RiverArts: “Extraordinary Journey: Expressing Spirit Through Art & Medicine”

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Creativity and the healing arts is the focus of two upcoming events at RiverArts Gallery. On Thursday, August 2, at 7 p.m., participants in this collaborative project will present their work in a Creative Lives discussion and live performance. The following evening, Friday, August 3, 5-8 p.m., the exhibit—featuring painting, music, poetry, and a sound healing system—will formally open.


The concept was born out of the desire to gain a deeper understanding of a healing system that integrates sound with Chinese Medicine. The exhibit will showcase the works of painter Marj Morani, poet Meredith Davies Hadaway, and musician Jeff Davis in collaboration with Chinese medicine and Acutonics® practitioner, Valentina Morani. The works on display and in performance resulted from Acutonics (sound) and acupuncture treatments focused on the Eight Extraordinary Vessels, which are meridians that have the potential to access and enhance the creative spirit. The exhibition is on view at RiverArts Gallery through September 2.

Extraordinary Journey Expressing Spirit Through Art & Medicine is funded by The Institute for Integrative Health.

Chestertown RiverArts is located at 315 High Street, Suite 106, Chestertown, MD  21620 – (in the breezeway).  Gallery hours are Tuesday – Friday, 11 AM to 5:30 PM, Saturday 10 AM to 5:30PM, Sunday 11 AM – 3 PM, and open on First Fridays until 8 PM. For more information visit www.chestertownriverarts.org – click on Exhibitions, or call RiverArts at 410 778 6300.

 

Broadway Comes to Chestertown’s Music in the Park

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Cast of Church Hill Theatre’s “Little Shop of Horrors”. They will be singing in Saturday’s Music in the Park concert.  Top Row: Ricky Vitanovec, Rachel Elaina, Beth Anne Langrell, Erinne Lewis, Bill Gross, Mike Sousa, Shelby Swann – Middle Row: Ed Langrell  – Bottom Row: Kathy Jones, Sarah Anthony, Matthew Keeler

The Tred Avon Players will present an evening of music from Broadway musicals at Chestertown’s next Music in the Park concert. Directed by Marcia Gilliam, this talented group of local singers and actors will bring the magic of Broadway to Fountain Park’s stage this coming Saturday, July 21.  The music will begin at 7:00 pm and last approximately 90 minutes. Bring something to sit on as only limited seating is available. Admission is free and open to the public.

The concert will feature songs from famous composers such as Irving Berlin, George M. Cohen, Cole Porter, and Stephen Sondheim.  There will also be more tunes from more modern day composers such as Lin-Manuel Miranda (Hamilton), Stephen Schwartz (Godspell), and Dave Malloy (Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 ).  The song list includes “Skid Row” from Little Shop of Horrors, “Seasons of Love” from Rent, “All That Jazz” from Chicago, “Another Op’ning,  Another Show” from Kiss Me, Kate,  “Together” from Gypsy. And more songs from Spamalot, Phantom of the Opera, A Little Night Music, Godspell, Wind in the Willows, George M!, and Damn Yankees.

There will be solos, duets, and trios along with full ensemble numbers. Some to sing along with. Some to make you smile, some to make you sigh, and some surprises! If you’ve enjoyed the classic Broadway musicals as performed at the Church Hill Theatre or in Oxford by the Tred Avon Players, then don’t miss this chance to walk down Broadway again!

Accompanying the singers will be noted pianist Ellen Grunden. Chorus members include Marcia Gilliam,   Bethany Piccone, Shelby Swann, Beth Anne Langrell,  Ed Langrell,  Rachel Elaina, Erinne Lewis,  Bill Gross,  Ricky Vitanovec,  Matthew Keeler, Sarah Anthony,  Kathy Jones,  Leigh Marquess, and Galen Marquess.

In case of rain, a concert may be rescheduled or a rain location may be sent to the email list and posted on a sign on the stage in the park on the day of the concert. These free programs are sponsored by the Town of Chestertown with support from The Kent County Arts Council & Community Contributors. To help make these programs possible, please send donations payable to the Town of Chestertown to Music in the Park, Chestertown Town Hall, 118 N. Cross Street, Chestertown, MD 21620.

Chesapeake Brass Band in Fountain Park July 7

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The Chesapeake Silver Cornet Brass Band in 2016 on their 20th Anniversary.

Come on down to Fountain Park this Saturday, July 7, for the second in Chestertown’s Music in the Park summer concert series, featuring the Chesapeake Brass Band. The music will begin at 7:00 pm and last approximately 90 minutes. Bring something to sit on as only limited seating is available. Admission is free.

Formed in 1996, the Chesapeake Brass Band is comprised of amateur and professional musicians from New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Delaware. Following the brass banding tradition, it is an all-volunteer organization.

The Chesapeake Brass Band was the National American Brass Band Association champion in their division in 2013.

The band has won numerous awards over the years, including placing first in their division at the North American Brass Band Association Competition in 2013. This year the band was Runner Up in their division at the Dublin Festival of Brass in Dublin, Ohio.

The band performs a varied repertoire of contemporary and traditional brass band music throughout the Mid-Atlantic region. The concert at Chestertown will feature music from stage, screen, TV, and the circus. Among the tunes will be a “Salute to the Armed Forces”, “Slaughter on 10th Avenue”, “Rhapsody in Blue” as well as Barnum and Bailey’s favorite march. Cornet and Euphonium solos will also be part of the evening’s program.

Dr. Russell Murray -Musical Director of the Chesapeake Brass Band

The band’s musical director is Russell Murray. Dr.Murray earned his Ph.D. in Musicology from the University of North Texas. He has taught music history and directed early music ensembles at the University of North Texas, Texas Wesleyan University, and Rice University. He is currently Professor and Chair of the Music Department at the University of Delaware, where he is the director of the Collegium Musicum and is also on the Core Faculty of the Women’s Studies program. He has been at the University of Delaware since 1991.

For more information, see their website.

If you are an accomplished brass player or percussionist looking for a new challenge, the Chesapeake Brass Band has openings. Contact the band at chesapeakebrass@aol.com or call 302-530-2915.

In case of rain, a concert may be rescheduled or a rain location may be sent to the email list and listed on a sign on the stage in the park on the day of the concert. These free programs are sponsored by the Town of Chestertown with support from The Kent County Arts Council & Community Contributors. To help make these programs possible, please send donations payable to the Town of Chestertown to Music in the Park, Chestertown Town Hall, 118 N. Cross Street, Chestertown, MD 21620.

The Chesapeake Brass Band in concert.

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The Avalon and Chesapeake College to Partner on Big Shows at the Todd Center

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The Avalon Foundation and Chesapeake College have announced the beginning of a new partnership designed to bring large-venue music acts to the school’s Rufus M. and Loraine Hall Todd Performing Arts Center (TPAC).

Beginning in the fall, the Avalon will host a series of concerts and events at TPAC. The schedule kicks off with “An Evening with Melissa Etheridge — Yes I Am 25th Anniversary Tour” on Tuesday, October 9. Tickets go on sale at 10 a.m., Friday, June 29 at avalonfoundation.org.

“The Avalon Foundation’s team has nearly 60 years of event management experience, deep relationships with artist agencies and a loyal following of music lovers on the Eastern Shore,” Foundation President and CEO Alexander Bond said. “As part of our mission, we are always looking to expand our programming reach and connect more people with easy access to arts programming. TPAC offers a perfect venue for us to do so.”

The 904-seat TPAC expands the Avalon Foundation’s ability to host concerts beyond the historic, 400-seat Avalon Theatre and 60-seat Stoltz Listening Room in Easton.

“From the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra to international performance troupes, the Todd Center has long been a cultural hub and important space for bringing larger acts to the region,” Dr. Clifford Coppersmith, Chesapeake College President, said. “Our capacity to host even more shows and events makes this partnership possible and allows our two organizations to combine resources to grow arts audiences, improve arts accessibility and build and connect communities on the Mid Shore.”

Melissa Etheridge has remained one of America’s favorite female singer-songwriters for more than two decades.

Known for her confessional lyrics and raspy smoky vocals, she hit her commercial and artistic stride with her fourth album “Yes I Am” in 1993. The collection featured the massive hits, “I’m the Only One” and “Come to My Window,” a searing song of longing that brought Etheridge her second Grammy® Award for Best Female Rock Performance.

In 1995, Etheridge issued her highest charting album, Your Little Secret, which was distinguished by the hit single, “I Want to Come Over.”

Avalon management plans to announce several additional “big shows” that will be held at TPAC in the coming months. The concerts add to the Avalon’s already robust 160-act annual schedule in Easton.

To stay connected with big show announcements resulting from the Avalon Foundation at Chesapeake College partnership, Bond encourages music lovers to subscribe to the organization’s email list by visiting avalonfoundation.org.

The Avalon Foundation is the largest arts nonprofit on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Also regarded for the nationally renown Plein Air Easton outdoor painting competition, the Foundation’s mission is to foster a strong community on the Eastern Shore by creating accessible, uplifting arts, education, and cultural experiences that appeal to the interests of a diverse population and to ensure the long term viability of the historic Avalon Theatre.

A key component of Chesapeake College’s mission is to be a center for personal enrichment and the arts and to sponsor a broad range of affordable civic activities that reflect the college’s role as a community-learning center.

Pippin at Church Hill Theatre: a Review by Peter Heck

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Cast members – Church Hill Theatre’s production of “Pippin: His Life and Times” Photo by Jane Jewell

Pippin, now playing at Church Hill Theater, is the story of a young prince in his quest to find a meaningful life – a timeless story that resonates as clearly now as it did in its original 1972 Broadway production.

Directed by Sylvia Maloney, the musical deploys a large cast of singers and dancers in a high-energy spectacle that revolves around a troupe of performers who tell Prince Pippin’s story. The music and lyrics are by Stephen Schwartz, with a book by Roger Hirson.

The original Broadway production, partially financed by Motown records, was highly successful, running on Broadway for almost five years.  It opened in October of 1972 and closed, after 1,944 performances, in June of 1977. Most Broadway shows open and close within a year.  More successful ones can run a few years.  At almost five years, Pippin, as of February 2018, is the 34h longest-running show in the entire history of Broadway. That’s pretty impressive.  Directed by the internationally famous director and choreographer Bob Fosse, Pippin won five Tony awards – two for Fosse, as director and choreographer, one for Ben Vereen as leading actor, and for Tony Walton (scenic design) and Jules Fisher (lighting design). It also won four Drama Desk awards – two for Fosse, one for Walton, and one for Patricia Ziprodt (costume design). And unusually enough, a 2013 Broadway revival took another load of awards – including a Tony for Patina Miller in the same role as Vereen – the only time the award has gone to a man and woman actor playing the same role.

Church Hill Theatre’s production of “Pippin: His Life and Times”      Photo by Steve Atkinson

The plot is centered on the title character, Pippin, the son and heir of Emperor Charlemagne, the French ruler who created the Holy Roman Empire by conquering much of western Europe. But beyond the characters’ names, the historical element is largely irrelevant, giving an essentially mythological plot a perfunctory grounding in the world of the Middle Ages. The story sets up a prototypical generational conflict, with the king neglecting his bookish son, and the son rebelling against what he sees as his father’s outmoded,  ways. The entire story is presented as a performance by the strolling players who make up the ensemble – taking the parts of soldiers, peasants, courtiers, and others needed to fill in the subsidiary roles of the play.  It’s an example of the classic technique of  “a play within a play.”

Ater finishing his education at the University of Padua, Prince Pippin visits his father’s court and decides to take his place as a warrior, emulating his younger half-brother Lewis. But he shows no aptitude for strategy or leadership, and after his first battle and discovering that he dislikes killing, he flees to his grandmother’s court. Renouncing the life of a soldier, Pippin turns to a life of leisure and pleasure–wine, women, and song!  But that ultimately proves unfulfilling, too. When the leading player suggests that he rebel against his father’s autocratic ways, he enthusiastically takes on that role – only to learn that overthrowing the government doesn’t necessarily lead to replacing it with something better. The young prince continues to search, eventually coming to a recognition that the road to happiness doesn’t necessarily require extraordinary accomplishments.

Maloney has brought together a cast including both CHT regulars and some young newcomers, particularly in the ensemble where it seems as if half the players are sophomores at Queen Anne’s County High School! The energy of the production gets a definite boost from all the young people on stage.

Leading the “youth brigade” is Mackenzie Campbell, who is outstanding as the Leading Player – a sort of ringmaster who conducts the entire performance. Singing, dancing, or simply standing at one side of the stage, she is a dominant presence. She has a number of credits with the Tred Avon Players and the Avalon Theater, but this is her CHT debut. Hard to believe she is only 17 years old; if she stays active in theater, it’s easy to foresee a bright future for her.

Mark Wiening as Pippin in Church Hill Theatre’s production of “Pippin: His Life and Times” — Photo by Steve Atkinson

Mark Wiening, who has appeared regularly both at CHT and at the Garfield Center, brings a strong singing voice and solid acting chops to the role of Pippin. A good performance in a role that demands a wide range of emotions and no small amount of physical schtick.

The role of Charlemagne is played by Bob Chauncey, who brings an appropriately regal bearing to the part. At the same time, he brings out the character’s comic side as a typically distracted father who has little time to talk to his son or understand his concerns.

Fastrada (Lori Armstrong) encourages her son Lewis (Bryce Sullivan) to show his warlike qualities in Church Hill Theatre’s production of “Pippin: His Life and Times” — Photo by Jane Jewell

 

Lori Armstrong is outstanding as Fastrada, Lewis’s scheming mother. She brings a good singing voice and a deliciously wicked persona to the role. Armstrong is returning to the stage after directing many student productions in her role as a Theater Arts teacher at Kent County Middle School. Let’s hope a taste of the spotlight encourages her to take part in more local productions.

Debra Ebersole is well cast as Berthe. Pippin’s grandmother. Her solo number, “No Time at All,” is one of the highlights of the first act; a nice performance by one of the long-time stalwarts of CHT musical productions.

Debbie Ebersole as Pippin’s grandmother & Mackenzie Campbell as The Leading Player in Church Hill Theatre’s production of “Pippin: His Life and Times”      Photo by Steve Atkinson

Pippin’s love interest, the widow Catherine, is played by Becca Van Aken, another CHT regular. The character is central to the play’s ultimate resolution, and Van Aken gives her a solid reality that makes the prince’s relationship with her seem natural and credible.

Bruce Sullivan a recent Queen Anne’s High School graduate, plays Lewis, Pippin’s half-brother – a more athletic and warlike (and considerably less intellectual) prince. And Cullen Williams, a Queen Anne’s freshman, does a good job as Theo, Catherine’s son.

Fastrada tells Pippin her motto: “Spread a Little Sunshine” — Photo by Steve Atkinson

The costumes are an integral part of this production – kudos to Tina Johnson, Erma Johnson and Liz Clarke for the spectacular look of the players. Interestingly, while most of the other characters are elaborately costumed, Pippin himself is dressed very plainly – a subtle way to emphasize his “Everyman” status, despite his official position as a prince and heir to the throne.

The choreography is also outstanding, thanks to Calvin Moore. Whether it’s a slow-motion battle scene (almost a “soft shoe” performance) or a formal dance at the emperor’s court, the swirl of motion is almost constant, and the cast does it without a misstep.

Despite the participation of Motown Records – several of whose stars recorded songs from the show – Pippin doesn’t feature particularly memorable music. Other than the main character’s signature song, “Corner of the Sky,” most of the songs are vehicles for clever words rather than melodies the audience is likely to find themselves humming the morning after seeing the show. On the whole, the CHT cast does a good job of making the songs work within the context of the play, and the orchestra, led by Ray Remesch, accompanies them in idiomatic style. Remeshch’s smooth work on guitar was notable at several spots in the performance.

Theo and Pippin pray for a duck – Church Hill Theatre’s production of “Pippin: His Life and Times” — Photo by Steve Atkinson

As Maloney notes in her director’s notes, it is easy to see the play as an echo of the doubts and dissatisfactions of the early 1970s, a time of political turmoil and social experimentation. The young prince’s search for meaning in his life is, of course, a quest that almost every generation finds itself embarking on. With its energetic young cast and a sprinkling of canny veterans, the CHT production should have a natural appeal to the young — and to those who remember what it was like to be young at a time when the world seemed full of possibilities and challenges.

Pippin runs through June 24, with performances at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and at 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $20 for adults and $10 for students. Reservations are strongly recommended; call the theater at 410-556-6003 or visit www.churchhilltheatre.org to get your advance tickets.

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Spy Eye: Obama for President in Chestertown

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In the remaining months of 2008, I was still infrequently commuting between California and a small second home in Chestertown. While I had decided to permanently move back to the Eastern Shore, I was still wrapping up a thirty-year career in the Bay Area and would not be a legal voter in Maryland until the following year.

That was the primary reason I wasn’t entirely up-to-date on the hyperlocal presidential politics of Chestertown. The national drama of having an African-American running for president was compelling enough without the outside chance that Obama might win Kent County that year.

So when I made a trip back that early fall, it was not only the sight of hundreds of Obama lawn signs but what it said about Chestertown and why so many love it so much.

This video is approximately three minutes in length

Mid-Shore Arts: A Chat with Singer Barbara Parker

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Barbara Parker has always been a singer-songwriter, but it wasn’t until thirteen years ago that a friend handed her a mic at a party, and after she sang one of her songs asked, “Why aren’t you doing this for a larger audience?” And so she did, starting with Open Mic Nights at the Garfield, to various gigs, and the recording of her first CD. But it was the collaboration with jazz pianist, Joe Holt to whom she credits her current success.

They met two years ago when Parker would come to see him perform. Even before being officially introduced, she knew she wanted to work with him. “I told him: I want to do another project, and I want you to produce it. Joe builds around my music, and makes my music complete.” Holt interrupts, “My role here is one of support. This is a duo, but it’s a duo with a structure on facilitating what Barbara does.”

Barbara Parker and Joe Holt. Photo by Sherrie von Sternberg

Listening to them finish each other’s sentences, is a clear indication of their relationship. Parker and Holt seem to have the perfect partnership of lyricist and musical arranger, allowing both of them to do what they love while encouraging each other’s talents. “I have limited skills musically, and he’s got endless skills musically,” says Parker. “That’s the gift he gives me. He makes me sound really, really good.” “I can only do that,” he retorts, “if there is something there to begin with. Barbara is a complicated person, as any artist is. There’s both complexity and paradox in her life.”

Nowhere is this complexity more evident than in what she sings about. As with many songwriters, Parker is inspired by what goes on around her. “I love to write when driving. You should see the music that comes with that! Thank God for cell phones. I have currently 159 voice memos all of which are snippets of songs that come to me.”

Some of these snippets become songs, and some of these songs become audience favorites. One is Blackbird, written in homage to Robin Williams. “When I heard he died that morning, I sat down and wrote the song in less than 15 minutes.” Another song, Sanctuary, came to her after a phone call from a friend who was feeling sad. Her Dragon of the Chesapeake is relatable locally (and deals with her bridge phobia).

Explains Holt, “That’s how it works when a songwriter is not ‘formulaic.’ It’s like opening up a spigot.” Parker laughs, “I’m like a bucket that has a hole in it; luckily Joe is there with a pan. I’ll give him a melody, and I’ll give him a lyric, and he’ll say, ‘let’s switch the timing up just a little bit,’ or he’ll say, ‘this should be a tango.’ ”

Her ability to accept various styles and suggestions from Holt is another reason they work so well together. “I’m influenced by so much, and I really have no specific musical preference. I listen to everything from classical to jazz to easy listening to pop to rock to country, and when a song comes to me, in the amazing way that it does—this bolt out of the blue, it can be any of the styles. From my standpoint I’m a storyteller, I’m a singer-songwriter.” Holt agrees, “She’s stylistically diverse. Her songs are as much country and as much pop rock as much tango. All while being accompanied by a jazz pianist!”

Parker is also creatively diverse. Successful as a professional painter, her artwork was selected five years ago by the Chesapeake Chamber Music Festival for use on the Festival’s publicity materials and poster. She is also a photographer and writer. “Creativity is creativity,” she says. “It’s all about relating a message in an emotional kind of way that doesn’t destroy you.”

Asked what her challenge is as a performer, Parker admits she hopes to “keep producing fresh material, that is not like something else I’ve done. I hear it differently in my head, but with my limited musical knowledge, I can’t make it happen. Having Joe as a resource has been such a gift. I am so grateful. Every day I have the opportunity to create something new and how great is that?”

Barbara Parker will be joined by Joe Holt Thursday, June 7th at the Oxford Community Center. Show starts at 7PM and tickets are $15. For more information please go here. For additional show dates, check out her website.

Val Cavalheri is a recent transplant to the Eastern Shore, having lived in Northern Virginia for the past 20 years. She’s been a writer, editor and professional photographer for various publications, including the Washington Post.

Tea Party on Parade!

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The 2018 Chestertown Tea Party Grand Marshall Kate Livie      Photo by Peter Heck

We all know about the famous Boston Tea Party where the colonial patriots in 1773 threw a shipload of tea into Boston Harbor to protest the British crown’s tax on tea.  But not as many have heard about the similar action claimed to have occurred on the Chester River in Chestertown the next year in response to the call from Massachusettes and other colonies to boycott British tea.

Perhaps you had not heard about it because it didn’t happen!  Or maybe it did. … History is silent on the matter. No contemporaneous records have been found reporting that local residents –in broad daylight and not disguised as Indians as the Boston protesters were–boarded the British ship Geddes and tossed the chests of tea into the river. Still, stories have been whispered down the years and local children have been taught the story in school for decades. We do know for certain that the then Kent County residents thought about it, talked about it, and did pass the official Chestertown Resolves calling on citizens to buy no tea.  Their sentiments were clear. No Tea!  No Tax without Representation! And then in celebration and remembrance, the first Chestertown Tea Party Festival was held 43 years ago.

The 2018 Tea Party this past Memorial Day weekend, May 25-27, was a huge success with the largest crowds in several years. While there was no official estimate, Tom Yeager, the MC for this and most recent years, said that the crowd was at least twice as large as last year. Attendance during part of the last decade had been curtailed variously by rain, the recession, and $4 a gallon gas, but in recent years the festival was clearly growing.  Crowds are always in the thousands, with estimates for many past years running between 5,000 and 10,000.

The weather was perfect–if a bit hot–with no rain on Friday or Saturday.  And the rain politely held off until after the 2:30 p.m. raft race on Sunday.

The parade route down High Street was crowded.  The big draw was the horses, sturdy Clydesdales straight from Budweiser along with the Light Dragoon horses and more.  There were bands galore, high school bands from Kent County, Queen Ann, and Largo–even the Centreville Middle School band was there.  In addition, there were several groups in colonial garb playing revolutionary tunes on musical instruments of the era.  The Chestertown Ukelele Club dressed in trendy “colonial Hawaiian” style with flower leis around their necks and tri-corn hats–adorned with more flowers–on their heads. The bagpipers wore kilts.  Parade winners are listed at the end of the photo gallery.

Budweiser Clydesdales      Photo by Jim Block

American Revolutionary War re-enactors shooting genuine black powder muskets as used by the British army. Photo by Jim Block

A traditional Fire House Dalmatian dog      Photo by Jim Block

The Largo High School Band with it’s energetic and high-stepping dance team won first place in the band competition.      Photo by Peter Heck

“The Brigade of Blue” – Kent County High School Marching Band.      Photo by Jim Block

Kent County High School Band      Photo by Peter Heck

Queen Anne’s County High School Band – Pride of the Eastern Shore

Chestertown Ukelele Club in Leis and tri-corn hats      Photo by Peter Heck

John Lawrence times three! Three generations of John Lawrences — grandfather, father, and baby age 5 months – all named John Lawrence     Photo by Jane Jewell

Meet and Greet with the Clydesdale      Photo by Jane Jewell

Tea Party Parade winners 2018:

Riding/walking unit: 1st – Budweiser Clydesdales    2nd – Rough Riders

Band: 1st – Largo High School   2nd – Queen Anne’s County High School   3rd – Kent County High School

Marching Unit: 1st – First Delaware Regiment   2nd – First Regiment Light Dragoons   3rd – Maryland Loyalists

Float: 1st – Kent School     2nd – Chester River Association

Mayor’s Cup: Budweiser Clydesdales

The “tail end” of the parade. Note how the horses’ tails are carefully braided and tidily pinned up with a bow.     Photo by Jim Block

2018 was the 43rd annual Tea Party Festival in Chestertown.  Plans now begin for the 44th  Chestertown Tea Party Festivalto be held over Memorial Day weekend 2019!  Hope to see you there!

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“Sweeney Todd” at the Garfield — a Review by Peter Heck

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Anyone who enjoys the theater should make it a point to see Sweeney Todd – The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, by Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler, currently playing at the Garfield Center for the Arts.

Directed by Shelagh Grasso, with musical direction by Julie Lawrence, Sweeney Todd is an intense, sometimes overwhelming, story of murder, cannibalism, injustice – and love.  With a touch of humor. That’s a tall order and the Garfield production comes through.

Originally a 1973 play by Christopher Bond, Sweeney Todd takes its material from the Victorian “penny dreadfuls”– one of which introduced the murderous barber Todd in a serialized thriller, “The String of Pearls” in the late 1840s. It was so popular that it was turned into a play even before its final installment, and numerous spin-offs followed. Bond added a level of psychological sophistication to the Victorian original, and the London production of the play inspired Sondheim to adapt it as a musical in 1979.

The sailor Anthony rescued and befriended barber Sweeney Todd.      Photo by Carmen Grasso

The original Broadway production featured Len Cariou in the title role and Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Lovett, his partner in crime, with Hal Prince directing. It ran for 557 performances before going on a national tour. It won an astounding eight Tony Awards, and followed up with nine Drama Desk awards – including best musical, best male and female actors, best director, and best score. Not surprisingly, it has been revived numerous times, with a 2007 film adaptation starring Johnny Depp.

The plot revolves around a London barber banished to the penal colonies of Australia on trumped-up charges by a crooked judge who had designs on the barber’s wife. Now fifteen years later, the barber has returned to England, accompanied by a young sailor, Anthony Hope, who rescued him at sea. After telling Anthony a version of his tale, Todd goes to a meat pie shop on Fleet Street, where the proprietress, Mrs. Lovett complains about how hard it is to find meat. He asks her about her upstairs apartment, which he reveals that he himself used to rent under his former name before he was arrested. She tells him, in turn, that his wife committed suicide and that the crooked judge adopted his then-infant daughter Johanna.

Mrs. Lovett agrees to rent him the apartment and promises to keep his secret. She also gives him back his old set of razors which she has kept all these years, so he can go back into business as a barber again. But Todd has sworn revenge on the judge, and that decision shapes everything else that happens.

Meanwhile, Anthony has seen a beautiful young woman singing out of her window, and falls instantly in love with her. Her name, he learns, is Johanna – then the judge and his beadle chase him away, threatening bodily harm if he returns. Unwittingly, he has fallen in love with Todd’s daughter.

Back on Fleet Street. Todd wins a shaving contest against an Italian barber, Pirelli, allowing him to call himself the best barber in London. The judge’s beadle, impressed, makes an appointment to come back for a shave – which Todd sees as a chance for revenge on one of the men who framed him. When Anthony then appears and tells of his love for Johanna, Todd promises Anthony he can use his shop as a meeting place for their elopement.

But before that can happen, Pirelli and his assistant Tobias appear and Pirelli asks for a shave. Mrs. Lovett takes Tobias downstairs for a meat pie, and Pirelli reveals that he knows who Todd is and tries to blackmail him. So Todd slits his throat and Mrs. Lovett makes Tobias an assistant, pretending that Pirelli has been called away on business. And she sees the need to dispose of the body as an opportunity – after all, she still needs meat for her pie business!

From there, the plot moves inevitably toward its conclusion – a dark and bloody apocalypse in the great tradition of the “penny dreadful.” Needless to say, this is not a play for young children – perhaps not for anyone disturbed by the sight of stage blood, or who thought Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” was too gross. However, it’s important to note that while the plot has numerous on-stage murders, there is really not a lot of blatant on-stage gore. But there’s no excuse for anyone else to miss this production – one of the most powerful in the local theater in recent years.

Grasso has assembled a top-notch cast, with many who are making their first local appearance.

Christopher Wallace, who directed CHT’s recent production of Witness for the Prosecution, plays the title role. He does a nice job walking the fine line between Todd as a victim of injustice and as a monster – both aspects of which come to the fore at different times. A memorable performance in a difficult role.

Jane Copple, who has a long string of credits in Church Hill Theatre musicals, is a good fit for the role of Mrs. Lovett. Her voice is one of the best in the cast, and she conveys the comic aspects of the character well.

Max Hagan, who has a theater degree from Sewanee, gets to show off a nice voice as Anthony Hope. One of the most sympathetic characters in this generally dark play, he could be seen as the moral center of the play.

Thwarted lovers Anthony and Johanna in “Sweeney Todd” at Garfield Theatre        Photo by Carmen Grasso

Natalie Lane, who previously appeared in the Garfield production of My Fair Lady, plays Tobias, the young boy who becomes an apprentice to Mrs. Lovett in the pie shop. Her voice is excellent and she is convincing as a London street urchin.

Matt Folker is cast as Judge Terpin, the main villain of the piece, and Nic Carter plays Beadle Bamford, his unsavory henchman. Both do fine jobs of embodying the entrenched evil that ends up creating a serial murderer, the “demon barber of Fleet Street.”

Jane Copple as Mrs. Lovett, Christopher Wallace as Sweeney Todd, and Melissa McGlynn as the Beggar Woman/Lucy in “Sweeney Todd”, a 2018 production at Garfield Theatre.      Photo by Carmen Grasso

Melissa McGlynn plays a beggar woman who turns out to have a more significant role in the plot than first appears. A solid performance from one of our local theatrical stars.

Shannon Whitaker is well cast as Johanna, Sweeney’s daughter. She displays a beautiful singing voice in her featured number, “Green Finch and Linnet Bird.”

Zack Schagg, Howard Messick, Zac Ryan and Kendall Davis round out the list of characters with speaking parts, and all do good jobs. Likewise the chorus – which includes a large number of familiar on-stage faces – is an impressive presence, acting, as Grasso said after the opening night performance, almost as a Greek chorus, telling the story in operatic style. There is a wonderful “madhouse” scene in which Anthony goes to rescue Johanna from the lunatic asylum.  The lunatics–in particular, Marcia Gilliam–are delightfully mad. And then there is the “more pie” scene where the local townspeople wipe their lips and swing their mugs of ale while calling for “more pie”.  All in song!

The set, designed and built by Carmen Grasso, is astonishing in its own right. The main piece, sitting at center stage, swivels around to show two different fronts – one Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop, the other a generic street scene. On a second level, it shows Todd’s barbershop – including a chute down which he drops the victims of his butchery so the “meat” can be used for pies.  A very clever and useful feature!  And this is just the centerpiece – there are levels upon levels all around it, with chorus members lurking to observe and add their voices where the score calls for it. There’s even scaffolding out in the audience, behind the orchestra pit. Be sure to look all around you as the play goes on – there’s a lot happening!

“Sweeney Todd” performance at Garfield Theatre          Photo by Carmen Grasso

The costuming convincingly recreates the look of 1840s London working and middle class.  In the early scenes, both Lovett and Todd’s clothes are worn and not of the highest fashion.  But as the “pie” shop prospers, both characters sport a posher look, with Todd in a good-quality suit and Mrs. Lovett wearing a fashionable dress with a beautiful–and obviously expensive–embroidered shawl. Johanna, the barber’s daughter, looked lovely in a white gown and long flowing tresses.  A great wig!  Good job by costume designer Barbi Bedell and her crew.

In fact, despite the complexity of the choreography and blocking and the large number of characters onstage at any given time, the play feels very tight. Grasso has done an impressive job bringing everything together into a unified whole. This only adds to her already high ranking among directors in the local theater community.  A special mention should also go to choreographer and assistant director Greg Minahan.  Minahan comes to the Garfield with an impressive list of credits that include singing, dancing and choreography on Broadway in such productions as CATS and Peter Pan.  Locally, Minihan has acted and directed for both Shore Shakespeare and Church Hill Theatre.

A couple of quibbles. The dialogue was sometimes hard to understand – especially with characters singing in Cockney accents. Occasionally, lyrics were covered up by the orchestra – especially in some chorus pieces. This may improve as the cast settles in. And the lighting seemed dimmer in spots than it might have been.  There were also a few opening-night glitches such as when actors moved out of their spotlights.  But nothing that really detracted from the enjoyment of the production.

“Sweeney Todd” performance at Garfield Theatre      Photo by Carmen Grasso

Sondheim’s music is complex and challenging.  Some songs are gentle and sweet, expressing themes of love and loyalty, such as the duet “Not While I’m Around” between Mrs. Lovett and Tobias.  But Sondheim also uses dissonance–sometimes high-volume dissonance–to convey the more shocking emotional elements of the story.  This is, after all, a story of murder and mayhem! And the music reflects that.  Those who are more attuned to the musicals of Rodgers and Hammerstein or Lerner and Loewe may want to adjust their expectations accordingly.   I myself lean more toward Gershwin and Porter but found the music in  Sweeny Todd to be both powerful and dramatically effective.

There’s plenty of energy, and the orchestra seemed to be very tight. The quality of the singers’ voices is universally high. There were a couple of points where two singers in a duet appeared to be in different keys – but without having the score right there, it was hard to tell if this was intentional or not. Again it was not enough to detract from the overall excellence of the music.  Of course, given the theme of the show, it is consistent for the music–though quite lyrical at times–to also be uncomfortable at other points.  Kudos to Julie Lawrence who brought it all together.

Sweeney Todd, as noted above, is an intense, gripping theatrical experience, and Grasso’s production pulls no punches.  Note that it is a long show, running just under three hours.  The local theater community deserves high marks for bringing this show to the Garfield and bringing to it such an effective performance. Go see it.

Sweeney Todd runs at the Garfield through May 13, with performances at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and at 3 p.m. Sundays. For reservations, call 410-810-2960 or visit boxoffice@garfieldcenter.org.

The local beggar and mad woman confronts Anthony.  Sweeney Todd at the Garfield Theatre. Photo by Carmen Grasso

Another victim of the Demon Barber meets his fate in “Sweeney Todd” at Garfield Theatre.      Photo by Carmen Grasso

Mrs. Lovett and her assistant Tobias in “Sweeney Todd” at Garfield Theatre.     Photo by Carmen Grasso

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