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Review: The Wild Party

The Wild Party

Based on Joseph Moncure March’s 1928 poem of the same name, Andrew Lippa’s musical, The Wild Party, opened off Broadway in 2000. The poem was banned for its’ decadent portrayal of the roaring 20s and we settle into our seats expecting an evening of debauchery from The Constellation Theatre Company. The main feature of Scenic Designer, Tony Cisek’s set is an art deco wall with three central stairs leading to a glittering entrance. Behind the upper half of the beautifully lit back wall is a seven piece band.

Queenie was a Blonde opens the show as the male members of the company, in their newsboy attire, surround Queenie (Farrell Parker) and it’s a somewhat uncertain start vocally from the men. The lower half of the stage right wall smartly opens to reveal a bed as we see the origin of Queenie’s sexually abusive relationship with Burrs (Jimmy Mavrikes). Mavrikes plays the light and dark of his character brilliantly and the simple removal of his red clown nose transforms his face with his perfectly sullen eye makeup accentuating every brooding moment. Out of the Blue portrays the fading of the couple’s destructive passion and Parker finds her character somewhere between victim and boredom as ‘the girl who’s caught just staring in space.’ Embracing this introspective lyric is a fine baseline for her character but we need the public façade she presents to be in stark contrast. As Parker makes her entrance at the party she doesn’t so much Raise the Roof as slightly loosen a tile or two.

Look at Me Now marks Kate’s (Kari Ginsburg) arrival and it might as well be an audience instruction for the rest of the night as it’s hard to take your eyes off of her. Ginsburg oozes charisma as the slightly washed up party girl and you can feel her character’s life experience in every single thing she does on stage. Kate has brought Black (Ian Anthony Coleman) with her and he quickly becomes transfixed by Queenie. Poor Child introduces us to Coleman’s smooth vocals and when he drops into his lower register it’s like being wrapped in a warm blanket. The climax of the song, featuring Queenie, Burrs, Kate and Black is perhaps the musical highlight of the whole night. Music Director, Walter McCoy, finds the perfect blend to the overlapping lyrics and what started as melancholy ballad evolves into electrifying raw emotion with Mavrikes in particular pouring everything he has into the moment.

Allison Arkell Stockman has done a masterful job directing this cast and making the limited rhyming dialogue feel truthful and natural. It would be very easy for the other company members to be clichés – after all their stereotypes are named when they are first introduced – but they hit every comedic beat without ever falling into that trap. Rachel Barlaam steals her moments as the predatory lesbian, Madelaine True, and her performance in An Old Fashioned Love Story is laugh out loud funny as is her comic timing throughout the evening. The Juggernaut gives the band a chance to show their full repertoire and they sound at their sultry best (unfortunately the chemistry between Parker and Coleman does not quite reach the same heights) before a breathtaking finale to the song with Ginsburg singing like a women possessed.

The d’Armano brothers (Tiziano D’Affuso & Christian Montgomery) pitch their idea for a musical with A Wild, Wild Party and lighthearted storytelling gives way to high octane choreography. Ilona Kessell’s routines are relevant and entertaining all night but this is the highlight as the energy and execution are spectacular and it’s hard to tell if the audience or the cast are having the most fun. This feels like such a natural end to the first act it comes as somewhat of a surprise to find everyone is still on the stage. Two of a Kind seems destined to be an anticlimax but Eddie (Calvin Malone) and Mae (Emily Zickler) don’t allow that to happen and find their own moment in a thoroughly adorable routine. What is it About Her? is powerfully staged by Stockman, using the full depth of the space, as Burrs and Queenie sing about their relationship while sat with Kate and Black respectively. It is Parker’s best moment of the night as her tragic vocals intertwine wonderfully with Mavrikes’ passionate pleading.

Any thought that the momentum would be lost by the intermission is blown away as Ginsburg completely owns the stage in The Life of the Party. It’s the type of performance that should have her name at the top of any list when award season comes around. The arrival of a bathtub center stage moves the action to the bathroom and after Burrs fails to get his way with Queenie a smart lighting change transports him back into his role as performer as he briefly faces the audience before launching into the self-destructive anthem Let Me Drown. Kessell’s choreography is terrific again as despite the largely flat space she creates depth and levels with her actors as they crouch around the tub before Burrs climbs on top of it and is transported around the stage as the captain of his vessel. The slow motion fight scene that follows, choreographed by Robb Hunter, adds yet another layer to this production and A.J. Guban’s lighting, which is on point throughout, complements it perfectly with strobe effects.  Queenie leads Black to the bedroom and Come with Me certainly brings out the sex in Coleman’s voice but that doesn’t really translate into the physicality between him and Parker and the scene ultimately feels a little awkward. The tension is soon restored as the Queenie, Black, Burr, triangle reaches its’ tragic finale in Make Me Happy. Mavrikes is utterly believable as the unhinged Burrs as he threatens to Kill Black and himself and it’s a performance every bit as compelling as Ginsburg’s.

Constellation has pulled off something special. There is a great depth of talent in this cast and this production team has given them the platform to shine. With two unmissable performances and tickets available at an absolute steal it’s one of the must see shows of the season.

#tothepoint Rating: 82.5/100

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

Ticket Price: $55

Value Review: +$15

With our scoring system and our unique value for money guide we rate this show at $70. We have based the value rating of +$15 on the highest priced tickets of $55. This show is terrific value at this price but there are tickets available for this show at just $25! See this show while you can. The Wild Party continues at Constellation until October 29th.

Review: Into The Woods

Into The Woods

It’s Saturday night at the JBK Theatre on the Campus of the Frederick Community College and time for us to venture Into the Woods. The 1998 Stephen Sondheim musical, which intertwines many of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales, got a new lease of life after the release of the 2014 Disney movie and it’s the Fredericktowne Players opening show of their 2017/18 season.  The first impression is a positive one as the set design by Morgan Southwell and Steve Knapp is simple but visually impressive.  The back wall and flats feature intricately painted woodland scenes and there are two platforms, one across the rear of the stage, and another, like a catwalk, leading down center.

The curtain speech is delivered by a man in a grey suit and as the lights fade they are quickly brought back up to reveal he is in fact our narrator (Bob Ashby) for the evening. This is a nice touch but although the suit clearly distinguishes Ashby as separate from the rest of the action it makes him feel disconnected with the delivery more sale figures in the boardroom than imaginative storytelling. The lighting design of Steve Knapp works well in conjunction with the set giving the impression of sunlight finding its’ way through a canopy of branches – the slight distraction of the shadows across the faces of the actors is the price to pay for the effect.

Despite the initial aesthetic impact of the set, the limitations of the one fixed location quickly become apparent. The nature of the entrances and delivery become repetitive and overly presentational. Zach Harris, making his directorial debut, addressed this to an extent by using the stairs at either end of the stage as alternative ways of transitioning the action but unfortunately this adds to the overall feel that the pace is dragging a little. Finding more opportunities to utilize choreographer Kendall Sigman would have helped the overall balance of the show but it is difficult to pinpoint in this production where Sigman influenced the movement.

Little Red (Kaitlin McCallion) ups the energy whenever she is on the stage and her interactions with the Wolf (Alex Prete) are some of the best moments of the first act. McCallion brings a lot of attitude to the role and is always engaging but at times her delivery becomes screechy and difficult to understand. There are diction issues throughout the show, at times caused by the speed and nature of the delivery and at others due to the volume of the unseen orchestra which overpowers the actors. The Baker’s Wife (Lisa Shinn) and The Baker (William Lewis) give two of the strongest performances of the night. Shinn and Lewis are very good vocally but it’s the sincerity they bring to their relationship that makes them standout. Clay Comer has a commanding stage presence and comes close to stealing the show as Cinderella’s Prince. Comer’s duet with Rapunzel’s Prince (Steve Gondre-Lewis) on Agony (and later in the reprise) is the most interesting and entertaining of the night as the two men complement each other perfectly.

Music Director, Matt Dohm, has plenty of talent to work with and it’s a very solid show vocally. The Witch (Robin Samek) sounds simply beautiful on Stay with Me and Jack (Cam Sammartano) makes every word of I Guess This is Goodbye and Giants in the Sky believable. Neither Samek nor Sammartano find this truth in their character work however, to the extent that the deaths that occur in the second act completely pass us by until they are referenced by someone else on stage. We need the musical honesty that is displayed at its’ raw best on Your Fault to carry over into the acting and we are left wanting.

There are plenty of good choices along the way – the presence of the Giant is handled simply and effectively and the magic of the witch achieved with smart sound and lighting choices. There are more confused moments where Cinderella’s Prince arrives on a carousel horse complete with coconut shell sound effects lifted halfheartedly from Spamalot.  A needless sound effect suddenly asks us to believe there is a door to the home of Jack and his Mother where such logic to comings and goings has long since been discarded by the audience.  The costumes work well for the most part (the exception being Cinderella’s dress which is the sort of thing bridesmaids have nightmares about) adding to the sense that this looks like a good show. The tickets are competitively priced and it is encouraging to see a young director given an opportunity that he will only improve from.

#tothepoint Rating: 60/100

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

Ticket Price: $15

Value Review: +$5

With our scoring system and our unique value for money guide we rate this show at $20. Into The Woods continues at FtP until October 1st.

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.

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