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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: 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: When We Were Young and Unafraid

When We Were Young and Unafraid

A play about women, domestic violence and abuse, set in one kitchen location in 70s America…but this isn’t the Deep South and these are different crimes of the heart. Playwright, Sarah Treem, transports us to Whidbey Island off the coast off Washington State; the year is 1972 with America in the midst of second wave feminism and the Supreme Court ruling on Roe vs. Wade still a year away.

The kitchen in question belongs to a bed and breakfast that also serves as a safe house. Matthew Keenan’s set is rich in detail and looks lived in and welcoming. The angle of the stage right wall allows light to pour in through the window and along with the staircase leading to an unseen second floor it allows our imagination to picture the world beyond our stage. There are four locations to draw the action downstage with an armchair, a table and chairs, an island with stools and the door with a telephone on the wall next to it. Most of the plot unfolds in these spots with the rear of the stage used more functionally (to make coffee mostly) and the design works very well. The irony of the location as a backdrop for this story of women’s lib is not lost as the protagonists are at their most comfortable while baking muffins and cookies.

In the opening scene, the mother/daughter dynamic between Agnes (Sheri S. Herren) and Penny (Kaylynn Creighton) is quickly established.  Agnes is the owner of the B&B and Herren plays her in an unselfish down to earth manner that allows others the opportunity to explore the full range of their characters emotions around her. Her delivery allows the dry sense of humor of Agnes to shine through and in a rare moment when her emotions are needed to get the better of her it’s one of the most truthful moments in the play. Creighton gives an excellent performance throughout, navigating smoothly between surly and sarcastic and innocent and vulnerable, as Penny deals with the confusion of a teenage girl who has grown up around so many abused women.

Mary Anne (Jenna Berk) is the latest woman to arrive seeking accommodation and the help of Penny. Berk plays the disconnected moments of the character convincingly and the scene where she passes on her ‘wisdom’ to Penny on how to get a boy to ask her out is truly unsettling. We’re never supposed to feel comfortable enough to like Mary Anne and Berk walks that line well, but it is her reactions to the triggers that force her to relive the horror of what she has endured that don’t feel genuine. Her vocal delivery and physical performance in these moments unfortunately just don’t work.

Hannah (Nora Achrati) arrives looking for work and declaring that the future of feminism can only be achieved by stopping having sex with their oppressors and becoming lesbians. Looking and sounding like Huckleberry Finn’s big sister, Achrati steals the show with her southern drawl and wonderful comic timing. There is heart and honesty in her work that make it a truly winning performance. Tom Hadjimichael plays Paul, the only man in the play, and he portrays just a hint of a potential darkness under the charm the playwright warns us about to leave us guessing throughout as to his true nature.

Director, Marie Sproul, needed to drive the dialogue more, especially in the opening scenes. The pacing feels like people taking turns to speak and because of that the conversations lack a certain authenticity. There is unnecessary movement in some key moments and the best example of this is where Mary Anne realizes just where her advice has taken Penny. This intense moment and connection between characters is broken by a cross and counter where simple eye contact and standing their ground would have been so much more powerful. The scene transitions are handled well and Jordana Abrencia’s sound design moves us throughout the days as popular 70s tunes give way to sounds of crickets or bird song.

Ultimately the twists in the plot are not strong enough to justify the amount of setup in the first act – but that is a flaw in the writing not the production. Taking on and shining a light on these issues makes this work worthwhile and important and the performance of Nora Achrati is worth the entrance fee…if you pay the right price for your ticket.

#tothepoint Rating 67/100

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

Ticket Price: $45

Value Rating: -$11

With our scoring system and our unique value for money guide we rate this production at $34. Tickets are available on Groupon and Gold Star for $28 making the show good value for money if you can grab this deal. When We Were Young and Unafraid continues at the Keegan 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.

Anonymous

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As local actors, directors and production staff, getting honest feedback for our work has been elusive. Family and friends are always positive and our theatre families offer unconditional support for our work.  We have found the vast majority of the reviews in our region to simply be an extension of our theatre family. As performers we wanted something else from reviews of our work. We wanted help to get better.

When we are not working in or on a production we want to see other people’s work. As a theatre goer how are we to discern, from the vast number of shows available, where we should spend our money when the scale used to rate a show starts at 4 out of 5? As a customer we wanted something else from a review. We wanted something better.

Through many post show conversations, listening to our fellow actors and directors and production team members, we found we were not alone in our desire for something different. The frustrations that we shared were shared by others too. We didn’t want to be the people to attempt something different; we wanted someone else to fill that void. We believe the majority of our peers want honest and constructive opinions but we knew it would be a jolt to some to see a change in the review culture of the region. We were concerned it could potentially adversely affect our ability to continue to work on and off the stage if we were the ones to address this.

By the end of 2016 we decided we couldn’t wait any longer.  We concluded, in the short term at least, the only way we could write the honest and constructive reviews we wanted to write, and continue to work with those who we were writing about, was to do so anonymously. We knew this could call into question the credibility and integrity of the reviews but trusted that the writing, over time, would dispel those concerns. The vast majority of the feedback we have received has been positive. We have received correspondence from multiple directors asking if we would come and review their future shows. These people want honest opinions and those who don’t or who are offended by the anonymity don’t have to read them.

They are, after all, just opinions.

Thank you for taking this journey with us, we genuinely want to improve our art and ensure the public sees the best our professional and community theatres have to offer.

Anonymous.

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.

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