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Jonas Dawson

First Date

By Other Voices Theatre

First Date (book by Austin Winsberg and music and lyrics by Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner) is a musical comedy depicting the perils and pitfalls of modern dating life in New York City. With only one location and a small cast it is surprising that this show has not been more of a regular feature on the local scene since its’ five month Broadway run ended in early 2014. That one location is the Skyline Lounge, an upscale restaurant and bar, and it is brought to life in rich detail by set designer, Lee Hebb. The props team have ensured a fully stocked bar as the center piece of the design complete with a flat screen TV neon sign. Front and center is a high top two seat table that is flanked at the edge of the stage by other restaurant tables. The walls are adorned with artwork paying homage to musical theatre and high above the bar is a silhouetted city skyline that comes to life when the lights change and the cut out windows glow with warm amber light.

The lighting design from Steve Knapp comes close to stealing the show as areas of the stage and actors are isolated with wonderful precision. The opening number, The One, has more cues than some other shows have in their entirety and we really feel like we are sharing the innermost thoughts with each of the cast members. Technically it’s a brilliantly executed opening to the show but it feels a little tentative vocally and it’s probably the one time in the production we wish the un mic’d singers would fill the space more.

Our three musicians, music director Jonas Dawson, along with John Maestri and Natalie Spehar, are hidden in the wing stage left. The live music is a highlight of the show with the band sounding imperious, despite only being a trio, while never overpowering the on stage performers. First Impressions introduces us to our protagonists, Aaron (Nicholas Cox) and Casey (Katherine Worley) who are meeting on a blind date. Cox portrays a nervous geeky charm that makes the character endearing and he gives a sweet vocal performance. Cox is not a powerhouse and that leaves us wanting more in some of his solo moments but in general the story telling nature of the songs allow his personality to the fore and in the later duets he is the perfect foil for his cast mates. Worley arrives in a striking red dress with a healthy dose of cynicism and eye rolls that is a good starting point for her first act arc.

Two other couples are sat at tables at either edge of the stage and they transition from extras to family, friends and exes as the story unfolds. Director Susan Thornton stages these moments seamlessly with the help of those lights and the pacing is terrific. Bailout Song #1 introduces us to Casey’s gay BFF as Man #2 (Thomas Bricker) is isolated stage right for a cell phone call to see if she needs saving from her date. Bricker plays the flamboyant attitude to the max and it is likely to be a performance that will divide opinion – for the phone calls (Bailout calls 2 & 3 follow later) put us in the loved it category. These moments are ludicrously over the top but they are joyously so. Later when the character actually comes to the bar (in a more real scenario) some of the mannerisms feel a little close to the line of what some could consider offensive.

The show really hits it’s comedic and vocal stride with The Girl for You as the Oy Vey’s resonate hilariously around the theatre as if we had a full choir before Bricker transforms into a (very white) rapper. The Awkward Pause features Man #1 (James Funkhouser) strumming on the acoustic guitar with wonderful sincerity and the earnestness displayed by the rest of the cast on this parody of Simon & Garfunkel’s Hello Darkness My Old Friend is the highlight of the night.

The World Wide Web is Forever sees the pace start to meander a little. This isn’t really a show that requires much traditional choreography but we would like a little more from the movement here. The flat screen TV suddenly feels a little over used and some of the earlier excellently implemented rules about when other characters are frozen / change role seem to become inconsistent (Funkhouser keeping on the green hat instead of it being used to indicate a switch in character being a prime example) The date isn’t going very well and Safer arrives just in time to keep us invested in its’ outcome. Worley gives a solid comedic performance but she feels truly at home when the material leads her in a more emotional direction and she really connects here with her acting and singing. The original production was performed without an intermission but this is a moment that gives the show heart and is a natural place to take the break.

The glue for much of the first act was Man #3 (Stacy Carroll) in her primary role as the waiter. Carroll has excellent comic timing and delivery and looks incredibly comfortable as she owns the stage for opening song of act two, I’d Order Love. Requesting her light from the booth and music from the band she delivers a rich, smooth vocal and exudes stage presence. It is difficult to justify why the role was not changed to make her character a woman. It likely would have required some minor adjustments but it is hard to see how this wouldn’t have been the right choice. The other women in the production are also vocal stand outs. Woman #2 (Tori Weaver) is full of wonderful little quirks as the ex-girlfriend Allison, while Woman #1 (Taylor Knapp) sings with a beautiful clarity that seems effortless on The Things I Never Said as Aaron’s Mother.

When the final scene moves outside of the bar we appreciate the white city skyline painted on the stage right wall as it helps us buy into the change of location. Cox and Worley deliver their best vocal of the night on Something that Will Last as they finally are able to let their real life connection (yes they are a couple according to the bios) inhabit their performance.

This is a high quality technical production working in great harmony with Thornton’s direction. Dawson has great voices to work with throughout the supporting cast to find some wonderful company moments while the additional round of applause for the band when the music ended after the curtain call was richly deserved.

We rate this show at $32 and with ticket prices at $22 a +$10 value rating. Tickets will likely be hard to come by. First Date continues at Other Voices Theatre until February 17th. https://www.othervoicestheatre.org/

Review: Heathers The Musical

Heathers

The 1988 movie, Heathers, starring Winona Ryder and Christian Slater achieved cult status with Gen Xers and the musical that had an Off-Broadway run in 2014 has perhaps surpassed that with Millennials who have embraced this story as their own. That is certainly the vibe tonight inside the Maryland Ensemble Theatre with a raucous sold out crowd. Despite the MET’s mainstage season finishing just two weeks ago this MET X production of Heathers The Musical is the second show to open on this stage in the period since. That hectic schedule perhaps contributed to the minimalist nature of Cecelia Lee’s set which featured painted walls with colorful squares outlined in grey and two platforms at the rear of the stage that looked like the backdrop for an 80s music video.

Veronica Sawyer (Georgiana Summers) opens the show with her spoken diary entry and we are introduced to the array of high school students in Beautiful. It’s a strong start to the show that not only showcases the hopes and fears of these high school kids but also the excellent costume work of Cody Gilliam. The attention to detail in defining each member of the ensemble along with the many costume changes throughout the show are a real highlight of the production. The arrival of the Heathers is incredibly stylized and works well in these opening moments but once we hit the dialogue we are confronted with the extremely affected accent and movement of Heather Chandler (Drew Canning) There is no sense at any stage that this is a real person and perhaps that was intentional, as it is a consistent actor/director choice throughout the show, but it becomes exhausting to listen to and increasingly difficult to watch.

Fight for Me features some hilarious slow motion fight choreography from Steve Custer as JD (Jordan Champe) tussles with football players Ram Sweeney (Mark Sullivan) and Kurt Kelly (Andrew Zabetakis) Sullivan actually comes close to stealing the show, which is some achievement while portraying such a vacuous character, as his smooth vocals, comic timing and facial expressions are spot on for the whole performance. We get an insight into JD’s backstory via the 711 anthem, Freeze Your Brain, and while Champe certainly looks the part of the bad boy in his trench coat and dog tags he plays JD a little too sweet at times; a hint more darkness in the first act would have felt more appropriate and would have helped sell his overall journey. Champe’s gaze all too often finds the floor rather this his scene partner and although this may have been a character choice it doesn’t translate well during his vocals.

It’s a credit to the Director, Caitlyn Joy, that we buy into the each new location despite the limited visual changes. The show has a great flow and Joy uses the central MET pillar smartly throughout – especially effectively as Veronica stumbles through JD’s bedroom window during the raunchy standout song of the first act, Dead Girl Walking. As the body count begins to rise it becomes increasingly obvious that the set would have benefited greatly from a third platform surrounding the pillar. There is so much action on the floor that simply does not work from a sight line perspective in this space. Raising those moments up by a foot would have had a major positive impact on the overall production. With none of the actors mic’d up in this intimate setting there were some sound balance issues. Music Director, Jonas Dawson, forms part of an unseen 3 piece band that unfortunately overpowers the vocals at times.

The second act really kicks things up a notch with the laugh out loud number, Dead Gay Son. Tad Janes is a comic force in all his cameos but never more so than as Ram’s Dad in his moment of acceptance and sexual awakening at his son’s funeral. The song also features the best of Lena Janes’ choreography. At times Janes’ work could have benefited if the platforms had been incorporated a little more to add levels to her routines. The execution could certainly have been tighter, especially in Big Fun and Hey Yo, Westerburg, but her choreography was relevant and entertaining for the duration of the show.

Summers is a strong singer but it is her ability to bring out the emotion of her character into her lyrics that is the strength of her performance. Her tragic pleading in the beautiful Seventeen is one of the most captivating scenes of the night and her overall acting performance is full of delightful quirks with more than a passing nod to Winona Ryder’s performance in the original movie. There are more vocal highlights to come as Heather McNamara (Kaitlin McCallion) delivers a haunting rendition of Lifeboat. It’s a song that could easily be forgettable but McCallion makes it a moment and part of an impressive overall character arc. Megan McGee gives some of the best and most truthful work of the night as Martha Dunstock. McGee infuses every line with thought and feeling and delivers perhaps the strongest vocal of the show in the heartbreaking Kindergarten Boyfriend. It’s a song of introverted self-reflection that turns to imagery of taking flight and the freedom that she hopes her suicide will bring her. The static staging of the song, standing center stage in the spotlight, feels a little out of sync with the moment. Ending the song in that spot, as she takes what she thinks will be her final step, would have been a more powerful choice.

Although this is an entertaining production of Heathers The Musical featuring some fine individual performances, the show is vocally good, not great, and lacks a truly stand out ensemble moment. The show features some sexually explicit themes, especially in act one, and won’t be to everyone’s taste, but Joy handles the material well and pushes the barriers with this talented young cast without ever over stepping.

#tothepoint Rating 64/100

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

Ticket Price: $15

Value Rating: +$13

With our scoring system and our unique value for money guide we rate this show at $28 so grab a ticket if there are any left! Heathers The Musical continues at the Maryland Ensemble Theatre until July 8th.

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