daniel Wallace’s 1998 novel and heavily influenced by the imagination of Tim Burton’s 2003 film, the musical had a short run on Broadway in 2013 and will receive its’ West End premiere in London later this year. Matthew Keenan’s set design features three full length white drapes at either side of the stage that lead into the wings and provide great depth for transitioning the storytelling. At the rear of the set is a projection screen featuring a woodland scene and below it is a painted backdrop of bushes. The brilliance of the drape design, with their creeping ivy and back lights like fireflies, becomes apparent as the show progresses; they feel like curtains framing the projections, a tent for a wedding reception and the big top at the circus.

The show begins with Edward Bloom (Dan Van Why) skimming stones into a river and it’s just the first moment in a terrific sound design by Tony Angelini. It’s the wedding day of Edward’s son, Will (Ricky Drummond) and as the two of them talk it is hard to immediately buy into the relationship as they look no more than 5-10 years apart in age. We go back in time and meet the young Will (Erik Peyton) in his bed as he waits for a story from his Dad. The relationship between Van Why and Peyton is the emotional center of this production and it is truthful and heartwarming throughout. Be the Hero introduces us to the eclectic cast of characters and Edward teaches us the best way to catch a fish, with the help of Rachel Leigh Dolan’s fun and lighthearted choreography, in the infectious Alabama Stomp. We return to the day of the wedding and Edward, with his pant legs rolled up, wading in the shallow water at the edge of the river. The sound is so convincing that we can’t help feeling distracted by the conversation that immediately follows between Will and his Mother, Sandra (Eleanor J. Todd) which is clearly taking place in the water.

Another of Edward’s stories takes us back to the day he and his high school nemesis, Don Price (Eitan Mazia) met the Witch (Katie McManus). Mazia makes distinct choices with all of his characters but stands out in his urgent portrayal of Price and provides an excellent counterpoint to Van Why’s laid-back Edward.  The women surrounding the Witch look like dark angels in their flowing black capes that complement the set in style while contrasting strikingly in color. It’s the choreography highlight of the show as the space is used with great effect and purpose while McManus delivers a flawless vocal. Debra Kim Sivigny’s costumes are great throughout (apart from minor gripes about the wigging of the Witch and the unconvincing baby bump of Josephine) and the introduction of the giant, Karl (Grant Saunders) is another highlight. The routine during Out There on the Road might not be complicated but Saunders deserves great credit for the execution in the big platform boots – and the choreography fun continues with a cute tap routine in Little Lamb from Alabama.

Co-Directors, Mark A. Rhea and Colin Smith, move the story effortlessly between the two time periods and there is a wonderful moment in Time Stops where Will and Josephine (Allie O’Donnell) walk through the frozen action with the great depth of the set design showcased by the lighting change. The projection design of Patrick Lord is worth the ticket price alone as it continually enhances the story without ever making us feel the actors aren’t the focus of our attention. There are numerous standout moments but as Edward dodges knives in Closer to Her and they thud into the projection screen wall you can’t help but be impressed.  Yellow flowers engulf the screen as Daffodils provides the musical highlight of the first act we’ve been waiting for and while Van Why is a very good singer it’s the honest connection with whomever he shares the stage with that leave us wanting to know how his story ends.

Fight the Dragon starts act two as young Will is moved around the stage and Edward’s imagination on his bed. The playful interaction between the two puts a smile on everyone’s face although it would be nicer to hear more of Peyton’s vocal in the mix. With Edward becoming increasingly sick, and the adult Will frustrated at his failed attempts to find out more about the true life of his father, their fractured relationship is laid bare in the emotionally charged The River Between Us.  It’s simply but brilliantly staged as Drummond stands upstage of Van Why before joining him front and center for the confrontational climax. This is not the slot in the show the song was originally intended for but it’s hard to picture it having more impact anywhere else.

Will learns about how his father saved his home town and his relationship with Jenny Hill (Emily Madden). Music Director, Jake Null, has the ensemble in great voice and although the score never lends itself to them having a truly transcendent moment they deliver their best vocal in Start Over, which features another nice choreography moment as Madden breaks from the line to converse briefly with Will before the routine resumes.  As Edward becomes closer to death and reconnects with his son in What’s Next their journey is almost complete – but it’s the appearance of Sandra at the end of the song with Todd looking completely heartbroken that draws us in further. The Procession features the company placing a daffodil one by one over the back drop and as they appear on the projection screen and float away down the river it’s one of the most poignant theatre moments you can imagine.

Big Fish is a big achievement for Keegan.

#tothepoint Rating: 80.5/100

You can view a full breakdown of the allocated points here.

Ticket Price: $45

Value Review: +$17

With our scoring system and our unique value for money guide we rate this show at $62 making it exceptional value. Big Fish continues at The Keegan Theatre until September 9th.

Review: Oblivion

Oblivion

Sometimes it’s best to have no expectations. Walking in to the Fireside Room at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation building it takes a moment for it to actually dawn on us this is where the play is going to be performed.  There are two rows of temporary seats on either side of the long narrow space; at the fireside end of the room is a couch and armchair, in the middle of the room, within touching distance of the audience, a dinner table and chairs. At the other end of the room is a staircase that leads to the unseen second story of the house.

Playwright, Carly Mensch, has entered the consciousness of the binge watching generation with her work on Orange is the New Black, and her play, Oblivion, is a wonderful intrusion into the life of a dysfunctional New York family and an examination of the role of faith in modern life. And we really do feel like we are intruding. Director, Christopher Goodrich, expresses in his program notes his love of intimate theatre (and it doesn’t get more intimate than this) and thankfully we are in experienced hands because any lack of honesty from our four actors would make for an uncomfortable way to spend a couple of hours.

The story centers on Dixon (Zach Brewster-Geisz) his wife, Pam (Mindy Shaw) and their daughter, Julie (Ruth Rado).  Brewster-Geisz is terrific as he navigates between cool Dad, loving husband and mid-life crisis. As the extent of how far Dixon’s moral compass has swung off course is revealed, he has an opportunity to show just how much character work has gone in to this performance and his arc throughout the show and the truth he brings to the role is seriously impressive stuff. Shaw gives a fine performance of her own and she is at her best in her one on one work with Brewster-Geisz. Their relationship journey is compelling theatre as we go from a romantic game night curled up on the couch to Shaw’s genuine hurt and self-doubt as she struggles to come to terms with her husband’s breakdown. The Mother/Daughter exchanges feel a little formulaic in contrast, even if the reasons for the conflict between them are from it. Rado comes close in these moments to crossing the line into cliché stroppy teenager but always pulls it back just in time. The rest of her performance is an absolute delight as she is quirky and goofy and curious and by the time she reads her list of questions to God we believe she desperately wants the answer to every one of them. The fourth member of the cast is Julie’s best friend, Bernard, played by Jonathan Frye. Frye plays the awkward and uncomfortable moments with Julie’s parents to perfection and they are the funniest moments in the play (along with the least sexy stage kiss of the year shared with Rado). He never fully connects with his unseen relationship to his film critic idol leaving the character a little one-dimensional…but any complaints about the acting choices are minor as all four give excellent performances.

The stage has some pretty severe limitations (not so much unexpected as non-existent) and it does impact the production as actors enter through the same door as the audience. The set changes are achieved with the least fuss possible and we’re engrossed enough in the story that we’re content to wait after one scene as the stage crew mop the floor. There are times where Goodrich could have blocked scenes differently to allow us to take in everything that was happening, rather than feeling like we were watching a tennis rally, but even this somewhat adds to the sense of voyeurism for the audience. Andrew Dodge pulls of a minor lighting miracle as one end of the space is successfully converted into a laundromat and bleachers at a basketball game and both these locations are complimented brilliantly by the sound design of Matthew Mills. The set and costumes are as functional as we could expect (apart from one awfully fitting leather jacket for Dixon) and it’s difficult to know how to score a show technically that feels like it is half way between a workshop and a full production because of the venue.  But it isn’t difficult to recommend a show where the director has got such first rate performances out of his cast and the opportunity to see them should not be missed.

#tothepoint Rating: 68/100

You can view a full breakdown of the allocated points here.

Ticket Price: $20

Value Review: +$16

With our scoring system and our unique value for money guide we rate this show at $36 making it exceptional value. Oblivion continues at Unexpected Stage until August 6th.

Review: Sister Act

Sister Act

Sister Act was a box office smash for Whoopi Goldberg on the big screen back in 1992 and the Musical of the same name has been incredibly popular with theatre audiences all over the world since it opened in London’s West End in 2010 before moving to Broadway a year later. It is opening weekend at the Community College of Baltimore County and as the curtain is drawn on this Cockpit in Court production we sit back eager to see if Director, Choreographer and Costume Coordinator, Tom Wyatt, can successfully juggle all these roles.

The action is set in the 1970s and the costumes do for the most part convey that era although not in a particularly cohesive manner. It’s a slightly lackluster start to the show as Deloris Van Cartier (Rikki Howie Lacewell) takes the lead on Take Me to Heaven and is backed up by Michelle (Amy Luchey) and Tina (Lacy Comstock). Lacewell sings well throughout but her acting choices lack a certain honesty, too often falling in to the trap of trying to play it funny with her delivery and this contributes to too many of the comedic moments missing the mark.

We meet Mother Superior (played with skill and restraint by Jane C. Boyle) and with the high energy of all the other Sisters in the convent, Boyle manages to shine in an understated way. The performance showcases the lovely tone in her voice in a role that could have easily fallen flat under a less experienced actress.  As we transition to the convent we are greeted by the Set Designer, G. Maurice Conn’s, impressive two story set that has an upper platform (which is used disappointingly sparingly) and working doors on the ground level. Eddie (Troy Haines-Hopper) is the hero of our story and he displays the velvety smoothness to his voice on I Could be That Guy. While his crooning is just a little pitchy at times it’s easy to forgive as he brings a sweetness and charm to the role. Again, however, the comedic timing of the line delivery means too many potentially laugh out loud moments are unfulfilled. Just as act one seems to be meandering its’ way to the intermission the whole production reaches new heights with Raise Your Voice (featuring excellent lighting) and Take Me to Heaven (Reprise). The Nuns are truly the strength of this show and the singing, dancing and excitement they bring to these two numbers leave us invigorated and ready for act two.

The energy level is maintained throughout the second act but the quality in all aspects of the production is a story of highs and lows. Wyatt has some scenes executed with near precision while others fall well short of this high standard. The choreography for the Nuns is fun, visually stimulating and full of energy, while the men’s numbers, particularly Lady in the Long Black Dress, are awkward in execution. Wyatt gets credit for the pace of the show as set changes occur at great speed and even though the action is broken up with blackouts they are quick and forgiving. Isolating areas of the stage as part of the lighting design could have simplified some of these changes and it was certainly achievable as designer, Kasey Conn, showed in the first act. The sound issues are the low point of the evening with mics consistently cutting out. This was most frequently an issue for Monsignor O’Hara (Thom Sinn) and it is to his and the rest of the casts’ credit that they persevered and made their voices heard. The costumes peak with the Nuns and the added flair to their outfits (and the stunning costume for Deloris in the finale) but lose their way in Fabulous Baby Reprise with the ensemble appearing to be in wrong decade in their 1960s swing dresses and their hot pink clashing horribly when the men join in wearing red.

Music Director, Nathan Scavilla, has done a creditable job with this group and the live seven piece orchestra sound fine throughout and add to the sense of occasion (especially as the Pope appears from within their midst). The Nuns sound great together on all of their songs but the exceptional vocal of the night belongs to Sherry Benedek as she truly takes us to church in her role as Sister Mary Robert. She finds a truth, naivety and a childlike sense of adventure and we believe every word she sings of The Life I Never Led. That investment is missing when Curtis Jackson (Jake Stuart) arrives in the final moments to kill Deloris – the tension just isn’t there as the stakes of the situation just never seem high enough.

There are some genuinely physically funny scenes as Curtis’ men chase the Nuns through the ground level doors and later as they are taken down in the conflict at the convent. Overall these moments, along with some impressive highlights musically, don’t quite do enough to make this review a strong recommendation…but these Nuns are worth making the effort to come and see and the show finishes on an absolute high as they Spread the Love Around. We can’t help but wonder if the production responsibilities had embraced a similar mantra if some of the inconsistencies would have been overcome.

#tothepoint Rating: 61/100

You can view a full breakdown of the allocated points here.

Ticket Price: $22

Value Review: $0

With our scoring system and our unique value for money guide we rate this show at $22 meaning it reached the expected value. Sister Act continues at Cockpit in Court until August 6th.

Review: Hairspray

Hairspray

The drums from the orchestra strike up the familiar beat of Good Morning Baltimore and as we transition from the bedroom of Tracy Turnblad (Natalie Mixon) the curtain opens on the Fredericktowne Players summer production of Hairspray. The stage at the JBK Theatre at the Frederick Community College is adorned with painted flats depicting various Baltimore locations. The set pieces we have are perfectly serviceable and those that were omitted would not have been missed too much if the design had worked hand in hand with the lighting of the show – but as the evening progresses it is obvious that is not the case.

Mixon is clearly a talented young lady and she has the vocal command and skill to sing the part but the opening number sets the tone for an acting performance that perhaps lacks a little maturity and experience to bring enough of the required energy and spunk to the role of Tracy. The ensemble sound respectable from the outset but the movement and choreography required to jump-start what is in fact two hours of non-stop singing and dancing is just not present at the top of the show. Despite lacking this initial jolt of energy, Choreographer, Kendall Sigman, overall does a very good job of utilizing a cast that has many good movers but few seasoned dancers.

We move to the famous local teen dance show and we are greeted by the larger than life Corny Collins (Alex Prete) and his permanent cheesy grin. Prete has an ease and likability on stage and embodies the personality of Collins while displaying his vocal chops on The Nicest Kids in Town. His performance is one of the highlights of the show but unfortunately the unforgivable sound issues that plague the production all night are most prevalent with his character and at times it seems almost every other word is being lost. The limitations of the lighting are brought to the forefront in Mama, I’m a Big Girl Now, as Tracy and Edna (Christopher Berry) start in their house and then are joined by Penny and Prudy Pingleton (Becca Sears and Lisa Shinn) and Amber and Velma Von Tussle (Bonnie Samantha Fox and Lisa Swinton) without any explanation as to how they got there. This is one of several moments where no section of the stage is isolated and believable entrances and exits are completely dismissed and we find ourselves asking…where are we? These young women and their mothers can definitely sing (and Sears’ quirky performance throughout shows off her fine comic timing) but the staging is more like a show choir number than story telling within the show.

Berry gives a thoroughly enjoyable performance with his authentic Baltimore accent in the role of Edna. He has boundless energy and attitude, great timing with his deep booming voice and convincingly portrays the loving nature of the character to Tracy and Wilbur (Mike Warshauer) Those genuine moments from Berry are not always reflected by Warshauer whose performance sometimes slips into cliché and caricature territory. Swinton’s vocal performance is commendable but she misses the mark with the required character traits of Velma; being sweet, predictable and ultimately whiny instead of villainous, sarcastic and domineering.

The lack of production values are the focus again when Edna is transformed with her new wardrobe and hair at Mr. Pinky’s Hideaway. The outfit is horribly ill-fitting and combined with the misjudged wigs and make-up it all becomes increasingly distracting. There is a somewhat consistent color palette to Kirk Bowers costume design with the kids in the Corny Collins Show but opportunities to elevate these with bows, ribbons and big hair are passed up. Tracy’s costume also fizzles when we need it to sparkle the most as she is upstaged by several members of the ensemble in the finale, You Can’t Stop the Beat.

Brittney Poindexter puts her full range of talents on display as she navigates her way through the roles of stern principle, butch predatory gym teacher and guard at the ladies prison. Poindexter commits to every character making strong and funny choices and gives Berry a run for his money in the scene stealing stakes. Another much needed highlight of the evening is the vocal capability of Corinthian Carr making her stage debut as Motormouth Maybelle.  Now this lady can sing! However, this natural talent feels under directed in all her scene work and this is one of several areas where stronger influence needed to be exerted by the Director. I Know Where I’ve Been is often a showstopper but Kopp’s staging has more the feel of a talent show (where Carr’s impressive instrument would likely get our vote) with an unfortunate disconnect to the other actors on stage. Kopp may keep the show moving well throughout but the lack of character development really doesn’t allow the actors or the audience to connect fully to the material.

There are some strong vocalists under the music direction of Matt Dohm (Rita Scott as Little Inez being another that deserves a mention for her singing and stage presence) but the ensemble never quite hits the heights we would hope. The choreography choices are smart and effective for the most part – although transforming You’re Timeless into a tap number lost much of the endearing nature of the song. There is a lot of talent in this young cast but there isn’t enough directorial vision or technical support to allow them to reach their potential…or for the show to reach the value of the ticket.

#tothepoint Rating: 55/100

You can view a full breakdown of the allocated points here.

Ticket Price: $23

Value Review: -$8

With our scoring system and our unique value for money guide we rate this show at $15. Hairspray continues at FtP until July 23rd.

Review: Spamalot

Spamalot

With the Spamalot logo emblazoned upon the red curtain and the lighting pulsing from left to right in time with the orchestra, there is a real sense of anticipation in the F. Scott Fitzgerald Theatre. When the stage is revealed the Set Designer, Saira Umar, hasn’t disappointed with an impressive castle structure at the rear of the stage with a one-step platform leading to large central doors and a stairway on the stage left side reaching to a second story. Two towers stand at each edge of the downstage curtain line and clouds flank either side of the castle that are used effectively as a backdrop for Matthew Mills’ projections which combined with the excellent lighting design of Suzanne Platt help elevate this show technically above the average community theatre production.

Brian Lyons-Burke is playing King Arthur for the second time in the last 12 months and that familiarity with the role translates into a natural, comfortable performance. Lyons-Burke has a commanding presence on stage and that only adds to the humor as his sidekick Patsy (Duane Monahan) plays the coconut shells to simulate the sound of his invisible horse. We are soon treated to one of the funniest moments of the first act with Kevin Belanger as Not Dead Fred in I Am Not Dead Yet. The staging is excellent and the timing of the physical humor of everyone involved is well done. We then meet (the soon to be) Sir Galahad (Scott Napier) and his mother (Zoe Alexandratos) who takes every opportunity to stand out in her various ensemble roles. Alexandratos gets the balance just right finding some of the biggest laughs of the night while Napier’s facial expressions are a little over the top and become distracting, even for Monty Python material. The Lady of the Lake, Lee Rosenthal, gives a very strong vocal performance, especially in her lower register and by the time she has delivered The Song That Goes Like This (Reprise) the first act is flying by.

The costume changes and the dramatic differences in the lighting of the sky behind the castle help take us to the different locations. Ginger Ager’s costumes are bright and fun throughout although the women do often look more like natives of Spain or Latin America rather than England or France. Music Director, Marci Shegogue, has the cast sounding in fine voice during Find Your Grail but the first act doesn’t end on that high as the stage becomes very unbalanced during the vocally inconsistent Run Away.

The second act starts the way the first finished with the execution of Michael Page’s choreography at its’ weakest by the knights and the ensemble during Always Look on the Bright Side of Life. This trend is quickly reversed as the interpretation of You Won’t Succeed on Broadway is the best of the night. There is a lot of tap dancing after the intermission and the ensemble make an admirable effort to embrace it with the technical errors more forgivable in a show of this nature. Rosenthal returns in front of the curtain with another powerful vocal in The Diva’s Lament complimented by the impressive orchestra. What follows next is one of the funniest (and well blocked) scenes as Prince Herbert (Matthew Rosenthal) is being kept in his room by his father (Kirk Patton Jr.) who is leaving instructions with the dimwitted guards. Rosenthal is highly amusing as the outrageously gay Herbert and gives a strong vocal in Where Are You? / Here Are You. Lyons-Burke sings very consistently throughout and Monahan compliments him well on I’m All Alone before the ensemble join in and make it their best vocal of the night.

The show is not without its’ faults. Diction is a real issue throughout (Mark Hamberger as Sir Lancelot being one of the worst culprits) with many of the English and French accents difficult to understand and some potential laugh out loud moments never quite achieved. One of the final scenes featuring audience participation drags in contrast to the rest of the production and feels anti-climatic. There are however lots of nice moments from the Director, Clare Shaffer, as the visual puns flow as quickly as each scene transition. This is another strong production from Rockville Musical Theatre and one we won’t hesitate to recommend as value for money.

#tothepoint Rating: 64.5/100

You can view a full breakdown of the allocated points here.

Ticket Price: $22

Value Review: +$7

With our scoring system and our unique value for money guide we rate this show at $29. Spamalot continues at RMT until July 23rd.

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