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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: One Man, Two Guvnors

One Man Two Guvnors

Richard Bean’s adaptation of a Servant of Two Masters won The Late Late Show’s James Corden a Tony back in 2012 and this British comedy is starting to gain popularity in theatres around the country. As the audience takes their places at the two sided Silver Spring Stage we are welcomed by a 3 piece skiffle band that are positioned off the stage between the seating sections.

Director, William T. Fleming also takes on the role of Set Designer and has the task of taking us to multiple locations around 1963 Brighton. All the sets look period appropriate and during the changes we are entertained by the skiffle band that is joined by a different member of the cast to serenade us. Unfortunately the positioning of the band makes it difficult to focus on them and not the moving of set pieces – at times they feel like background music for the changes rather than demanding our attention. The transitions are smooth enough that this isn’t in itself an issue but some of the comedic nature of the lyrics is a little lost on the distracted audience. Fleming also utilizes two video screens at various moments in the show; effectively as a window in the opening scene, and less so as a corridor in the pub and as outdoor scenery at other times. They never detract from the production but it does feel like a ‘we’ve got them so we’re going to use them’ based decision rather than truly believing they enhance the production.

Focus is required from the opening scene as the convoluted plot of love, murder, cross dressing and double crossing is unveiled.  We are in the house of Charlie Dench (Kevin Dykstra) at the engagement party for his daughter, Pauline (Lena Winter) and Alan Dangle (Daniel Riker). Dykstra is very good as the down to earth Charlie and he clearly understands his role as his moments of composing himself when discussing his wife or when attempting to understand the complexities of the science behind twins are funny because they are understated. He plays the character with just enough naivety to explain just why his daughter is so much of a ditz. Winter plays Pauline with a childlike wonder and she is vocally and physically funny to watch throughout.  Riker is all arms and legs as he prances around the stage flamboyantly as the wannabe actor, Alan, and his exchanges with Pauline are always entertaining.

We are quickly introduced to the ‘One Man’ as Francis Henshall (Nathan Tatro) breaks up the party with news that his guvnor, Roscoe/Rachel Crabbe (Kristen Pilgrim) is still alive. It’s an immensely likable performance from Tatro who looks like he is having a huge amount of fun on stage and he has us on his side from the start. Pilgrim plays the intentionally transparent gender switch well and it’s a performance full of amusing mannerisms but her delivery is too fast, especially in the first act. We meet the second guvnor, Stanley Stubbers (Anderson Wells) who is also too rapid with his dialogue. There are numerous times when the laughter is just forming in the back of our throats when it is cut off. This sets the tone for a show where the audience should be hysterically laughing out loud and turns it into one of more internal enjoyment. Wells plays all the dramatic moments of his character without missing a beat and his deep resonating voice in some of the dead pan comic moments is genuinely funny.

Maybe it’s this lack of energy from the audience that prevents the end of act one reaching a true crescendo. Fleming could afford to demand double the pace (at least) from his actors in a scene that was funny but could be elevated to chaotic hilarity. The back and forth between Francis and elderly waiter, Alfie (Lenora Spahn) and a poor unsuspecting audience member are hugely entertaining but with more drive it could be a scene we are laughing about long after we leave the theatre. There are also ongoing references to the horrors of living in Australia throughout the show and Fleming chooses to present these with each actor breaking away from the scene to face the audience and there is a dramatic lighting change as the lines are delivered. In a more conventional show this might have been a bold and effective choice but in a production where the 4th wall is obliterated with regularity it just comes across as odd. Maria V. Bissex successfully conveys the 60s theme through her costumes and for the most part the dialect coach, Pauline Griller-Mitchell, helps us believe we are on the other side of the pond.

Fleming gets good performances from all his actors and there are some very funny scenes (Tatro’s fight with himself is only outdone by the hilarious mating ritual of Pilgrim and Wells) Overall the pacing issues are holding the show back but with the benefit of opening weekend under their belt it is certainly possible this production will get stronger and surpass the value of the ticket.

#tothepoint Rating 61/100

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

Ticket Price: $25

Value Rating: -$3

With our scoring system and our unique value for money guide we rate this show at $22. Tickets are available on Groupon and Gold Star for $16.50. One Man, Two Guvnors continues at Silver Spring Stage until July 29th.

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.

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.

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