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Other Voices

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: 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.

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