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Review: Silent Sky

Silent Sky

Silver Spring Stage transports us back to the early 20th Century to tell the story of Henrietta Leavitt, an American astronomer. Playwright, Lauren Gunderson, shines a light on the forgotten women of the Harvard College Observatory, the work they did to map the sky, and Leavitt’s discovery that paved the way to measure the distance between the stars.

The two sided Silver Spring Stage features the elegant Harvard workplace with entrances either side of a central bookcase. Andrew Greenleaf’s set is flanked by a projection screen on each wall and as the lights dim and Henrietta Leavitt (Marnie Kanarek) takes the stage they become windows to the heavens and sparkle with stars. Unfortunately at this very moment the projector goes into sleep mode and we see an hourglass on the screen and then a message about VGA inputs. The issue is over in a matter of seconds but our sense of wonder will take a little longer to recover.

For the vast majority of the show the screens are used very effectively as our way to experience the beauty and vastness of the night sky. However, in the opening scene, Henrietta, and her sister, Margaret (Annie Caruso), are on their way to worship and the stage right screen displays an early morning sky while the stage left screen shows a simple white church. The lighting is such that Caruso casts a shadow onto the screen displaying the church which is not visually pleasing. Later we are taken into a Harvard lecture room and then to Boston Harbor by the projected images. With the screens such an integral part of the set, the temptation for Director, Bill Hurlbut, to use them in other ways in understandable, but we can’t help feeling the more powerful choice would have been to only utilize them for us to look up. The lighting and ambient sound is enough to take us to these other locations.

Kanarek does a fine job expressing the frustration and determination of Henrietta as she tells of her intent to follow her passion and Caruso provides an excellent contrast as the homely and down to earth, Margaret. Their early dialogue suffers a little from the exchanges and movement being too proscenium in nature and that is also true when Henrietta arrives at Harvard and meets Peter Shaw (Noah Rich), Annie Conan (Marianne Meyers) and Williamina Fleming (Mindy Shaw). We needed more eye contact between the actors; their connection to each other is far more important than opening themselves up to the audience. Perhaps it is because of this that the first time we really feel an emotional connection between characters is when they are not in the same place, as Margaret reads aloud her letters to Henrietta who responds to them while she continues her work. This technique is used to great effect again later as Henrietta and Peter’s relationship is at its’ most believable when they are apart and we see their connection grow brighter and then diminish through their overlapping words.

Director, Bill Hurlbut, keeps an excellent pace to the show. The scene transitions are slick and subtle lighting changes signify the passing of time with the actors moving off stage or into a new position with precision timing. Once in each act, Greenleaf’s set delivers a nice surprise as one of the screens in removed and a platform slides out to reveal a hidden room, all achieved with minimal fuss. The costumes are all individually well done although perhaps lacking an overall cohesiveness and the nature of the wigging of Meyers is a little distracting.

Noah Rich finds the right balance between the chauvinist attitudes of the age and the social awkwardness his character feels around women.  Mindy Shaw captures the dry sense of humor of Williamina Fleming and is for the most part consistent with her Scottish accent (it occasionally crosses the Irish Sea) and her double act with the Marianne Meyers as the imposing Annie Cannon is a frequent source of laughter. While all three give good performances they do occasionally cross the line of playing it funny rather than just trusting that the writing is funny and some of the jokes are both verbally and physically spoon fed to the audience. As the staging becomes more intimate as the play progresses so do the relationships between the actors, especially between Kanarek and Caruso.

And then we reach the epilogue.

It’s just a beautiful, awe inspiring, moment as the whole theatre is bathed in stars and Kanarek reveals the fate of the characters we have been introduced to as they leave the stage one by one. While we care about these people, it is the context of her discovery, our place in the universe, and the authenticity of her emotion in the story telling that brings a tear to our eye.

#tothepoint Rating 62/100

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

Ticket Price: $25

Value Rating: -$1

With our scoring system and our unique value for money guide we rate this show at $24. Tickets are available on Groupon and Gold Star for $16.50 making the show excellent value for money if you can grab this deal. Silent Sky continues at Silver Spring Stage until May 28th.

Review: Legally Blonde

Legally Blonde

Legally Blonde is one of the most enjoyable and uplifting musicals of the last 10 years and the crowd at the Slayton House Theater are ready for some fun. The lower third of the back wall is a brick design, above it is a plain white backdrop and sitting in front is a movable stairway to nowhere. The action gets underway with Serena, Margot and Pilar entering through the house and the rest of the sorority girls take the stage and launch into the incredibly infectious Omigod You Guys. The three girls don’t really have the space they need in the house and although the stage is not particularly wide, it is deep and high enough that it could have accommodated a permanent platform as part of the design – something that the show would have greatly benefited from.

There are so many set changes in the first half of act one alone as we transition to the mall, the restaurant, the Harvard yard and Callahan’s classroom. To its’ credit the show never stops flowing but it feels like hard work for the cast and crew as they perform the numerous set changes. Director, TJ Lukacsina, is also credited as the Set Designer and it’s clear the show would have benefited from a ‘less is more’ approach. A more versatile ‘base’ set would have allowed the staging and the actors to tell the story and take us to those locations with minor changes rather than attempting to construct each scene fully onto a blank canvas.

The lack of levels definitely hurts the choreography of Rikki Lacewell. There is an overall lack of creativity and a repetitive nature to her steps, and we all too often find the cast in straight lines across the stage (even disappointingly from front to back of stage in the Irish dancing section of Legally Blonde Remix where creating some angles would have gone a long way). During Whipped into Shape the house is again utilized and several audience members actually cower in their seat as the jump rope comes dangerously close to them.

Lindsey Landry looks exactly as you would picture Elle Woods and she doesn’t hit a bad note all night. Matt Wetzel does not look exactly as you would picture Emmett but what quickly becomes evident is that he has excellent comic timing and a wonderful tone to his voice that is displayed best as he delivers the challenging Chip on My Shoulder.

There are some other excellent vocal performances in the show, none more so than Michele D. Vicino-Coleman as Paulette. Her rendition of Ireland and its soaring reprise are standout moments although the delivery is far too presentational. Vicino-Coleman also falls into the trap of the acting becoming too focused on the accent, losing some of the feel for the character. Allison Bradbury as Vivienne and Stephen Foreman as Warner both give performances that add to the feeling that for the most part this is a vocally impressive show. Co Music Directors, Nathan C. Scavila and Michael Wolfe, do have some issues with the ensemble, especially during Legally Blonde Remix, and unfortunately the energetic nature of Brooke Wyndham’s (Summer Hill) workout routine for Whipped Into Shape make it difficult for her to stay on pitch during the 2nd half of the song.  It’s a shame for Hill as she can clearly sing and is genuinely funny in her line delivery. Jennie Phelps stands out among the ensemble with her consistent and committed character choices.

There are some moments of confusion in the transitions and this is most noticeably the case after Callahan kisses Elle and she appears to re-enter his office. We’re never clear where the following scene with Emmett takes place and it distracts from a pivotal moment in the plot. The show, however, is ultimately a relative success on the back of the performances of Landry and Wetzel. Wetzel gives the acting performance of the night and Landry finds just the right level of emotion and self-doubt in the heartfelt Legally Blonde that by the end of the show we do feel like we have taken the journey with her.

#tothepoint Rating 60/100

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

Ticket Price: $20

Value Rating: +$0

With our scoring system and our unique value for money guide we rate this show at $20 meaning it reached the value and expectations of the ticket price. Legally Blonde continues at Silhouette Stage until May 28th.

Review: Still Time to go to Ford’s

Ragtime

A slow meander through the Ford’s Museum is a chance for reflection about the journey of this country and the history of this theatre before we take our seats for tonight’s production of Ragtime. We immediately start to wonder if the cast are aware the house is open as they wander the stage in costume, place props and casually chat to others in contemporary clothing. After some initial confusion it’s clear this is a choice, and a statement, and one that will become apparent at the end of the evening.

Scenic Designer, Milagros Ponce de Leon, dominates the stage with a 3 story metal platform that accommodates a 9 piece orchestra on the second level. It features two detachable stairways that reach to that second level and which become integral to so much of the movement and flow of the show. The only issue with the impressive structure is the top tier is partially lost to some in the orchestra seating with people craning their heads to see underneath the overhang of the dress circle. A large piano sits center stage and Coalhouse Walker (Kevin McAllister) takes his seat and leads the cast through the Prologue: Ragtime.

As Mother (Tracy Lynn Olivera) says Goodbye My Love to her husband on one ship, Tateh (Jonathan Atkinson) and his daughter, Jewish immigrants from Latvia, arrive in America on another. We are distracted from the beautiful Journey On by the failure to hear any of lines delivered by Tateh’s daughter (Dulcie Pham), it’ s unclear if this is a projection issue or a mic failure (possibly the latter as she is fine for the rest of the show). At other times during the production, the orchestra, who sound spectacular, are too loud for some of the more delicate moments – it’s a difficult balance with the musicians onstage and one that is not quite achieved tonight.

Songs like Crime of the Century and Henry Ford introduce us to some of the real historical characters sprinkled into the play with the latter featuring some excellent production line choreography from Michael Bobbitt. Although these numbers help transport us to the period there is a sense by the middle of the first act that the audience is suffering from full choral fatigue. Perhaps this helps make the beautiful simplicity of Sarah’s Your Daddy’s Son the stand out moment of act one. Nova Payton delivers an incredible vocal that hauntingly resonates throughout this old theatre and her performance is one of wonderful restraint.

The show is almost musically flawless from this point on under the Music Direction of Christopher Youstra, and when Payton and McAllister duet on The Wheels of a Dream they dovetail so perfectly you don’t want them to stop. Of course the play takes a darker turn and Sarah is beaten to death leaving Coalhouse distraught. The transition from Sarah’s lifeless body to her moving off stage is one of many moments where Director, Peter Flynn and his Lighting Designer, Rui Rita, work in perfect harmony. McAllister is moved to tears and the cast sound at their absolute best on Till We Reach that Day to close the first act, with Ines Nassara standing out vocally among a very talented ensemble.

Any sense that the tension would be diminished by the intermission is quickly dismissed as McAllister pours his heart out on Coalhouse’s Soliloquy. It’s an incredibly emotional moment that encompasses heartbreak and rage and he lives every single syllable. The combination of McAllister’s rich baritone vocals and his connection to this role make it a truly standout performance.

Director, Peter Flynn, displays plenty of imagination and vision with the transitions between scenes although that is not always matched by the movement within the scenes themselves. One of many smart scene changes takes Father (James Konicek) and his son to a baseball game as both stairways are moved center stage to form bleachers.  We are then transported to Atlantic City and Costume Designer, Wade Laboissonniere, has some fun with the period beach attire. There are many pleasing technical successes throughout the production; the use of sheets to illustrate the silhouettes created by Tateh and then the projection of those silhouettes as moving images onto a blanket are very well done.

Mother and Tateh’s paths cross again at the beach but the chemistry never quite takes off between Atkinson and Olivera and we don’t really buy into their future together. Atkinson gives a strong vocal performance and portrays a genuine relationship with his daughter but his delivery too often feels like someone impersonating an Eastern European accent rather than having one and it is a little cliché. Olivera still has her finest moment to come as she absolutely stops the show with her incredibly powerful rendition of Back to Before.

James Konicek does a fine job with the slow character arc of Father as he eventually comes to see past the color of Coalhouse’s skin as he attempts to resolve the standoff at the Library. There is still time for one more hair on the back of the neck moments for McAllister as he convinces his friends that their job is not to die but to go out and Make Them Hear You. Father’s naivety at the fate that awaits Coalhouse if he steps outside is a chilling moment as the orchestra are joined by the cast banging on the set in unison to signify the end of his life by gunfire.

After the epilogue the ensemble reprise Wheels of a Dream and are joined again by others in current day clothing, showing that this story of America is not confined to the history books, but one that is still unfolding today. Get a ticket to see this one while you still have the chance.

#tothepoint Rating 80/100

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

Ticket Price: $50

Value Rating: +$10

With our scoring system and our unique value for money guide we rate this show at $60. Ragtime continues at Ford’s Theatre until May 20th.

Review: Catch Peter at the MET

Starcatcher

The Maryland Ensemble Theatre is not afraid of a challenge and this hugely ambitious production of Rick Elice’s adaptation of Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson’s book about the origins of Peter Pan is definitely that. The MET’s quirky main stage features concave seating that can provide sight line issues and a central pillar that scenic designers must embrace as part of their design. That task falls upon Cecelia Lee and she utilizes the full depth of the space, creating different levels with platforms for her nautical set which is heavy on detail with netting, frayed rope, crates, driftwood and sails, making a visually interesting backdrop for the story to unfold. Peter and the Starcatcher is very much a play with music and the design incorporates three musicians in their own little crows’ nest stage left.

There is a lot of information for the audience to digest at the top of the show as we are introduced to the two ships, The Neverland and The Wasp, the two trunks that are central to the plot, and many of the characters. It’s delivered in a slightly confusing manner but what the production sometimes lacks in clarity it more than makes up for in creativity as the actors really become the story. Director, Julie Herber, clearly revels in this elaborate game of chess as she moves the pieces at her disposal around the stage. Ropes are used to frame smaller moments to represent cabins and scene changes are achieved with movement of the cast with the central column the pivot as characters melt into the background as others come to the fore. This inventiveness is illustrated best when Molly Aster, played with an impeccable British accent by Caitlyn Joy, is exploring the depths of The Neverland. The Ensemble form a wall and doors that swing open to reveal different parts of the bowels of the ship and the action within to great effect.

The Captain of The Neverland is Bill Slank, played with wonderful, snarling authority, by Matthew Crawford. Crawford’s dominant stage presence is the standout performance of the first act although the manner of his demise is so low key it almost passes us by. Looking after Molly is Mrs. Bumbrake, played in true British pantomime style by Thomas Scholtes. It’s a wonderfully ridiculous performance by Scholtes who looks like he loves every minute he spends on the stage. Molly meets the orphans, Prentiss (Daniel Valentin-Morales), Ted (Taylor Rieland) and the boy who will become Peter Pan (Matt Lee). It is a huge credit to Joy and Lee that we never question that these are adults representing Molly and the boy.

Meanwhile on The Wasp, Captain Scott (another outstanding dialect delivered by Jeremy Myers) has been bound as the Pirates take control of the vessel.  Robert Leembruggen couldn’t look more like Smee if he tried and he’s amusing throughout, with a no nonsense deadpan delivery that you would expect from the Yorkshire native, as the perfect foil for the over the top antics of Black Stache. Joe Jalette has the task of portraying the Pirate Captain and he bears more than a passing resemblance to Christian Borle who played the role on Broadway. Jalette takes a while to really hit his stride but his confidence grows throughout the show and by the time the second act is in full flow he’s stealing scene after scene as he struts around the stage.

As the story moves to Mollusk Island ropes descend at the rear of the stage to depict a jungle and the audience is very much required to bring their childlike imaginations along for the ride. For the most part we are happy to let those imaginations run wild with everything the story asks of us but with so many outrageous characters it is important for some real relationships to be developed to connect us emotionally at the same time. This is where the production falls a little short. The performances of Valentin-Morales and Rieland as Prentiss and Ted are further comic relief but opportunities for us to really care about these boys are passed up too often to play everything larger than life. Reiner Prochaska never feels like quite the right fit for the unflappable Leonard Aster leaving us un-invested with his relationship with his daughter, Molly. All this means that by the time Lee and Joy do give us wholehearted honesty in the final scene it feels a little out of place.

The overall vision and staging by Julie Herber for this production is a big achievement. The action flows relentlessly with the only slight complaint being the more intimate scenes occasionally being played too far forwards leaving those at either extreme of the house looking at backs. The costumes of Stephanie Hyder are excellent throughout with the individual mermaid costumes at the top of act two all hilariously unique. It’s a bold and imaginative production and while not all the choices work it’s the sort of risk taking theatre that should be on your schedule over the next few weeks.

#tothepoint Rating 69.5/100

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

Ticket Price: $24

Value Rating: +$15

With our scoring system and our unique value for money guide we rate this show at $39. Peter and the Starcatcher continues at the Maryland Ensemble Theatre until May 7th.

Review: Bright Stars on the Silver Spring Stage

Boise

It’s opening weekend at the Silver Spring Stage and it’s clear many in attendance have little idea what to expect from playwright Sam Hunter’s 2011 award winning play, A Bright New Boise. The audience are positioned on two sides of the square stage separated by a wide walkway that will provide a second location away from the break room of the arts and crafts store, Hobby Lobby, where most of the play takes place. With the set in darkness, Will (Brendan Murray), takes his place on the outside of the pillar at the corner of the stage between the audience and declares “Now” and the sense that we don’t know what we are ready for is heightened.

The lights come up on the break room and Scenic Designer, Dean Leong, has produced a convincing location. The two walls feature a sink, microwave, lockers and inboxes that form a sterile setting broken up only by a lonely motivational poster informing the staff to ‘Hang in there’. Tables and chairs adorn the rest of the stage and a TV and VCR are positioned on the inside of the corner pillar in such a way that no-one in the audience can see the screen. Faith is a central theme of Hunter’s play and as the story unfolds the TV’s placement is wonderfully unsettling for the audience as it almost takes on a God like role as we start to question if the staff are watching it or if it is watching them.

Murray is excellent as Will as he draws us in to the genuine warmth of his character while his checkered backstory and extreme religious views about the rapture are slowly unveiled. In the opening scenes, as he starts his first day in his new job, Murray finds the balance of awkwardness, evasiveness and likability in all of his delivery and mannerisms. It’s a really subtle and believable performance that allows us not to define this man simply by what he believes. The manager of the store, Pauline, played by Andrea Spitz, is a brash and relatively uncomplicated woman. Spitz is much of the comedy as the darkness descends as the show progresses and she understands her ‘why me?’ role in proceedings but some of her expressions and reactions play a little too big for this close-knit audience.

Will is introduced to teenage co-worker, Alex (Ben Miller), and it is quickly revealed that Alex is Will’s biological son who was adopted as a baby. Miller portrays the apathy and then angst of his character persuasively and the dynamic between the two is engaging to watch. Leroy (Shaquille Stewart), Alex’s older brother from his adopted family, provides an excellent contrast for Will with Stewart’s comfortable demeanor in the break room making it easy to believe he has worked there for years. Leroy wears self designed obscene shirts and delivers language to match that cause a few mutterings from the crowd. “I’m deliberately making you uncomfortable” he tells Will, but it’s far more a message from the playwright to his audience.

The play is truly at its’ best when Murray is sharing the stage with Maura Suilebhan who is a joy to watch as the introverted and sheepish Anna. All of her quirks and facial expressions would be so easy to be overplayed but she never falls into that trap and all of her exclamations and self admonishments are incredibly natural. There is great chemistry between Murray and Suilebhan and their awkward flirting is just really good theatre.

Director, Matt Ripa, moves us through the timeline of the play, largely with lighting changes in the break room effectively signifying the passing of time. He isn’t afraid of silence and that adds to the sense of unease at all the right moments. The movement of the actors is consistent and logical in the vast majority of the exchanges. One slight disappointment is a pivotal scene where Will reads his blog aloud to Anna. We see all that Will is experiencing as he reads his work but we feel a little cheated of Anna’s reaction as she sits with her back to the audience. Later, a moment where Alex buries his head into the wall by the lockers also lacks a certain authenticity. When the scenes transition to the walkway off stage we really feel like we are intruding on these personal moments and Ripa moves the action between the two locations very capably. Murray excels in these off stage scenes and his proximity to the audience only adds to the truth he brings to his character. Unfortunately the ease in which Miller portrayed the emotions of Alex earlier are not matched now that he needs to show much more vulnerability and pain in a more restrained way. In the same location a scene between Will and Leroy almost slips into soap opera territory with Stewart’s delivery.

The show is a technical success with sound and lighting both at a high standard throughout. Set and costumes are not demanding but are done well with minimum fuss. Ripa gets good performances from all of his cast and Murray and Suilebhan absolutely make this a show worth making the effort to see.

 #tothepoint Rating 65.5/100

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

Ticket Price: $25

Value Rating: +$6

With our scoring system and our unique value for money guide we rate this show at $31. A Bright New Boise continues at the Silver Spring Stage until April 30th.

Review: Pygmalion

Pygmalion

The Town Hall in Kensington is a non-traditional venue for theatre and as such presents an array of challenges for the creative team behind the British Players production of George Bernard Shaw’s, Pygmalion. As we negotiate our way into our temporary seats we get an immediate chance to see Maggie Modig’s set. The stage is split with Professor Higgins’ study and drawing room stage right and Mrs. Higgins’ drawing room stage left. A central curtain at the back of the stage is flanked by painted backdrops of the London skyline. On the apron of the raised stage stand three columns and two benches indicating a third venue.

We hear the sound of rain and a street light is lit stage right. The third venue is established as Covent Garden with Mrs. Eynsford-Hill (Ruth Vernet) and her children, Clara (Erin Schwartz) and Freddy (Todd Mazzie) attempting to find a taxi. The interior venues are not lost as much from the light as we would hope and the rain sound effect vanishes as quickly as it arrived despite the dialogue making it clear it is still raining. As for the dialogue itself, all the actors are mic’d up, which may be dictated by the acoustics of the venue but it takes some getting used to.

After a chance meeting in the opening scene between Higgins (Dan Owen), Colonel Pickering (John Allnutt) and Eliza Doolittle (Jenn Robinson), scene two takes us inside the home of Professor Higgins. Owen gives a strong performance with anger and playfulness always bubbling under the surface of his portrayal of the Professor. He captures the lack of empathy of the character and there is a truth in his work sometimes missing from some of the other members of the cast. Allnutt brings the right amount of affable bluster to the role of Pickering but his delivery is too presentational, something that will be a recurring theme throughout the show.

Eliza Doolittle will always be Audrey Hepburn in the 1964 musical film adaptation, My Fair Lady, and you can hear some of those Hepburn exclamations in Jenn Robinson’s delivery. Although those moments are intended to be larger than life, her focus on her accent and the cadence of her speech make her seem somewhat disconnected and a lot of the emotions feel like crocodile tears. Roger Stone brings the right level of energy to the role of Alfred Doolittle and the exchanges between Stone and Owen are verbally very pleasing. However, visually, the scenes between them, along with Allnutt, just don’t work. Far too often, Director, Pauline Griller-Mitchell, has the 3 men in a straight line facing the audience and the amount of unjustified movement within the blocking is quite staggering.

The costumes, by Harlene Leahy, are a strength throughout the show.  The styles and color palette effectively representing the different classes of this period of British life; although dressing Mrs. Pearce (Sam David), the Scottish housekeeper, in tartan feels a little too obvious. Unfortunately every time David enters the stage there is an annoying hum seemingly linked to her microphone which, along with a moment of horrendous feedback for Owen that comes later, is hard to forgive.

As the lights fade we hear the lessons between Higgins and Eliza that adeptly signify the passing of time before the lights come up on Mrs. Higgins’ (Margaret Lane) drawing room. We meet the Eynsford-Hill family for the second time and Vernet, Schwartz and Mazzie make the most of their limited stage time – with the exchanges between Schwartz and Robinson in both the opening and closing scenes of the first act particularly enjoyable.

The second act has a set surprise up its’ sleeve as the central curtain is drawn to reveal a staircase from which Eliza enters. It gives the set a wonderful depth which sadly it then fails to utilize for any purpose for the remainder of the show.  Robinson is a lot more comfortable as Eliza now she has transitioned into the better spoken version of herself and as the act progresses she starts to find the connection that was lacking earlier.  Unfortunately it’s too late for us to be truly affected by her fate and her decision to leave Higgins is not close to the emotional peak that it should be.

The reappearance of Alfred Doolittle, with his new found wealth, should make for an entertaining final scene and there are some funny moments with Stone lamenting his change in circumstance and Owen sulking like a toddler in time out. However, what follows is more bizarre blocking and characters almost rotating every few minutes to take turns sitting at Mrs. Higgins’ desk in a kind of slow and tedious game of musical chairs.

The Town Hall is a challenging space. The set and costumes are of a high quality and the performance of Owen as Higgins is a highlight…but the sound issues and the inability to isolate the different locations in the lighting design really hurt the overall quality of the production. However, it is the lack of authenticity in the interactions between the characters, largely due to movement rather than delivery, which unfortunately makes it impossible to recommend this show.

#tothepoint Rating: 48/100

You can view a full breakdown of the points here.

Ticket Price: $22

Value Review: N/A

Please review our scoring section. Our unique value for money guide only applies to shows that score 50 out of 100 or higher. The The British Players production of Pygmalion continues Friday through Sunday at Kensington Town Hall until April 9th.

Review: Dogfight

Dogfight

It has been an incredible few years for songwriting and composing duo, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. They are the team behind the latest Broadway smash, Dear Evan Hansen, and responsible for the lyrics of the Oscar award winning song, City of Stars, from the wonderful La La Land. That success is enough for us to take a first look at their 2012 musical, Dogfight, an adaptation of the 1991 film of the same name that starred the late River Phoenix.

The intimate Kentlands Mansion & Arts Barn is the venue for this Rockville Music Theatre’s production and the small stage features a low platform designed to resemble the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. The show opens to the haunting melody of Take Me Back as we meet Eddie Birdlace (Eric Jones) and Rose Fenny (Megan Evans) after the events that are about to unfold. We are transported back in time and Jones is joined by the other two Bees, Boland (Garrett Zink) and Bernstein (Cam Sammartano) and the rest of the Marines for Some Kinda Time. Choreographer, Hayley North combines militaristic movement with a drinking buddy’s vibe that works extremely well (apart from one slightly awkward lift towards the end) to capture the naivety of these young men before they head off to war.

With the rules of the Dogfight explained (basically who can bring the ugliest date to the party) we are introduced to the full ensemble in Hey, Good Lookin’ and Music Director, Matthew Dohm, has the cast in fine voice. We transition to the diner where Eddie and Rose meet and Evans is at her best as the awkwardly introverted Rose in Nothing Short of Wonderful. The flow of Act One is a major achievement by Director, Dana Robinson. Scene changes are seamless and are aided by the excellent lighting design of Rick Swink. The movement on stage is slick and that is exemplified by the couples dancing in That Face where the small space is used to maximum effect.

The performances throughout the cast are strong, but a lack of subtlety is a consistent theme in the acting choices. Hillary Templeton gets all the laughs as Marcy but crosses the fine line into cliché and loses some of the tragic nature of the character required for the emotional duet with Evans in It’s A Dogfight. There is no doubting Evans’ sincerity with her performance of Pretty Funny and it is a heartfelt close to the first act but it lacks a rawness that could have meant not a dry eye in the house.

Act Two starts at the arcade with A Home Town Hero’s Ticker Tape Parade and unfortunately it’s a sloppy start vocally and some difficulty bringing on a doorway only adds to that sense. The threat of rape as Sammartano throws the prostitute to the ground doesn’t feel dark enough and that lack of gravity sits uncomfortably. As Eddie distances himself from the rest of the Marines to find Rose it’s a chance for Jones to explore the depth of his character underneath the bravado, especially when discussing his father, but it’s never quite the nuanced performance it could be.

With the platform representing the actual Golden Gate Bridge, at times in the second act, it’s difficult on such a small stage to not fall into the trap of some of the action seemingly taking place in the water.  That’s the case as Eddie and Rose spend their night together and there is an uncomfortable moment as some of the ensemble enters the stage for Give Way and look like slightly creepy voyeurs as they hold hands awkwardly stage left. The stage is suddenly beautifully lit as Eddie dresses on the edge of Rose’s bed in silhouette as Boland and Bernstein lead the reprise of Some Kinda Time from the platform. The lighting change in the middle of that moment to bring the lower stage into the light is almost criminal.

As the Marines head off on duty a quick lighting change thrusts us into the middle of a Vietnam War Zone. It’s a jolt and a relatively effective one and the sound effects are well done but it feels like there is more that could have been done to attack the senses of the audience. The battle that follows feels a little over choreographed and the deaths lack a certain poignancy that we want to feel despite the flaws of these young men. Another quick lighting change and we’re back in San Francisco post war. Surrounded by protesters, Jones gives the vocal performance of the night in Come Back. It’s a powerful and emotional moment that sadly we are snapped out of with a simple “Hey Rose” delivered as if it was no surprise at all to bump into her in that vast city.

Despite never quite living up to the seriously impressive staging of the first act, and not getting truly next level performances out of her talented cast, this show is a success for Dana Robinson and RMT that is worth making the effort to see.

#tothepoint Rating: 64/100

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

Ticket Price: $22

Value Review: +$6

With our scoring system and our unique value for money guide we rate this show at $28. Dogfight continues at the Kentlands Mansion & Arts Barn, March 24th, 25th & 26th.

 

 

Review: Willy Wonka Not Quite Sweet Enough

wonka

As we settle into our seats in the black box theatre of Other Voices in Frederick, Md, to watch Willy Wonka the Musical, it’s hard not to think about the late Gene Wilder and his iconic performance in the 1971 film, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. He is ingrained in our collective memories as Wonka (sorry Johnny Depp) even among the younger generation as he forms the backdrop to a never ending number of internet memes.

Sean Byrne has the task of making the role of Wonka his own and he opens act one with a sincere rendition of Pure Imagination, dressed very much like Wilder in a purple jacket, brown hat and bow tie. With the majority of the set hidden by flats our imaginations begin to wonder what Set Designer, Lee Hebb, has in store for us behind them. Before that answer is revealed, however, the whole cast is before us for the Golden Age of Chocolate. It’s a slightly clumsy start with the large ensemble cramped into the restricted space at the front of the stage. As the flats transition to the wings the Bucket house is exposed – a truncated bed, home to the four Grandparents, a table at which Charlie’s parents prepare the daily cabbage soup, and between them a white screen that is used to project an image of a window. The latter is an unnecessary set piece that looks out of place in the overall design.

With the costumes of Wonka and the Bucket family (and many references throughout the show), it is clear we are intended to be in the same era as the original film. However, as Charlie leaves the house and is joined by other children of the town for the The Candy Man, things start to become confusing. The old fashioned cart selling the Wonka bars is surrounded by children wearing modern day attire and it gives the impression that the younger members of the ensemble arrived too late to the theatre and didn’t have time to change. Unfortunately it’s the start of many moments where the Costume Designer(s) and Director, Susan Thornton, don’t appear to have a consistent vision of when the show is taking place.

Reporter Phineous Trout (Thomas Bricker) introduces us to the various golden ticket winners and their parents via the big screen high above our heads stage right, and the action transitions (albeit with some questionable continuity) from some very stylish prerecorded video sections to the stage. In between, we have the one major choreographed number with Charlie (Jacob Holcomb) and Mr. Bucket (James Funkhouser). The relationship between the two is genuine and believable throughout the show but the dance feels out of character (especially for Charlie) and the execution was out of sync for both.

Act one closes with Charlie leading the cast in I’ve Got a Golden Ticket. All the ensemble numbers sound good under the music direction of Cathie Porter Borden, but lack the blend of harmonies to really elevate them to the next level.

Act two has the challenge of transporting us around the chocolate factory and it’s a challenge the show accepts and largely succeeds in overcoming. A painted backdrop of pipes is complimented by an actual pipe that spans the width of the stage above the actors heads. As Augustus Gloop (a disappointingly slim Andrew Seaton) sneezes his way into the chocolate river, the pipe is lit to show him at first stuck, and then shooting across the stage in impressive fashion.

The second act is handled expertly by Thornton. The addition of a second tier, lit in isolation and featuring the colorful Oompa Loompas and the latest rule breaking child, facilitate the set changes on the lower level to the next factory room, and creates a flow and momentum that the first act lacked.

The children all have their opportunities to shine as temptations expose their character flaws. Sophia Carliss gives a strong showing as the gum chewing Violet Beauregarde but the performance of the night comes from Kaitlin McCallion as she oozes attitude every moment she’s on stage as the spoiled Veruca Salt. While some of the other solo vocals are inconsistent in pitch, McCallion’s rendition of I want it Now is the best of the night.

There are other technical successes – the bad nut routine for Veruca and her father ending in their descent down a chute and the plucking of the six inch Mike Teavee from the TV screen are both pleasingly achieved. The white screen reappears and is used far more effectively to show Charlie and Grandpa Joe (Jeff Wine) floating among the bubbles – although a little actor motivation for going behind the screen would have gone a long way.

The lighting design of Steve Knapp and Jim McGuire really enhances the second act and this is exemplified as the upper balcony becomes an elevator and the stage a sea of lights as the show reaches its’ climax.

Willy Wonka the Musical is not as vocally impressive as you would hope and the inconsistency in the costuming and props are muddled choices that prevent us from really buying in to the first act. However, this is a demanding show to pull off in this space and the story telling after the intermission is done well and is thoroughly enjoyable.

#tothepoint Rating: 59/100

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

Ticket Price: $20

Value Review: -$1

With our scoring system and our unique value for money guide we rate this show at $19. Willy Wonka the Musical continues at Other Voices Theatre, February 10th, 11th & 12th.

Review: Smooth Sailing for Titanic

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With the Broadway launch of Maury Yeston’s Titanic coming just a few short months before the 1997 release of James Cameron’s emotional cinematic epic of the same name, comparisons between the story telling, of the ships ill fated maiden voyage of 1912, have become as inevitable as the impact with the iceberg. The familiarity with certain characters and absence of others is something the audience must overcome; the task of transporting us aboard a floating city in the middle of the Atlantic, and then sinking it, is a far bigger challenge.

Two gangways, leading up to other gangways high above our heads, are the only set that greet the audience upon taking their seats. In the center of the bare, intimate, Signature stage, surrounded by audience on four sides, lie the blueprints for Titanic. With the expectations for the audience set, the minimalist approach  is executed expertly throughout act one. With the opening of trap doors, for the shoveling of coal in the boiler room, with the wooden benches of the 3rd class passengers, or the lowering of a chandelier to take us into first class finery, Paul Tate dePoo III’s set, in harmony with Amanda Zieve’s terrific lighting design, transport us not only around the different areas of Titanic, but the social standing of its’ passengers too. The costumes are a fine reflection of the period but are crying out for a splash more color to contrast against the overall blue palette.

It really is smooth sailing, as Director, Eric Schaeffer, and Choreographer, Matthew Gardiner, lead us seamlessly through each scene and the transition to the next.The movement between scenes is so precise – the synchronicity of the cast and the movement of set pieces is almost flawless –  it’s a joy to watch. Schaeffer’s experience directing in the round is clear as he is conscious of audience sight lines throughout the production. The stage is always so well balanced, almost to a fault on one or two occasions, where intimacy between characters is sacrificed for intimacy between character and audience.

The stand out performance in act one is delivered by Sam Ludwig, as Frederick Barrett. We can almost feel the sweat dripping down his face in the heat of the boiler room with his intense delivery of Barrett’s Song. The scene shortly afterwards, between Barrett and Harold Bride, played by Nick Lehan, becomes the emotional center of the first half, as he sends a telegram to the girl he is to marry, waiting for him at home. There is genuine chemistry between the two and it’s the first time that the tragedy to come really feels personal. Unfortunately the connection of these two men, meeting for the first time, is never quite matched by the relationships, and some of the vocal combinations, of the numerous couples whose fate we are asked to invest in. That is largely due to the writing (and our inability not to pine for Kate and Leo) but also due to the smaller casting of the show, with many of the actors taking on multiple roles. It’s harder to truly buy into the forthcoming tragedy of a 3rd class passenger if we also see them in first class, dining at the Captain’s table.

The act one finale, with the ensemble sounding impeccable under the music direction of James Moore, draws us back in. The cries from the crows nest, the sound of impact with the iceberg and the orchestra reaching a crescendo that the score all too often does not allow them to reach, bring an excitement and tension that make the intermission an unwelcome guest; but also an opportunity to wonder just how Titanic will sink before our eyes.

We start act two with Henry Etches, played by Christopher Mueller, rousing the sleeping passengers in Wake Up, Wake Up! Mueller is the glue of the show and excellent throughout as he displays beautifully crisp vocals and a nuanced acting performance that take us from comedy to tragedy effortlessly.

Our first insight to how the fate of the ship will unfold begins as the lights start to flicker and the chandelier moves suddenly across the ceiling. It’s a simple idea, but a brilliant one, and you can immediately feel the audience inch forwards in their seats. The highlight of the night is shortly upon us as Captain E.J. Smith (Christopher Bloch), Thomas Andrews (Bobby Smith) and J. Bruce Ismay (Lawrence Redmond) perform The Blame. They join Harold Bride, who is attempting to contact nearby ships at his desk (a set change so stealth like it defied immediate explanation) and the three men pace the stage defending their role in the impending disaster while accusing the others. All three are at their passionate best but it’s Smith’s pain we feel the most, in a song that finally allows emotion to replace literal story telling.

We are somewhat robbed of a truly defining sinking moment. Instead we are treated to the most ambitious staging of the night. Luggage, chairs and ultimately passengers descend from the ceiling to create an underwater world, as Smith delivers Mr. Andrew’s Vision telling the story of the sinking. Placing Smith on the lower level from the beginning of the number prevents us from completely immersing ourselves into the watery grave illusion but it’s technically impressive nonetheless.

Ultimately, Titanic is not quite the roller-coaster of raw emotion we want it to be. The declaration that Titanic will sink and the suicide of William Murdoch feel like missed opportunities for poignancy (perhaps longer silence to allow the moments to ‘sink’ in is all that was needed), and there is not enough development of the extended array of characters we have been introduced to on our voyage to be affected by their loss. It is, however, a vocally fantastic show, with a clear and consistent vision that is executed skillfully.

 

#tothepoint Rating: 82.5/100

You can view a full breakdown of the allocated points here

Ticket Price: $94

Value Review: -$24

With our scoring system and our unique value for money guide we rate this show at $70. While Theater #tothepoint does not hesitate to recommend this show we encourage you to look for a deal on your ticket price. Titanic continues at Signature through January 29th.

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