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Arts and Culture (Theatre Reviews)

Bringing the Book of Matthew to Life

Godspell was originally a college project by the show’s author, John-Michael Tebalak, then a student at Carnegie-Mellon in Pittsburgh. Another student, Steven Schwartz, was brought in later to add a score, which of course includes such musical staples as Day By Day and Light of the World. Debuting off-Broadway in 1971, Godspell was a smash. It still is all these years later because of its simple staging, relatively uncomplicated music and the universal and timeless message of the Book of Matthew.

Given its youthful heritage, it might be a bit surprising to see that some of the cast members in Pasadena Theater Company’s lively production are almost twice the age Jesus was when he died. However, Godspell is a play about community as much as anything else, and community is ageless, as are the parables from the Book of Matthew with which Jesus teaches his charges. The 10 people assembled by director Chuck Dick are indeed a community, and this cast’s energy and commitment make us in the audience feel a part of that community as well.

Comedy is at the core of the first act. A more sober undertone of betrayal and resurrection shadows the second. Both work well because of the talented cast, a tight band and that simple staging.

Every Godspell needs an effective Jesus, one around whom the crazies can orbit, and John Andrew Rose provides just the right amount of wisdom and calm to anchor this production. He delivers his lessons with obvious love, sings his numbers with a strong, clear voice and is as adept at laughing along with his small community of followers as he is making us feel the searing pain of his crucifixion.

As John the Baptist, and later Judas, Frank Antonio is a strong presence, especially animated when he is forced to betray Jesus after accepting 30 pieces of silver to do so. Antonio’s bit of mime as Judas feels trapped in the box he has built for himself is particularly touching.

The rest of the cast each have their individual moments, from Joe Rose’s emotional and soaring All Good Gifts, to Lindsey Miller’s crystalline soprano on the rocking Bless the Lord, to Christy Stouffer’s faithful rendition of the hit Day By Day.

When Jesus and John the Baptist join together in the soft-shoe number All for the Best, we can tell we’re hearing something special, even though the band often overwhelms the two, especially Antonio’s double time diatribe about the rich as it patters alongside Jesus’ straight time. In such an intimate setting, one would hope that these issues can be ironed out, because too many words of too many songs get drowned out. The people who wrote these words, whether in biblical times or in the early ’70s, chose them carefully in this play to make a point. That point shouldn’t be blunted by unbalanced sound.

The occasional use of a microphone helps in some spots, but occasional use probably needs to be upped to almost regular use in the case of some soloists, especially when members of the band sing the beautiful and haunting In the Willows. The microphone is right there, on a stand, ready and waiting to be used. Might as well use it because it’s a song whose lyrics are as beautiful as the music.

Sound technicalities aside, this is a talented group who work together seamlessly, truly representing what Tebalak had in mind when he wrote the play: community. That’s something we need more of these days, and the timelessness of Jesus’ teachings is brought to life beautifully here, and will touch you regardless of your religious, philosophical or political leanings.


About 2 hours 30 minutes with one intermission. Costumes: Christy Stouffer and cast. Music director: Tom Jackson. Choreographer: Jason Kimmell.

Thru July 23: FSa 8pm, Su 3pm, Pasadena Theatre Company, Humanities Recital Hall, AACC, Arnold, $20 w/discounts, rsvp: www.PTCShows.com.

Be sure to see this lovely ­production of an American classic

Love is a flower that grows in any soil,

works its sweet miracles undaunted by autumn frost or winter snow,

blooming fair and fragrant all the year,

and blessing those who give and those who receive.

            —Louisa May Alcott

 

A coming of age story of four New England sisters at the time of the Civil War, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women explores family, charity, duty and femininity from their perspective. But without question, what ties this family and this story together is love: fervent love for each other and love of their faith, community and country. Each sister, each character even, wrestles with who they are and the choices they make in terms of impacts on those around them. Their struggle for individuality while attempting to balance their responsibility to their family creates many thought-provoking situations.

            Set in 1861, Twin Beach Players’ production interprets Part One of the Alcott’s beloved novel. The story begins as sisters Jo (Olivia McClung), Meg (Brianna Boyer), Beth (Ashley Vernier) and Amy (Riley Nikolaus), plan for Christmas. The holiday is to be celebrated without their father, Mr. March (Andrew Brinegar), who has become a chaplain to be of service to his country in the Civil War. Though frustrated by their modest circumstances, the girls take what little money they have and buy gifts for their mother, Marmee (Taylor Baker), who spends her time caring for the family and volunteering in the community. Aunt March (Aaliyah Roach), a cantankerous relative and Jo’s employer, visits with gifts plus unwelcome opinions.

            Before long, two soon-to-be friends and suitors, Laurie (Cameron Walker) and his tutor John Brooke (EJ Roach) are introduced. The men live with a kindly but reclusive neighbor, Laurie’s uncle, Mr. Lawrence (Travis Lehnen). Rounding out the characters is the faithful family servant Hannah (Elizabeth Cullens).

            The story twists and turns as petty disagreements between the sisters are dwarfed by the threat of illness and loss. Then the sisters discover the lengths they will go for the family they love.

            Director Rachel Clites-Cruz has assembled a wonderful team of technical artists and actors to bring this story to life.

            Wendy Cranford has designed and Frank Antonio constructed a colorful and warm set excellently furnished with antiques. Cranford also designed make-up allowing the cast of teenagers to portray a wide range of ages, for the most part very well. Costumes by Dawn Denison are charming and well-tailored, as are sound and lighting design, always a challenge in Twin Beach Players’ multi-use space. The teens running the show do a great job.

            The young cast, including many faces familiar to Twin Beach audiences, is capable and engaging. Though a bit stiff in Act I, the four sisters and their mother soon settle into their characters. By Act II, real smiles and genuine emotions rise. The introduction of the two young men, Walker and Roach, bring the leading characters out of their shells with some of the best and most honest exchanges of the show. This is particularly true for Meg and John Brooke, who make the audience take a collective sigh when they gaze into each other’s eyes. Olivia McClung’s performance is very strong as the free-spirited Jo. Brianna Boyer is captivating as Meg. Ashley Vernier and Riley Nikolaus as the younger March sisters both find their stride later in the play as their characters become featured in the tale. Keep an eye out for touching storytelling by Travis Lehnen and some nice moments from Elizabeth Cullens. 

            If love is the flower that grows in any soil, as Alcott says, it has certainly found a home here at Twin Beach Players, where this dedicated group has shared their affection for her story. Be sure to head out to see this lovely production of an American classic.

 

Thru June 25: FSa 7pm, Su 3pm, Twin Beach Players, 9021 Dayton Ave., North Beach, $15 w/discounts, rsvp: www.twinbeachplayers.org.

 

Parking may be difficult on Friday nights due to the popular North Beach Farmers Market.

Practically Perfect in every way

It’s always dangerous to take on a classic; the chances of disappointment are so great. Who could ever compete with Dick Van Dyke and Julie Andrews as Bert the Chimney Sweep and Mary Poppins? Popular brother-and-sister team Nathan Bowen and Emily Mudd, that’s who.

            And what about this new script (2005) with its added plot twist and songs? Won’t the audience revolt? No. They gobble it up like a Spoonful of Sugar. This is a story that never grows old and hands down the most thrilling and professional amateur musicals I have ever had the privilege of reviewing.

            “Sometimes families are upside down for a time,” Mary Poppins says, and that’s when she comes in to help right them with her magical ways. Poor Jane and Michael Banks (Sophia Riazi-Sekowski and Nathaniel Burkhead) have a nanny problem. Or more precisely, nannies have a problem with them.

            Their mother Winifred (Mary Schmidt Wakefield) would just as soon have no nanny at all. A former actress, she would rather play with her children than host society teas. But husband George (John Dickson Wakefield) is nothing if not proper. All the best families have nannies; they ensure precision and order and quiet in a way that the housekeeper, Mrs. Brill (Penni Barnett), and the butler, Roberts Ay (Davis Wooten Klebanoff), cannot.

            Mary Poppins answers a want ad the children wrote but never posted for The Perfect Nanny. After beginning her mission, though, Mary Poppins — in a major digression from the film — goes AWOL for a time, replaced by the horrid Miss Andrew (Alexa Haines), the holy terror of George’s childhood and a woman so evil her medicine bottle billows noxious fumes.

            A half dozen new numbers like Miss Andrew’s Brimstone and Treacle enhance the hallmark standards, which on this stage are as much about dancing as singing. Choreographer and Broadway veteran Andrew Gordon can’t help being a center of attention with his stylized prancing, leaps and high kicks. He leads a fine-tuned ensemble of 30 additional cast members in such spectacular group numbers as Step in Time; Let’s Go Fly a Kite with Alan Barnett as the park keeper; and Jolly Holiday, spotlighting the phenomenal Tyler White as the dancing statue Neleus.

            Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, featuring Lydia West as the venerable storekeeper Mrs. Corry, is — well, you know — complete with a Cancan chorus line and pictograms. Carole Long as the Bird Woman delivers a sweet Feed the Birds under a laser-light flight of white doves and accompanied by a church choir worthy of St. James of Piccadilly. The bankers’ theme, Precision and Order, led by the Chairman (Thom Eric Sinn), is seriously funny. This show has more energy than BGE, and at a fraction of the price.

            Visionary imagination and meticulous attention to detail help make this production enchanting. Watch for magical touches like Mary Poppins’ bottomless bag of furnishings and a kitchen disaster that cleans itself. A cadre of hooded Druid-looking figures lends a mildly sinister tone as stagehands moving props and occasionally people — perhaps even to death in one case. There are six opulent sets and over a hundred stunning Edwardian costumes.

            And what splendid casting! Mudd is indeed Practically Perfect, and Bowen’s sweet gentility is crystal clear. The husband and wife team of Wakefields exudes domesticity and testiness as only true marrieds can. All of the leads, even the children, are poised and possessed of charmed voices. In fact, young Riazi-Sekowski performs like a pro rather than a budding scientist entering Greenbelt’s Eleanor Roosevelt High School. Burkhead, an Alexandria sixth grader, has the pure voice of a choirboy. Their presence on an Anne Arundel stage is testament to the drawing power of 2nd Star’s excellent reputation for musical theatre, which will no doubt be recognized again for this production come awards season.

            The show’s only weakness is an under-rehearsed and over-enthusiastic orchestra that sometimes drowns out the actors, a problem that should abate as the Pygmalion effect kicks in.

            If you enjoy musical theater, you can’t afford to miss this tour de force.


            Mary Poppins: a musical based on the stories of P.L. Travers and the Walt Disney Film by Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman, Julian Fellowes, George Stiles, Anthony Drewe and Cameron Mackintosh. Runs two hours and 45 minutes.

            Director: Fred Nelson. Music director: Sandy Melson Griese. Choreographer: Andrew Gordon. Producer: Gene Valendo. Stage manager: Joanne D. Wilson. Set: Jane B. Wingard. Costumes: Linda Swann. Makeup, hair and hats: Sascha Nelson. Lights and Sound: Garrett R. Hyde.

            Playing thru July 1: FSa (except July 1) 8pm, Su and Sa July 1 3pm, 2nd Star Productions, Bowie Playhouse, 16500 White Marsh Park Dr., $22 w/discounts, rsvp: www.2ndstarproductions.com.

Peter Pan’s fantastical origins — with crackling one-liners, slapstick staging, flatulence and actors in drag

“If you like your Peter Pan with crackling one-liners, slapstick staging, actors in drag and flatulence, then Peter and the Starcatcher is for you. The one-liners are no surprise, since the children’s book on which this 2012 Broadway Tony-winner was based was co-written by humor columnist Dave Barry. What is a surprise is that the broad humor of this production works well, even though the story is a prequel to the angst-filled Peter Pan we all know and grew up with. That’s a testament to the fine cast that 2nd Star Productions and director Mary Wakefield have assembled.
    The Broadway production featured adults playing the kids’ roles. 2nd Star has a dozen age-appropriate actors, with most playing many roles in this nicely paced and cleverly staged version. It’s all convolution and fun, providing a clever telling of how Peter Pan came to be, from the dark — quite literally — first act at sea to the bright second act on an island where the characters’ ties to Peter Pan unfold.
    As Molly, the intelligent and courageous 13-year-old girl set adrift in 1885 on the rickety ship Neverland, Kelsey Meiklejohn anchors the production with an authority that belies her age. She commands the stage with a physicality and vocal power that keep things moving apace. The well-traveled, precocious Molly is aboard with her nanny (a witty yet nicely underplayed Zach Roth). When she spots one of three nameless orphan boys sold to a seaman, we begin to see the future story take hold.
    As the boy soon to be named Peter, Michael Bannigan is also compelling, bringing us the angst of a young Peter whose mistreatment by grownups leads him to never want to … well, you know. Molly’s mother, Lady Aster, is a very effective Jeanne Louise. Steven Kirkpatrick gives us the wildly clumsy yet funny pirate Black Stache, the precursor to you-know-who in the future Pan story.
    The real stars here are the ensemble, who do everything the less-is-more script calls for, from holding up rope as a door to carrying two model boats that illustrate the pirate ships in the story, to wearing yellow dishwashing gloves to indicate birds. At one point we watch Molly fly, and while we can see the two cast members acting as a lever, we don’t care because it works. It’s all highly synchronized with nary a glitch to be seen, which in turn keeps the humor coming and the story moving.
    This is not a musical in the traditional sense of the word, but there are songs, and they are very nicely delivered. At one point the cast gives us just a glimpse of a beautiful choral number that leaves us wanting more. That’s where the intelligence of this show lies: It keeps moving.
    So, bring the kids? Sure, if they’re, say eight or nine or older. What kid doesn’t like Peter Pan — or a fart joke?


Costumes: Mary Wakefield. Set design: Jane Wingard. Music design: Patrick Hughes.
 
About 2 hours 15 minutes with one intermission. Thru Feb. 24: FSa 8pm, Su 3pm, plus Feb. 25 3pm, Bowie Playhouse, Whitemarsh Park, $22 w/discounts, rsvp: www.2ndstarproductions.com.

Taking on the rise and fall of your political ideals

It’s always good to make an audience think. In The City of Conversation, Colonial Players makes us do just that with a story that is well told, emotional and often laugh-out-loud funny — as well as relevant, with its look at how politics can split families.
    Novelist and playwright Anthony Giardina’s script is set in the elegant Georgetown townhouse of Hester Ferris, a left-leaning socialite whose legendary dinner parties are modeled after those of real-life doyenne and former ambassador Perle Mesta. At her soirees, the upper crust from both political stripes discussed, debated and drank with passion but without rancor.
    We begin in 1979. Jimmy Carter is in the White House, but Ronald Reagan is rising. Next we come to the fight over Robert Bork’s Supreme Court nomination, finally to President Obama’s 2009 inauguration.
    Making his Colonial Players directing debut, Ruben Vellekoop, keeps the action moving through it all — and through Colonial’s theater in the round.
    As Ferris, Kathleen Ruttum anchors the production with authority yet vulnerability. She is a well-regarded woman who can feel her power and effectiveness, and the civility of debate, slipping. The liberal political world that once revolved around her dining room table is falling to neoconservatism. Finally partisanship supersedes civil conversation.
    As Ferris’s liberalism was once the sun around which political Washington revolved, Ruttum’s performance is the one around which the others revolve. Politics turns personal when her son Colin (Josh Mooney) introduces a fiancée (Rebecca Gift). The younger woman is ambitious, conservative and not afraid to challenge Hester’s status quo.
    Mooney is an excellent comic actor known for his superior performances in musical comedies at Annapolis Summer Garden Theater. It is good to see him acting with more depth. He does so successfully, in two roles. First he is Colin, whose politics aligns more closely with his fiancée’s than his mother’s. (When he said, “The President gets to choose his Supreme Court,” the audience laughed in recognition.) Later he plays Colin’s son Ethan, who returns with his boyfriend to visit his grandmother.
    Gift’s Anna, the fiancée, is suitably ambitious and cynical, belittling Hester’s once-lofty position as well as her ideas. Her repartee with Hester takes on the acidity that reflects the changing mores.
    A fine supporting cast is led by a droll Karen Kellner as Jean, Hester’s sister, who also runs the house. Paul Banville is Chandler, a liberal senator and Hester’s longtime partner. Jeff Sprague and Carlotta Capuano make the most of a brief appearance as a senator from Kentucky and his wife. David Foster plays Ethan’s friend Donald late in the play, and young Ian Brown nicely plays six-year-old Ethan (a role he splits with Henry MacDonald).
    Yes, it’s always good to make the audience think. But not so good to make us guess.
    Vellekoop uses empty picture frames to delineate Hester’s home. Nice and effective, until, during their exits throughout the production, the actors each remove a frame and take it offstage. The audience murmurs, wondering — guessing — what it all means and why Hester’s guests are stealing her paintings.
    A letter to reviewers — unseen by the audience and not explained in the program — explains something about the frames representing the masks that characters hide behind. The audience didn’t get it. One playgoer who asked an usher got a word with the stage ­manager. There is no need for this kind of device when a fine cast is telling a good story.
    The music, too, was off. Songs from the 1960s and ’70s seem out of place in a show that begins in 1979. If there is some meaning in the lyrics, it does not come across. The choice to interrupt, with an obscene rap song no less, the very tender final moment of the show, is again, questionable.
    Less is more. Let the moment speak for itself.
    Quibbles aside, The City of Conversation is an enjoyable experience. Funny, emotional and sparked with debate, it received a standing ovation the night I attended.


About two hours with one intermission. Stage manager: Atticus Cooper Boidy. Lighting: Alex Brady. Costumes: Carrie Brady. Set: Mary Butcher.

Thru Jan. 28: FSa 8pm, Su 2pm, plus 8pm Jan. 26, 108 East St., Annapolis; $20 w/discounts; rsvp: 410-268-7373; www.thecolonialplayers.org.

Timeless ideals well told and beautifully sung

“Camelot, located nowhere in particular, can be anywhere,” wrote a scholar on Arthurian times. Fortunately for us it resides until January 22 in Annapolis at Compass Rose Theater.
    Director Lucinda Merry-Browne’s rousing revival takes a scaled-down approach to this Broadway blockbuster, proving that less is more. A cast of 10, a seven-foot grand piano grandly played and a spare set bring this passionate and humorous classic to life.
     The final collaboration of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, Camelot is a timeless story. Its message of optimism and hope, despite betrayal, is as clear and needed in 2016 as it was on opening night in 1960. Personifying that message is the boyish King Arthur, determined to create a kingdom where “violence is not strength and compassion is not weakness.”
    This is a “musical” in every sense of the word, with Lerner’s beautiful lyrics carried by Loewe’s memorable melodies. Compass Rose focuses on those songs, with a cast of wonderful voices accompanied by that lone piano so expertly played by Sangah Purinton. The piano is on stage but hidden from the audience behind the set, giving us the perfect mix of music and voices in Compass Rose’s intimate space.
    Carl Pariso is a boyish but effective King Arthur whose initial banter with Merlyn (Tim Garner) is humorous but meaningful. Pariso’s take on “I Wonder What the King Is Doing Tonight” is a very funny assumption —that he is all his subjects think about. It makes quite the juxtaposition to his “Finale Ultimo,” the title song, when Arthur tells Tom (a small yet animated role made quite compelling by Sarah Grace Clifton), a young knight, to share the story “that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot.”
    As Guenevere, Anna DeBlasio charms her way into Arthur’s heart with a coquettish love that gives way to a deeper passion for Lancelot and the betrayal that crumbles Camelot’s ideals. Deblasio’s beautiful soprano toys joyfully with “The Simple Joys of Maidenhood,” and soars with the lovely “I Loved You Once in Silence.” She and Pariso are endearing as a couple, but her performance is so honest and compelling that her betrayal of Arthur seems understandable rather than disappointing. As Lancelot, Joe Ventricelli equals Arthur’s early humor with the boastful “C’est Moi.” But his baritone pierces the hearts of all when he delivers one of the most lasting songs of this score, “If Ever I Would Leave You.”
    The supporting cast is impressive as well, with most playing several roles, including the aforementioned Garner as the diabolical Mordred, Joe Rossi playing Pellinore and an in-drag Morgan Le Fey. Special mention must be made of Jaecob Lynn, whose clear tenor reaches to the skies during “Guenevere,” when, quite operatically, the trial and rescue of the queen are narrated.
    Costumes are beautiful and appropriate, the lighting is subtle yet effective and the movement across the two-story stage is clever. But the highlights of this production are its simplicity: A good story, well told and very well sung that transcends time and space and fits beautifully on the Compass Rose stage.


About two-and-a-half hours with one intermission.

Music director: Anita O’Connor. Costume design: Renee Vergauwen, Katie Boothroyd, Beth Terranova, Elizabeth Holt and Mary Ruth Cowgill. Light design: Jason Lynch. Choreographer: Tim Garner.

Thru Jan. 22 FSa 8pm; SaSu 2pm; Th Jan. 19 7pm, Compass Rose Theater, Westgate Circle, Annapolis, $38 w/discounts, rsvp: www.compassrosetheater.org.

Our best family night at the theater — ever

Anight at the theater — or anywhere, for that matter — is always an adventure when you have children in tow. A few weeks ago, our family of four attended a musical production in Baltimore that left me wondering if I had made a big mistake thinking my sons would enjoy the theater.
    Dad slept through the whole thing, the younger said there was too much singing, and the elder commented all the way through, despite my insistent hushing.
    So when we were invited to see Twin Beach Players’ holiday production of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever in North Beach, I was hesitant.
    Turns out I had no reason to worry. This was a performance crafted especially for the younger set.
    The boys began way more interested in the snack selection than the production to come. But once we were seated in our second row spots (they thought being so close to the stage was super-cool), their eyes were glued to the action.
    That revolves around a typical small-town Protestant church recreation of the nativity, complete with baby angels, shepherds in bathrobes and Mary and Joseph at the manger. This particular church, however, gets shaken to its core by the arrival of the Herdman children, a group of juvenile delinquents who terrorize and bully everyone they meet.
    The boys noted that it was “very meta. A Christmas play about a Christmas play.”
    They enjoyed watching the kid actors running around the stage during a faux fire in a type of Freleng Door Gag.
     “It was pretty nice,” says Jonah, the 12-year-old. “My favorite part was all the Herdmans — those are the naughty kids — discussing how they are going to change the church’s Christmas pageant. I can’t believe what they wanted the Wise Men to bring to the baby Jesus.”
    The entire cast did a delightful job bringing this hilarious story to life.
    I totally related to the stressed-out mom, Mrs. Bradley, played by Terri McKinstry, who is stretched thin trying to wrangle this production into something just short of organized chaos. Then I remembered … I was Mrs. Bradley! During my high school years, I portrayed this very woman in our own church performance of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. I wore my mom’s corduroy jumper in that role. McKinstry was much more believable in the role.
    Elle VanBuskirk, playing the lead role of Beth Bradley, was composed, engaging and quite professional. It wasn’t till the show was almost over (a speedy two hours with one intermission) that we realized that the remarkable actress portraying the manipulative and cunning Imogene Herdman was VanBuskirk’s sister Emma. These two actresses were standout performers; we expect to see them in lead roles in many future shows.
    Son Jordan, eight, had his own favorite. “The girl who plays Gladys (Melly Byram) stole the show,” he says.
    He gave the production a hearty thumbs-up, his favorite ranking system.
    “I give it 4.8 stars,” he said. “I think people of all ages should see it, but it was very funny and especially good for children. And they should call it Revenge at Bethlehem, like the Herdmans suggested.”
    Jordan was also happy that there was very little singing … until the end, when he glared at me as the cast sang Christmas carols. I had promised him it was not a musical.
    “I gave it 4.5 stars,” Jonah said. “It was a little slow in parts but it was pretty good overall. It made me feel like I should look at people a bit differently in the future. We shouldn’t judge kids who act bad or are messy.”
    Thanks, Twin Beach Players, for opening his eyes — and for showing me that there is plenty of room in the theater for kids.


Fri. Dec. 2 & Sat. Dec. 3 7pm; Sun. Dec. 4, 3pm, Boys and Girls Club, North Beach, $15 w/discounts, rsvp: ­www.twinbeachplayers.com.

Midshipmen take on Shakespeare on youth, war and relations between the sexes

Megan Geigner, the new director of the U.S. Naval Academy’s midshipman theater group The Masqueraders, grabbed the helm with deft touch and a focused vision, staging a delightfully energetic version of Shakespeare’s popular comedy, Much Ado About Nothing. She chose the play because it’s about young people, more specifically young people coming home from war, and about gender relations.
    Instead of the Bard’s Messina, Geigner has cleverly changed the setting to New Mexico just at the end of World War I. Changing Shakespeare’s setting can come off as artsy and presumptuous, but in this case it works well. The very nice southwestern-themed set by Andrew Cohen frames a production that, without changing Shakespeare’s meaning, opens up ample opportunities, most especially for some hilarious constables turned cowpokes.
    The Bard’s story of love, mistaken identities, gender conflict and status moves at rapid pace with crisp characterizations. Hero, the daughter of a nobleman, is in love with Claudio, a well-respected young nobleman. Her cousin Beatrice is in love with the sharp-tongued Benedick, whose witty and insulting repartee can’t disguise his love for her as well. Their back-and-forth banter, and Beatrice’s independence, wit and intensity make her perhaps the first suffragette ever to be included in a Shakespeare play, perfect again for this setting.
    As Hero and Beatrice, Clara Navarro and Julia Kalshoven brilliantly play two tough, strong-willed women. As Beatrice’s beloved Benedick, Jonathan Mendez adds nice comedic touches and confused patter to the befuddled character. Nick Hajek convinces us of Claudio’s willingness to sacrifice love for ego when faced with hearsay about his betrothed’s unfaithfulness. The chemistry between each couple is made nicely palpable by the actors.
    The real laughable foolishness comes with Shakespeare’s comic characters, the constables. Evan Wray is a hilarious Dogberry, the Master Constable whose smug self-satisfaction in most productions is replaced here by a frenetic, animated cowpoke in charge of a sad-sack cast of watchmen. Wray stops moving only long enough for his constantly falling cowboy hat to be replaced by a deputy. His performance as he instructs his charges how to do their jobs— sleeping on duty is fine, and never touch a criminal lest you become defiled by association — is a tumblin’ tumbleweed of  fun.
    The rest of the 17-person cast provides solid support and keeps the comedy flowing and the story unfolding apace, though in a few places more volume and projection would help the audience follow along. Lights by Jake Potter, Tony Wolfe and David Ogden nicely highlight the actors, set and moods, and Jacy’s Barbers’ costumes — especially the beautiful off-white period dresses of the ladies — work very well.
    The Nothing in Shakespeare’s title is the subject of debate: Some believe it refers not to the emptiness ascribed to it in the modern vernacular, but to the word noting, which in Shakespeare’s time was pronounced nothing but was a verb meaning to gossip, to spread rumors and to overhear. If this was Shakespeare’s intent, it makes sense because his play was not about nothing, it was about … well, something. And the USNA Masqueraders’ production is quite something.


Two and a half hours long with one intermission. Final performances Friday Nov. 18 and Saturday Nov. 19 at 8, Sunday Nov. 20 at 2, $13, rsvp: ­https://navyperforms.showare.com/eventperformances.asp?evt=35

Like a horrific accident, it makes you cringe even as you brake to see it better

When outrage-stage author Edward Albee passed away in September, the theater world mourned with a collective gasp, as if his death from old age were just another violent trick designed to snap us out of complacency. The triple Pulitzer prize-winner aimed to make audiences so uncomfortable they would “run out of the theater — but come back to see the play again.” He succeeded most notably with his first full-length production, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. The Pulitzer committee chose to grant no prize in 1963 rather than award it to Albee.
    Virginia Woolf, wrapping up its run at Colonial Players this weekend, is a ­surreal stress-fest about a middle-aged couple of psychological sado-masochists at a quaint New England college who entangle a pair of unsuspecting newlyweds in their calamitous sport. The ensuing mental warfare and infidelity, stemming from ancient domestic skirmishes, is booby-trapped with antagonistic gibes, outrageous lies, professional sniping and personal sabotage. Like a horrific accident, it makes you cringe even as you brake to see it better.
    It all starts one Sunday morning at two o’clock when Martha (Debbie Barber-Eaton), the college president’s feisty daughter, informs her weary husband George (Joe Mariano), a history professor, that she has invited the new faculty couple, Nick (Ron Giddings) and Honey (Sarah Wade), over for a post-party nightcap. George balks, but Martha rules, drunkenly and teetering with schizophrenic fervor between love and hate. The feeling is mutual, and George, less a victim than he appears, ultimately proves more acerbic and dangerous than even Martha could imagine, increasingly so as night lifts to morning amid broken and empty liquor bottles.
    As campus royalty, Barber-Eaton is a superb braying siren with a magical hold on her subjects and surprising frailty that she drowns in gin. Mariano delights as the only man who can tolerate her, percolating with ironic menace like sunrise coffee laced with arsenic. Giddings is every inch the uptight opportunist with Ivy League breeding and athletic bearing. Wade is adorably vulnerable as his naïve wifey. So impressive is this foursome that they just may sweep this year’s WATCH awards for acting.
    The only catch in casting, which would not be a big deal save for significant references in the script, is the unfortunate fact that the slim-hipped and therefore implicitly weaker of the two women plays Martha rather than Honey.
    The set is homey and collegiate with costumes richly detailed and period appropriate. Sound and lighting effects are few and unnecessary, as the characters provide all the pyrotechnics. It’s quite remarkable to watch these people drink, an average of six stiff drinks each in the three and a half hours it takes for the action to unwind. Yes, you read that right: for by the time the sun rises, presumably at 5:30, the audience has endured this emotional roller-coaster in real time, and that is most unfortunate.
    The script bills this as a three-hour production, already longer than most, yet Director Craig Allen Mummey chooses to draw out the dialog for dramatic effect at the expense of audience comfort. That trade-off many resented on the weeknight I resented.
    Still, this is theater at its best. Come fresh, without the kids.


Director: Craig Allen Mummey. Stage managers: Bernadette Arvidson and Kevin Brennan. Set designer: Barbara Colburn. Sound: Ben Cornwell. Lights: Alex Brady. Costumes: Carrie Brady.

Playing thru Nov. 12, Th-Sa 8pm, Colonial Players, 108 East St. Annapolis, $20 with discounts, rsvp: 410-268-7373; thecolonialplayers.org.

This comic opera sparkles like sunshine on the sea with all the charm that made it a hit more than a century ago

You may have never heard of Arthur Sullivan and W.S. Gilbert, but you’ve certainly heard of Gilbert and Sullivan. The two had a run of comic opera hits in England whose popularity propelled them across the pond to America, where that popularity was magnified. Because Gilbert’s father was a naval surgeon, life on the seas and the politics of power were often themes of the librettist. That’s certainly the case with H.M.S. Pinafore, the light yet acerbic jab at patrician politics and love that 2nd Star Productions in Bowie has brought to seafaring life.
    Gilbert’s propensity for detail took him to the seaside of Portsmouth to measure and record every detail of a real ship so that his sets would be as realistic when the play opened in 1878. His could have been no more lifelike than 2nd Star’s. Director Jane Wingard has designed a nearly life-size two-level ship so real it makes us feel we’re bobbing along the waves with the crew. The detail is impressive, down to other ships far off in the background.
    The gorgeous set anchors (ha, see what I did th… oh never mind) a production that is brisk as a sea breeze. Josephine (Emily Mudd), the captain’s daughter, is in love with Ralph Rackstraw (James Huchla), a lowly deckhand. But she is expected to marry The Right Honorable Sir Joseph Porter (Paul Koch), First Lord of the Admiralty. Porter’s lack of actual seafaring experience is revealed in his admonitions that each order be accompanied by a friendly “If you please.” So does his insistence that class hierarchy has no place on a ship, as all are equal. Which of course leads Josephine and Ralph to believe it’s clear sailing ahead (uh-oh, I did it ag… never mind) for their love.
    As Josephine, Emily Mudd is as bright as the North Star. One second she is perfectly and hilariously melodramatic and camp; the next she is regaling us with the beautiful and haunting ‘Sorry the Lot Who Loves Too Well.’ It’s as professional a performance as you’ll see on any stage. Her vocal chemistry with Huchla’s soaring tenor is thrilling, especially when the two square off on ‘Refrain, Audacious Tar,’ as she pretends to play hard to get when he professes his love.
    Huchla in fact leads a male chorus whose harmonies brilliantly permeate the show’s group numbers but are especially in evidence on the a capella sailors’ boast ‘A British Tar.’ 
    As Porter, Koch is quite funny, and his musical explanation of how he rose to his position through sheer ineptitude, ‘When I Was a Lad,’ is a comic delight as well — if only we could hear all of it. In giving his refined fop a constricted manner, Koch, at least on opening night, allows that manner to impede the rat-a-tat of so many of Gilbert and Sullivan’s staccato lyrics, thus forcing the audience to strain to understand what’s being sung. I hope he can crank the volume a bit; his performance is too good to miss. 
    Brian Binney brings a pleasant baritone to the role of Captain Corcoran, and to the captain’s reluctant flirtation with Pam Shilling’s beautifully sung Little Buttercup, the dockside vendor who harbors (there I go …) a deep secret. As the humpbacked, twisted-legged, one-eyed Dick Deadeye, Nicholas Mudd is so in character that the deformed leg maintains its twistedness even during the dances.
    Music director Joe Biddle understands that lyrics are key in a comic opera, so he ensures that his very good orchestra plays a less-is-more supporting role. There’s even a nice glossary of nautical and other terms in the playbill to help us track the language of the day.
    2nd Star’s H.M.S. Pinafore sparkles like sunshine on the sea. It’s a funny and very well-sung comic opera that gives us all the charm that made it a hit more than a century ago.


About two hours, including intermission. Choreographer: Christine Asero. Costumer: Hillary Glass, Lighting/sound designer: Garrett Hyde.

Thru Nov. 19: FSa 8pm, Su 3pm, plus 3pm Nov. 19, 2nd Star Productions, Bowie Playhouse, $22 w/discounts, rsvp: www.2ndstarproductions.com.